New Frontiers and Bleak Futures:

The Parallel Premieres of The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery

This fall season saw the premiere of both The Orville  and Star Trek: Discovery, and with both set in space, invoking nostalgia, and claiming classic Star Trek as a foundation/inspiration, it’s hard not to make comparisons. In many ways, The Orville  is more Galaxy Quest than Star Trek, with its cheesier, brighter, more self-aware approach.

The premise of The Orville is that Seth Macfarlane’s  Ed Mercer, a loser in the Union, a thinly veiled Federation knock-off, is granted inexplicably, a ship (you’ll soon see that a lot is inexplicable in the show). He’s divorced, having caught his wife in bed with a blue alien who explodes blue junk, again, inexplicably. Mercer brings his drunk, useless, unemployed best friend on board The Orville who– along with a robot, a male warrior, a diminutive woman with superhuman strength, a feisty doctor, and sarcastic co-pilot, rounds out the crew. Again, for inexplicable reasons, Mercer’s ex-wife, Kelly Grayson, played by Adrianne Palicki, is assigned as his second in command, and is later revealed to have gotten Mercer his ship. It’s a pretty trite set up, with so many winks to classic Trek that much of the pilot seems like a magician showing you how the trick is done so he can prove how clever he is.

And that is the show’s greatest weakness. Throughout its season so far it has tried to approach serious storylines such as transgender issues, violence and survival, gender roles, and conquest but never quite getting there, or being clear about where “there” is. “About a Girl” focuses on Bortus, whose species is only born male, except when it isn’t, and they surgically change the sex of the baby to be male. Always. Because women are an abomination. This episode had potential, as Bortus and his mate Klyden argued over what action to take, whether to let their child be itself, or conform to cultural expectations. The end of the episode was disappointing because despite the debate they do surgically change their daughter to a son. Yet the fact that the writers didn’t take the easy way out gestured that maybe there was something more to The Orville  than met the eye. “Krill” was another episode that seemed to promise more. Mercer and Malloy, the frat boy pilot, go undercover on an enemy ship to gain intel. Their mission results in the murder of the entire ship except for a room full of children Mercer couldn’t bring himself to kill. When confronted by the teacher of the children, who was also saved, she tells Mercer that he just created a whole group who hated him. It’s not hard to draw parallels with modern day drone attacks, collateral damage, and creating new generations of enemies. Unfortunately, while The Orville may gesture towards larger issues, it never follows through. The storytelling isn’t consistent, mainly because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. In “Command Performance” Captain Mercer, and Commander Grayson, are kidnapped, and put in an alien zoo, on display as lesser lifeforms. Like many episodes, this one makes references to today’s pop culture, that always pull me out of whatever the episode is doing. In this one, the aliens are convinced to let them go by giving them access to archives of Desperate Housewives and Jersey Shore. I get the commentary, but it seemed a bit to impressed with its own cleverness. The same could be said of “Majority Rule” where The Orville crew has to rescue some anthropologists on a planet similar to 21st century Earth, except votes/likes, and down votes determine everything. Act poorly? Reach a certain number of down votes? Your fate is sealed, decided by the democracy. Again, an interesting commentary, and with the death of some characters, not the direction you’d expect, the show to go in, but the plot ends up revolving around a crew member humping a statue, being videoed, and then down voted. Any serious work, or interest, gets buried in the frat boy joke. And that seems to sum up Seth Macfarlane’s vanity project of The Orville , he wants to show everyone he can do something serious, but just can’t resist having a drunk as a pilot. Or having a gelatinous blob make sex jokes. Or minimizing more serious issues.

I was not a big fan of the show, the storytelling was too uneven, it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, but they were doing enough interesting things that I suffered through the meh and kept watching, giving it a chance to find its narrative footing and maybe grow up a little. Until episode nine, “Cupid’s Dagger.” By the end of this episode, I’d not only given up on the show, but felt openly hostile about it. In this episode, Rob Lowe’s character Darulio, who the audience was introduced to in the pilot, as the man Commander Grayson cheated on Captain Mercer with, reappears as an archaeologist necessary to identifying an artifact in order to broker a peace between two warring cultures.  The “cutesy” plot device starts with Mercer and Grayson having to confront the man who broke up their marriage, and it’s not long before Grayson is flirting with Darulio. If that’s all the episode had been, it would have been boring but not offensive. Yet the writers did not stop there. It turns out Darulio is in heat, and puts out a pheromone that makes everyone want to sleep with him, Grayson, then Mercer. The not so thinly veiled homophobic jokes are there, and the rivalry between Grayson and Mercer as they bicker over Darulio’s affections. The doctor, who has rebuffed the creepy gelatinous blob all season, is suddenly having weird Jell-o sex with him. And because everyone is so obsessed with Darulio, the diplomatic mission is put in jeopardy and the solution ends up being Darulio using his magical rufie powers to get the two warring cultures to fall in love, thus averting war. The show seems completely oblivious to the fact that Darulio drugs people into having sex without consent. Which is rape. Which is not funny. It’s not a schtick. It’s not a gimmick. It’s not a narrative plot point. And even if Macfarlane and his writers didn’t get that when they wrote the episode, given that it aired 9 November, after the revival of the social media #MeToo campaign, in light of the news about Harvey Weinstein’s years of abuse, and Kevin Spacey’s, and all the confessions against so many other men that followed, airing this episode is tasteless at best, and purposefully ignorant and misogynistic at worst.

Science fiction and fantasy fandoms have long struggled with misogynistic impulses– viewing women, particularly in cosplay, as sexual objects that men can treat however they want; sexualizing, demeaning, and marginalizing female characters; “fridging” them to serve as inspiration for men; the list goes on and on. So for Macfarlane to create a show that presents itself as completely self-aware of the world, and genre, it’s participating in and then run an episode like this that makes fun of the abuse, assault, and treatment of women by men, there’s no way to claim ignorance. The episode’s attitude buys into the “don’t take it so seriously,” “it was just for fun,” “learn to take a joke” attitude that men have used to excuse this behavior forever. And it’s dangerous. For me, not only did this episode erase anything interesting the show had previously done, but it sickened me that men, like Macfarlane and Lowe, still think in the world we live in today, that this is okay.

Also premiering this fall, as counter to The Orville is CBS’s revival, Star Trek: Discovery. Unlike The Orville, which fanboys seem ecstatic about, Discovery has the same population ridiculously upset. The Klingons are wrong. You can’t have a Star Trek about war. No one swears in Star Trek. We don’t like the costumes. Women. Loud women. Women who disobey orders. I’d argue that the reason some audiences love The Orville, with its locker room, frat boy humor, is the same reason they don’t like Star Trek: Discovery’s complicated, messy, problematic, narrative that not only has a woman at the center of its narrative, but a woman of color.

This of course is not the reason people of giving for not liking it, they seem to be hiding their misogynistic impulses behind arguments around canon, evoking Gene Roddenberry’s name, and declaring that he must be rolling in his grave to see his beloved, hopeful, Star Trek, used to tell a narrative about war. The main thing critics of Star Trek: Discovery seem to ignore is that the Federation wasn’t always the Federation as we’ve known it. They had to go through some crap before they figured out that peace, non-interference, and exploration were the answer. We’ve seen hints of this before, in First Contact and to a lesser-not-told-well extent in Enterprise, so it’s not a new idea. But it’s become a huge sticking point for fans. Maybe it doesn’t bother me because of the times we’re living in. I don’t know if a Star Trek like Next Generation would work in a time where people lie without consequence, assault women for years and face no action, where cheating is okay, and where we may die any day in a ball of nuclear fire over a tweet sent at 3am.

It’s hard not to draw the parallels to Battlestar Galactica (2004) and the historical and cultural moment it appeared in. Throughout its run Ronald D. Moore and his production team made us confront the ethics of warfare, condoning torture, the effects of PTSD, resisting, and how to rediscover our moral center once we’d lost it. So far,  Star Trek: Discovery seems to be holding up much the same mirror and Sonequa Martin-Green as human-raised-by-Vulcans Michael Burnham is the perfect vehicle for these narratives. Because OF COURSE the world doesn’t make sense. OF COURSE logic fails us these days. So what do we do now?

I am sold on Burnham’s story. Her confusion, her struggle, the fear that comes with not knowing, I immediately get that story. I buy into it. Because I think it’s a story that reflects so much of what we all feel.

Star Trek: Discovery is not without its flaws. The inclusion of Sarek, and Michael as adopted sibling of Spock seems like an unnecessary move to invoke nostalgia. I still have a problem with them killing Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Phillippa Georgiou, it felt too much like fridging to me. While I love the pairing of Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets and Wilson Cruz’s Dr. Hugh Culber, I think the show is checking off the list having a gay couple without doing much with them, and both actors are fabulous, so I hope that changes. However, for once we have gay characters played by gay actors, so that’s an improvement. The show’s approach to colonialism, in both “Choose Your Pain” with the torture of the tardigrade, “Ripper” for the benefit of the ship and crew, and in “Si Vis Pacem Para Bellum” with the non-consensual conquest of Pahvo, again, for the benefit of the conquering force are disturbing narratives, as were the neatly tied up answers both episodes provided.

But Star Trek: Discovery gets more right than it gets wrong. Jason Isaacs as Captain Gabriel Lorca is deeply flawed. And disturbed. And he totally sent Admiral Cornwell to die. And I was totally there for that. Lorca is a monster in many ways, and I think he realizes, much like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Operator in Serenity, that he will not be part of the better world he builds.  I think part of the reason he fights so hard to keep Michael safe, and with him on the ship is because he knows he needs someone who will disobey a captain, and stop him if he goes too far. The most pleasant surprise of the series so far has been Anthony Rapp’s turn as Paul Stamets, especially after he becomes the fuel for the spore drive. I swear, if they’d killed him in the finale, I would have been done. Rapp’s performance is amazing, but in “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” in particular. Likewise, Shazad Latif’s performance as Ash Tyler, his struggles, his guilt, especially in the fall finale, and what is previewed for the return in January is heartbreaking. His beginning relationship with Michael is likewise touching. The presentation of the Klingon factions, and the Federation fighting a war against a people whose ideology can’t be reasoned with, is also a narrative that I buy into, even if it hits a little too close to home. I am looking forward to the show’s return in January, and it’s convinced me to keep paying for CBS All Access, which was one of my major complaints when the show premiered. I am happy the show was renewed, and look forward to years of Star Trek: Discovery, while also hoping the writers have an end game in mind, hopefully one that explains why no other Federation ship ran on a spore drive.

It’s encouraging that both The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery are moving towards more representation in their casts, although The Orville still seems like it’s checking off diversity boxes more than moving towards real representation. Star Trek: Discovery to me reads more like representation than diversity, which I think it a better approach. I am also encouraged that both present gay characters and couples as no big deal (I can still remember when it WAS a big deal and networks threatened to pull shows), although, again, The Orville really needs to move past the presentation of sexist stereotypes (watching rom-coms and eating ice cream, really?). In fact, The Orville really needs to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up, but given Seth Macfarlane has made a career out of doing the opposite, I don’t have high hopes. I think I will stick with the darkness, the bleakness, of Star Trek: Discovery. It may not be the future we want. But it’s a future in which we survive, to fight, and live, and explore another day. And these days, I think we could all use the reminder that that is possible.

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Dr. Karra Shimabukuro was always interested in where our idea of the presentation of the devil, death, fairies, angels, etc., seen in movies, television, and comics came from. So she went and got a doctorate to find out! Her interests include the medieval and early modern history of these figures, and how they are forwarded into popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at

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