It’s an interesting time for Trekkies; after over a decade without a Star Trek TV show, we suddenly have two. The official series Star Trek: Discovery (which I’ll be writing about within the next month), and Seth MacFarlan’s unofficial and critically-panned series The Orville.
My guess is that MacFarlane spent years trying to convince Paramount to let him create an official Star Trek TV show, got tired of getting nowhere, and decided to just make his own version. He’s clearly a fan himself, as anyone can figure out after watching a few episodes of Family Guy. I suppose that would make The Orville Star Trek fan fiction, but there’s more to it than that.
The show is about the
Federation Planetary Union star ship Orville, commanded by Edward Mercer (MacFarlane) and his second-in-command…his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). The Orville travels to distant parts of space with its faster-than-light warp quantum drive to explore and defend the Union from the species known as the Klingons/Jem’Hadar Krill. The other main characters on the ship are Lt. Commander Worf Bortus (Peter Macon), Doctor Claire Finn (Deep Space Nine recurring actor Penny Johnson Jerald), robotic Science Officer Data Isaac (Mark Jackson), Security Officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), pilot Tom Paris Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), and Lt. Commander John LaMarr (J. Lee). I’m actually surprised by the quality of the acting, particularly from Jerald who has significantly improved since her days on Deep Space Nine.
I expected this show to be a terrible, cheap Star Trek knockoff that was just there to make a quick buck, but I was completely taken aback. Despite all the strikethroughs above, each of these characters is different enough from their obvious inspirations to have their own identity. For example, Isaac could easily be called “a Data ripoff”, but as Data aspired to become more human, Isaac humorously looks down on less intelligent organic life and treats people more like pets (even petting a crew member on the bridge at one point). Bortus, though clearly based on Worf in design and character, is the funniest member of the crew with his overly serious demeanor and hyper-masculine species’ ideals (and I’m not exaggerating about the masculinity, his entire species is male). in fact, all of the characters are developed enough so that I could remember each of their names relatively early on.
A lot of times I find MacFarlane’s humor obnoxious and expected this show’s jokes to make me think of Family Guy in space, but it’s surprisingly more restrained and a lot of the jokes really work. There’s an episode where Isaac is trying to figure out how to do pranks and (painlessly) amputates another character’s leg while he’s sleeping, leading to him hilariously shouting at Isaac (who had hidden the leg) in public before going to have his leg regrown. The humor adds a level of accessibility to this show that isn’t present in Star Trek, giving it a wider appeal. To be honest though I found myself chuckling or smiling more often than laughing out loud, which did help me take the dramatic moments more seriously.
This series starts off really slow, but picks up as it goes along. It wasn’t until episode 3, “About a Girl” that I was actually hooked. The plot centers around Bortus giving birth to a daughter, and Captain Mercer refusing to allow a sex change on a baby to make it male. Though there are a lot of EXCELLENT jokes in this episode (including one about Rudolph the Reindeer and eugenics), I was genuinely surprised at how seriously the writers and cast took the debate of conformity to gender norms and examination of Bortus’ all-male species. It reminded me a lot of the trial episodes from The Next Generation which would tackle similar issues.
There are a lot of homages to all Star Trek TV shows here, though The Next Generation is the most heavily referenced. The full orchestra that provides the music for the series (like in the official Star Trek series) makes for a much more pleasant listening situation than I expected. There’s an Environmental Simulator taking the place of the holodeck (especially well utilized in one of the later episodes), naming schemes used for a lot of the places they visit, techno-babble, uniform design, the seemingly endless parade of actors who appeared in Star Trek, and the time-honored tradition of blowing us the eponymous ship. It even looks like a Star Trek show. MacFarlane has really pulled out all the stops to get some of the best effects, sets, and designs currently on live action TV.
As far as my problems with this series go, they’re more annoyances than anything else when looking at the show in the context of it being a scifi comedy series. A lot of the characters have moments of immature incompetence which makes me question how they’ve been tolerated long enough to get where they are, for example COMMANDER Grayson trying to get high while on a mission. While the alien designs are actually pretty good, most of the time the actors sound like they’re just doing their own voices instead of playing a character. There are too many references to the 20th/21st centuries pop culture, such as Mercer having a stuffed Kermit the Frog on his desk, though in all fairness that’s something that always bothered me about the official Star Trek series as well. And finally, my biggest complaint is that this is airing now and likely taking viewers away from the actual Star Trek series, Discovery, which is made more complicated by Discovery being incredibly different from previous series while Orville will feel more familiar to those who grew up with the franchise.
The Orville is worth your time even if you’re not a Star Trek fan and definitely worth your time if you are. I think a lot of the negative reviews are due to either a bad impression from the series premiere (which is the weakest episode to date) or critics being tired of Seth MacFarlane. Watch at least through episode 3 before making up your mind, it airs on Fox and you can binge it on Hulu.
Rating: 4/5 ★★★★
Do you think this series is a shameless Star Trek ripoff or a well done homage? Comment below and let me know what you think!