For the first time in over a decade, a brand new STAR TREK television series aired an episode on US television. Although only the pilot episode aired, this marked the return of a cultural touchstone. STAR TREK: DISCOVERY has critics excited for the future of television’s premiere space opera franchise.

At the same time, tv comedy savant and bonafide geek Seth MacFarlane debuted his own show depicting the future voyages of a starship, THE ORVILLE. His venture into the space opera genre was received somewhat differently by both critics and fans. As a fan of both shows, I aim to compare and contrast the two. This article details how the shows take different, but equally compelling approaches to telling stories set in the final frontier.

The Tone of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

The overarching theme of DISCOVERY regards the dual nature of Starfleet. One part of Starfleet is that of peaceful research and exploration (think NASA). That is Starfleet’s primary responsibility during peacetime. However, the other significant part of Starfleet’s nature is its’ duty as defenders of the Federation (i.e., the Navy/Marines).

This is clear when studying two characters and crew of the USS Discovery. Lt Paul., Stamets (played by Anthony Rapp) exhibits A of the typical Starfleet officer: a progressive romantic explorer. Paul is very much in the vein of Jean-Luc Picard: an explorer who clings passionately to Starfleet’s principles of peaceful research and exploration.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Captain Gabriel Lorca. He is very much in the mold of James Kirk: a battle-scarred warrior. He too believes in the philosophy of peaceful cooperation of the Federation, but will even disregard orders to further the goal of protecting the UFP. While Stamets personifies Starfleet’s research and discovery role, Lorca embodies Starfleet’s duty as both military and defense force of the United Federation of Planets.

STAR TREK DISCOVERY Review: A Worthy Return to the Final Frontier

Michael Burnham epitomizes the dichotomy of roles embodied in Starfleet. She is human but raised on Vulcan by none other than Sarek, Spock’s father. She has a highly accomplished scientific mind mixed with very human compassion.

Nevertheless, Burnham embraces her Vulcan training and upbringing when in combat. She tempers her scientific curiosity with the cold logic of war. Mutiny may be extreme and not very logical, but it is justified by Sarek’s advice in dealing with Klingons. Throughout the series thus far, Burnham seems a fascinating contrast exploring many issues, including the Janus-like nature of Starfleet.

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The main cast of DISCOVERY Image courtesy of startrekdiscovery.it

THE ORVILLE’s Style

Unlike the somber and gritty tone of DISCOVERY, THE ORVILLE fits quite nicely into the role of comedy. THE ORVILLE is a child of STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES while DISCOVERY fits nicely as a successor to DEEP SPACE NINE. THE ORVILLE recreates to a T the lighthearted but meaningful exploration of political and philosophical issues portrayed in TOS. Seth MacFarlane transitions from animated satire to sci-fi dramedy with seeming ease.

From the get-go, jokes fly at breakneck speed. MacFarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer and Adrianne Palicki’s XO Commander Kelly Grayson compliment each other fabulously. The awkwardness of having one’s ex-wife as their executive officer is played for all that it’s worth.

The characters of THE ORVILLE very much generate their own natural humor. Norm MacDonald voices a sentient blob of goo who flirts with the very human Dr. Claire Finn (played by DS9 veteran Penny Johnson Jerald). This is just a funny as it sounds. Scott Grimes’ Lt. Gordon Malloy delivers one-liners like no one’s business. Those and other examples help THE ORVILLE shine as a comedy.

Episode 29: Comic Book Space Operas (part 1): SILVER SURFER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

THE ORVILLE explores various issues with a (mostly) deft touch accompanied by a healthy dose of humor. An oft-used theme is acceptance (or lack thereof) of different cultures. The show also explores gender stereotypes and gender identity with varying degrees of success (better the former than the latter in my opinion). Religion, tradition, and superstition also feature in an episode. As a dramedy, THE ORVILLE employs both comedy and serious discussion to investigate many topics, both those mentioned above and more not included.

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The Crew of The Orville

The Universes of DISCOVERY and THE ORVILLE

A noticeable but significant difference between DISCOVERY and THE ORVILLE is where (and when) they take place. Although both are set in the future (2256 for DISCOVERY and 2419 for THE ORVILLE) they are different series. With different canon comes different settings. While both canons include Earth, by necessity, the other planets and ships are different.

THE ORVILLE isn’t STAR TREK, so Vulcans are obviously a no-no. DISCOVERY doesn’t feature Norm MacDonald’s blob species or the Moclans. The Planetary Union is clearly a very different organization than the UFP, even with what little we know. For starters, what type of economy (if any) does it have? Has the polity eradicated hunger and/or poverty? Furthermore, how many worlds does the PU contain? Short tangent: is that acronym intentional? If so, kudos to whoever came up with that for adding more humor!

Another simple difference is the aesthetics. Although both look “futuristic” from a 2017 perspective, DISCOVERY looks more like JJ Abram’s STAR TREK movies. THE ORVILLE is very reminiscent of THE NEXT GENERATION with less contrast, almost no lens flares, and has less dark blue. This simple visual distinction perfectly mirrors the tonal and sub-genre differences of the shows.

One is bright and cheery, while the other is darker and much grittier. Also, the uniforms are different but reflect the overall tone. THE ORVILLE’s uniforms are colorful but professional. DISCOVERY’s apparel is very blue, quite polished, and what Starfleet’s uniforms always should have been.

The Future of Space Opera TV is a Bright One

THE ORVILLE and STAR TREK: DISCOVERY are two very different approaches to the genre of space opera. They both are spiritual (and literal in the case of DISCOVERY) successors of STAR TREK and similar works of fiction. While THE ORVILLE takes more after THE ORIGINAL SERIES, DISCOVERY falls more in line with the latter half of DS9 and especially the Kelvin Timeline movies.

The critical and fan reception of each show has been the polar opposite of the other. While it’s uncertain whether or not Season 2 of THE ORVILLE will happen, the future of STAR TREK is assured with the second season confirmed. Regardless of season count, I can confidently say the future of TV Space Operas is a bright one.

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