Seth Macfarlane’s humor is a turn off to many but the show is legitimately, surprisingly good.
Rumor has it that Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane went to Paramount Studios, the owners of the rights to Star Trek and pitched them on him writing, directing, and starring in a new Star Trek series. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his previous creative efforts and how little they had to do with the iconic franchise, they told him no.
So, Seth MacFarlane being Seth MacFarlane, he went and did it anyway on a rival network.
MacFarlane actually has a fairly extensive history with Star Trek to the point that he has an entire entry on the Memory Alpha Wiki. The Orville started advertising roughly the same time as Star Trek: Discovery began putting out trailers but it was advertised as more of a Star Trek spoof or parody than anything else. It was hard to see how it would be particularly good. This was especially true considering it was a science fiction show on Fox and given that it would be competing with a REAL Star Trek, even if that one could only be found on CBS’ streaming service.
But when the show first aired I decided to give it a go, based on the advice of TV and video game writer Erik Kain. The show, as it turned out, was not a parody or spoof. It was a dramedy that very much remembered what Star Trek used to be like in the 60’s and 80’s, in particular. Everything from the musical cues to the color scheme of the ship’s interior and exterior to the lighting used throughout the show is extremely reminiscent of particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show features a lot of the representation and tackles the social issues I mentioned ast week that have always been keys to Star Trek. The primary difference between this show and what has come before is that it does feature some of MacFarlane’s trademark humor.
I know a rather large number of people who have completely refused to watch the show because they don’t like MacFarlane’s humor, and I have to admit I’m not his biggest fan, either. But the show so lovingly represents what Star Trek: The Next Generation would look like if it were created today that I have no problem looking past the moments where the “humor” shows up – and it isn’t as often as you might imagine.
The crew features a near direct rip-off of TNG‘s Data in the form of Isaac, a humanoid android who wishes to learn more about humanity. MacFarlane twists the character a bit by making it clear that Isaac does not want to be human; he’s far superior to them and is simply studying them. He reminds them on a regular basis just how superior he is. Captain Ed Mercer has a unique relationship with his first officer, Commander Kelly Grayson. They were once married but got divorced when she cheated on him. This relationship could easily have become grating, but it’s actually strangely charming and sweet, most of the time. The two characters obviously care about each other and share a history but it doesn’t delve into cheap romance ploys though they butt heads, frequently, as people with long histories are wont to do.
Perhaps the most interesting characters are the Female Selay Security Chief, Lieutenant Alara Kitan, and the ship’s massive, Moclan second officer, Lieutenant Command Bortus. Kitan’s species is native to a planet with a very strong gravity well and so she is incredibly strong. Despite having such masculine trait she can be very stereotypically feminine at times without worrying about hiding it and represents an excellent example, along with Grayson, of positive femininity that doesn’t require women to give up their sexuality or act like men in order to be strong. Bortus, meanwhile, has the build of a Klingon but the reserved personality of a Vulcan. Neither of these traits prevent him from being in a homosexual relationship – shattering stereotypes of gay men who must be flighty or flashy.
The episode that absolutely convinced me that MacFarlane was serious about doing this Star Trek thing right was the third episode of the season and series, “About a Girl”. This episode explored the gender spectrum in a thoughtful way that was reminiscent of the way Star Trek: Next Generation explored sexuality and gender in its fifth season episode, “The Outcast”. There were no childish jokes made at the expense of women or transgender people, but questions were asked and considered in a way that should cause anyone watching it to evaluate or perhaps re-evaluate their positions.
MacFarlane has also used his pull with Star Trek alums to include their talents in the show. Longtime Trek producer Brannon Braga has a similar role in The Orville, former Star Trek stars and directors Robert Duncan McNeill and Jonathan Frakes have directed. Voyager star Robert Picardo had a guest role which could easily appear again while Deep Space Nine supporting cast member Penny Johnson Jerald has a starring role as the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr. Claire Finn.
As previously mentioned the show isn’t perfect, MacFarlane’s humor does creep in from time to time; this primarily comes in the form of the ship’s helmsman and navigator frequently availing themselves of childish hijinks but the rest of the crew actually avoids it for the most part. Which isn’t to say the rest of the crew isn’t funny, they’re just…well, actually funny when the occasion calls for it. In “About a Girl” Bortus becomes depressed over the future of his child and despite being a large, reserved male he finds himself sitting on a couch eating ice cream and watching sappy movies. The best joke might have been from the series pilot, however. As Mercer is introducing himself to the senior staff upon taking command of the USS Orville and comes to Dr. Finn:
Ed Mercer: Dr. Claire Finn. You’re my chief medical officer, yes?
Dr. Claire Finn: Yes, sir, I am. Welcome aboard.
Ed Mercer: Your credentials are exceptional. Molecular surgery, DNA engineering, psychiatry. You could be posted on a heavy cruiser. What are you doing on the Orville?
Dr. Claire Finn: I always request my transfers based on where I think I’m needed. I feel more stimulated that way.
Ed Mercer: So what made your request this ship?
Dr. Claire Finn: Well, this is your first command, and I think you could use my help.
Ed Mercer: So you think I might screw up.
Dr. Claire Finn: No, sir, I didn’t say that, sir.
Of course, MacFarlane attempts to ruin this great back-and-forth – which I read as a reference to her resume as an actor from the REAL Star Trek compared to his fake show – with a childish reference to male genitalia:
Ed Mercer: Well, no, but you implied that you don’t think I have the balls to do this job.
Dr. Claire Finn: Well, I am your doctor, sir, and if your balls are under par, I’ll know.
But the good doctor delivers this line so well that is somehow ends up working.
For those who wonder how this show and Star Trek: Discovery can coexist I offer you the following images:
Notice how, despite the lens flare in the image from Star Trek: Discovery, the one from The Orville is much brighter? This holds true of pretty much everything. Good TV Shows and movies tend to use lighting to accent the mood and and tone of the show, Discovery has grown into an excellent Star Trek show but it continues to be dark and to focus on some depressing – though very important! – topics. The Orville, on the other hand, has a lighter touch – even when it isn’t being funny. These shows couldn’t work together better if it had been planned; they offer up Star Trek experiences with different themes and stories in ways that complement each other rather than competing. They even have different story-telling structures; Discovery has a serialized structure where each episode contains a chapter of the story while Orville features an episodic style.
The first season of The Orville was truncated to twelve episodes and has already been completed. However, a second season has been ordered. Any fan of science fiction shows on Fox can attest that this is already a massive victory for this show. Here’s hoping that it can continue to grow and mature into something more and more fans of Star Trek and optimistic science fiction can enjoy.