Usually when I do one of these reviews I showcase an intro (a dying art on TV) or a trailer for the show. I went with this look at the ship itself to showcase just how dedicated Seth MacFarlane is to creating The Orville, his latest show on Fox. Like a lot of people I went into this thinking this show would be a parody of the Star Trek franchise. After all, this is the man behind Family Guy (and it’s spinoff, The Cleveland Show) and American Dad, productions known for spoofing other shows and movies, being filled with non-sequitur jokes, and the occasional crass humor. And yet The Orville only has the occasional crass humor, nothing as bad as his other works, and really isn’t technically a comedy. More of a comedy-action science fiction series.
And I just learned literally seconds ago that he’s from my home state of Connecticut, growing up in Kent. That’s what I love about working on this site. I learn so much.
MacFarlane is a noted sci-fi geek. In addition to geek references in his work (including parodies of Star Wars with the Family Guy characters), he worked on the recent relaunch of the science show Cosmos. He’s claimed in interviews leading up to the show that he’s a big fan of the Star Trek franchise, wanting to recreate that hopeful future that modern science fiction seems to be avoiding, and comparisons will be unavoidable in this review, as are spoilers. However, The Orville isn’t a Star Trek parody, so how does this show work?
It’s the year 2419 and Ed Mercer (MacFarlane), getting over his divorce after catching his wife in bed with another (alien) man a year prior, has been trying to put his life back together. He’s given the chance when he’s given command of the USS Orville, a mid-level exploration ship. Taking his best friend Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) on as his helmsman, he’s ready to begin his new life…except his ex-wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) is his first officer. Joined by alien robot Isacc (Mark Jackson), a member of a male-only species named Bortus (Peter Macon) as the second officer, the young chief of security Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), chief medical officer Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), and navigator John LaMarr (J Lee), the crew think they’re getting a milktoast supply run, which should be a good way to break the crew in. Of course things don’t go according to plan.
The first thing to note about this show is the chemistry the performers already have, or at least the ones we’ve seen in action. Ed and Kelly seem like a divorced couple but one that maintains a begrudging respect (in fact we see how much Kelly does respect Ed’s skills as a captain). This could have easily broken down to a bickering couple for laughs but it’s actually treated both seriously and humorously as the show demands. Bortus and Issac have introductions but don’t really do a lot, and they’re the least emotional of the crew. Gordon and John immediately connect and Gordon and Ed are already good friends. Claire has the makings of an interesting character. She’s not a clone of any of the Star Trek doctors, and even though she’s probably overqualified for this ship, she has interest in a ship with a new captain, and one of the previous mentions her as the “adult” of the ship, the den mother of a crew of competent yet immature scouts. However, I’d choose Ed Mercer over Jonathan Archer from Star Trek: Enterprise any day of the week. I’ll gladly take “stumbling but cares and tries his best” over “stumbling and couldn’t care less because we’re awesome” any day. My favorite character however is Alara. She has superpowers. Sort of.
And we do get to see that strength in action. Also, that’s Seth’s sister, voice actress Rachel MacFarlane, as the ship’s computer. The effects on this show are really quite good for TV. You saw in the first video that they actually use a model shot for the ship, using CG only when necessary, like the ship battle at the end. The sets are also well made. You can see the love that was put into the look of The Orville. The ship set is even a full bridge set, something usually reserved for fanfilms that have smaller cameras. The alien designs range from the “bumpy foreheads” of Trek to full body prosthesis and costumes, and unlike Trek there isn’t just one or two aliens that pop up but a full range of alien species besides humans, although humans still dominate.
As for that upbeat feel MacFarlane wanted, it’s certainly here. Right from the opening shots this does look like that hopeful future modern sci-fi seemed to stop doing. While there are sure to be some less than moral types out there, this is the best of what humanity (and…alienanity?) can accomplish working together, the heights we can achieve rather than focusing on warnings of we’re were headed, the utopian aspiration rather than the dystopian alleged certainty. I’ve missed that and apparently so did MacFarlane. And the various quirks of the non-humans can be both played for laughs and taken seriously as these variant species learn to accept and deal with each other’s culture and biology. There is a lot to work here covering both the serious and the silly. It’s a nice balance if the pilot and ads are any indication.
There’s one more Star Trek aspect I want to bring up before wrapping up this review. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Star Trek: Discovery even when we thought this was going to be a straight-up Spaceballs style comedy, saying that this show would feel more like Star Trek than the actual Star Trek show. And since that franchise is the inspiration to this show, while little of Discovery has given us that vibe (they’re even still using Enterprise style outfits and tech and that show never felt like Star Trek to me when I was watching it), I understand that. I’ve even seen titles of review videos asking if The Orville can “beat” Star Trek: Discovery. Folks, with all the rumors I’ve heard about this show and what little we’ve seen…well, I’ve written about my concerns about this show as well. However, it’s not out yet. Maybe it will surprise us; although at this point I’ll be surprised if it feels anything like Star Trek, it might still be a good show. Let’s wait until it air online and the pilot episode on CBS later this month before we declare it a disaster.
Overall though The Orville is a great science fiction show, whether it’s the true Star Trek heir or not. It’s hopeful, it’s funny when it doesn’t mess with the drama and dramatic when it won’t kill the joke, it has good characters and character moments, it has good sci-fi, and it’s just fun to watch. The question is whether this will have the same treatment as MacFarlane’s other shows or the same meddling that other science fiction shows have suffered at the hand of Fox scheduling and executives. The pilot will re-air for those of you who were dealing with Hurricane Irma, is available on demand, and the Fox website. It will also air on the FX network if you have that channel. Either way, I highly recommend this series if you just like enjoyable, uplifting science fiction that can be funny but also dramatic. It’s very much worth checking out.