When I was young there were two sci-fi shows I grew up watching. One of them was Doctor Who when re-runs of the older serials were shown; my first Doctor was Jon Pertwee, so I was rather fond during Peter Capaldi’s run when his clothing echoed Pertwee’s. The second was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Young me really liked TNG because the ship looked cool and the main guy was British and the ship looked really cool. It was an impressionable time.
Star Trek has since gone through numerous iterations both on TV and big screen with me having varying degrees of interest between them. When Discovery was announced and with the rumoured plan, to have the show be an anthology with each series having a different crew, ship and time era, I was incredibly excited. The Trek universe is rife of possibility, in much the same way any SF universe is, but this one was familiar and already had my interest. Then the delays happened and the show was cemented into the format we then got. I’ve already jotted down some thoughts on that though.
At some point a funny thing happened. Mr. Family Dad, Seth MacFarlane, said he was making a live-action sci-fi show. Okay. Then he said it was going to be a bit like Star Trek. Errm. What? Of course when you see MacFarlane’s credentials, as someone who had a cameo on ‘Enterprise’ and clearly grew up fond of Trek and specifically TNG, it’s easy to see how this could have happened. I was apprehensive of course because ignoring what I think of him, Family Guy and American Dad (the only shows of his I’ve seen) are not exactly close to anything Star Trek-y.
Gosh Joel, you’re about to start the fourth paragraph and the only mention of the show is in the title. What gives? I know this is a bit odd, but it’s all necessary.
Then the trailer was released and. Huh. Errm. Huh.
The fact is grown-up me still likes TNG, now much more so than when I was younger because over time I started to understand what was going on. It wasn’t just a cool ship; it was an interesting collection of various characters that had their own nuances placed in stories that could be adventurous, serious, philosophical, comedic and everything else. TNG also boasts talking. A lot of talking. Some of the best talking in any show I’ve watched. It’s not without its flaws, sure, but at its best it was really quite excellent.
The Orville is basically TNG. That’s the gist of it.
I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. For as much as I do look back, I like to look ahead to the future. I’m sure TNG played a big part in forming that perspective. Memories and experiences are of course important, but I don’t believe we should be governed by them. Pandering to it I find quite sad. My memories of the old won’t go anywhere. Give me something new. After an attack of nostalgia, I’m only going to remember the thing I’m being reminded of, not what is trying to pander to me because it’s not offering anything other than a memory of something else.
With that in mind The Orville sits in a dangerous place. Whilst Discovery tries to go for new, but set in an old universe it isn’t entirely sure it wants to be part of, The Orville tries to go for new, but set in a thinly veiled copy of a universe it desperately wants to be part of. I don’t want to get too much into comparing the two because they are different shows that go for different tone and form, but I will say that the optimism and idealism I thought I’d get from a show prefixed with Star Trek I got from one that wasn’t fortunate to be part of that body of work.
I’ve seen a few descriptions of The Orville that I find amusing and maybe fairly accurate: “Seth MacFarlane’s vanity project” and “The most expensive fanfiction on TV” stand out in particular. It’s one thing that MacFarlane produces it, but he’s also The Captain. The universe the show occupies is Star Trek’s, but with enough changes so it’s not. The United Federation of Planets? Nope, you mean The Union. Warp engines? I think you’ll find it’s the Quantum Drive.
Really everything about the show could be described as “Like Trek/TNG, but”. Again, I don’t see any value in getting into all the counterparts and their necessary differences, but if you know your stock Star Trek bridge crew, nothing of the cast comes as a surprise, but then it does. It’s essentially impossible to talk about the show’s identity without naturally wanting to talk about Trek, which is why I started this off without even bringing up The Orville.
What becomes interesting then are those differences and surprises. I mean duh, that seems obvious with any story, but I do think The Orville puts itself into scenarios that Trek/TNG tackled and then tries to do something a touch more daring. Primarily, some endings aren’t perfect. It’s a critique of the all-important optimism that Trek seldom approaches. So sure, it’s not a perfect ending, but it’s still hopeful and because of this it feels more real. I might even say that The Orville has some good talking.
Of course how those scenarios occur is the show’s biggest sin. There are stories that seem almost ripped verbatim from Trek/TNG. Not for nothing did I say “Oh, it’s the shuttle crash episode” when the time was right. If there’s effort put into the talking aspect, it’s not really there with the set-up. Frustratingly it’s as if the writers wanted you to know precisely what they were riffing on so that you would understand the importance of what it was they were shaking upside-down. When the show dared to have a fuller original idea it really shone and at least put some space between it and its clear inspiration.
It doesn’t stop at the stories either. A lot of people who produced Trek prior were involved and it’s blindingly obvious. The camera movement as we’re introduced to the Orville is so similar to how the Enterprise-D is introduced in TNG’s opening that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was intentionally identical. Even the fly-by shots share similar angles. If you were to close your eyes you would think the score was from TNG. Is nothing sacred?!
So here’s the kicker. I really enjoy The Orville. I think the characters stand on their own as not being good enough to be on the universe’s equivalent of the Enterprise, with various flaws and attitudes that would need to be ironed over repeatedly before they could rise to that point. At the same time there’s a clear camaraderie that the crew of the whole ship, not just the bridge, share and excel in. These are people that joke and eat with each other, that can get on other’s nerves or confide in. Hell, one of them is a gelatinous blob that is almost care-free, a romancer and a great engineer.
There’s a healthy injection of humour befitting our not-good-enough crew too. Like all comedy some of it works, some of it doesn’t. I find most of the jokes go by quickly enough that those not quite up to standard don’t drag anything down, so whilst the trailer I’ll link below might have the show as an out-and-out comedy, it absolutely plays second fiddle to the drama and adventure. There’s a tad overreliance on references to 90’s culture onwards in what is perhaps a misguided homage to Trek’s referencing contemporary things, however I think most of them hit in that way that makes you feel a little bad that you’re definitely laughing.
So nostalgia then; The Orville walks an exceedingly tight rope between that and originality. I definitely found myself being comfortable whilst watching it, as if I was familiar with everything going on almost before it happened, but before I could get too comfortable it did enough to snap me back to see what it was offering. I don’t think it does enough of that either. When the second series comes round, as much as I like and might even defend it, it really has to go out there with boldness and try something entirely new. It can’t persist surfing on what’s come before and changing some details because that will unquestionably wear thin.