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.

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For example, in design, costumes, sound, editing and story construction the pilot plays like a thoroughly average Star Trek episode from The Next GenerationEnterprise 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.

Etc.

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.

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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:

 

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

9 Comments

  1. Yeah, the consensus on this seems to be that Orville doesn’t know what kind of show it is or wants to be. The most common critique I read is that this is simply expensive Cosplay for MacFarlane — his reward for all his previous success at the studio.

    The production value was quite good but by trying to be both a serious Star Trek type show AND a serious comedy it fails at both.

    I’m not a fan of MacFarlane’s brand of humor but it seems it’s not even up to his standards in The Orville.

    One (of many) problems is that they’ve established Mercer as actually a very competent and promising captain — and that it was simply his breakdown after discovering his wife’s infidelity. That’s not at all the same as him being an incompetent captain.

    So, any gags about him being unqualified don’t work because he’s supposed to actually be quite qualified. There’s no valid reason to accept any incompetence because there’s no reason for him to continue to self-sabotage due to his inability to come to terms with what his wife did. The audience can accept a year of self-pity but won’t be sympathetic if he carries it into his captainship.

    PLUS, we did not really see any evidence of his previous competence in his first outing as Captain.

    Only 2 or 3 of the actors seemed to be very good at all. And the character reactions to the various situations in which they find themselves felt way off.

    I’ll give it a few more episodes but I highly doubt this show is going to “find itself” and I predict it will not get a second season.

    Reply

    1. Apologies for the late response, but in all honesty I didn’t have anything to say other than, “I completely agree.”

      The balance in this show is just way off, with MacFarlane’s tamed humor combined with weak sauce attempts at Next Gen/DS9/Voyager/Enterprise moralizing and story beats adding up to a white hot mess. It’s watchable for Trekkie nostalgia reasons, but it’s a long damn way away from figuring itself out, if indeed the people involved with creating the show have any sense that what they’re doing isn’t really working yet.

      Reply

      1. Episode 2 was actually quite a bit better, IMO — though still not as good as it could and should be. But maybe it offers a glimmer of hope that it will figure itself out before too long.

      2. I thought the MacFarlane parts of the episode – Kermit, his parents, his colon, sitcom life with the ex – worked even less than the pilot, yet I thought the Trekkie parts worked far better than the pilot. So, for me it was kind of a wash.

      3. I’m really not much of a fan of Seth’s work. I hate his cartoons and won’t watch them. His Ways to Die Western was mediocre at best.

        So, it’s interesting that I thought the scenes you mentioned actually worked. The Kermit scene was the worst of them because he sounded sincere, which is ludicrous. But, if he’s described Kermit a bit more sardonic or as if he knew he as being hyperbolic, I think it would have worked better.

        The parent thing worked for me because it was situational awkwardness and I could totally see that happening in his world.

        The one scene that I thought felt totally forced and unrealistic was when the acting captain told the room of crew members to screw the admiral, they were going to disobey orders and rush into almost certain death to try an unrealistic plan to rescue a captain and first officer that the crew only met maybe a month ago and had no reason to feel deep seated loyalty to. The only one who should have been cheering so gleefully would be the lifelong friend.

        The others should have been a mix of fear, concern over the decision to disobey a direct order from an admiral, and maybe mild approval.

  2. Reblogged this on Geeking Out about It and commented:
    This was basically my thoughts about the show, too. I liked it, and will watch it again, but it does need to develop its own voice. Right now, its not dramatic enough to be taken seriously, or funny enough to be a comedy and it needs to commit to one or the other.

    Reply

    1. There are some shows that are mostly dramatic but that handle humor really well. The bantering between Murtaough and Riggs, for example, works way better than any of the bantering between the Orville characters.

      Reply

  3. –> “Apologies for the late response, but in all honesty I didn’t have anything to say other than, “I completely agree.””

    Hah! I’ve felt that dilemma so many times here and in other places. On the one hand, I want to let the poster know I acknowledge and agree with him/her. OTOH, it seems rather frivolous ant time wasting to post nothing but “I agree.”

    Tough choices! 🙂

    Reply

  4. I still feel the biggest problem with the show is that Seth seems to feel more comfortable in a fish out of water environment (ala 1001 Ways to Die). Someone who is dumbfounded that he’s in that situation and can’t understand how everyone else thinks it’s normal.

    That doesn’t work when he finally gets to meet his lifetime dream of being captain of his own ship — especially when it’s been established he was exceptional before his year long metldown after his wife cheated on him.

    Seth’s humor in this show comes across as the character being somewhat clueless. The best example I can think of where similar humor works is in the TV version of Lethal Weapon. Riggs constantly says stupid things and acts dumb but it’s clear to us he’s either just having fun with people or he’s using the technique to confuse the bad guys and get them to let their guard down.

    Seth could say almost everything he’s been saying but do it the way Riggs does and it would work much better in The Orville.

    Reply

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