After a twelve year drought, we now have ostensibly two new Star Trek television series. One’s the official one, Star Trek: Discovery. By any stretch of the imagination, it should not exist. It’s dark, the cheerful optimistic hope of a utopian future stripped away. It’s also been sequestered to a streaming service which, until 2014 did not even exist, and which as of today apparently only has 2 million subscribers. It opened to a viewership of about sixteen million on its first episode, but that was because at the time it still had access to broadcast television.
The other new series is also a show that, by reason, should not exist. It’s Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, clearly based on Star Trek, but with its creators going out of their way never to mention its inspiration and genesis in press or media. The show has to tread very lightly to avoid trademark and copyright lawsuits, yet Fox Television went ahead with it despite this, and even though the PR campaign mischaracterized it as a crass slapstick parody, it also opened to a viewership of about sixteen million on its first episode.
These two shows are on very equal footing. Each carries the Star Trek pedigree, one by name and one by staffing up with as many Trek production alumni as it could find. The two shows couldn’t be more different, and yet while being polar opposites thematically, the existence of them at the same moment in time says something powerful about our mutual desire for a way forward.
Spiritual Twins, But Polar Opposites
The Orville is a broken utopia, a universe where humans have reached the stars and taken many of their worst habits with them. Four hundred years in the future and Seinfeld is somehow still funny to at least some of the crew of the Orville.
It would be disturbing to discover that the Orville gave recordings of the Kardashians and other bad television as a way of releasing prisoners from an alien zoo except that if you were an alien who wanted to watch Humans behaving badly, is there a better product, season after season?
The Orville doesn’t give us enlightened Humans finding their way into space like Roddenberry’s Federation. Instead, we are given characters we recognize, warts and all, doing their best to cope with a universe so much bigger than they are. Despite their obvious handicaps, the Orville’s crew remains upbeat, bright, even cheerful in the face of their challenges. The Orville is brightly lit, the crew is friendly and relatively open to new experiences, but still just as human as you or I. Even the aliens are pretty much human.
Contrast this with the dark and somber tones of Star Trek: Discovery, the heir apparent to the Star Trek throne. The ships are dark. The tone is dark. The crews seem to barely get along. Tensions high and mistrust is the order of the day. It’s a ship at war, with the rest of the universe, and with itself.
Star Trek: Discovery is no longer about representing the utopian ideals of the Federation and instead posits a universe to be afraid of. Humans in this universe still show a paranoid obsession to remain an apex predator in a larger and more frightening universe.
Discovery does not give us a standard Star Trek experience where we meet new life and befriend it. Instead, it posits a universe where humanity seeks to gain access to an understanding far beyond its capabilities using technology whose risks are unknown. This is a far cry from the Star Trek as we may have known it. It still portrays a challenging world, and perhaps shows us the foundations of what a utopian future might be built upon. Every birth is initially painful and shocking. Why should a utopian future be any different?
Star Trek started as a liberal ideal of a future where everyone would be considered equal. Discovery, however, has become a conservative’s paradise, where the fear of the future has rotted Roddenberry’s utopia from within. While it has not been confirmed, the behavior of the Discovery crew has the stink of secrecy similar to the mysterious branch of Starfleet operations known as Section 31.
Section 31 was a covert intelligence agency within the Federation, that did but did not exist to the general public. They employed terror tactics, used banned weapons, mind control, and anything else they thought would preserve the Federation when the standard government could not or would not go far enough to get the job done. Section 31’s operatives have always been fanatical men and Captain Gabriel Lorca appears to have just enough of that mystery, the cold and calculating tone as well as the paranoia I have come to expect from its operatives.
While Section 31 has been quick to let us know how important they are to the Federation, but we are often left to wonder: could the Federation truly have survived in a hostile Universe being completely beneficent?
Is the lesson of Star Trek: Discovery‘s unspoken credo — “you can’t make an omelet unless you break a few eggs” — truly be the underlying nature of our own society? Star Trek is supposed to be giving us a view forward, not backward, yet Section 31 lives in fear of the alien, while the Federation proselytizes peaceful interaction. Are the Klingons essentially right? Do they know our real nature even when we say: “We come in peace?”
Meanwhile the Orville takes up the mantle of normal people, with normal ideals striving to overcome their humanity to become better individuals, and yet not lose that individuality to a socialist engine that anti-utopians fear is the result of reduced scarcity models of the future. The citizens of the Orville have met the Alien and have chosen to try and work together — not being in charge of anything, but as a member of an eclectic Planetary Union seeking understanding and mutual benefit rather than assimilation, annexation or imperialism.
Star Trek: Discovery is rooted firmly in the opposite approach. How did we get here? When did the future envisioned by Star Trek become one of fear, protectionism and aggression at its base? This is a future where humankind has become more fearful, paranoid and willing to do anything to maintain its supremacy. Sounds like modern Earth politics to me. Is it meant as a new pattern upon which to build? Or a warning?
Trek has pulled back so far from its first hopeful notes that it has created the one thing nature abhors most: a vacuum. The conditions leading to the creation and popularity of The Orville could not have arisen without official Star Trek’s conscious pull back from its original core of optimism for the future of mankind.
Despite this, strangely enough, I see room for both shows and both perspectives. Frankly, we could use a few more to more diverse space operas to increase the texture of the experience. Both shows are extremes and the future of humanity may lie somewhere in between.
Diversity on Trial
Fans have reacted strongly to both shows and that reaction has been likely polarized as a result of our cultural politics and the transformation of what is considered normal. For some reason, there seems to be very little middle ground. You either love Discovery and hate the Orville, or vice versa. The debate seems to be further fueled by strong feelings both for and against diversity. There is a fairly small (but very noisy) contingent of low-melanin science fiction fans who are finding their cultural hegemony slowly diminishing, so shows which predict a future where they remain dominant are both diminishing and yet paradoxically highly desired.
You can see this in other science fiction in media. There are a variety of space operas where the white skinned monotone future has been downplayed to a wide array of audience reaction. The Expanse has a very diverse cast and a commitment to remaining so. While diversity is touted in certain circles as undesirable, the Expanse is one of the most well-watched space operas on television. Killjoys and the lamentably canceled Dark Matter also had very diverse casts.
In particular, the character of Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery has been a lightning rod of controversy on the issues of both race and gender. Star Trek proves its worth and places itself on the cutting edge of social commentary once again, by placing a woman of color in a leading role for the first time in its fifty years as a franchise.
Sonequa Martin-Green has a challenging role to play because she is carrying a psychological burden of being a person of color in a show whose primary protagonists have been predominantly both white and male. This cultural conflict appears mirrored mirrored in several of the characters in the show itself, such as the role of the scientific technical liaison, Lt. Stamets, whose contempt for Burnham is palpable in the third episode.
Star Trek: Discovery has become a dark space opera only tangentially related to the original premise of Trek. It appears openly contemptuous of its previous social agenda, and presents as a cynical caricature of itself. This, in and of itself, is not terrible, but it’s definitely not Star Trek as we knew it.
The Orville, originally billed as a parody of Trek, seems to have become the real Star Trek in all but name.
The Fannish Connection
Star Trek fans have been instrumental in the ebb and flow of this franchise from its beginning and have spurred the creation of twelve movies, five series and over 725 episodes collectively of one of the most beloved series in history. Until now. If you were to start watching everything every produced with the Star Trek brand on it, you would have to watch twenty four hours a day for twenty-three days straight to watch everything ever made. Since Star Trek, the Original Series first major cancellation, fans have stood up for the show, challenging the creators to dare to think differently enough to allow it to continue. Even after TOS’ final death note, fans rallied for the next decade until Star Trek: The Motion Picture graced the world with its presence.
For some reason, though, the disconnect between CBS and Star Trek fandom couldn’t be more clear. They don’t seem to understand what it is the fans want to see, nor that Star Trek became greater than the sum of its parts decades ago. Fans expect to be a significant part of the conversation as they have historically always been. CBS, on the other hand, seems to be trying to rid itself of that dedicated core, attempting to build a new fan following devoid of the original fandom that understands the history and legacy of the show. They see it only as a marketable franchise, not the cultural icon and legacy for future generations that it is. The lessons hard learned about Star Trek and its fandom by Paramount in the late 90’s appear to be completely lost on CBS, who must now learn those lessons again for itself.
U.S. fans of the Star Trek franchise are active on social media wherever Star Trek pokes its nose in, and they’re very vocal. On average, the ones who comment at all seem to feel disenfranchised. The entire world gets Star Trek on the services they were already paying for, except for the fans in the U.S. who nursed the franchise back from death’s door in the first place and who have kept the flame alive for half a century. To many of the U.S. fans, this understandably feels like a slap in the face. A noticeably large contingent of Star Trek fans are mad as hell, and CBS doesn’t seem to perceive this as a problem.
In my opinion, by forcing fans into this damning choice, they have alienated said fans who have done the most to help Star Trek survive, the tastemakers, the enthusiasts and ultimately the people who will, through their interactions, decide if Discovery lives or dies.
The Orville, in the meantime, seems to get it. Social media for the show is smaller than that for Star Trek, but what there is is lively and engaged, with the Orville PR staff engaging directly with the fans on a daily basis. Seth MacFarlane appears to be playing directly and knowingly to the audience. He is clearly writing something to the fans, making fun of the sometimes overly tightly laced Star Trek, yet paying a loving homage to it.
MacFarlane is no amateur in creating buzz and memes. Often the Orville seems poised to create at least one meme idea every time it airs (the line from the first episode, “We need no longer fear the banana” has taken Facebook and Twitter by storm). While each of the cast embodies a particular stereotype, they are in their own ways each easily relatable, no matter where they lie on the spectrum of human relationships.
MacFarlane has dared to do what even CBS would not. He has dared to say: The future belongs to those willing to fight for it. Not with violence, but with compassion for a future we have not yet seen, but with one that should include everyone. MacFarlane’s weapon is his understanding of the fan’s hunger for classic optimistic Star Trek and his willingness to provide it by even hiring Star Trek alums such as Jonathan Frakes to help direct it.
Honestly, I can’t say. But if I were to hazard a guess, Star Trek: Discovery’s slick visual effects, its cinematography, costuming and relationship to Star Trek work in its favor — but CBS’ decision to ostracize the fans who have kept the show alive for the last five decades may be the greatest force working against its overall long term survival.
The Orville, lacking the production budget of Discovery, has opted to approach its space opera with a human touch, directly reaching through the fourth wall and communicating with the audience through humor, relationships, and social issues. Topics like the recent gender reassignment of Bortus’ daughter (Episode 3, “About a Girl”) and the challenges this places on their society (and ours) are just one example.
It is hard to hate a series which dares to challenge everything you thought you knew about the future.
Is the Orville perfect? Far from it. Most of its jokes bomb in a painful fashion, but I’ve noticed they are getting more subtle and as the series progresses and the characters flesh out, I suspect it may become more interesting than anyone every thought it could.
A closing note: It would appear if rumors are true, Star Trek: Discovery will have a production cycle similar to Doctor Who where it takes a year and a half between releases. Assuming Discovery is renewed, we would not see our first new episode before 2019. This means we would need until 2025 to finish five seasons of Discovery at top speed. Oy, will I live long enough to see what might be the last Star Trek branded show in my lifetime?
But Are Either of These Shows Really Star Trek, Jim?
In my humble opinion: No. But it hasn’t stopped me from enjoying both, even though I had not expected to like either of them.
One is too bitter and cold, the other’s humor is sometimes crass and still leaves something to be desired. Perhaps the two conflicting views of what kind of future we want are what make them both essential to the ideation of the future of humanity. I suspect that like Star Trek: the Original Series before them, the fans will decide the fate of these two star-flung crews.
But for a moment, we are all richer for their mutual existence, giving us all a chance to ponder what we want from the future and what we’re willing to do to get it.
In the meantime, remember these immortal words: “Live long and fear no bananas.”
Or something like that.