It is really impossible to talk about either of these shows without referencing the other. They are both reactions to the previous decades of Trek and are being run by competing ex-Trek production staff with (clearly) different visions. Their first seasons established unique directions and sensibilities from what we knew as Trek and from each other. However, both Discovery and Orville somewhat lost their way in their second series. Oddly, while at opposite ends of the spectrum (dark action vs satire), they both moved more centrist. In doing so, they both lost their edge and uniqueness but never quite gained the chops to carry off their more standard action/adventure sf intentions. And what makes them even more comparable again is that they tackled similar uber-arcs to their seasons, which I won’t discuss, but certainly stood out for me.
Let’s start with the official franchise. Discovery has drifted slowly and deliberately from its very bleak prequel universe. That darkness had really set it apart from previous series and allowed for some good characters, all of whom have now become somewhat bland. Worse, the move for the series was from a female dominated to a male dominated one; very disappointing. Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) is still the focus of stories, but she has taken a backseat to new arrival Anson Mount’s (Inhumans) Pike and other men on board rather than being the main driver of the action and plots. Her Vulcan-ness has likewise diminished, though I can see an argument for that choice. There was a drive for the first several episodes to inject wry humor to balance the sturm und drang, but it was often tossed off and felt forced, or simply got lost amidst more important information. Eventually, they just gave up. Basically, it has become more standard Trek and less something unique. In fact, in some ways this season as a whole could simply be titled The Search for Spock.
I have to admit, I had trouble letting go of the dark roots of Discovery’s first season’s going into the next iteration. And make no mistake, season two is a whole different animal. In some ways I love the tight banter and wry humor, even if the audio mix often made it challenging to hear clearly. I like that they didn’t just forget season one, but grew on it, even though they remade the show entirely and left a lot of what made it something new, something not standard Trek, behind. Bryan Fuller’s vision for Discovery was refreshing for me. Even if he didn’t get to see it through, you could feel him in the bones of season one.
And then there was the season finale, which was unforgivable. Loaded with, and led to by, stupid choices and bad writing. It also had a critical element only from the Short Treks, which I’d not seen. The frustration is that if you’re going to make something an integral element of the season, it should be part of the season. Otherwise, it is fine to have nods and gifts from the other material (SHEILD and others have done this), but nothing core as not everyone would have the information necessary.
I will grant that the scope of the season, in terms of the overall plot and ongoing arcs, was impressive and gripping. It managed to be somewhat episodic and still have a much larger story pulling it along. But as a rehash of Enterprise’s failed attempt at the same idea it is full of the same kinds of plot holes and issues. It also took a stab at the now standard trope of revisiting the original series that began with the Tribbles episode in DS9; but they didn’t manage it effectively or with any real emotional weight.
But worse, depending on how they resolve the finale in the next season, the reset of the universe was more than a little cheap and frustrating (both in choice and method). I don’t quite know how they follow up this season in a satisfying way…but they have succeeded in bringing what was a brave new show back to the well-trod Trek center, and making it a lot less interesting.
The Orville has swung in from the opposite direction, trying to become more Trek and less satire of that genre. It essentially gave up what made it unique and left us with middling writing and lackluster plots for most of the season. However, a lot of that middling slog was worth it to get to Menosky’s Sanctuary, which picks up the Moclan tale from season one (Ja’loja) in earnest. It is loaded with guest stars and great moments and hits the exact balance of honest and satire that made the first season so much fun. It is also one of the few MacFarlane didn’t write this Sophomore season.
The final few episodes of the Orville season redeem it…right up through the finale. I am hoping that it indicates a recognition of where they drifted from their mission and that they will return renewed and refocused. Orville may never have been great, but it was entertaining and a good escape. Sure it catered to the geek crowd, especially in its humor, but it had potential. Making the Trek-like universe something a bit more realistic instead of aspirational in its society is not only a rising trend in the written genre, but a hunger in the audience who are tired of the sanitized worlds that had been on offer for decades.
Yes, I will be back for both of these shows, assuming both are back. Only Discovery is officially renewed as of this writing. There is potential in both and both shows have a willingness to take chances and change. I just hope they learned the right lessons from this past year.