In the fall of 2017, we received not one but two new Star Trek series. Well, one and a half. I’m speaking, of course, of Star Trek: Discovery and it’s underachieving, pot-smoking, distant cousin, The Orville.
What are these two series, and what exactly is their relationship to the established Star Trek corpus? To answer that, I will draw on Harold Bloom’s theory of poetry, arguing that all poetry is misreading of previous poems. However, some poems are “weak misreadings”, which merely replicate the previous poem, and others are “strong misreadings” in which the poet includes his own ideas. This distinction will help us understand where to place these two series.
The Orville is a strange thing, neither fish nor fowl. Nominally, it is a parody of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are a certain number of jokes and gags in the writing, most of which are too feeble and too sparse to make a successful comedy.
Mainly what it is is a faithful reproduction of Star Trek, more specifically the early seasons of Next Generation. Color coded uniforms, spaceships with smooth lines and neutral-toned interior decoration, friendly aliens with easily identifiable character tags, hostile aliens whose names start with a hard “K” sound.
The problem is, The Orville chooses to replicate some of the least interesting and popular aspects of Star Trek. The pilot episode, for example, frequently echoed 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s flaws and weaknesses: the needlessly slow flyby of the ship, the laborious process of introducing the cast of characters, the lack of any discernible conflict until late in the run time.
What The Orville is supposed to add is a more modern, adult sensibility: coarse language, drug and sex references, which is what you’d expect from the mind behind Family Guy doing his own version of Star Trek. I, for one, was not waiting for a version of Star Trek with sex jokes and occasional use of cannibis, and that is about as “adult” as it gets. A lot of the sexual references display a distinctly juvenile and retrograde sensibility. One of the running gags is a blob-like alien who is constantly propositioning the ship’s human doctor; in other words, sexually harassing her. In the age of #MeToo, this does not sit well. Jokes about sexual harassment stopped being funny a long time ago.
This is symptomatic of a deeper problem of how The Orville’s attitudes, especially regarding gender and sexuality, are mired in the past.
The third episode, “About A Girl”, is The Orville’s first attempt at a storyline that is serious. In previous episodes, we learn that officer Bortus, a member of an “all male” alien species, and his mate Klyden are expecting a child. As the two are capable of mating and producing offspring, what exactly does “male” or “female” mean in this case? The episode proper begins with the discovery that officer Bortus’ newly-hatched child is female, a rare but not unheard of event. Again, what does this mean in terms of anatomy? Bortus wants to have this surgically correctly as soon as possible, but both the ship’s doctor and Captain Mercer refuse on ethical grounds. Bortus and Klyden decide to have the procedure done on their homeworld instead. Bortus then watches the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and changes his mind, leading to a courtroom scene in which he and the rest of the crew argue for the child to be left as is.
One the one hand, this is classic Trek: using science fiction as an allegory about a topical issue. In this case, it’s intersexuality.
But even before this episode, The Orville mishandles issues of sex and gender. We are told that Bortus is from an “all male” species, then later introduced to his mate, Klyden. A gag in the second episode concerns Bortus sitting on the egg his spouse has laid. If Bortus and his partner are capable of mating and producing a viable offspring, what does “male” and “female” even mean? Are such concepts as gender even applicable to this case?
The episode does hit some points right. Bortus and Klyden’s relationship is treated respectfully. The story ends on a down note. Despite the crew’s efforts, the child is surgically “corrected”. Cultures don’t change their ways because strangers show up and make speeches.
But there are many, many flaws.There’s confusion between issues related to children born intersex, and sexism. In the courtroom scene, a lot of time is spent demonstrating Lt. Kitan’s superhuman physical strength and Lt’ Malloy’s inability to answer simple academic questions, neither of which applies to Bortus’ species or culture. The concepts of gender and sex are clumsily conflated. And the whole plot of the episode would fall apart if Bortus had never told the others about his child’s condition.
“About a Girl” handles issues about as intelligently as the Next Generation handled them in the episode “The Outcast”. That episode aired in 1992, when issues of gender and queerness were far less well known, and a certain amount of clumsiness can be excused. The Orville aired in 2017, twenty-five years later, and has no excuse for its ignorance. The Orville doesn’t just emulate the look-and-feel of early Next Generation, it replicates the attitudes of that time too.
The Orville is not a parody, in the sense that its comedy derives from its premise. It isn’t, for example, Galaxy Quest, which is a brilliant meta-commentary on both the storytelling conventions of Star Trek and the culture of media fandom. If anything, The Orville is an exercise in nostalgia. Apart from the odd bit of drug or sex humor, it emulated the look and feel of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series which debuted thirty years ago. This was when Seth MacFarlane was 14 years old, perhaps the right age to fall in love, and also the right age to think that adding sophomoric ideas about sex and drugs to something automatically makes it better.
In the end, the real flaw of The Orville is that it hews too closely to its source material. In Bloom’s terms, it is a weak misreading.
Which brings us to Star Trek: Discovery.
I’ll be frank and say that I am not a big fan of the post-2009 Star Trek movies. I believe they are too action-oriented and don’t deal in any particular ideas. I echo the opinions of others that Star Trek belongs as a TV series, where it can explore ideas and characters in more depth. That’s why I looked forward to the new Trek series, despite the reportedly troubled production.
Like the recent films, Discovery is, indeed, different from what has gone before, though in a different way. Those hoping for a seamless continuation of earlier series will be disappointed. You could easily drive yourself into madness trying to rationalize how Discovery fits within established Star Trek continuity. It’s supposed to be ten years before classic Trek, yet almost everything looks different. Why do the Klingons, the uniforms, and the ships look different? Why does Lorca have a tribble on his desk? Are we supposed to believe Spock had an adopted human older sister he never mentioned? Why is our lead character (a black woman) not the captain, and why is our captain such a manipulative, ruthless bastard?
These differences are features, not bugs. Trek has existed in one form or another for more than fifty years, in many different media, and it is constantly being re-created. Later incarnations have had access to more advanced special effects technology and bigger budgets. When Star Trek:The Motion Picture came to the big screen in 1979, a lot of things had changed since “The Cage” in 1966. After 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, audiences had higher expectations of special effects in films, including both space effects and creature makeup and prosthetics. This is probably why the Klingons suddenly had forehead ridges. Continuity was less important than meeting the expectations of better-realized aliens. Arguably, this was what Klingons should have looked like, if the budget and the special effects technology had been available in the 1960s. Same reason the new Enterprise had visible deck plates.
As time has passed, styles of storytelling have changed as much as aesthetics. Highly serialized television is now the rule, not the exception. Our protagonists tend more towards Tony Soprano than Andy Griffith.
As the real world has changed, so has Trek, such as having a black man or a woman as a captain. The political situation within the series has shifted from the Cold War tension of the original series to the existential fear and confusion of the post-9/11 era. Trek was remade for the times, and it is a testament to the strength of the Star Trek mythos that it can be remade to meet the times.
We in 2017 are even further from the debut of Next Generation than it was from the debut of the original series. In that time, the world has changed, and it makes sense that the new series would have a different look and feel, which is why opinions are so polarized. But is this a good change?
A friend, when asked about Discovery, dismissed it as “grimdark”. I disagreed. Grimdark is what happens when a given text invests heavily in the aesthetics of dystopia but without engaging in the social or political issues. The term itself comes from the Warhammer 40,000 wargames setting, in which all of humanity lives under a militant xenophobic theocracy, locked in never-ending war with every other species in the galaxy. As this is a fantasy tabletop wargame, this works just fine to create a setting, but the setting is so relentlessly, nonsensically horrible that it becomes absurd.
While Discovery is “darker” than the lens-flare excesses of the Abrams movies, (literally so, as the ship’s captain has an eye condition that makes him sensitive to bright light) there’s a reason for it, that is integrated into the series’ premise and the legacy of Trek.
Discovery highlights a theme that has run through all Star Trek media: the conflict between doing the right thing and following the rules. The second scene of the Discovery pilot shows Captain Philippa Georgiou and first officer Michael Burnham attempting to secretly open a well on a desert planet, in order to protect the natives from extinction without violating “General Order One”. Captain Georgiou deftly walks the line between compassion and duty, and manages to save the natives without interfering.
Later, when confronted with newly aggressive Klingon ships, the partnership of Burnham and Georgiou breaks down. Georgiou wants to follow procedure and play it safe, while Burnham, drawing on her Vulcan upbringing, insists that only aggressive action now will prevent conflict in the future. This rift escalates to the point that Burnham nerve-pinches out her captain, lies to her fellow officers, and assumes command.
It doesn’t go well. Burnham and Georgiou cooperate again to salvage the situation, but it ends with Georgiou dead, her ship destroyed, the Federation at war with the Klingon Empire, and Burnham in prison as Starfleet’s first mutineer.
Over and over in Trek, we have seen Starfleet officers violate rules and regulations, up to and including hijacking warships and violating interstellar borders. We can debate about whether they were in the right or not, but they almost never receive any sort of consequences to their actions.
That is why it is such a shock to see Burnham stripped of her rank and consigned to prison for her actions. Her intentions may have been good, but she also assaulted her commanding officer, lied to her crew, and became Starfleet’s first mutineer. It’s a dash of cold water, telling us that the universe does not reset back to zero after every episode, that there are consequences, the hallmark of serialized storytelling.
Burnham starts the series’ third episode in a deep hole, and gets a ladder up from an unlikely source. She goes from Georgiou, an exemplary commander in the tradition we’ve come to expect from Trek, to Captain Gabriel Lorca, commander of Starfleet’s top secret experimental prototype ship, Discovery.
Captain Lorca’s moral comfort zone is obviously in a very different place than Kirk’s or Picard’s. He’s not above seducing, flattering, or emotionally blackmailing his officers to get what he wants, and disregards the toll his decisions might take on his crew. His blanket justification that the Federation is facing an existential threat, in the form of open war with the Klingon Empire, is a dark reflection of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” principle.
He’s also clearly suffering from PTSD, and whether or not it compromises his judgment as captain, it’s still something he is supposed to report, even if it means being removed from duty. Or is he just refusing to admit he has a problem because his ego and identity are too tied up in his command? This is the dark side of the workaholism that drives so many Trek characters. The first half season ends with Discovery stranded in unknown space, and there are hints that Lorca has engineered this to avoid facing judgment for his actions.
Lorca is not a moral exemplar like Picard, or even a daring explorer like Kirk. He’s a talented but flawed person tap dancing on the edge of the abyss, making him more akin to the ambivalent figures of recent television dramas, like Tony Soprano, Walter White, or Don Draper.
The tension between Lorca and the other characters provides a tension that animates every scene. We’re constantly wondering how far Lorca will go, and whether the others will go along with it, or oppose him, or find some other solution.
Lorca especially provides a foil for Burnham, who is balanced on the knife edge between Lorca’s ruthless “for the greater good” morality and the Federation’s principles. She could go either way, to redeem herself as an officer by playing by the rules, or to sacrifice herself for the greater good, as she is already condemned for life. That dynamic instability and inherent tension is what makes for great drama. These changes from tradition in Discovery make it possible for Trek to engage in some long-overdue self-evaluation about its own philosophy. It’s the same thing seem from a new angle, which makes Discovery, in Bloom’s terms, a strong misreading.
Despite the sophomoric humor and gestures towards progressivism, The Orville is stubbornly mired in the perspective of white, male, heterosexuality, and of an earlier generation at that. It’s Discovery that walks the walk.
The Orville has an allegory of a gay relationship with two aliens from a nearly all-male culture; Discovery just has a gay relationship, no allegory needed. The Orville starts with white male aggrievement, as Mercer discovers his wife in bed with a blue alien. The second scene of Discovery is two women of colour discussing how to help alien people, immediately passing the Bechdel test. Lt. Alara Kitan’s superhuman strength compared to her petite body is played for comedy, while Michael Burnham’s technical skills are simply accepted. Captain Ed Mercer of the Orville is recovering from a professional screw-up, but it’s implicitly blamed on his unfaithful wife. Michael Burnham is also recovering from a career failure, but it’s because she made well-intentioned decisions that went disastrously wrong.
Discovery boldly goes in new directions, seeing the world in new ways, and asking hard questions about its antecedents. The Orville is a recreation of an earlier generation’s cultural artifact, an exercise in nostalgia, at best a loving pastiche. It has nothing really new to say. It belongs in the same field as the numerous other, largely forgettable Star Trek knockoffs that have appeared on television and in film over the past five decades. The Orville is That 80s Science Fiction Show.