Turns out, we’ve been focusing on the wrong thing this entire time.
See, ever since The Orville trailer debuted at Comic-Con the discussion about this not-quite-Star Trek, not-quite Galaxy Quest series has centered on its star and creator Seth MacFarlane. That’s understandable. Thanks to Family Guy, Ted and his general celebrity, MacFarlane inevitably pulls focus and seems to instantly divide fans into those who are willing to indulge his brand of comedy and those who loathe him and regard his comedy as hackneyed and offensive. So what if he comes to The Orville honestly, a lifelong Trekkie who regularly casts Next Generation actors in his projects and even once cameoed on Enterprise. You see him, and you have an instant opinion as well as temptation to crack a joke about how many lazy cutaway gags The Orville will probably have ala Family Guy.
But while The Orville is indeed MacFarlane’s baby (he wrote it as a spec script and landed a 13-episode order from Fox) and features plenty of jokes familiar to Family Guy fans it’s also a show which is ultimately being run by Star Trek veterans Brannon Braga (who ran Voyager and Enterprise and co-wrote Generations and First Contact) and David A. Goodman (who wrote on Enterprise under Braga). MacFarlane hired them to help him make The Orville as Star Trek-like as possible, and that’s exactly what they’ve done, almost to a fault. MacFarlane’s the one we focus on since he’s the one on screen making his best attempt at playing an unfit starship captain, but Braga and Goodman are the ones we should have been paying attention to because they’re the ones turning this into Star Trek-lite.
For example, in design, costumes, sound, editing and story construction the pilot plays like a thoroughly average Star Trek episode from The Next Generation–Enterprise era, right down to building to cliffhangers (some of which are noticeably artificial) at every act break, even though that model has fallen slightly out of favor in the streaming age. There’s an away mission to a research outpost that results in a fight with a rival group of aliens over new technology. Confrontations between the heroes and the villains are had over view screens. Shuttles are nonsensically manned by senior personnel only (since none of the unnamed crew members, i.e., extras, matter). Ships face and awkwardly fire at each other in space, with our Enterprise stand-in being noticeably smaller than the outer space Cadillacs being driven by the bad guys. Holodecks are entered through archways, and eventually, reveal themselves to be surprisingly small rooms with fancy sensors on the walls.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
And so on.
You get it. If you’ve seen Star Trek it’s all very familiar. It gives The Orville the feel of a show made by people who were iced out of the franchise when J.J. Abrams came along, and have now (through MacFarlane) simply made their own Star Trek, albeit one they’re legally forced to call something else. Of course, as someone who grew up on Next Gen and the rest, I”ll admit to feeling nostalgic while watching The Orville pilot, reminded so consistently of what Star Trek used to look and feel like. Heck, even the way the pilot ends with music swelling over a live action image as an on-screen executive producer credit pops up is pure, old school Star Trek nostalgia. And that nostalgia is so strong that I’ll keep watching next week and the week after. However, I am doing so in the hopes for improvement because whatever this show is going to become, yeah, it ain’t there yet.
As is, The Orville is basically just straightforward Star Trek with more jokes. You can’t even really say that it has a touch of Galaxy Quest to it because that would suggest genre deconstruction and homage, playing the tropes but commenting on them. The Orville doesn’t do any of that. Instead, The Orville does a tried and true Star Trek story but augments it with more jokes, most of which could be pulled out with little to no impact on the plot. The jokes range from the cute to the crude, though there are surprisingly more of the former than the latter, and are far too often throwaway in nature, such as the helmsman of the ship (Scott Grimes) lamenting upon going into Red Alert and facing an enemy vessel, “There’s no way we get out of here by 5.” Because getting off work on time is what a character should be worrying about at that point.
Far too often, there are jokes like that which seem to be going for a Guardians of the Galaxy/Marvel Studios-like quality but instead fall flat and needlessly undercut the action. However, if you give MacFarlane a Vaudeville bit he usually knows what to do with it, which is why the funniest gag in the whole episode might just be him struggling (via various hand signals) to get an outer space window cleaner to go away while he’s attempting to talk to his ex-wife/first officer (Adrianne Palicki) in his ready room (to be clear, at that point The Orville is docked, and the window cleaner is just someone trying to their job as part of routine ship maintenance).
What The Orville has going for it (or against it), what truly separates it from Star Trek is MacFarlane as the captain, Ed Mercer. He is told near the start of the pilot that his promotion to captain is because, “While you’d be no one’s first choice for captain, the reality is we have 3,000 ships to staff, and we need captains.” Mercer, then, isn’t the type of captain who would be at the front of the fleet in the fight against the Borg (or The Dominion or whoever) but instead at the very back and only there because, hey, they have lots of ships to fill. That’s interesting, or at least very un-Star Trek.
In execution, though, it’s just MacFarlane playing another riff on his unsuitability as a leading man (ala A Million Ways to Die in the West), but when push comes to shove his captain proves nearly as capable as any of his famous Starfleet counterparts. It seems likely that the coming episodes will do more to make him the butt of the joke and play up his first officer’s superior skills, but the ongoing problem will be that while MacFarlane has undeniably fine-tuned comic timing and a gift for witty asides he’s still ultimately better suited for animated voiceover work than he is for live action. Watching him onscreen far too often feels like watching an untrained actor who is clearly still trying to figure out what to do with his hands.
Apart from Scott Grimes’ aforementioned (and apparently alcoholic) pilot and Adrianne Palicki’s First Officer, there isn’t much to say about the supporting cast, other than to list their names (heck, I don’t even remember any of them) and basic character traits (one is from a single-sex alien species, the other is a 23-year-old alien with supergirl-like powers when in atmospheres with Earth-like gravity, another is an over-qualified medical doctor who is only there because she thinks so little of Captain Mercer that she assumes the poor crew of the ship will desperately need her help, another one is some kind of robot). We can assume they’ll all have more to do throughout the season.
How long I’ll stick around to find out remains to be seen. What about you? Have you watched The Orville pilot yet? Was I too hard or too lenient on it? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s the season trailer that premiered last night. Note how they play up the “new adventure every week” angle. Direct hit off the port bow there, Orville, successfully undercutting Star Trek: Discovery and it’s heavily serialized model: