Black Mirror kicked off last month with an episode that appeared to be all about Star Trek, which seemed like a dated reference for a show that is all about the horrors of modern technology. But in terms of the zeitgeist, it makes sense. After all, Quentin Tarantino is planning on making the first R-rated Star Trek movie sometime in the near future. Star Trek: Bridge Crew is one of the most entertaining games in virtual reality. Where we really see the rise of Trek, however, is on TV. Two shows this year have premiered that both take very different approaches to Trek. Star Trek Discovery is very new and novel and pushes back against the traditional Trek tropes. The Orville, on the other hand, is as devoted to the earlier series (particularly Next Generation) as any superfan and honors that series without any hint of irony. Between the two shows, we are clearly at Peak Trek.
Star Trek Discovery looks nothing like any of the original shows. The style, sets, and camera-work are all distinctly modern. Discovery also seems intent on breaking classic Trek conventions: the crew here do not trust each other, characters die fairly frequently, the central character is not the captain, and the captain seems a little unhinged. On the other hand, the show has returned to a lot of traditional Star Trek lore, bring back Klingons, Harry Mudd, and the Mirror Universe. Discovery’s strength is in its protagonist: Michael Burnham, a human raised by Vulcans who is now a convicted criminal after starting a war with the Klingons. Sonequa Martin-Green makes Burnham feel smart but never too smart (she makes some big mistakes), confident but vulnerable, and strong but imperfect. I’d watch her on any show, and I’ll watch her Michael Burnham in any situation. She’s perfect for this role, and this role is probably my favorite protagonist on any show right now (sorry Tyrion!).
The Orville, on the other hand, feels like a show from the 90’s that you discovered one long weekend on Netflix. While Star Trek Discovery seems to be embracing a new aesthetic, The Orville dives back into the classic Star Trek feel. Whereas Discover keeps mystery and mistrust at the center of the show, the Federation here is bureaucratic but benevolent and the crewmates are friendly if a little sarcastic. The Orville (like Trek) is religiously episodic while Discovery is telling one continuing story. Though he created and writes the show, Seth MacFarlane wisely keeps his captain character in the background while his cast takes center stage, particularly his captain’s first mate and ex-wife played by Adrianne Palicki. For my money, however, Penny Johnson Jerald is the show’s secret weapon; she’s handles both the serious drama (check out Into the Fold) and comedy with equal deft. The Orville may not be as funny as MacFarlane’s Ted might lead you to hope it could be, but it’s way more earnest, heartfelt, and genuine than his shows like Family Guy or American Dad let you think it could be.
But the great thing is that you don’t have to choose. The two shows compliment each other really well. The Orville is a nostalgic reminder of the classic shows while Discovery revisits characters and locales from the original series but with a more modern look and feel. It’s funny, The Orville seems to love everything about Star Trek that Discovery is trying to distance itself from. But both shows work! Watch them both and enjoy the contrast between them in tone and style and enjoy how good both shows are. Trek fans have rarely had one good Trek on TV at a time, and now we have two. Between that and a Tartantino-Trek on the way and Bridge Crew available to play, Trek fans have a lot to be excited about. We are at Peak Trek, and who knows what we get to look forward to next.