Seth McFarlane is a YUGE Star Trek fan, especially of Star Trek: The Next Generation. So when he pitched his humorous take on the Trek premise to Fox, they greenlit it without question. The result is The Orville, a show that looks like the lost season of Next Generation.
Fox has been pitching this as a comedy, but McFarlane is serious about this being aspirational science fiction. Even Star Trek has taken a dark turn with its upcoming serialized Star Trek: Discovery. (Dark right down to the somber a capella cover of “I’d Love to Change the World” in the promos, a trend that passed it’s sell-by date when Heroes was still watchable.) The bridge is almost an exact copy of that of the Enterprise from Next Generation.
McFarlane plays Ed Mercer, who is given command of a mid-level exploratory vessel, the Orville. Based on the model of the Wright Brothers’ flyer on Mercer’s desk, we’re assuming it’s named for one of the Wrights. He’s given command not because of his skill but because the fleet needs captains. He signs on hotshot helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), his best friend but a bit of a disciplinary problem. Malloy soons bonds with navigator John LeMarr (J Lee) since, as LeMarr points out, they’re both jerks. Trek veteran Penny Johnson Jerald (Kassidy Yates Sisko on Deep Space Nine) plays Dr. Claire Finn, the ship’s chief surgeon and probably the wisest person on the ship. Peter Macon is the Worf-like second officer Lt. Cmdr. Bortis, a Moclan. Moclans are a single-gender species who “only urinate once a year.” Mark Jackson voices Isaac, an android from the admittedly racist world of Kaylon. Isaac sounds like Data and looks like Hitchhiker’s Guide‘s Marvin. Rounding out the cast is Halston Sage as Lt. Alara Kitan, the Orville’s 23-year-old security chief. And just to add a bit of drama, Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (Adrienne Palicki) is assigned as Mercer’s first officer. Only she’s also Mercer’s ex-wife. The two divorced after Mercer caught her in bed with a blue alien. Didn’t seem to hurt Captain Kirk much, but then Kirk never married.
There are many Star Trek flourishes. The enemy race, the Krill, look rather Klingon like, more so than Bortis, and probably a better revamp than Discovery‘s take on the Klingons. (Sorry, CBS, but you monkeyed around with the look and feel too much, and the pilot hasn’t even aired.) The ship has synthesizers (an analog to TNG’s replicators) and color-coded department uniforms. The Orville, while a sleek, very original design, has lines that evoke Picard’s television Enterprise or Voyager.
The stories so far haven’t been Earth-shattering, but the thing most critics have missed is that this is not Family Guy in space. McFarlane is much more serious as Mercer than he ever was as Brian or the myriad of voices he does on his animated shows. Critics have called it either a lukewarm comedy or a blatant rip-off of Next Generation. Part of this is Fox’s fault for selling this as another comedy. It’s clearly not, though there is more humor in it than Trek at its preachiest. However, the critical misfire (proof reviewers are not nearly as brilliant as they would have you believe) explains why CBS has withheld previews of Discovery. Could be worse. Music critics these days seem to be on a mission to purge Pink Floyd from rock canon, so I do hold television critics in slightly higher regard. Very slightly. Most of the crude humor comes from Malloy and LeMarr, who are a cross between the Sulu/Chekov pairing on the original Star Trek and Beavis and Butthead with triple-digit IQs. The chemistry works and makes a nice counterpoint to the overly serious Bortis and the quizzical Isaac.
We are only two episodes into the series. The opener had a few misfires despite direction and creative oversight by Jon Farveau. The second episode, directed by Voyager actor and director Robert Duncan McNeill, recycles the human zoo story classically done on The Twilight Zone and revisited by Star Trek: The Animated Series. The zoo storyline serves mainly to develop Mercer and Grayson and to get them off the ship so a panicky Alara has to learn to take command. In a third storyline, Bortis lays an egg and has to bring the child to hatching. The zoo storyline, however, ends as only a show made in the 2010s can end. You’ll have to watch, but it’s Trek at its best, making a snide, somewhat blunt comment on our times.
The Orville is like rock and roll made since 1999. It’s not groundbreaking so much as an homage to what came before. And given its irreverent tone, it will make a terrific point to a new, darker Star Trek.