I was so much younger back in December 2017, when I wrote my review for the first season of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.
Back then, I spent a lot of time comparing it to the latest entry in the official Trek universe, Star Trek: Discovery. I can see clearly now that this approach was misguided. Star Trek: DSC was (and still is) doing something new and different, with some familiar trappings. The Orville, on the other hand, continues to do something more retro, stuff we’ve seen before, and, yes, with familiar trappings.
It’s no secret that this show was heavily influenced by the TNG-era Trek series, especially The Next Generation itself. The comparisons between The Orville and that series are much easier to make. In fact, I would argue that the MacFarlane series has been more faithful to the Trek that came before than DSC has so far (although the second season of DSC moved back in that direction).
No, The Orville is not officially a part of the Trek universe. They call it the Union instead of the Federation. Quantum drive instead of warp drive. But the aesthetic of both the starship and the militaristic hierarchy governing the Union is very similar to TNG. The way different color uniforms indicate various service roles is also similar. You could mistake The Orville as a Star Trek parody, much in the same way Mel Brooks’ Space Balls was a Star Wars parody.
In fact, that was how this show was marketed, I think. And, it’s probably how it still gets away with patterning itself after Trek so completely.
I’m still not fooled. This is another Trek series in disguise. I know it; Seth MacFarlane certainly knows it. Even FOX lawyers know it. The show contains just enough of the MacFarlane brand of humor that the lawyers can deny outright theft of intellectual property. Parody, after all, is protected Free Speech.
Of course, parody suggests the copied work is being imitated for the purpose of ridicule or ironic commentary. The Orville, however, comes across more as a labor of love. The premiere episode in Season 1 was too much a parody, like an SNL skit with a bigger budget for effects. If this had been an example of what the show would become, I wouldn’t have continued watching. Instead, the humor became less forced and more organic, coming from character rather than a joke-per-minute Writers Room mentality.
Season 2 is an uneven ride at times (still better than early TNG), and some of the “issue” stories use a heavy-handed approach in making their points. Bortus seems to be the go-to character for same-sex relationship or gender issues, and we may go to that well once too often. Actor Peter Macon’s ability to switch from serious to comedic tone makes this a little less obtrusive.
I was also bummed out by Halston Sage’s Lt. Alara Kitan leaving the series (she does make an appearance in the finale). Her replacement, Lt. Talla Keyali, played by Jessica Szohr, grew on me, but she was a different character, seemingly more worldly and mature. I still missed Alara. At least they didn’t have her killed by a giant oil slick monster.
All of the actors do a great job on the show. I prefer Scott Grimes’ Lt. Gordon Malloy when he’s less goofy, since Grimes has some serious acting chops. I understand that certain characters shoulder the bulk of the comedic moments on the show, and this seems to be the burden of Gordon and Norm MacDonald’s gelatinous Yaphit, for the most part.
When the action quotient is turned up on this show, such as when the Kaylon decided to become Union enemies, The Orville is the equal of any Trek series. I was stunned by the first-season effects, but I think those of Season 2 are even more impressive. Plus, I think Seth MacFarlane makes a pretty good starship captain when he plays it straight, although Captain Janeway could probably still eat him for breakfast without spilling her coffee.
A minor quibble is that the show is too imitative at times. We seem to be relying too much on Star Trek tropes. The traitorous artificial lifeform (Data/Isaac); a character falling in love with a holodeck/simulator character (Geordi/Gordon); and, time travel/alternate universe (you name it—every Trek series). While I enjoy the homage—and the familiar makes this show more comfortable for a lifelong Trekkie—I’m ready for the writers on this show to unfetter their imaginations and break new ground. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but originality will secure this series’ ultimate legacy in science-fiction television.
As of the day I’m writing this, The Orville hasn’t officially been renewed for a third season. Since this is Seth MacFarlane’s pet project, chances are it will be picked up. However, it is an expensive show with a niche audience, so anything could happen. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m betting that next season is the one where the show takes off and really comes into its own.
Firewater’s Interstellar Season 2 Report Card: A-