Spoilers for all seasons of both The Orville and Star Trek: Discovery.
The Orville isn't bad, but it's not the worthy successor to pre-Abrams Star Trek that a lot of people on /r/startrek—and increasingly on /r/DaystromInstitute—make it out to be, and honestly I struggle to understand how people are even reaching that conclusion.
I should start, I suppose, with what I like about this show. First, I like the characters—with two exceptions, I'll get to that later. Dr. Finn, in particular, is a delight: Penny Johnson Jerald is a very talented actress and it's really great to see her in a role where the rest of the cast draws on her character's wisdom. She plays it well. The rest of the bridge crew is great, too: Gordon, LaMarr, and Bortas are all lots of fun, and Jessica Szohr is a great addition for season 2: Halston Sage didn't quite have the skill to pull her character off.
The show looks great. Union vessels are distinct from Federation vessels and they're not just ISO Human Standard Spaceships either, which is commendable. Kaylon spheres are neat play on Borg cubes, and my only real complaint in this regard is that Moclan and Krill vessels look oddly similar. The engine effects, the depiction of celestial objects, the overall Union aesthetic, it's all very pleasing to the eye.
The worldbuilding is great. This is the one place that I think I would even go as far to say The Orville has a clear edge over Star Trek. Trek has built up loads of cruft over the years and sometimes struggles to keep it all together. For example, The Orville has swept away the inconsistent depiction of enlisted personnel that Trek fouls up seemingly very chance it gets by just depicting officers, which makes sense for a highly automated vessel. I fundamentally "buy" the Planetary Union as a human-centric interstellar polity in the same way I buy the UFP. (My one complaint in this department is that there does not appear to be any bureaucratic distinction between the Union government and the Union fleet, i.e. it lacks the distinction between The Federation and Starfleet. That seems like an oddity I hope they correct in season 3.) McFarlane is a nerd, he's fastidious about detail, and you just know he's has to have pages upon pages of worldbuilding details which helps him keep it consistent. It shows.
But the show falls flat on its face in two key ways which, unfortunately, appear to be baked into the concept.
Shortfall one: I just can't seem to warm up to either Mercer or Grayson, which for obvious reasons is a huge problem, because the show is now on record as indicating that their romantic relationship is The Key To Saving The Galaxy™. The Orville is an episodic throwback, but if it has a "main arc," that main arc is Ed & Kelly's relationship, and it just feels awkward and out of place.
I don't really dislike Grayson, but I can't find anything to really like about her either. She's just kinda there, and her story never diverges from Mercer's. Which brings me to Mercer... which... just... ugh. Never in my life have I seen a more egregious case of a show creator playing out his fantasy on camera. I cannot tell you the number of times I've seen someone make a statement which boils down to "I don't like Discovery because Burnham is a Mary Sue, and that's why I prefer The Orville" as if Mercer is not the most blatant case of a Marty Stu to ever grace network television and get renewed for a second season. I mean, come on. He's the perfect captain, he always makes the right call, yet for some reason the show keeps trying to sell us on the notion that he's damaged goods and out-of-favor with the Admiralty. It's not believable, and it irks me endlessly that anyone would lob this criticism at Discovery when The Orville is an order of magnitude more guilty of this conceit.
And that brings me to the elephant in the room: the direct Star Trek comparison. I seem to recall Season 1 having a novel episode here and there, even if they were snoozefests. Season 1 also bothered to draw from other sources of inspiration, even if those sources were Trek-adjacent shows like Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. But on the other hand, some episodes from season 1 were straight rips from old Trek. "If the Stars Should Appear"? Straight remake of "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky." "Mad Idolatry"? Straight remake of "Blink of an Eye."
And Season 2? Season 2 doubled down on the Trek remake approach. No other sources, no novel concepts: almost every episode is a remake of a previous episode of Star Trek. Sometimes The Orville at least bothered to remix a pair of episodes, and sometimes a lot of the details got changed, but with one exception, every episode was a Trek episode remake.
|Orville Ep||Trek Ep(s)|
|"Ja'loja"||This is the only original one|
|"Primal Urges"||"Hollow Pursuits" and/or "Extreme Risk"|
|"Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes"||"The Wolf Inside" (Ash Tyler's arc in general)|
|"All the World Is Birthday Cake"||"Who Watches the Watchers" mixed with "First Contact"|
|"A Happy Refrain"||"In Theory"|
|"Deflectors"||"A Man Alone" and/or "Suspicions"|
|"Identity" (both parts)||"The Best of Both Worlds" mixed with "Prototype"|
|"Blood of Patriots"||"The Wounded"|
|"Lasting Impressions"||"Booby Trap" and/or "It's Only a Paper Moon"|
|"Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow"||"Second Chances"|
|"The Road Not Taken"||"Timeless"|
The degree to which a given The Orville episode is a remake of the Trek episode I've listed varies. "Home" is only similar if you look at the broad strokes: the officer on loan from the scientifically advanced Earth ally goes home where her family disparages her for spending all that time with humans. The home invasion plot from that episode was original, but it was also kinda weird and contrived. The flipside of this constant borrowing from Trek is that when The Orville does go off the beaten path, it's inevitably flat out boring. "Ja'loja" was an utterly forgettable episode because it largely focused on Ed & Kelly relationship drama.
And even if we look at "Ja'loja," there's a bit of "Amok Time" in there with the whole "returning to the desert homeworld" for the Moclan urination ceremony. Sometimes it's bits and pieces into a blender, but other times it's a basically a straight rip, like it is with "All the World Is Birthday Cake" and "Blood of Patriots." Perhaps the most blatant "homage" was introducing a surgically altered
Klingon Krill to infiltrate the hero ship, right down to the name and rank of the infiltrator!
I know, everything's a remix, and I know, it's a fine line between "ripoff" and "homage," but the problem with this level of "borrowing" is that when you've seen every episode of Star Trek as many times as I have, each episode of The Orville just becomes an exercise in "I wonder which Star Trek episode this will be," and once you figure it out, it just saps all the urgency and tension out of the viewing experience. It gets boring.
I didn't get bored with Discovery. I mean, sure, Discovery has its problems. In many ways its problems are the inverse of The Orville's strengths: I struggle to care all that much about any of the characters, the show is rife with dark sets and quick shots which just isn't that visually appealing, and the worldbuilding is at times really difficult to reconcile with established Trek lore. (The Spore drive is classified? That's why we never see it again? Ummm... OK, then.) And the story, while chaotic and poorly paced & planned due to constant showrunner turmoil, is at the very least interesting and novel.
The perfect Star Trek would be a synthesis of these two shows, but apart, each show pretty much breaks even when you take the strengths and weaknesses on the merits. Which brings me to my title: I cannot for the life of me get into the mindset of the fans who see this as the True Trek of our time. It's just remakes of old Trek, and while the visuals have been updated for 2019, the stories have not.
The bottom line is that while it's great that we have two Trek-style shows on the air at the same time for the first time since the 90's, neither show is great, or even good. They're both just OK, and the huge disparity between how they've been received doesn't make much sense to me.