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.
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…