This week brought the debut of “The Orville,” the new sci-fi television series from Seth MacFarlane. Better known as the creator of “Family Guy”, MacFarlane might seem an unlikely suspect for a quality sci-fi series, but he also served as executive producer on the (rather well-done) reboot of “Cosmos”. He is also well-known to be a Star Trek fan, having guest starred in “Star Trek: Enterprise” and hinted at bringing Star Trek back to the small screen.
The first episode, “Old Wounds”, is currently viewable on Fox’s website. Web discussion of the episode frequently seems to hit on three points:
- It’s not quite Galaxy Quest, and more like Star Trek as a comedy.
- It’s a little more restrained than Family Guy.
- It’s kind of bland.
I’ll talk about each of these things.
(Possible spoilers throughout.)
What it Isn’t
A lot of initial comparisons are to Galaxy Quest, but although there is humor, and plenty of nods to Star Trek, “The Orville” is not simply an affectionate parody. The show is played straight, in a Star Trek universe with the serial numbers filed off.
Thankfully, “The Orville” also is not “Star Trek: Family Guy”. Though it does include adult situations and juvenile sight gags, any crude humor is more restrained than in MacFarlane’s cartoon works. It rarely even attempts to be funny at all, allowing its humor to grow out of the situation, rather than constantly cutting away to a gag, Family Guy style.
The show does open to reveal a character cheating on her husband with an alien, but that’s as blue (pun intended) as the show gets. A later background gag involving a dog licking himself is called out by two other characters. Other than these two incidents, the humor is largely based on subtle callbacks and snarky banter.
It also isn’t bad, per se, but bland does come to mind. Watching the first episode was like drinking off-brand cola: it’s cold, and it comes in a can, and it makes that satisfying pssshhh sound when you pop the top, but it tastes just a little… wrong.
Part of the show wants to be a live action Family Guy in space: a half-hour of wisecracks and sight gags involving dogs’ balls. Part of the show wants to be Star Trek in everything but name: heroes from a utopian future Earth, bravely venturing out into the final frontier.
For “The Orville” to succeed, it will need to establish its own identity.
What it Could Be
It could be good.
TV pilots are hard. The actors don’t know their characters. The fictional universe hasn’t been established. The writers have to juggle the difficult tasks of introducing the characters, establishing the universe, and still telling an entertaining story.
Look no further than the infamously bad first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But ST:TNG went on to revive the Star Trek franchise, spawning three more TV shows, four theatrical movies, and countless facepalm memes.
A year after catching his wife cheating with a blue guy, the now-divorced Captain Ed Mercer’s formerly promising career in Suspiciously Similar to Starfleet has entered a downward spiral. But all that may turn around when he is given an opportunity to command his own ship: The Orville.
(As a native of North Carolina — the “First in Flight” state, I’m pleased to see that the Orville is apparently named after Orville Wright, who first took to the air on our sandy beaches.)
He taps his close friend Gordon, a washed-up pilot, to be helmsman, and eagerly introduces himself to his new crew. His senior staff includes:
- Lamarr, the navigator whose primary concern is whether the new captain will still allow soda on the bridge.
- Dr. Finn, the chief medical officer whose bedside manner is a little more biting than Bones McCoy.
- Alara, the young security officer from a high-gravity world, eager to prove herself.
- Bortus, the stoic alien along the lines of Spock from TOS, Worf from TNG, or Teal’c from SG1.
- Isaac, the alien robot whose entire society is (according to Mercer) “notoriously racist”.
But his first mission as captain of The Orville takes a sudden wrong turn when Capt. Mercer receives word that his first officer has been assigned. It’s his ex-wife. Wah-wah-wah
To me, watching the first episode felt like watching a half-hour Star Trek fan film. A little bland, not much there, but there are possibilities. There’s plenty of room for character growth and conflict. There’s an opportunity to balance serious sci-fi drama with lighter comedy, as Stargate SG-1 often did.
And perhaps most of all, in contrast to modern dark sci-fi television and in the spirit of the original Star Trek, “The Orville” has the opportunity to present us with a hopeful future that is bright and beautiful — albeit not yet very detailed or distinctive.