Let’s get one thing out of the way straight off the bat: this article is in no way a suggestion that Star Trek fans should watch The Orville instead of Star Trek: Discovery. Discovery is a great show – it features well-acted, compelling characters, an interesting arc plot, great visuals, really gorgeous ships and uniforms and Doug Jones actually getting to speak. We can assure you from personal experience that it is entirely possible to watch both Discovery and The Orville and enjoy both for different reasons.
But this article is not about Discovery – though the comparison is inevitable – it is about The Orville. The first trailers for Seth MacFarlane’s new show were interesting, but not really reflective of the show itself. The first trailer focused entirely on broad comedy, making The Orville look like the TV version of Galaxy Quest that we thought we’d never see, or maybe an hour-long version of Red Dwarf. Neither, in themselves, are bad things, but they suggest a very broad form of comedy that spoofs Star Trek, rather than emulating it. Coming from Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, and featuring a Captain and First Officer who used to be married to each other (a plot device that, aside from military implausibility, could be taken in so many bad directions), all this suggested a show that was likely to be the Airplane! of the non-canon, non-official Star Trek universe.
However, this does not actually reflect the tone of the show. Some of this is down to the show slowly finding its feet following the pilot. Some of the broadest jokes in that first episode, especially the scene in which the Captain and First Officer wilfully refuse to see the potential benefit of a new invention and make jokes about bananas, is toned down as the series goes on. The broad humour is still there, but in later episodes it is more often used to humanise the crew (who vomit when panicking, play practical jokes on each other, and so on) rather than to make them appear like idiots who should in no way be put in charge of a starship. The relationship between MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer and Adrianne Palicki’s Commander Grayson is often in the background, and when it does come up, is treated reasonably sensitively. Rather than a broad comedy, the show is a comedy-drama, often with more emphasis on the drama.
The Orville is an unashamed tribute to old-fashioned Star Trek, reflecting not just the franchise’s 1990s incarnations, but going all the way back to its 1960s roots. It is episodic, with the only arc plot elements so far relating to the personal relationships of its crew members; it focuses on an ensemble cast led by the captain rather than a single character; its overall tone is relatively light; it is idealistic, emphasising the good-hearted nature of the crew, and it even presents itself as a series of morality plays, examining current issues through the lens of science fiction.
For many Star Trek fans, some or all of these qualities belong in the past, and that’s fair enough if that’s your personal taste. But if episodic television, a light tone or ensemble casts are really so unwatchably archaic, surely we would get no enjoyment from re-watching older series at all. For some fans, the tone of 1990s (and 1960s) Star Trek, the tendency for the characters to joke around, no matter what terrible things have just happened, is part of the show’s appeal. It’s not an approach that’s very fashionable now, in an era in which we usually take television drama very seriously, but there can be a place for exciting stories that, while not ignoring or avoiding darker material (as Star Trek most certainly did not) have an overall more relaxed approach.
The relative stability of weekly episodic adventures with only gradual change and development over time can also have an appeal of its own, allowing viewers to dip in and out of the show more easily – less relevant in an era of streaming, perhaps, but there is still a certain pleasure in enjoying what is essentially the television equivalent of a short story every week. This approach allows for more variety in story-telling, tone and setting, so that some episodes can be more serious than others, some more action-oriented, some less so, and so on, without being burdened by a serious and often grim arc plot that must be acknowledged every week.
Most importantly, this is a show made by and for people who love Star Trek, even including a Star Trek cast member (Mrs Sisko, Penny Johnson Jerald) in the regular cast. It is a show with real heart, putting its characters in moral dilemmas that they are not always able to find a way out of, just as Star Trek did. Most of all, it represents hope. While the crew of The Orville are nowhere near as competent or brilliant as the various Enterprise crews, and the ship itself is certainly not the flagship of the fleet, they are well-meaning, well-intentioned, determined and resourceful. They may be a little more down-to-earth, a little more crude and a little more human than Roddenberry’s dream of a better future, but they do offer the hope that people in the future will be a little less selfish, perhaps a little more noble than is often the case in real life.
For those who feel the elements of Star Trek that The Orville embraces belong in the past, or who consider their use an exercise in nostalgia, The Orville will not be their thing. Star Trek fans with a very strong preference for Deep Space Nine in particular are probably unlikely really to enjoy The Orville, which no doubt embraces all the elements they didn’t enjoy so much from other Star Trek series. However, it may be that some fans enjoyed the lighter tone, the occasional silliness and the overall optimism of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager (and the early seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise). For these fans, The Orville may end up being just what they’re looking for.
The Orville lands over here on Thursday the 14th of December on FOX UK.