Discovery marks a number of firsts for Trek being the first to step away from network or syndication standards in favour of a more 'premium cable' model, along the lines of Netflix or HBO. It is also available to far fewer viewers in the U.S. where it can only be seen on CBS' All Access streaming service.
This has allowed them to orient their material to a more mature audience, introducing the first same-sex couple in a Trek series, and dropping the first f-bombs in franchise history. Discovery is also the first series where the ship's commander is not the focus of the program.
Set ten years before the familiar voyages of the Enterprise, it also dabbles in a fair amount of revisionism, tinkering with the canonical timeline in a way seemingly designed to tweak long-time fans. Why have we never heard of Discovery's experimental drive prior to this? Where did the captain get the tribble he keeps in his quarters? Why do the Klingons look so different from any of the previous iterations? Why are we seeing cybernetic or robotic characters on starship bridges, when the android character Data was such a big deal on Next Generation almost a century later? How come we never knew that Mr. Spock had an adopted sister, Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin)?
Burnham's famous sibling is not even the most interesting thing about her character. The first two episodes of Discovery exist primarily as her backstory, or perhaps origin, as her rash actions help catapult the Federation into war against the Klingons, and effectively ends her Starfleet career.
A seemingly chance encounter brings her under the dominion of the Discovery's captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs, best known as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films). Here is another crewmember haunted by their past, and although not quite as driven, Lorca shares more traits with Captain Ahab than most of his crew would probably be comfortable with.
Having effectively done away with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's oft-misunderstood admonition against interpersonal conflict has opened up a lot of fertile ground for storytelling, but also takes Discovery a step further away from what we have come to associate with Star Trek. As a result, a number of would-be fans are not watching the show, and some of them are even pointing their attentions to an unlikely competitor: quasi-spoof The Orville, starring and helmed by, of all people, the creator of Family Guy, Seth McFarlane.
The Orville is set in a carefully crafted analogue to the Star Trek universe, but instead of following the steadfast crew of a legendary ship, it centers around a significantly lower tier ship and the quirky misfits that keep her flying.
A lot of archetypes and stereotypes from previous incarnations of Trek are present, from the robotic crewman Isaac who hails from a synthetic society, to the alien Bortus, the stoic and taciturn second officer whose species have only a single gender. A waif-like but super-strong security chief, a couple of wise-cracking helmsmen and a captain and first officer who were once married to each other (Seth McFarlane and Adrienne Palicki) rounds things out.
The bridge layout, colour coded uniforms and presence of a Planetary Union instead of a Federation make the homage even more obvious, but the bickering, job dissatisfaction and knowing winks and nods thrown to long-established tropes put a fresh spin on things.
Although The Orville is funny in an earthy, prime-time Fox sort of fashion, I was astonished to see how much seriousness existed in the stories themselves. Like the original series, they make effective use of taking existing trends or problems and extrapolating them to the Nth degree, such as a planet where social media has replaced the justice system, and an undercover crewman risks reprogramming after being caught on video dancing inappropriately with a statue. Or the ethical debate that ensues when Bortus and his partner ask to have their child's sex reassigned after being born female, something considered a rare birth defect on their homeworld.
Given the maturing of our collective tastes in science fiction, it becomes difficult to take established Trek concepts like universal translators or such a casual approach to first contact scenarios seriously, but within the framework of a lightweight adventure/comedy they become a lot easier to swallow, as the whole affair is taken much less seriously. As Mystery Science Theatre 3000 used to remind us, "it's just a show, I really should relax."
Most surprising of all is how seriously Seth McFarlane takes his role as starship commander Ed Mercer, and how effective he is at it. Despite having limited his career by showing up to work hungover on many occasions after discovering his wife's infidelity, Mercer is not portrayed as a buffoon, but as a flawed officer who still cares about his crew and doing the right thing. That he does so in between dick jokes and offhand workplace humor is just incidental, and last night I watched him give a firm but supportive pep-talk worthy of Kirk or Picard to a troubled crew member with nary a chuckle or smirk in sight.
In the commentary on science-fiction sites like io9, many Star Trek fans have said that the dark tone and moral ambiguity of Discovery (and for some, what they feel is a lack of respect for prior canon) have driven them to the whimsical idealism and visual familiarity of The Orville, which I can completely understand.
On the other hand though. I have really enjoyed the first half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. The production values are amazing, even if so much of the technology transcends even what we saw on Next Gen and I too am curious how they intend to reconcile the historical inconsistencies. I appreciate how they have loosened the leash on opposing views between the crew but have maintained respect in their interactions (for the most part). As much as I would love to see a post-Deep Space 9 series taking the franchise into the future where it belongs, I am forced to admit that witnessing the earlier days of the Federation makes for compelling viewing.
And despite the overtures to a more mature audience (and perhaps more cynical as a result), the idealism at Trek's heart can still be found there; you just have to look a little harder in some instances.
So which one is truer to Trek, in spirit if nothing else? That is difficult to say, and in the end, perhaps completely unnecessary. There is no question that Star Trek: Discovery is a darker and more mature take on the franchise, with conspiracies, politics, hidden agendas, and all the less-than-ideal products of the human heart (and alien as well). Open defiance of orders? Vulcan terrorists? Roguish, hapless Harry Mudd capable of cold-blooded murder?
It's a lot to take in, and a considerable change-up from what me are used to. Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Discovery still feels more like the original series than anything that came afterwards, at least to me. The newness of everything, the uncertainty, stands in stark contrast to the safe familiarity of the Federation by Next Generation, where many of the Enterprise-D's missions consisted of hosting or conveying important characters or plot devices, like a combination space-going convention centre and taxi service.
In the meantime, The Orville cloaks a great heart built on an unmistakable love of Star Trek within a shell of quick gags and reference humor. I've loved sci-fi comedy since Red Dwarf, and while The Orville is neither as clever nor as subversive as it was, it is enjoyable and accessible. For a comedy, they do action pretty well, with fights featuring characters thrown every whichaway. They have only minimal amounts of continuity to speak of, making it far more accessible than Discovery as well.
I just figured out what it reminds me of: the classic Trek episode "The Enemy Within". You know this one: a transporter accident ends up splitting Kirk into two selves, one compassionate and selfless, the other more instinctive, impetuous, and violent. (You may remember it as the episode featuring the adorable unicorn space dogs that befall the same fate as Kirk.)
As a child, I remember wondering how Kirk was going to defeat his 'evil'self, until Spock explains that the captain needs that hardness, that edge, the ability to make tough calls and hard decisions; his noble and savage selves would need to be reintegrated. This was heady stuff for eight-year old me, and was my first introduction to the world as being a place of not just black and white, but also shades of grey.
Perhaps these two programs reflect two different aspects of the same beloved universe: one exploring the darkness, the other gravitating towards a lighter and more nostalgic tone?
There can't possibly be any intentionality or grand design between two wholly different networks developing two unrelated and competing shows at the same time. Still though, the simple fact that a darker, more 'adult' version of official Star Trek product was released at almost exactly the same time as a goofy, humor/adventure derivative of it is a pretty astonishing coincidence.
In the end, I don't think anyone can really tell you which show is 'better', and I'm certainly not going to try. I will tell you that, in their own ways, they are both brave television and reflect a dedication to the different ideals presented by Star Trek, and there is no reason a person cannot enjoy both of them, as I am. It's nice to be given a choice, don't you think?