The Orville Proves ‘Derivative’ Doesn’t Always Mean Unnecessary or Bad
When Seth MacFarlane’s sci-fi space odyssey show The Orville was first announced, the geek world raised a collective single eyebrow and muttered “fascinating.” It was both a bold and interesting choice for the longtime titan of animation on Fox to leverage his considerable success to make what is clearly a passion project in which he cast himself as a kind of combination Kirk and Picard (and a bit of Kermit the Frog). Perhaps the most glaring observation one could make, especially before the show aired, was that it was part-homage, part-rip-off of the Star Trek series. To add to the befuddlement, this show premiered in the same season as the newest Star Trek property, the CBS All Access exclusive series Star Trek: Discovery. Yet, any honest Trekker/ie will admit that when comparing the two, The Orville is hands-down the clear successor to the torch lit by Gene Roddenberry more than half a century ago.
Of course, this wasn’t readily apparent at first. If you’ve not seen the show and want to go-in spoiler-free, now’s the time to bookmark this page and return after you’ve seen it. Light spoilers below:
Both The Orville and Discovery premiered within two weeks of each other, with the former launching (pun intended) first. Like many fans of sci-fi, reviewers didn’t know what to make of the show. They couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama (like it needs to be one and not the other). They couldn’t tell if Seth MacFarlane was honoring the Trek legacy or taking the piss out of it (again, like it needs to be one or the other). The third episode of the show, “About a Girl,” was very poorly received. It seemed like the critics couldn’t wait to pounce on MacFarlane using this example that the show’s future-liberal values were really just hiding the same old kind of white-male-meathead bullshit one could expect from Family Guy or American Dad.
Yet, when Discovery premiered, everyone recognized that it didn’t feel like Star Trek. It was all violence, mutiny, and war. Whether or not a franchise like Star Trek (especially in its return to episodic format after a dozen or so years) should take chances like that is different subject entirely. Despite the confusion surrounding The Orville and what it was trying to do, there was no denying that it had the more Star-Trek-ian tone. At least, in the way that Gene Roddenberry imagined his show might live on beyond him. This is no accident, because a man responsible for much of the latter Trek output in its second “generation” is a producer on this show. Starting out in a lowly position on The Next Generation in 1990, Brannon Braga worked his way up to writer, producer, director, and eventually executive producer of TNG and its successive series.
The writers and cast were finding their “space”-legs in the first season, but there were plenty of standout moments. Even though many reviewers trashed “About a Girl,” some acknowledged the swing for the fences despite some “scattershot” execution. There are great characters, such as the inimitable Penny Johnson Jerold’s Dr. Claire Finn and Mark Jackson’s Isaac, an artificial being who is, essentially, racist because he thinks all biological beings are inferior to him. This leads to a great episode in which Finn’s children are left in the care of Isaac who grows to care for the boys in the unfeeling and analytical way that artificial life forms can be. There is an interesting episode, that served as the season finale, in which a time anomaly allows Adrienne Palicki’s character, Commander Kelly Grayson, to accidentally found a religion on a planet she first visits in its stone age.
Now in its second season, The Orville has hit its stride. Providing a nice mix of emotional (and funny) character stories with your typical sci-fi action, it’s easily the best show with spaceships in it on network television. Just like the original Trek, episodes this year don’t really hammer you over the head with their message. Similarly, we’re seeing a lot less of MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer this season and more of the exemplary supporting cast. This is a show that made an episode about going to watch a friend urinate off a cliff (in a species-related cultural ritual) a touching character study of the main crew members’ lives. The fingerprints of Star Trek are all over this show, and it’s tough to say if meets or even surpasses the original.
No, the effect of The Orville won’t really be known for some time now. There are kids, and adults maybe, whose first experience with this kind of show is The Orville. Will they recognize that Star Trek is the superior version or will they find them lacking? If this series gets the kind of longevity a Seth MacFarlane series usually gets on Fox, it’s quite possible. (Of course, if the series gets the treatment most sci-fi shows get from Fox, it’ll be cancelled by the time you’re done reading this article.) Yet, whatever it’s ultimate legacy will be, you should definitely be watching the show now. It delivers the kind of interesting space-explorer stories Star Trek doesn’t provide anymore and social commentary worth considering.
The episode “Majority Rule” sees the crew from the titular spaceship seeking explorers sent in to investigate the planet’s society to see if the are ready for a First Contact. While there, they realize that the entire society uses a kind of social currency that look very similar to “upvotes” and “downvotes” on Reddit. As you can expect, one of the crew pisses people off and ends up fighting for his life in an allegory to modern outrage culture. At the time, many reviewers still seemed to be rooting for this show to fail. They compared this episode to the third series premiere of Black Mirror, “Nosedive,” which features a similar premise. Of the two episodes, The Orville tells the better, tighter, and (arguably) more insightful story.
The Black Mirror episode shows a character, played by Jessica Chastain in all her wide-eyed, pastel glory. She has a series of accidents followed up by bad choices and ends up in prison, happily able to speak her mind. In The Orville, J. Lee’s Commander John LaMarr disrespects a statue of a beloved figure. His rating falls and instead of a lawyer, he’s given a PR rep. He has to go on an “apology tour” and ends up almost getting lobotomized. Luckily, the crew of his ship figures out a way to manipulate the system with sentimental, meaningless nonsense. It’s a much sharper commentary on how the online mob can turn on people, and it’s done with half the runtime of a Black Mirror episode.
It’s clear now that The Orville is much more of an homage to Star Trek than a satire of it. It also, like real life in a way, breaks the tension when the stakes are heavy with very silly gags. Whether it’s Isaac amputating the leg of a fellow crewmember as he learns how to “prank” people or Captain Mercer floating the idea of coming up with a “fake name” when making a First Contact with a new species. It humanizes the characters in a way that our favorite Starfleet members never were, since they were constantly presented as paragons of virtue. There is no question this show is derivative, but it definitely holds its own, especially when compared to the direction its inspiration seems to be headed in.