The Discovery vs The Orville

Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access US/Netflix UK)
The Orville (Fox US/coming soon to Fox UK)

I had long loved Star Trek in all its forms. As I was growing up, the original series was playing on BBC-1 in prime time (7.20pm on Mondays) and we watched it as a family. In my teens, I paid a friend with Sky to tape episodes of The Next Generation for me. Then I bought Deep Space Nine on sell-through VHS. I got Sky myself partially in order to watch Voyager.


By the time Enterprise launched, however, I had fallen a bit out of love with the series. I’d managed to miss a few episodes of Deep Space Nine and found catching up on the complicated arc to be difficult. Voyager slowly descended into a soap opera IN SPACE.

The later TNG movies left me cold. Enterprise did nothing for me. That was that, I thought, end of the love affair. We had drifted apart.

When Enterprise finished leaving no Star Trek for the first time since the late 1980s, I shrugged. Then came the reboot movies. I didn’t watch them.

Still, that’s not to say the love had turned to hate. I found myself looking forward to the new series Discovery… and then waiting as it became trapped in development hell.

But here it is. Three episodes in and… it’s okay. I’m not in love, but I’m not shouting hate at the creators on Twitter. It’s okay.

The series started badly. The first 20 minutes of the first episode were very badly written and the cast had no chemistry, which didn’t help them to read out the atrocious lines. But that’s the nature of pilots: the exposition required for the new audience almost always fights with the characterisation of the new crew. For the first 20 minutes, the exposition won.

Things then bucked up, with some great special effects and some amazing action scenes. There were still flashbacks, trying to explain how the lead character was a human Vulcan, and they dragged a bit. But the rest was more than just watchable.

There were niggles. Of course there were. Why is this series set between Enterprise and the original series yet showing technology, attitudes and uniforms that clearly place it after Voyager? Why not set it in, say 2470, a hundred years after the most recent televisual events? Why change Klingon appearances and back story so radically if you want to fit it in that tight and much fan-speculated slot between the prequel and the original?

But maybe that’s just me wanting things to be a bit tidier. The two-parter opening establishes some good characters that I can imagine will become firm favourites… oh. Then it kills most of them and takes the lead character away from the ship, accused of mutiny (which is correct) and of causing a war with the Klingons (which is most certainly wrong).

Episode 3 thus becomes a second pilot, introducing a whole new crew and a whole new ship and, thanks to a flash-forward, a whole new Federation now deeply ensconced in the war the lead character apparently caused. She also now caused the massacre in the second episode, the one she mutinied in order to stop that happened while she was in the brig.

A second pilot and a retcon, all in the third episode? It works, but only just. Which, so far, means that it scores “okay” again.

What Discovery is sorely lacking is humour. All series of Star Trek, and the movies, have had elements of sitcom to them. Some episodes were purely sitcom, and this sits well within the genre. It’s what makes Star Trek different. Discovery lacks laughs. It is all Very Serious Business.

Also lacking laughs, and this is far worse, is The Orville, the multi-talented Seth MacFarlane’s latest venture for Fox. Promoted as being a comedy about Star Trek, it turns out to be Star Trek with comedy. But Star Trek has always had comedy, so this is just Star Trek with fart gags.


That said, if this was Star Trek, it would be an excellent Star Trek. The characters are broadly drawn, which was always true of the ‘real’ series. The first four episodes deal with social issues – and some really, really hard social issues – that Star Trek should have dealt with but shied away from to its shame.

The budget is clearly smaller than that for Discovery – the CGI backgrounds don’t bear too much scrutiny – but this has forced the producers to be more clever with what they have. Discovery‘s special effects are gorgeous, but that has led to the director spending a bit too long showing us how wonderful they are at the expense of the story.

But The Orville‘s main flaw is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it Star Trek with comedy or a comedy about Star Trek? Either would work, but the latter would be funnier. After four episodes, it is still drifting between the two, often settling for the Star Trek with comedy, which is just Star Trek, albeit a more crude version.

This is probably intentional – MacFarlane would clearly like The Orville to be a long-runner, and a simple parody of Star Trek would soon run out of steam. Therefore the series has to stand on its own merits as a science fiction show in order to survive.

All of this means that, again, it rates as “okay”. Both series are… okay. Of course, I’d want more than that: either or both series being brilliant would be great as a viewer; either or both series being unalloyed rubbish would be great as a reviewer. But neither are. They’re just… okay.

I’ll stick with them. There’s enough there to make me happy to wait a week to see the next episodes of both. They’re not appointment television, but the non-linear nature of Discovery‘s distribution means that’s not a problem for them. It might be a harder ask for viewers of The Orville when it reaches the linear Fox UK, but we’ll see.

Until then, I’d recommend you try both series out. They’re okay.

Three things to remember

  1. It was “Emergency – Ward 10”, not “Emergency Ward – 10”
  2. Janice “Oi’ll give it foive” Nicholls was on ABC’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, not the BBC’s Jukebox Jury.
  3. Episodes of The Benny Hill Show ended with enraged women chasing him, not him chasing buxom women.

If you can remember those three points, you can bluff your way through most conversations in future.

Lightning tree and other symbols

Follyfoot is too early for me to have seen it, although it was repeated several times. I still didn't see it because drama series about horses have never appealed to me (they're for girls). For that matter, much of the made-on-film children's drama of my childhood didn't appeal to me. It was usually stultifyingly dull, worthy and often ended with a message, sometimes quite divorced from the plot, a message that we should be nice to each other or look both ways before crossing the road or obey our teachers or not leave your grandfather's house to go live with Fr??ulein Rottenmeier or the like. Fuck that: I wanted adult drama, where the message, if there was one, was a bit more subtle. Often.

But I may have missed out. The theme tune, by The Settlers, is a jaunty, folky number that I really like, albeit sadly not anything whatsoever to do with the plot of the show as far as I can see (the show was about horses, not exciting fires in fields). Also, Steve Hodson, the male romantic lead, is very cute by 1970s standards. Probably less so now. Also also, it had Desmond Llewelyn in it! Q! I now think I'd quite liked to have seen him read out words in Follyfoot, having seen him read out words in a number of other things.

Best of all: the above video has the YTV frontcap left on. I loved frontcaps — you always knew what you were getting next. Silver man-horse-flag combo: something shot on cheap video. Big white star/cross thing: something shot on film in the countryside/near the sea/both.??Ilk lee-moor bah-taaaat!: something more worthy than it should be by rights. Big gold ship (amazingly rare): programme on film involving Plymouth in some way. Silent pointy G: something even more worthy than Yorkshire was putting out.

Them were the days.

BBC trust


Previously on 'Another Damn Blog': I wrote to the BBC to complain about a minor matter??of them getting telephone numbers deliberately wrong on-screen.

I know this is a petty point, but it's one that annoys me. And, as I said at the time, "[i]f the BBC can get its own telephone number wrong, can they be trusted to make a documentary without cutting such basic corners?"

The reply came from BBC Complaints and seemed to be deliberately trying to prove my point. It said that they put numbers up on screen incorrectly because they were easier to remember that way. Bollocks. What a load of cobblers. I wrote back, saying that I didn't mind the brush-off, but did mind them actually lying to me. If they weren't lying, then they would produce the research that the BBC had done that showed people could remember telephone numbers more easily when they were wrong than when they were right. After all, they must've have done that??research??to come up with that answer.

But, I warned darkly, if they'd done no??research??and this reply was just a lie, it was time for them to 'fess up or I would prove the lie by requesting a copy of the research myself. BBC Complaints never replied. So I had to carry through with my threat and I made a formal Freedom of Information Act request to see the research — warning the FoI department that they wouldn't find any but that two could play at the timewasting game.

BBC FoI came back to me: they could find no evidence whatsoever that the BBC had commissioned or received any research on the formatting of telephone numbers on screen or elsewhere. In other words, the guy at BBC Complaints had lied his little socks off to make me go away. As I say, I wouldn't mind a brush-off, but this default that now exists in the UK of telling a lie, no matter how implausible, rather than just telling the truth has to stop.

I first had an organisation tell me an obvious and implausible lie a few years ago. After being very ill and having the NHS strangely reluctant to treat me (indeed, receiving open hostility from some staff) I sought a copy of my hospital notes. Lovely: as correspondance was passed between departments, I was referred to on multiple occasions as "this homosexual". As in "this homosexual first presented to me on…" and "I would like to refer this homosexual to you for further tests" and the like. This, clearly, would not do. So I complained to the chief executive of the hospital. Here comes the whopping great porker: he wrote back and said this was normal practice for all patients and they were all referred to that way in notes. Yeah, right. Do you even believe for a moment that your notes, assuming you're straight, say anywhere, anywhere at all, "this heterosexual presented to me on…"? Uh huh.

I went to the then-Healthcare Commission about this and they gave the hospital a mighty slapping down because of it. The chief executive had to write to apologise to me personally, the writers of "this homosexual" had to attend special courses in not writing "this homosexual" in notes, and the Trust had to employ a 'Diversity Officer' (no, me neither) to make sure this never happened again. But nobody had to apologise for the great fat lie the chief exec told me in his first reply. It was seen as entirely acceptable to try to make me go away by lying to me. It isn't.

A similar, if less outrageous in its detail, thing happened last month when a WHSmith employee told me a barefaced lie to my face rather than admit a mistake had been made. As I say, it seems to have become the default in British society, at least in larger organisations, to tell lies rather than deal with consequences.

For the BBC, this initial lie isn't going to go away. Today I've written to the BBC Trust, what was the governors, to ask them if they agree with me that trust in the BBC is important and lying to stakeholders undermines that trust. I'm expecting the BBC Trust to give me the brush-off and I won't mind that. I just hope they don't take the opportunity to lie to me at the same time.

The yearbook mystery

Here’s a little thing I put together for Transdiffusion’s MediaBlog.

Doctor Two

I’m not a fan of most (any?) YouTube “mash-ups”, where people assume that taking the pictures from one thing and the sound from another and putting the two together equals some sort of art. It doesn’t, it equals mindless crap and shows how mindblowingly unoriginal many YouTubers can be.

I make the exception for this video. How could I not: a great piece of title music (from a truly execrable programme) added to an unfairly treated Doctor Who – the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. It was under Troughton’s reign that most of what we think of when we think of the character of the Doctor was properly established: from regeneration to the mad-man-with-a-box persona. The series wouldn’t’ve worked without William Hartnell’s superbly strange performance to start it off, but Pat Troughton ensure that the character, and thus the series, had longevity built right into it. The thing that makes the current series, supposed production problems aside, so enjoyable is Matt Smith’s actorly choice to bring some of Pat’s mannerisms back to the show, despite Pat having left well before Matt was born and the BBC doing their level best to erase much of the second Doctor from the archives in their 1970s bonfire-out-of-vanity.

That was the news that was

A nice little find on YouTube – some of the BBC Nine o’Clock News from 1978 and Jim Callaghan announcing that he has a better chance of winning an election if he goes to the country next year.

Ah, if only. What Jim didn’t know was that Labour had peaked in the polls. He was hoping that the rise in support would continue, but Labour, Old Labour, was about to be brought down by the unions over the winter of 78/79 – with help from the rabidly Tory press. Prime Ministers are usually good about knowing when to go to the country. This is what makes Callaghan’s decision to stay on in 1978 stand out. Gordon Brown did the same when he became PM in 2007: Labour had got a boost in the polls from Blair’s resignation and the party wanted to use this to call a snap election and get a new mandate. Brown eventually decided against it, fearing that being re-elected with a reduced majority would hole his premiership under the water. We now know it was already taking on water and the ‘credit crunch’ we were starting to hear about collapsed into a financial meltdown and spelt the end of Labour’s hard-fought reputation for economic competence.

This clip from 1978 shows how much television has changed too. When did you last see a clock on TV? Clocks on TV were once vital, if nothing else because many people didn’t have clocks – reliable clocks were historically expensive items. TV news now, Sky’s thundering presentation aside, doesn’t go for that urgent-clattering-typewriters-HERE-IS-THE-NEWS type of music any more. Our newsreaders are now journalists, rather than the actors we employed back then. Whether this is helpful or not for a straight reading-out-the-news role isn’t clear, but then TV news doesn’t go for that style any more either. TV news prefers to show us journalists talking to other journalists about what a third group of journalists are thinking. Radio news still employs the actors to read the stories in a clear voice at least, albeit not Kenneth Kendall and Angela Rippon any more.

The cold open on the PM’s statement is also something you wouldn’t see now – a shame because it’s very effective – but you often still get the instant rebuttal from the Leader of the Opposition, more so when it was Brown/Cameron than we’re currently getting under Cameron/Milliband (not sure why that should be – media bias or Labour still in disarray? Probably a bit of both).

For the sake of balance, here’s some of ITN’s News at Ten from the same year (different day, duller stories), plus some ads (including Vila from Blake’s 7 eating Stork!) and some Thames continuity (but no clock).

Look, it’s Denis Howells! Best. Minister. Ever. Made Minister for Drought and two days later: flooding! We don’t see action like that any more.

I miss many elements of the BBC presentation of news, which works very well even now – on a busy news day. However, the ITN clip proves that this type of presentation on a slack news day is so very very dull. Or at least very very dry. Mind you, current news presentation on a slack news day doesn’t work either: journalists demanding that Something Must Be Done about very little is just as nerve-shearing as journalists reading out facts to fill space was back then.