Sunday, October 22, 2017

Going Boldly: When The Orville is more Trek Than Star Trek

If you’ve been paying attention to sci-fi tv shows of late, you are probably aware that Star Trek: Discovery (the latest tv-verse Trek show in quite some time) has finally made it to air. After a lot of behind the scenes drama (creator Bryan Fuller jumping ship primary among them) it is finally here and it just so happens that this season also saw the release of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville. While there is some debate of whether it was supposed to be a straight comedy or a Trek parody, it definitely has tones of Trek in its DNA. And therein lies the problem. Because The Orville, to me, feels like it belongs in the Star Trek universe more than Star Trek: Discovery.

Let’s start with the cast of characters first. Within the first episode of The Orville, we’ve met the core crew of the ship and by episode 2 we’ve learned enough about each of them to relate to them in some way. Yes, the constant reminders of Captain Mercer and Lt. Greyson’s failed marriage due to her infidelity was a bit grating at first, but it gave us real insight into these characters and what we could expect moving forward. Sure, there are some things that seem kind of gimmicky (every time Ed can’t open a door, he asks his super strong crewmember, Alara, to “open this jar of pickles”) but we really get to see how these people interact with one another. I really enjoyed the episode where we got to see the Machlin culture and their perceptions on gender and gender identity.

In contrast, the first two episodes of Discovery only introduce us to two of the characters with whom we’d be going on this journey: Lt. Michael Burnham and Commander Saru. Everyone else (for the most part) is dead by episode 2’s end. We don’t actually meet the crew we are supposed to be spending the season with until episode 3 and even then, we barely know anything about them. I suppose we know the most about Burnham’s new roommate by the sheer fact she won’t shut up about her issues. The ship and the rest of its crew is shrouded in mystery and by that point in any show, if you aren’t connecting with at least one character, it’s not worth sticking around. I’ll be honest, I made it through episode 4 but by at that point, I still didn’t care about any of the characters and have since given up. Even the Klingons, which should feel familiar given their long history in the Trek universe, feel distant. I’m happily awaiting the next new episode of The Orville (episode 7) later this week. I want to spend time with Ed, Kelly and the rest of their motley crew.

In terms of visual effects, I will give it to Discovery that it looks super slick and shiny with lots of cinematic effects. Honestly, it feels like it belongs in the film franchise universe, rather than the TV verse. That’s not to say that The Orville’s visual effects are terrible. They are quite good for a TV budget and we’ve come a long way in special effects for science fiction than when Trek first began. But, Discovery does have that slight edge here in presenting a prettier picture, if you will. A lot of the camera angles are used artfully as well on Discovery to convey the personal view, especially from Burnham’s perspective in the first episode. I also have to ding The Orville just a bit for their overdramatic musical cues. They’ve been toned down a little (or maybe I’ve gotten used to them) but the first few episodes, the music was way overdone and too loud.

But even pretty pictures aren’t enough to overcome the lackluster characters and the plot that feels the most un-Trek ever. By the end of episode 2, we are thrust into a brutal, bitter war between the Federation and the Klingons. It’s literally all about this war and its casualties and costs. I can’t remember a time when Star Trek dealt so heavily with such a plotline. It was always with an eye toward exploration and interaction of new cultures. It was a positive outlook on what life could be like centuries from now. Even Deep Space Nine, which arguably was the closest to Discovery in terms of dire battle cries had time for light-hearted episodes and wasn’t quite so dark and dismal. With the Orville, they don’t take themselves too seriously although they always manage to address topics that are kind of weighty with an interesting twist. The aforementioned Machlin plotline was very interesting to see how it resolved, even if it wasn’t what we the viewer (and many on the ship) expected. The Orville is very much an homage to the fun, meeting new people, vibe of the old Trek. And I feel like given our world these days, that’s the kind of show I want to watch.

I can’t even say that I would want to watch Discovery as a movie. At first, I wasn’t sure I cared about the massive change in the Klingon appearance (without any sort of explanation like what we got in later Trek years after The Original Series). But the more time we spent with them (in their dimly lit ships) I got annoyed. It didn’t help that for authenticity sake the Klingons primarily spoke in Klingon with English subtitles in a font that’s really hard to read. Ultimately, I was more than happy to give up watching Discovery to spend more time with Captain Mercer and his merry band of misfits traveling through the stars and just trying to have a good time along the way. It reminds me of The Next Generation and Voyager (my two favorites of the original run of shows) and that just makes me even more excited to check in with the USS Orville every week for a new adventure.

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