Like any intelligent, cultured human being, I’m a huge fan of Star Trek. My early experiences watching Trek had a profound influence on my cultural and social ideas. It was Star Trek that introduced me to Shakespeare and to humanism. When I start looking for the seeds of the philosophies that have shaped my identity, I find them buried in some offhand remark by Picard in an old episode of The Next Generation.
For decades, there was one iteration of Star Trek or another consistently on TV or in movie theatres. Then, after the failure of the final TNG movie Nemesis, and the cancellation of the criminally underrated series Enterprise, we had a heartbreaking dearth of new Trek material. Then, in 2009, JJ Abrams helmed a respectable revival of the TOS era characters in a new movie set in an alternate timeline. It was more action that philosophy, but that’s par for the course with Trek films. And I, like a lot of folks, don’t love Abrams and was worried by his public comments about never particularly liking Trek. But I am no rabid fanboy purist, and the movie was fun. The cast was brilliant, especially Karl Urban and Zoe Saldana. I embraced it, along with the sequels. Into Darkness was not a strong film for a lot of reasons, but I’ll admit that on my first watch, I was thoroughly entertained. It was only on subsequent rewatches that I really felt the weakness in the writing and the direction. It wasn’t as bad as the The Final Frontier, but wasting a performance from Benedict Cumberbatch in a subpar movie is nearly unforgivable. Beyond, the third film in the alternate timeline was a solid return to what had made the first film so enjoyable.
For a long time, Trekkies thought that the “Kelvinverse” films — so called because the starship USS Kelvin was a focal point for the events that created the alternate timeline in which the films take place — were probably all that we could expect as far as new Star Trek was concerned. It wasn’t great, but it was good, and certainly better than no new Trek at all. I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of why Nemesis and Enterprise failed. Some of it is easy to point to and widely-known, the rest is conjecture and speculation and I’m not an expert on the media. How or why or when or how deeply a film or a television show resonates with an audience, those kinda data are beyond me.
But then, two announcements came in quick succession: CBS was beginning work on a new Star Trek television series called Discovery, and Seth MacFarlane was creating a new parody series called The Orville, not officially licensed or connected to Trek in any way but clearly designed to be a comedic homage to TNG. In theory, it should’ve been great news: an official continuation of the canon alongside a Galaxy Quest style comedy. But anyone following nerd culture over the last couple years knows that our fandoms are not immune to the toxic political climate either created by or simply capitalized upon by Donald Trump. There has always been an uncomfortable streak of misogyny in nerd culture, and it is that misogyny that in recent years has led a large portion of nerds to align themselves with the right. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, they say, and in spite of the GOP’s traditionally anti-nerd stances on things like video games, music, and technology, a lot of nerds have decided that their resentments toward women trump their other hobbies and have become mouthpieces for conservative politics. This odd social dynamic has played out recently in how fans responded to the newest Star Wars sequels, with fans angry at the diversity of the cast, the prominent position of women leaders, and the progressive political messages. Bitter internet nerds have continued their Gamergate tactics, swarming the social media accounts of women that drew their ire and bullying and threatening them until they delete their accounts. Two female actors associated with the new Star Wars films have deleted their social media accounts thanks to hordes of trolls harassing them.
Star Trek has always been a progressive franchise. One of the reasons that Trek was created was because Gene Roddenberry wanted to create an environment where he could address race and other social issues. No large franchise is without missteps, so of course the show has fucked up from time to time — Code of Honor, anyone? But in general, Trek has been anti-racist, pro-gay rights, anti-war, feminist, humanist, all around progressive. So it’s unsurprising that the alt-right, Gamergate-style misogynists on sites like Reddit are disgusted with Discovery’s black female lead and gay couple. Trolls have labeled the show “SJW Trek,” “White Genocide in Space,” and the infinitely creative “STD.”
The issue has been complicated by the existence of The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new space adventure comedy. Seth MacFarlane is a darling of the bitter white internet nerd community, as his entire comedy career has been based on racism and misogyny, the very kind of humor that insecure nerds thrive on. You could write a book on the racism and misogyny of Family Guy, MacFarlane’s best known project. A lot of laughs on the show come from one of the main characters regularly drugging and raping women. The protagonist once, without his daughter’s knowledge, offered her up to a stranger for sexual favors, and when the stranger asked if the daughter could “cry and beg him to stop,” the protagonist laughingly assured him that she would. I’m not even going to indulge the “it’s a joke, get a sense of humor” defense because it’s dishonest and lazy. Even if you are naive enough to believe that the kind of people who “joke” about rape are otherwise decent men who would never actually rape someone, you cannot be stupid enough to believe that it’s a coincidence that this kind of humor, this kind of mentality, is adored and regurgitated by the very community that gave us groups like Incels, the most toxic of toxic men, the “involuntarily celibate,” men who believe that the world owes them sex and that they are as morally entitled to rape women as a starving man is morally entitled to steal food to survive.
Without the existence of The Orville, those same toxic nerds would have still hated Discovery, but they would’ve been without a flag to rally around, which has made the problem that much worse. Every post about Discovery on social media is met with dozens of comments about how The Orville is the “real Trek,” and Discovery is “Libtard Propaganda.” It’s made me feel irrationally partisan about the two shows.
It’s not to say that Discovery is without flaw. I enjoy it, but it’s not my favorite Star Trek show by any means. I share some of the narrative concerns of some of the show’s more rational critics. But because the racist, homophobic contingent of the anti-DSC crowd is so much louder than all the rest, I find myself digging in my heels whenever the show is insulted, in much the same way that I found myself defending Barack Obama even when I disagreed with him, because so much of the criticism of him and his administration was rooted in racism. The Orville didn’t look terribly interesting to me to begin with, because MacFarlane’s humor isn’t my style, but I probably would have checked out an episode at some point. However, because of this open hostility between the two camps, I’ve found myself effectively boycotting the show out of spite.
There is an irony to the entire situation, which is that while Discovery has a black female lead and an openly gay couple on the ship, it is a dark show about war, the kind of narrative that usually appeals more to a more conservative audience, while The Orville seems to be aping the days of TNG, a brighter more optimistic future full of exploration and peaceful contact, an idea that would normally appeal more to a liberal audience. It’s ironic but it’s not unexpected. Bigotry is almost never a reasoned, thoughtful decision. We don’t choose to be racist or homophobic because we’ve considered the message and the philosophy and cast a calculated vote. Bigotry is a subconscious instinct. You see a black person, you see a woman, you see a gay man, and you feel revulsion. The fact that the person in question might be saying something beneficial to you or might be telling a story that resonates with you is irrelevant.
I don’t mean to imply that everyone who dislikes Discovery is a toxic, alt-right misogynist. And I don’t mean to imply that everyone who likes The Orville is, either. A lot of folks who hate Discovery think of themselves as progressive, and some of them actually are. Some of them think that social progress has some arbitrary stopping point that we’ve already reached, and so while they might have been considered progressive in the late ‘80s when TNG was on the air, progress has left them behind. I know awesome people who don’t even normally like Seth MacFarlane who love The Orville because of everyone involved except him. A lot of great Trek alums are involved in that show and by all accounts it seems like a decent show. But I’ve always been a side-taker. I was so partisan about rap beef in the ‘90s that I couldn’t listen to The Notorious BIG until 2007. So I don’t normally find myself wishing for centrism, for compromise, because in the issues that matter, compromising with the kind of people who support Donald Trump is impractical and lends legitimacy to their bigotry and corruption. But similar to how I felt the first time I listened to Biggie in my early 20s, I’m sure there will be a point in the future after both The Orville and Discovery have been canceled when I’ll probably wish I had been a little less rigid. But as long as the neo-Gamergate bigots are holding up The Orville as “their” show, I want nothing to do with it. Like that stupid cartoon frog that the alt-right has adopted, it’s a meaningless piece of media that has no real bearing on the political fight that has erupted around it, but attempting to reclaim it is a waste of time, at least for now.
Both shows have been renewed for second seasons, so the debate isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.