Is ‘The Orville’ a better ‘Star Trek’ series than ‘Discovery’? It’s a question that’s been asked time and again since the shows made their respective premieres back in September. In fact, it’s a debate we’ve had on this very site. And to be sure, there’s a certain extent to which the question is tongue in cheek, but given the obvious debt that ‘The Orville’ owes to ‘Star Trek’, it’s not exactly an uninvited comparison. This is especially the case given how controversial some of the creative decisions on ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ have been in certain segments of fandom.
But what do the people making the shows think? While the ‘Discovery’ staff has yet to weigh in, at least one of the ‘Orville’ writers has. Speaking to CBR, executive producer David A. Goodman had this to say about the comparison between the two shows and why some viewers might prefer one over the other.
“There’s no getting around that there’s some ‘Star Trek’ inspiration in this show. Seth (MacFarlane) wanted an uplifting show; a show that presented an optimistic view of the future, which is what Roddenberry did. So they share that philosophy. I think the difference for us, is that Seth was very much aware… he’s making a show for everybody. That’s what gets lost in the discussion of ‘Star Trek’ fans liking and not liking a show. The original ‘Star Trek’ was a show that millions of people watched, all over the world. A subset of them – like me – are super passionate ‘Star Trek’ fans. I’ve written three ‘Star Trek’ books. I’m a big fan, but we represent a very small, tiny part of the audience that watch that show. Seth wanted to do a show that was for everybody. And I think that may be closer to the reason that people are making that connection. That this is a show that people don’t need to know the backstory of that universe to get into it.”
The comment about needing to know the backstory is a bit odd to me. I see where Goodman’s coming from, but it strikes me as comparing apples and oranges. ‘Star Trek’, after all, is fifty years old. By contrast, ‘The Orville’ is on its seventh episode. Simply put, it doesn’t really have a backstory with which to be familiar yet. Cards on the table here, I have a considerable familiarity with the backstory of ‘Star Trek’. I mean I write a column about the show, for god’s sake. So by all means, feel free to take it with a grain of salt when I say you don’t actually need that sort of superfan knowledge to enjoy ‘Star Trek’. Does it help? Sure. Just like that same level of fannish obsession can help you appreciate ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ or any other property that millions of people the world over enjoy. But if we follow this train of thought is it logical? If you jump in at the seventh episode of any ‘Star Trek’ series, you should be good to go. Yes, even ‘Discovery’. As serialized as that show is, the seventh episode (‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad‘) was largely a standalone.
For my money, the reason for the comparisons is pretty simple. It’s not just that ‘The Orville’ has a lot of ‘Star Trek’ in its DNA, or even that it has ‘Trek’ veterans like Brannon Braga and Penny Johnson Jerald contributing to it. At the end of the day, ‘Next Generation’-era ‘Star Trek is what you’d get if you took ‘The Orville’ and played it straight. In other words, if you’re a long-time ‘Trek’ fan, ‘The Orville’ is a very familiar show, even if it isn’t ‘Star Trek’ per se. ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ on the other hand is a very different animal. For better or worse, it’s a ‘Star Trek’ show that has very deliberately set out to do things differently.
New episodes of ‘The Orville’ air Sundays at 9:00pm on Fox, while new episodes of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ drop on the CBS All Access streaming service on Sunday nights at 8:30pm.