Tuesday TV: Star Trek: Discovery

As we discussed last week, there have never been two new shows so intricately linked at their debut as Fox’s The Orville and the tentpole for CBS’s All Access streaming service Star Trek: Discovery. Both Seth McFarlane’s light comedy homage to The Next Generation and Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman’s gritty action packed prequel saga are aimed at the same set of viewers, while at the same time diverging enough from the source material to upset and divide that fanbase. As Disney has discovered as they add to the Star Wars saga, fans can be unreasonably possessive of the franchises they love. To be seen as ripping off or mocking a show, as The Orville has been accused, or betraying the spirit or messing with canon as ST:Discovery seems to be doing is tantamount to treason.

While I love to talk about this stuff, the vicious nerd-fights over which of these shows is the real “Trek” is boring. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Star Trek novels for decades, a space that has never been considered “canon.” But I’m simply not terribly upset by a Star Trek that tells the Federation story from a different angle. It’s the same response I have to folks shitting on the perfectly fine summer action films of the now apparently doomed “Kelvin-verse” movie franchise.

One controversy that I do understand is Discovery’s price tag. As the number of streaming services multiplies and the cost savings from “cord cutting” evaporate, Discovery needed to be realllllly good to justify the buy in. As Game of Thrones proved for HBO, even if a lot of folks are sharing that login, a great show can make up it’s cost and then some with this model. On the other hand it can really grate on a fanbase used to seeing Trek on broadcast TV. TNG veteran Marina Sirtis (Counsellor Deanna Troy,) revealed at a con panel this fall that she hasn’t watched the show…

“I have never watched it,” Sirtis said (via Trek Movie). “I am going to explain why I don’t watch Discovery before they all hate me. We were on the best Star Trek show. If CBS thinks I am going to pay to watch Star Trek, they are demented. I will wait until I go to England and watch it on Netflix, which I pay for anyway.”

Marinna Sirtis, who isn’t paying for this shit

So I’m well aware that a lot of folks may have not watched it yet, so I’m gonna try and be as spoiler free with my review/preview as I can manage. Set ten years before the original five year mission of the Enterprise, the main character of Discovery is Sonequa Martin-Green as  Michael Burnham. She was orphaned by a Klingon attack on Doctari Alpha, raised by Sarek and Amanda Grayson on Vulcan (one of the continuity issues that some geeks are upset about,) and booted out of Starfleet in disgrace after the events of the two part pilot episode that ended with her captain and mentor,  Philippa Georgiou (played perfectly byMichelle Yeoh) dead and the Federation and the Klingon Empire at war.

Micheal is given a second chance when the experimental starship the USS: Discovery rescues her from her exploding prison transport. Captain  Gabriel Lorca, played with gusto by Jason Isaacs, takes her under his wing… kind of. The rest of the cast is also excellent, Mary Wiseman is delightful as Sylvia Tilly, Micheals roommate and an earnest cadet with her eye on the command track. Doug Jones plays  Saru, Discovery’s first officer and Micheals former friend. A Kelpian, a species that was originally bred as prey for another species, Saru provides a unique and alien perspective. Wilson Cruz is Doctor Hugh Culber,  the partner of Engineer Paul Stamets, played by Anthony Rapp (who has made some non-Trek related news recently, and is also excellent at Twitter.) The two became the first openly gay Star Trek characters on TV.

As opposed to The Orville, which is designed much more like the original “planet of the week” format of old school Star Trek, Discovery is serialized rather than episodic. The show follows the crew and Micheal as they attempt to perfect the ship’s strange drive mechanism in order to win the war with the Klingons. There’s a lot more action than any previous iteration of Trek, and the special effects are movie theatre quality. Once again no spoilers, but by the end of the season there have been some seriously fun hijinks, some incredible drama and some awesome sci fi.

I loved it. Like anything Trek I can quibble. I have never been a fan of turning the inscrutable and cruel original series Klingons into the bat’leth swinging warrior race with bad teeth of TNG. And Discovery’s Klingon’s are even more like Space Orcs than Worf and friends. A lot of fans are disappointed in the focus on warfare, but I for one was happy to see the first war between Federation and Klingons hashed out.

Thursday promises another great season, as we’ll get to know Kirk’s predecessor in the captian’s chair of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike, meet Micheals adopted brother Spock, and solve an all new galaxy spanning mystery. I cannot wait.

Tuesday TV: The Orville

Buddy…level the camera…

I admit to being skeptical when The Orville was announced in 2017. And I was definitely not alone, especially as Seth McFarlane’s light comedy homage to Star Trek: TNG was landing around the same time that CBS introduced us to the prequel series Star Trek: Discovery. I’ll have more in depth to say about Discovery as we get closer to it’s second season premier on January 17th (IT’S AWESOME,) but the juxtaposition of the two shows and their decidedly differing tone has incited a lot of frankly silly nerdfighting over which program is the true heir to Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.

The most problematic yet brilliant element on The Orville is definitely creator and Captain Ed Mercer Seth McFarlane. Ever since his first hit show, Family Guy was actually dragged back from the TV Graveyard by fans demanding more after it’s surprise 2003 cancellation, McFarlane has been a TV hitmaker and controversial lightning rod. His often crude and careless comedy has definitely earned him some well deserved ire from marginalized communities and social justice advocates. His performance as host of the 2013 Academy Awards was marred by his leering rendition of a musical number called “We saw your boobs” directed at the women in the audience who had done topless scenes that year. It was pretty icky.

He’s also a zealous advocate for LGBTQ rights, a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, and a board member for People for the American Way. As executive producer he was instrumental in bringing Cosmos back to the small screen. And despite the many worrying warning signs in his body of work, there’s no evidence so far that he’s gonna turn out to be Keyser Sose on the #metoo front. That’s right guys, “no evidence so far is all the rope we get.” And we’ve collectively barely earned that. All of this is to say that Seth combating multitudes, if his comedy or history spoil the sow for you that’s completely fair. But he has pleasantly surprised this viewer so far.

I think the biggest worry going into The Orville’s first season was that it would be Family Guy in Space. Especially with washed out Captain Ed Mercer as an obvious Larry Stu stand in for Seth himself, it could very well be Captain Brian Griffin humping the leg of every alien he meets. Luckily it seems that Ed Mercer represents a different side of Seth, an earnest and competent commander who is a bit frazzled to be in command of a light comedy starship crew.

I’m Bortus… I’m very intense…

Fox certainly hasn’t spared any expense. The FX and makeup are top notch. The ship is populated by an ambitious mix of classic sci-fi “humanoids with pointy ears,” all the way up to the lecherous and gelatinous Yaphit, voiced by Norm McDonald, who is basically a ball of green goo. The cast is excellent, Adrienne Palicki is a treat as Ed’s second in command and (light comedy remember,) ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson. The ex-wife jokes get a little old, but hopefully they are moving away from them in the second season. The most fascinating member of the crew might be Peter Macon, as Commander Bortus. Bortus is a Moclan, a species which considers all of it’s members to be male. He lives with his husband Klyden, played by Chad Coleman on board The Orville and they have a son named Topa.

Topa was a centerpiece of the third episode of the series “About a Girl,” when it was discovered that he had been born female and it was revealed that while rare, female Moclans were subjected to mandatory reassignment surgery. Klyden and Bortus clash over whether to go through with the surgery as Klyden wishes, while Bortus has been convinced by his human crew mates to leave the child “as is.” This weeks second season episode explored some of the lingering fallout.

“About a Girl” sparked some pretty intense reactions. It came across as a bit ham handed as the show’s first attempt at tackling a serious issue, and a lot of trans and non-binary folks bristled at the implied universal sexual dimorphism in The Orville’s universe. On the other hand,  Jesse Earl at the Advocate notes that while problematic, the episode reveals McFarlane’s ambitious intentions.

For better or worse, this marks Seth MacFarlane’s first attempt at emulating the spirit of the original Star Trek franchise instead of just its aesthetic and tone. Star Trek has always been known for tackling major issues of the day, and it’s clear that MacFarlane wants his show to follow in that vein, while hiding behind an extremely thin veneer of comedy and parody to lure in fans of MacFarlane’s typically irreverent humor brand. 
Reaction to MacFarlane’s attempt has been extremely mixed, with many thinking he tried too hard and others arguing that he didn’t try hard enough. The only thing that most critics agree on is that they didn’t like MacFarlane’s take.

For many of us in the LGBTQ and feminist community, much of MacFarlane’s approach was woefully outdated. Yet we sometimes forget that this episode was not made for those who already know all about intersex and transgender issues.
The episode aired on prime-time television, a world that is still a barren wasteland devoid of any transgender and intersex representation. Many of the people watching these shows are stillnot used to having to look to niche platforms to find their representation. They don’t immerse themselves within LGBTQ culture on a daily basis and still lack basic understanding of what being transgender or intersex even is, let alone the prejudices that those communities face. So to showcase these issues in a heavy-handed way helps to give voice and acknowledgement to what is going on outside of a nonqueer, cisgender person’s worldview.

Jesse Earl, The Advocate, 9/29/2017

I really like Jesse’s take here. The Orville as a whole feels like an attempt by McFarlane to draw the viewers of his animated comedies and films into this other place he also loves. Folks who scoffed at paying CBS to stream Star Trek: Discovery get a lighthearted substitute that still has some meat on it’s bones even if it’s a little undercooked. In fact the structure of the Orville allows it to tackle classic Trek style storytelling better than the season long action drama that Discovery delivers.

One thing I actually find relatable on the Orville is the light comedy/serious storytelling dynamic. A good friend of mine felt that the crews lack of discipline and constant anachronistic joking were too jarring, taking them out of suspension of disbelief. But as a tabletop RPG player that dynamic makes perfect sense. The gamemaster will do his best to put together an interesting and sometimes serious adventure, but the players are still 21st century geeks hopped up on caffeine and whatever. Their characters will have outlandish backgrounds, they will crack wise at inappropriate times and drive the storyteller crazy. But they will also deliver solemn soliloquies, make tough life or death decisions, maybe even sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

I’m not going to judge anyone who is sick of Seth’s style or bothered by his sometimes serious lapses in judgement. We live in the golden age of TV, there has to be a line you make just to have time for it all. But so far I’m glad I’ve made some time for The Orville. I hope it keeps surprising me.