What Is The Orville Trying to Be?

Published on September 23, 2017

The Orville (2017, FOX)

So far I’ve seen the first three episodes of Seth MacFarlane’s sci-fi comedy series on FOX, The Orville. And while I’m enjoying what I’ve seen so far, I’m stuck trying to figure out what it’s trying to be. I was braced for a dick-jokey, Spaceballsy, irreverent sort of eye-rolling parody show, but instead I got sideswiped by a well-produced, thoughtful, homage to the Trek universe which is sprinkled with hit-or-miss jokes and direct nods to 21st century pop culture.

Firstly, I can’t believe how much The Orville feels like Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). So many of the character types, situations, equipment, sets, etc. are so familiar it’s almost like watching TNG as produced in a parallel universe. For example, in the character department the list includes a petite young-yet-competent security chief (Tasha Yar), the aloof alien bridge officer (Worf), and the robot learning about humanity (Data). I can’t help but wonder if any of this actionable by Paramount; they’ve aggressively pursued much smaller productions which were even non-profits!

Captain Mercer receiving his new assignment

So if it looks like a Trek, walks like a Trek, and quacks like a Trek, then it must be a Trek, right? Well, you’d think so, but it also snarks unlike a Trek, and I’m not yet sure if that helps or hurts its case. It seems to me that The Orville keeps forgetting it’s a comedy. It so regularly and effortlessly slips into genuine Trek-ish character development and morality play that when a joke pops up it’s actually a bit jarring. Not that the jokes are unwelcome it’s just that they come so infrequently, and when they do come, it’s a quality crap-shoot. You might get a clever, insightful gag about Kermit the Frog being a great leader, or the use of Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph as an allegory for celebrating our differences — or you might get an obscene phallus-esque protrusion jutting out of Norm MacDonald’s unnecessary blob-character in a boorish attempt to court the chief medical officer. The former feels like a warm, welcome addition to the Trek story structure, while the latter makes me embarrassed for having been invested in the characters just moments before.

It’s also worth mentioning there’s more to the formula deviation than just jokes; there’s a thin layer of “how real people talk” spread across the entire production which would have felt out of place in TNG, but makes all of Orville’s characters more believable. Case in point is the first interaction between the new navigator & helmsman. The discussion begins with a cordial sort of, “I wanted to introduce myself since we’ll be working together,” and the helmsman replies with, “Oh, you wanted to find out if I’m a jerk!” Those sorts of interactions (coupled with the captain’s constant needling of his ex-wife/XO) which resonate for me. It strips away the prim & proper Victorian behavior model of TNG and replaces it with more human (and thus “realer”) interactions & dialog.

The cast of The Orville

So that being said, just what is The Orville? Does it even know? I’m starting to get the feeling that MacFarlane, the show’s creator and well-credentialed Trekkie, ultimately wants it to be more Trek, but due to his Family Guy sensibilities he’s unable to not lace it with smart-assery. For my part I think he’d be well-advised to dial back a bit on the snark throttle but stay the course established in these first few episodes.
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Give me more Kermit & Rudolph and less blob-dick, and we just may end up with more than a successful comedy series, but a new pillar in the pantheon of quality sci-fi programming.
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Jon

Jon, the founder of GenXGrownUp, is a Generation X'er who spends his free time exploring games, tv, movies, tech & toys from his youth and today.
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