I’ve written at length over the last year about the current contradiction present in the ongoing Star Trek universe. To wit, the recent movies (going back at least to Star Trek: Nemesis and obviously the rebooted continuity) have had to juggle the needs of the many (audiences who crave big-scale blockbuster action) with the needs of the few (hardcore Star Trek fans who prefer more philosophy and less slam-bang spectacle). And Paramount’s hopes of turning big-budget sci-fi action into MCU-level overseas grosses have caused the budgets of the most recent Star Trek movies to spin out of control.
Star Trek Beyond cost $185 million and earned just $340m worldwide, temporarily grounding the new variation on Paramount’s flagship property. The irony is that the movies cost way too much compared to the actual overseas appeal of the Star Trek movies, and said big budgets and Star Wars-ish action beats have gone toward conventional event movie thrills that have turned off the hardcore fans. Even the most recent two-part pilot for CBS All Access’s Star Trek Discovery was arguably a TV-scaled variation of same, offering huge spectacle to plant its flag in the sand.
I bring all of this up because, to my shock and delight, I am officially a big fan of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville. The sci-fi Fox episodic, which aired its fourth episode last night, was sold as a kind of “Family Guy meets Star Trek” farce, but it’s something a little trickier. It’s no secret that MacFarlane is a science nerd, and The Orville is closer to something like Sports Night set aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. It’s an optimistic look at good people doing a good job that struggles at being a comedy when it would rather be a drama. Back when Star Trek Beyond was trying to find a director, I suggested that Aaron Sorkin direct, or at least write, the third chapter in the new Trek, arguing that his signature motif (impassioned, intelligent, competent people doing an important job and relishing the opportunity to be good and do good together) was essentially Star Trek in a nutshell. But this comes to mind for two reasons. First, at a glance, Star Trek Discovery may end up being Studio 60 to The Orville’s 30 Rock. Moreover, MacFarlane has ironically given fans what they claim to want from the sci-fi property.
For the record, the above comparison is not related to quality, merely in terms of initial intentions (a very grandiose sci-fi actioner versus a somewhat self-poking workplace comedy). Truth be told, since I’ve only seen two episodes of Discovery and those two episodes were a glorified prologue and offered few major characters who will reappear regularly, I have no idea what kind of Star Trek show it will be. But, four episodes in, I can already argue that The Orville is exactly the kind of Star Trek show that fans have been clamoring for.
By not having a budget (or requirements) for wall-to-wall spectacle, the hour-long Fox show is forced to focus on character, chemistry, sci-fi plotting and moral debates that have partially defined Gene Roddenberry’s property for generations. Yes, to a certain extent it’s fan fiction, but then so is so much of our current pop culture entertainment. But by being a network television show, it is forced to be the kind of Star Trek that fans claim the recent movies have neglected in favor of four-quadrant blockbuster thrills. The Orville is not a spoof, but rather a straight-faced Trek show with characters who are funny and can laugh at funny events.
The show quickly established its core cast, including Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who is his ex-wife following an infidelity on her part. Most of the melodrama about that gets worked out in the first two episodes, and by the end of the second show they have settled into a respectful working relationship. Deep Space Nine vet (and 24’s Sherry Palmer) Penny Johnson Jerald plays the ship’s doctor, and Scott Grimes plays the show’s goofball helmsman. He may be an idiot, but he’s damn good at his job.
The second and third episodes revolved around Halston Sage’s Chief of Security and Peter Macon’s Lt. Commander Bortus, who is the second officer and a member of an all-male alien species. The former is unexpectedly put into command in the second episode and suffers a crisis of confidence as a result, while the latter is forced to deal with his cultural norms when his newborn child is born female.
The second episode deals head-on with the whole “women who lack the confidence to believe in their own inherent abilities” thing (with Dr. Claire Finn serving as Lt. Alara Kitan’s would-be Obi-Wan). The show’s treatment of Kitan’s super strength is refreshingly matter-of-fact, with Sage acknowledging that men are turned off by it while grateful that her Captain (and the crew) are merely appreciative.
This third episode eschewed comedy for large portions of the story while offering a loving same-sex (and arguably transgender-inclusive) relationship as well as frank debate about genital mutilation, gender identity and what constitutes a disability. If you only watch one episode as a test run, make it this, as it’s a terrific piece of metaphorical science-fiction.
The fourth episode, which features a cameo from Liam Neeson of all people (it looks like MacFarlane will be snagging as many A Million Ways to Die in the West co-stars as he can), used a fascinating sci-fi situation to examine religious fundamentalism and climate change denial. It’s a more straightforward episode, but the climactic plot twist is intriguing and the show continues to be careful to let its imperiled female characters get rescued by other female characters.
Obviously, the show may yet crash and burn, as (presuming a 24-episode season) we’re only one-sixth of the way through. But, like Sports Night, which eventually just stopped using its network-mandated laugh track after several episodes, the show has quickly moved away from the broader pitch of Family Guy in space and has quickly become essentially a Star Trek drama with periodic jokes and one-liners. The low-key approach works as a counterpoint to the rough-and-tumble recent movies (and the action-filled Discovery pilot) and offers a core variation on Star Trek.
Sans the pressure to be bigger, bolder, faster, and free from the budget and expectations that demand big-scale action sequences and “the world is in peril” plotting, The Orville uses its adventure of the week format to explore modern-day social issues and tackle current moral dilemmas in a sci-fi venue. I like its characters, and I like that they are good at what they do and seem to like each other. The show is refreshingly progressive in its politics, and optimistic to its core. It is a Star Trek show for folks who want something a bit old-school.
Again, I haven’t seen the third episode of Star Trek Discovery, and I frankly don’t wish to make it a competition. The best-case scenario is that the CBS show, with a superb lead in Sonequa Martin-Green, offers high-quality, big-scale Star Trek while Fox’s “homage” offers a more traditional Trek which emphasizes cast chemistry and social issues of the day. For those fans who were turned off by the jokey previews and commercials, I’d suggest giving The Orville another shot, starting perhaps with the second episode which begins to spotlight the supporting cast.
The irony is that, by ripping off rather than revamping and by being hamstrung by network television production values and thus putting an emphasis on character and social parable over sci-fi action, The Orville has a pretty good shot at becoming the kind of StarTrek that fans claim to want so badly. I’m hoping this variation indeed lives long and prospers.