Two key factors prevented me from watching The Orville until recently. Firstly it wasn’t easily available for me when it first came out and secondly I really don’t like Seth MacFarlane. On the first point, quasi-public broadcaster SBS now has the whole first season streaming and is streaming episodes from season 2 as they are released. So now I am all caught up.
It would be easy to be dismissive. The show is the essence of nutty-nuggets nostalgia for what was was. It’s not particularly funny and it is so derivative that it could be an exemplar about how close you can go to infringing the copyright of a litigious media company without getting sued. But being dismissive is too easy and misunderstands what the show is.
The billing of the show as a comedy (doubly signified by the presence of MacFarlane) could charitably be called misdirection. It certainly has more comedic moments than Star Trek: Discovery but it’s not so very far from Deep Space 9 in terms of a mix of semi-comical interpersonal parts and science-fictional drama. People also forget that the original Star Trek had its fair share of comedy (despite the rightfully beloved status of Trouble With Tribbles). The joke quotient is up a little on The Orville as is the degree of scatology but it’s well within a standard deviation from the Star Trek mean.
The other thing it isn’t is Galaxy Quest. The 1999 SF comedy deconstructed and played with the Star Trek tropes very successfully. The Orville makes the tiniest jokes around the conventions of the genre but is essentially the opposite of a deconstruction. Instead, this is pretty much a show about a very mild and faithful update of early 1990s Trek shows.
The visual effects are now CGI, the range of rubber-headed alien prosthetic is wider, the social-topics of the day have been updated and the tone is a bit more relaxed but the show is essentially a time traveler from an earlier era.
Episodes mainly stick to the Sunday comics six panel format.
A cold open that’s largely disposable for most of the actual plot but which helps establish life on the ship. That leads to a dramatic twist or plot hook that sets the characters in motion for the rest of the story. After the titles, the story resumes with usually an A and B plots that are typically one that is interpersonal and one that is more science-fictional or action orientated. The episode reaches a climax and then issues are resolved and things (largely) are established as returning back to normal.
Not every episode is like that but The Orville adopts this approach for the same reason the ship has replicators and a bridge and an engineering section on another floor. Everything is designed to be Star Trek: The Next Generation without actually being Star Trek: The Next Generation and there comes a point where you just have to admire how well the show manages to do that without feeling stale. It’s not trapped in amber but updates things just a little e.g. last century Trek would have episodes looking at issues of the day but you’d never get an episode looking at porn addiction and certainly not one looking at holodeck porn addiction for an all-male alien species but the dynamics of the episode plays out the way a TNG episode would have IF TNG had decided to run an episode on holodeck porn addiction.
Each episode is a satisfying bowl of nutty nuggets but with better graphic design on the packaging. It’s entertaining and Seth MacFarlane’s character Captain Mercer and his friend Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) get less irritating fairly quickly. The rest of the cast is great (I’m sad that the Lieutenant Alara Kitan character appears to have left).
Having said all that, on average the more science-fictional or space-exploration aspects of the show are not tight. Easier to swallow if you take the show as a comedy but less so as TNG reboot with the serial numbers filed off. This is not a crew you would ever want to make first-contact with anybody and I’m not sure the writers even get that (i.e. its not part of the joke of the show that the crew is meant to be incompetent). A recent episode where the ship encounters a species overly committed to astrology deftly manages to avoid any sensible response and eventually settles on a technobabble solution that is just plain awful on all dimensions.
A season 1 episode in which the guy (played by Rob Lowe in alien prosthetics) responsible for the Captain’s marriage breakdown becomes embroiled in a potential war between two alien species, plays out as a sex-comedy involving love potions (technically pheromones emitted from the skin rather than potions but you get the idea). Played for light-comedy, the whole episode is a squicky mess of issues around consent that has a plot resolution of the crew using what they’ve learnt to make the leaders of both sides fall in love (temporarily, which is even worse if you think about it).
The primary cultural failing of aliens that The Orville finds themselves in conflict with is religiosity or superstition. The crew (and specifically the captain) are constantly baffled by aliens not following normal social conventions (and then they remind themselves that you need to be understanding). To balance that out, the secondary cultural failing of aliens (more often ones allied with or not in open conflict with the crew) is being too smart and superior.
By season 2, I’m beginning to sympathize with the bad-guy species (the Krill). They a religious fanatics who want to kill everybody and we are told they used to be more moderate before they encountered other species but if their first contact was anything like what we’ve seen The Orville crew engage in then the Krill’s fanaticism becomes a bit more understandable.
If I call The Orville “Space Operetta” then I’m being too dismissive again but the show has real strength when it plays on light themes and social interaction. The most recent episode “A Happy Refrain” was delightful and pretty much abandoned the six-panel format for a straight story about two key characters navigating an emotional relationship. It was really nicely done and built upon foundations from earlier episodes.
The Orville hasn’t managed to hit the ethical/speculative heft of Star Trek: TNG mainly because it aims for cosy familiarity. It’s a competent and professional cover band playing those hits you liked when you were younger.