The Orville Vs. Star Trek: Discovery, Part One

The biggest rivalry going on right now on TV is between Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. Technically, that is not entirely accurate since Star Trek: Discovery is only available on the CBS All-Access streaming service while The Orville is broadcast on the Fox network. Still the competition between the two and the fandom generated, especially with The Orville, is quite fierce.

What is fueling the intense rivalry among fans is how similar both shows are to each other, at least when comparing The Orville to general Star Trek, not necessarily Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, The Orville perfectly captures the look and feel of Star Trek circa the 1990s. Meanwhile Star Trek: Discovery has a decidedly different tone than past Trek shows, which has proven to be controversial among fans.

With distinct differences and similarities, it’s an interesting exercise to compare both shows.

The Orville: Bawdry Expectations

When it debuted in 2017, The Orville was one of those programs that suddenly appeared in everyone’s radar. It was first marketed as a flat-out comedy that promised to spoof Star Trek and other sci-fi programs and films and their tropes. But viewers quickly learned that was not the case with The Orville. This could be why the show did not appeal to critics who were expecting bawdry, outrageous comedy in the vein of Family Guy. After all, this show’s creator and star is Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy.

Unlike its early trailers, The Orville’s humor is much gentler and dryer. Although at times it tries to be edgy with its comedy and it doesn’t always work. In fact, at times its attempts at humor feels forced and ill-timed, which throws off the tone of some scenes. Honestly, The Orville cannot be considered a comedy and it doesn’t really spoof Star Trek. Coming off more as an homage, the program’s smart scripts examines relevant social issues and sci-fi concepts like a classic Star Trek show. It’s why the show has resonated with fans yearning for traditional Star Trek and are disappointed by Star Trek: Discovery and the recent films. But it also turned off those tuning in to expect the next Family Guy or at least something along the lines of Galaxy Quest.

While MacFarlane is famous for delivering raunchy and over-the-top humor with Family Guy and his film Ted, many didn’t realize that he is a big Star Trek fan. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in 2011, he confessed that his dream was to pitch a Star Trek TV show. In the interview when the subject of Star Trek came up, Seth MacFarlane said, “But I’d love to see that franchise revived for television in the way that it was in the 1990s: very thoughtful, smartly written stories that transcend the science fiction audience.” Well, he clearly has his chance to do a Star Trek show with The Orville.

A Clear Homage To A Golden Age

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, The Orville is about the adventures of the crew of an intergalactic exploratory starship called the Orville with a focus on the captain, his first officer, a couple of bridge crewmembers, a chief medical doctor and an alien security chief. Anyone thinking “this sounds like Star Trek” wouldn’t be blamed for doing so. There are so many similarities starting with the characters who wear Trek-inspired colored uniforms such as Bartus, a gruff alien that is this show’s version of the mighty Klingon officer Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Then there is Isaac, an unemotional android officer that questions the nature of humanity. This sounds a lot like Data of TNG who did the same thing. On a related note, several actors and behind-the-scenes people from the golden age of Star Trek have appeared or work on The Orville. A recent episode “Home” featured Trek veterans Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) and John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise). Episodes have been scripted by past Trek writers, and directed by Trek alumnus such as Jonathan Frakes. Meanwhile, Brannon Braga, the executive producer of the Star Trek shows in the 90s and 00s, serves in the same capacity in The Orville. All this probably explains why the show looks so familiar to viewers.

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Like the Trek shows in the 90s, The Orville is brightly lit with spacious set designs boasting high production values. The Orville also features simulator rooms, which creates any virtual environment. Obviously, it is this show’s version of TNG’s holodeck. There are also machines called synthesizers that have the same function of the replicators used in the Star Trek spinoffs  where the machines recreate food and objects.

The program follows the same episodic progression of the older Trek shows. It has a cold open then an opening credits sequence that only shows the starship majestically cruising through space and then a self-contained story that eschews today’s season-long arcs and serial format. Each episode has the crew of the Orville dealing with far out sci-fi adventures, ethical dilemmas and features commentaries about modern society.  A good example was the episode “Majority Rules” where the crew visits a planet that is governed by social media. In other words, your status in that society is directly tied to your ranking in social media. It must be noted that the show is riskier than a typical Trek show in that it tackles issues of gender identity, and societal norms. Watch the episode “About a Girl” as an example, in it the sex of Bortus’ child is a controversy among his race and his husband.

The only significant difference between The Orville and Star Trek is that teleporting technology is absent. Instead shuttles are common mode of transport. As mentioned before, The Orville has a humorous tone that sometimes clashes with the tone of the episodes. Oddly this contrasts with some comedic Star Trek episodes that hit the right humorous marks and were more successful with comedy.  Still, unlike Trek, The Orville consistently has a lighthearted and comedic tone, which is probably the only thing that prevented Fox from being sued by CBS and Paramount. Even though it’s officially a satire, the show is more or a dramedy.

Now while The Orville is clearly inspired by and apes Star Trek from its golden age, it bears little resemblance to the latest version of Star Trek that is available for streaming. Many fans who wanted a traditional Star Trek program favor The Orville because Star Trek: Discovery is distinctly different from a typical Trek show. If the newest Star Trek show had followed the same pattern as programs before it, it’s debatable if The Orville would have resonated as much as it does now.

We’ll focus on Star Trek: Discovery in part two.

To Be Continued…

 

 

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8 comments on “The Orville Vs. Star Trek: Discovery, Part One

  1. I adore Star Trek, so I was very much interested in The Orville and watched several episodes of season one. I also watched Discovery and was not really digging it. I took a break from both shows to finish up my graduate studies, and then binge watched the rest of Discovery and ended up loving it. I never came back to Orville, and felt guilty about it, since like you said, it actually has more of a Star Trek vibe than Discovery does. Perhaps I should binge watch it The Orville too!

  2. I really enjoyed this piece and it was enlightening as well, I’d always planned to check out The Orville and I hear some positive things about it and I’m pleased to hear isn’t the “Family Guy in space” I feared.

    I seem to be in the minority of the hardcore Trek fan base in liking Discovery and the season 2 premiere was very promising. I tend to remind myself how TNG+DS9 were a bit rough in the beginning and how brilliant both series became. I feel Discovery has had a stronger start than both those Trek shows.

    As great as the homage aspect of the Orville sounds, any new iteration of Star Trek needs to balance its roots with going forward and feel “new”.

    Look forward to the second part of this article!

    • Thanks for the comments, hope you like part two which focuses on Discovery and yes, the show is quite enjoyable in its own right.

      Anyway, if you loved Trek in the 90s you should enjoy The Orville, it feels so comfortable for traditional Trek fans. It has its faults like ill-timed humor but it is nowhere near as raunchy as Family Guy. You could tell MacFarlane is a true Star Trek fan.

      If you ever get a chance to watch The Orville, let me know what you think about the show.

  3. Personally if they had the opposite names, e.g. Seth’s show called Star Trek: Discovery and CBS’s The Orville it would work out just as fine. I really dislike what STD did, there is sooo much forced shoe-horning into the ST Universe it’s very annoying to me. However I watched the whole series. It’s a good Sci-Fi show it just doesn’t feel like Star Trek at all. The fact that the only real “feel” you get from STD is they are “Star Fleet” they are fighting “Klingons”, the are members of “The Federation”, and they name drop Star Trek Characters. They could have easily been something else, and honestly I think this may have been the case… They literally could have used different names and even the most hardened Paramount legal team would have been hard pressed to sue for Trademark infringement. So I think someone came up with an idea for a new SCI-FI story and concept. Instead of making a new series CBS wanted something that would come with a baked in audience and that show was adapted to Star Trek. This seems MUCH more plausible than someone making a new Star Trek show from scratch and coming up with Discovery.
    Seth set out to make a Star Trek feeling show, and was completely success and despite it being totally devoid of any Star Trek reference at all, it feels like Star Trek. Discovery seems like an adaptation from a completely different show. I still dislike that it’s called Star Trek: Discovery because it still doesn’t feel anything like Star Trek.

    • Oh The Orville could easily be a Star Trek show. Sometimes I pretend that The Orville is a Star Trek show set in a parallel dimension where the Federation was called the Planetary Union and the Klingons and Vulcans never became major space powers.
      It’s true that Discovery is a radical departure from traditional Trek. But it does have its merits but anyone looking for a traditional Star Trek show with Discovery will be disappointed. Thanks for the insights.

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