When Star Trek: Discovery was announced, I was quite happy to hear it. There had been a long gap since Star Trek had been on television, and I figured it was long past time to fly through the galaxy on a starship once again. The show finally aired after some real issues getting off the ground, and before I knew it I was back in a starship having a blast once again. Except it wasn’t on Star Trek’s Discovery I was having all of this fun. It was aboard Seth MacFarlane’s Orville that the true spirit of Gene Roddenberry was exploring space once again. Who would have thunk it? Yes, The Orville is considered a comedy, and there are plenty of silly moments and ideas. But even with all of that spoof atmosphere, MacFarlane manages to capture the real spirit that Trek fans have come to feel for that franchise. Honestly, I’m not sure The Orville would have gotten through its first season if not for Alex Kurtzman destroying yet another beloved franchise. Trek fans turned to this show in droves out of frustration and desperation, and MacFarlane welcomed them aboard with a laugh and some alien adventures. It’s a great example of that whole nature-abhors-a-vacuum thing. When Discovery went off the rails The Orville filled the void left behind. If you missed the first season, you can get them now on DVD from Fox.
I’m glad that Fox sent this first season to review. I think I was bound to make my way to the show at some point. It’s not only that I try to catch this kind of series, but it was getting the kind of buzz I couldn’t resist. When you do this kind of thing you get asked often for your opinion of anything you might have watched. People know how much I’m into Star Trek, so I was asked a lot what I thought of the new show. Just about every time I expressed my disappointment, I would hear “The Orville is so much better”. It really has become a safe port for Trek fans. There’s no way MacFarlane could have seen that coming, but he obviously figured it out along the way as the episodes became a little more serious and started to live in that social commentary place that Trek occupied for many decades. MacFarlane is a Trek fan. That much is obvious, but I do believe he started to hear the same things that I heard and found a way to solidify that support.
Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) was an up-and-coming officer in the Union Fleet when he walked in on his wife sleeping with a blue alien. It threw him and his career into a downward spiral. But the Union has thousands of ships and they need captains, so he is finally offered a command of his own. It’s going to be on a mid-sized ship with no real history of distinction but he takes the command. There turns out to be something of a catch to the offer. His first officer is going to be Commander Kelly Grayson (Palicki), the now ex-wife he caught cheating. Apparently she’s the only qualified officer available, so he’s in a take-it-or-leave-it situation. What he doesn’t know is that she’s the one who petitioned for him to get a command because she felt guilty about causing his career to suffer.
Meet the other executive officers of the ship:
Dr. Claire Finn (Jerald) She could have had any ship in the fleet, but she figured with Mercer’s reputation there’s going to be a lot of need for a good medical officer.
Isaac (Jackson) is an artificial life-form who believes he is superior to organic life-forms. He’s basically Data on this show. He has the same kinds of conversations about human characteristics that we saw with Spiner’s character. You can’t see the actor’s face because he has a huge metal plate with bright light bulging eyes.
Lt. John LaMarr (Lee) is a ship’s navigator who eventually becomes the chief engineer much as LaForge did in Next Generation. You have to believe the name is no accident. He’s smarter than he wants people to know often pairing with Lt. Malloy on practical jokes and basic clowning around. He’s a soda junkie who has to have a big gulp-size drink at the helm.
Lt. Gordon Malloy (Grimes) is Mercer’s friend and was personally recruited to join his crew. He’s a hot-shot pilot who likes to joke around too much and might have a beer on his lap when he’s at the controls. He finds a kindred soul in LaMarr, and the two of them often cause trouble together.
Lt. Commander Bortus (Macon) He’s the bridge alien. He looks and sounds a lot like a Klingon. He’s from a single-sex species, which leads to one of the better episodes of the season. He has a spouse on board who is always jealous of his time at work. His species only has to urinate once a year. His species lays eggs. He’s the stoic, serious one on the bridge and could have easily been a security officer.
Lt. Lara Kitan (Sage) is the ship’s security officer. She’s also an alien with just a little head and nose changes. She’s super strong, because she comes from a planet with a much denser atmosphere and gravity field. She doesn’t really like that it sets her apart, and her species is really more known for their intellect. Of course, she’s a very petite woman who doesn’t look like she’s so strong.
Finally there’s Yaphit (MacDonald), who is a gelatinous glob who works in engineering and is entirely CG.
From the crew alone there are so many Trek references that it’s not hard to see where MacFarlane’s fan-boy ideas come from. That’s not where the comparison ends. Many of the plots and other devices on the show are pretty obvious Trek spoofs. All except the design of the ship itself. It has a lot of exterior rails that look more like Andromeda than Enterprise. The engines are not warp, but quantum drives, but it’s pretty much the same idea. There’s no prime directive, but we discover in an episode that it’s a serious crime to influence a more primitive civilization. Trek connections can be found in several of the guest cast that includes Robert Picardo. Brannon Braga serves as a writer and producer. He served many years in the Rick Berman years on Star Trek. Trek stars Jonathan Frakes (Riker) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Paris) direct episodes of the season. Another producer is Trek’s old science consultant, Andre Bormanis. MacFarlane has surrounded himself with some of Star Trek’s best production brains. Too bad these folks were available. Alex Kurtzman obviously didn’t want these kinds of brain-trust folks onboard the Discovery. It’s their loss and MacFarlane’s gain. There are more Star Trek people associated with The Orville than on Star Trek right now. What’s up with that?
It’s not just the references and people that make this a good show. It goes where no spoof has gone before, because it takes itself seriously enough that it entertains even when it’s not being funny. That’s the secret sauce right there. Jokes only go so far, and we soon become immune to the concept itself as a joke. In order to get longevity, a series needs to entertain with its own originality beyond the icons it might be having some fun with. The Orville is often quite serious and touches on the kinds of stories Trek fans have always appreciated. It doesn’t survive merely on its humor.
There are plenty of good examples, but one of these was completely unintended at the time and once again becomes the product of perfect timing with the home video release. There is an episode where Bortus lays an egg. When the baby hatches it turns out to be female, which hasn’t happened to that race in 75 years. The only alternative is to change its sex so it won’t be an outcast. Bortus is convinced of this until he’s shown Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, where he learns that being different doesn’t mean you can’t contribute something special. It’s ironic because he found a very pro-female lesson in a show that since this episode aired has been criticized as being anti-women because Rudolph’s pop tells the ladies to stay home when they search for Rudolph. Isn’t it crazy how two very opposite themes can be found in the same source material? When the episode was written and even aired, MacFarlane had no idea this controversy would come up, but he addressed it ahead of its time. How marvelous that you can have lessons like this from a spoof.
One of the best episodes takes the ship to a society where the justice system and personal wealth are all determined by the number of up-votes or down-votes you get on a badge you are required to wear or online. This is the kind of mirror to society that Roddenberry always pushed for.
The show also works because the production values are high for a comedy. The f/x are treated just as they would be if this were a serious space show. They signed on folks like Jon Favreau to help get things right. Everything about this show is built solid and taken seriously by those in charge. They don’t act like they’re making a spoof, so it doesn’t look that way all of the time. And there are plenty of silly moments, to be sure. You will get plenty to laugh at. But it’s better Star Trek than Star Trek is right now. “And there’s no way out.”