I binged watched The Orville

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.

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16 thoughts on “I binged watched The Orville

  1. I watched the first episode of Family Guy, and was impressed mostly with how awful it was. They couldn’t tell a joke. On a rare occasion when something was funny, they repeated it until I was ready to spend a month’s salary to buy back my initial approval.

    I said so on a Usenet forum. “Oh, that was a bad episode. It’s gotten better!” So I watched another one. Lather, rinse, repeat, until I’m up to about six ghastly, derivative, unpleasant episodes with a bunch of characters that don’t seem to come from the same universe. That’s when I gave myself permission to never subject myself to another episode; permission which I later broadened to include his entire animated output, and then his entire output, period.

    I’m happy with that. I believe I watched the Simpsons crossover later on. In fact, I’m almost sure I did.

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    1. Yeah – much the same reaction. Derivative and not funny. I could say the same about The Orville but it’s trying less hard to be funny and it’s derivative in a homage sort-of way.

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  2. I quite like The Orville, though I haven’t seen season 2 yet. And since I’m not a fan of Seth MacFarlane’s at all, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy The Orville.

    Unlike Star Trek Discovery, which seems to shift directions every second episode or so, The Orville knows what it wants to do and does it well. It isn’t as ambitious as Discovery, but instead delivers solid science fiction comfort viewing. It’s basically 1990s Star Trek with more fart jokes. And at times, it manages to be a lot better than it has any right to be, e.g. apparently a second season episode does a “the protagonist’s love interest is a villainous alien in disguise” story and manages to eat Discovery’s lunch.

    I didn’t much care for the alien love pheromone episode and was surprised it got made at all. Torchwood was raked over the coals (quite literally) for an alien love pheromone gag more than ten years ago (and that was just a throwaway gag), so how did anybody think this sort of plot was acceptable in 2017/18? Though there were plenty of Star Trek TNG, DS9 and Voyager episodes with iffy consent, which people for some reason tend to forget due to the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia.

    As for The Orville’s not overly competent crew (though the women, aliens and robots are generally competent. It’s just the human men who are not very competent), I view the Orville as the sort of mid level Starfleet vessel we only see in Star Trek, when the Enterprise (any of them) or the Voyager or the Discovery swoop in to rescue them from the space disaster of the week or figure out which cosmic phenomenon/dangerous alien species killed the crew. But not every Starfleet vessel can be the Enterprise, the Voyager or the Discovery. The Orville tells the stories of the ships and crews that arent cutting edge.

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    1. I meant more their collective competence when dealing with alien culture. I think that aspect is unintentional. Overall, I agree they are largely written as supposedly good at their jobs (eg Scott Grimes’s character is one of the best pilots in the fleet)

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  3. I’ve never been able to make it through an entire episode, so take this as uninformed.

    For a show about the future, the Orville feels remarkably dated. Like the latest episode which had a birthday celebration that felt it came straight from the 80s.

    And I know it’s his show, but I’d like the series better without Seth MacFarlane. Not his acting which is OK, but his approach to the character which seems to suggest it’s all a joke that maybe only he is in on.

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  4. Eric and I have enjoyed The Orville, but we have much lower expectations from an SF/F TV show or even a movie than we would from a short story or novel. Even Star Trek (which we both enjoyed) was usually “teching the tech“–something that would condemn a short story to a max of two stars and a novel to a ballistic trajectory into the trash can.

    It’s just cool to see the pretty pictures. If you look for more than that from Hollywood, you’ll be disappointed.

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  5. I have a theory about the nature of The Orville that makes it reasonably pleasant.

    Imagine you are a citizen of the Federation, circa TNG. One evening you sit down in your immaculate living room and say, “Computer, show me some visual entertainment.”

    “Working…. would you like to see a modern update of what the 20th Century called a ‘sitcom’?”

    And you get an episode of a workplace drama-comedy set on a fictional starship from a fictional Federation-analogue that carefully avoids using any real species except humans because that could be insulting, and featuring carefully plotted political issues that aren’t quite matching any current events.

    The Orville.

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    1. That’s similar to my retcon interpretation of ‘Original Trek’ in the context of all post-movie Trek, to be honest. That those episodes work far more like “training videos” for students at Starfleet Academy, intended to be used as illustrations of particular approaches (after all, there are endless essays about how KIrk, Spock and McCoy are really just manifestations of the Id, the Ego and the Superego, not ‘real’* people at all…)
      Plus it also neatly sidesteps the issue with why Enterprise and Discovery look too different to TOS to work as proper prequels. They match up plausibly with the movie versions, just not with the tv look. But if the tv look was only ever an approximation of how ‘real’* Federation shops look, then that (non-existent!) problem goes away.

      *for certain definitions of ‘real’.

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  6. “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).”

    I’m not sure I understand this. Could you explain a little more?

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      1. Well, the episode with the social media obsessed planet, where the crewman whose name I can never remember humped a statue and nearly got lobotomised for his troubles was a clear case study of what not to do when visiting pre-warp civilisations.

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