Friday, January 11, 2019

The Discovery-Orville Transposition

From the beginning, Star Trek: Discovery alienated a small but very loud segment of the Star Trek fanbase: middle-aged men who obsess over "canon" with a near-religious fervor. Now, I'm not knocking anyone for disliking a TV show; if Discovery's not your thing that's perfectly okay and there are definitely fans of previous Treks who have decided to sit Discovery out. But there's a lunatic fringe that's angry at Disco for even existing, and you can usually find them online proclaiming that Seth MacFarlane's The Orville is the real Star Trek that "the fans" want.

The Orville is a good-enough show. It's so reminiscent of Next Generation-era Trek that I'm surprised CBS hasn't sued. But it's a Seth MacFarlane production, so of course there's plenty of toilet humor and modern pop culture references. Nevertheless, the "Orville-is-the-real-Trek" crowd seem happy to overlook that, presumably because it gives them their fix of episodic space exploration by a happy family of characters. (I'm sure their preference for The Orville over Discovery has nothing to do with the fact that the series lead is a white male.) And like I said, I'm not here to knock anyone's honest preferences.

But I do despise double standards. And it occurs to me that some of the same people who extol The Orville as the spiritual successor to Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek are happy to overlook the ways that show falls short of the Trek ideal, even as they continue to hate-watch Discovery just to pick it to pieces. So let's have a little thought experiment: imagine an alternate universe where it's September 2017, and sci-fi fans are eagerly anticipating the premiere of two new TV shows: Star Trek: Orville on CBS All Access, and Discovery on Fox.

Now, a halfway decent blog written by a person with the Photoshop skills of your average ring-tailed lemur would spice up this article with some cleverly doctored promo posters from this alternate reality. But this blog is not halfway decent, so I've got nothing.

Anyway, Star Trek: Orville is the result of CBS's decision to give Seth MacFarlane the keys to the Star Trek franchise. The USS Orville is a Federation starship in the late 24th century, after the events of the TNG-era shows and movies. In the usual Star Trek vein, it sticks to mostly-episodic tales of space exploration told in the familiar A-plot/B-plot format. But in an effort to give this new Trek a lighter, more relatable tone it features all the toilet humor and pop-culture references you expect from a Seth MacFarlane production.

Meanwhile, Fox is going in a darker, more serious direction with Discovery, the lavishly-produced brainchild of producer Bryan Fuller. It's rumored that Fuller originally pitched the idea to CBS as a Star Trek revival but they passed, opting instead to go with Seth MacFarlane's proposal that had more in common with the Star Trek shows that had come before. Discovery is the redemption tale of Commander Michael Burnham, stripped of rank after her mutiny against Captain Georgiou of the USS Shenzhou plunges the Planetary Union into interstellar war against the alien Krill.

In this scenario, isn't it easy to imagine longtime Star Trek fans angrily complaining that Orville is just a tired retread of stuff we've seen before, and that Seth MacFarlane's lowbrow humor and anachronistic pop culture references are an insult to Gene Roddenberry's vision? Isn't it easy to imagine them gravitating to Discovery instead, with its lavish production values and more serious tone, proclaiming it to be the "real" Star Trek? Might they overlook its imperfections due to creator Bryan Fuller's Star Trek pedigree and their dissatisfaction with the Seth MacFarlane-helmed "official" Trek?

We'll never know, of course. But it's fascinating to contemplate.