A few months ago, The Orville hit Australian television sets, and I binged-watched it in its entirety. My passion for this show was so deep, I wrote an editorial about its critical discourse: Critics Vs The Orville: What’s Going On? There, I briefly looked at its critical reception, comparing it to Star Trek: Discovery‘s comparative acclaim. At the time of writing that article, I had enjoyed Star Trek: Discovery enough, but felt like it did not bring the same level of heart and detail as Seth Macfarlane’s homage-ridden show. Now, the sophomore seasons for both properties have just begun and… I had a lot of feelings.
First and foremost, The Orville Season 2 is now ranking at 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes—a far cry from Season 1’s 28% rating. In contrast, Star Trek: Discovery was certified fresh at 87%, and its second season has risen to an impressive 98% rating. Now, this is not to say that The Orville had made any massive changes that Discovery did not; both series have maintained a similar degree of quality the second time around, and I would attribute The Orville’s success to a weeding out of critics who disliked it from the first episode.
However, for me, the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery left me disappointed. This was not because of any expectations the show set for itself—as I said, it was of a similar ilk to its first season. The only difference was that I already had new episodes of Star Trek being released through a so-called parody show; I could tune in every week, spend some time with a crew I loved, and enjoy a few ethical quandaries along the way. In contrast, I had forgotten the names of many of Star Trek: Discovery’s main characters, felt myself scrolling through my phone during ’emotional’ moments and found things more laughable than I did engaging. I felt the need to watch the latest episode of The Orville straight after finishing Discovery, because one thing Discovery achieved was putting me in the mood for some real Star Trek.
Star Trek: Discovery’s latest episode kicks off with Captain Pike boarding the ship after a distress call. We are then treated to revelations about our main character, Michael Burnham’s, relationship with her half-brother, Spock. Already, we are given a spotlight on two characters from Star Trek canon—and personally, the inclusion of Pike was what made this episode bearable for me. Pike is a captain that, I feel, could have held an entire prequel series—he is charming and likeable, feeling like a breath of fresh air injected into the heavy atmosphere of Discovery. However, the rest of the episode was more of the same ‘gritty’ content: a Federation ship lays stranded on a volatile asteroid, our crew must perform death-defying stunts in extremely modern tech, and Michael has some familial issues going on, making way for some vague flashbacks.
Also in this episode, we learnt the names of the crew. While this may seem like a first-episode deal for most Star Trek content, the first season of Discovery featured four main crew-members and a bunch of faces that we recognised but didn’t know anything about. Featured in this group were ‘girl with a strange eye,’ ‘dreadlocked pilot’, and ‘random robot.’ In last night’s episode, Pike had the common decency to ask for everyone’s names, and we were given a brief introduction before we were catapulted into action. Meanwhile, Pike’s science-officer/Spock stand-in died suddenly mid-flight, but not many people seemed to care too much.
Meanwhile, on The Orville, a gelatinous life-form (Yaphit) who was used for a quick gag in the first episode is fleshed out more and more throughout the season. Dann, another side-character, is both recognisable and hilarious, and our prior knowledge of his character gives us an interesting dynamic when he is sent on a blind date with Alara, the security officer of the ship. Last night, I was emotionally moved by an episode about a character’s pornography addiction—a concept so ridiculous that only some likeable characters and impeccable writing can pull off. I felt slightly guilty for regarding a story about alien pornography as more valuable than Discovery’s more serious and epic narrative, but when you are not given enough time getting to know your characters, it is really difficult to care.
Will I keep watching Discovery? Probably. But it will be more out of a sense of obligation than actual enjoyment. I need to make clear that I am aware that these two shows are trying to achieve different things; one is a light-hearted, comedic take on a nostalgic property, and the other is a darker, more serious angle on something we already know. To me, I don’t watch Star Trek for high-stakes action and technobabble (which Discovery has in spades), but to feel comforted among a crew of people I can see myself slotting into. If you want impressive cinematography and complex lore-building, then I don’t blame you for enjoying Discovery—but it doesn’t make you feel like you did as a kid, eyes glued to the primary-coloured uniforms on a Sunday afternoon.