The Orville tries to be funny sometimes (and usually fails)
Seth MacFarlane loves Star Trek, so he made a Star Trek show. That’s the sincere and pointless appeal of The Orville. It’s the eighth show MacFarlane’s produced for Fox, but it feels more personal than his other work, like he’s chasing destiny. MacFarlane’s the creator of the show, the credited writer of the first few episodes, and he playing the star commander of the titular space vessel. Gene Roddenberry had an ego the size of a Constitution-class starship, but even he let somebody else sit in the Captain’s Chair.
Way back in 1999, the second episode of Family Guy had a Captain Kirk cutaway bit, with William Shatner voiced by Seth MacFarlane. The point of the joke, see, was that Shatner could really overact, see. Credit to MacFarlane for pushing this average gag where no Trek nerd has ever gone before. When he hosted the Oscars, he beamed Shatner-Kirk onto the big screen for some endless banter. Now, with The Orville, MacFarlane’s sitting on the bridge of his own Bizarro-Enterprise.
And you sense a profound attempt here, a fan grasping toward something long lost. This isn’t a spoof of Star Trek, nor some lacerating satire. It only tries to be funny sometimes (and usually fails). Ever since the early 2000s, the actual Star Trek franchise has struggled towards some notion of newness, trending darker or more kinetic. This was true in the J.J. Abrams films, but it was already true in the later Next Generation movies, with their laser cannons and their spaceship smash-ups. There’s an official new Star Trek show debuting this month, Discovery, whose trailers promise war and complex motivations and all the other stuff Battlestar Galactica did last decade.
The Orville is none of that. Actually, if you’re a Trek fan, you might view this new show as a legitimate inheritor of the franchise’s legacy. The series is executive produced by Brannon Braga, a key Trek architect from Next Generation onwards. Another producer is David A. Goodman, who worked on Enterprise but more importantly wrote “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” the Futurama episode that transformed “throwaway Star Trek gags” into a High Geek art form. The second episode’s directed by Robert Duncan McNeill, who was Tom Paris on Voyager; Jonathan Frakes (Riker!) will direct another episode this season.
I would imagine someone was paid a considerable amount of money to scrub The Orville of anything that seems lawsuit-worthy, but you don’t need to squint too hard. The United Federation of Planets is now the “Planetary Union.” There are different aliens with oddly familiar forehead ridges. There’s the moment at the end of the opening credits sequence when the spaceship powers up its warp drive – sorry, “the Quantum Drive,” or something. There’s a bridge, color-coded uniforms, naval ranks, the Chief of Security, the Doctor, the Robot-ish Crew Member Who Doesn’t Have Regular Emotions. The crew faces toward a viewscreen, Captain’s Chair behind the helm station, just like on the original Enterprise back in 1966. (I didn’t spot any hairpieces, but technology has evolved in 51 years.)
I’m not really complaining. You could argue copyright law all day. Paramount actually did, suing the makers of the Trek fan film Prelude to Axanar. What I saw of Axanar seemed like a snooze, but it’s not like the mainline Star Trek series has been firing on all cylinders this millennium. I actually find it oddly compelling that MacFarlane – a rich man with the backing of a powerful corporation – has used his position to do his own Axanar. And to launch this the same month as Discovery? Delicious! Fight, fight, fight!
And The Orville doesn’t look cheap. Its pilot was directed by blockbuster director Jon Favreau. There are copious special effects and surprisingly large sets. I can only really compare The Orville to something like Superman Returns, another meticulous and sincere throwback vision, a contemporary creator’s insanely expensive attempt to completely remake something they loved in their youth, something that was much cheaper and much less meticulous and nevertheless much more vital.
So: I respect the intentions. And I wonder: Why is this show so bland?
Part of the problem is tone. The pilot starts with Union officer Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) arriving home in his utopian future city to find his wife Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) in bed with an alien. And then it skips ahead a year, the implication being that Ed’s performance has gone downhill post-divorce. He’s offered a kind of last-chance mission, his own command on a mid-level ship called the Orville. Ed requests his best friend Gordon (Scott Grimes) as his helmsman. Gordon’s a great pilot, we’re told, and a bit of a wreck: “He’s drawn a lot of penises on things.”
Gordon is the kind of pilot who drinks beer before 10 a.m. while he’s flying a ship, and you’re expecting the Orville to be a ship of similar Misfit Toys. But it’s a pretty regular spaceship, with a crew of people who come pre-baked with a couple quick arcs. Peter Macon plays Bortus, a ridge-headed deadpan dude from a species where everyone’s a man. (His partner is played by the great Chad L. Coleman, doing remarkably sensitive work underneath a mountain of face makeup.) Halston Sage plays Alara Kitan, super strong and super naive. Penny Johnson Jerald is Dr. Finn, a great no-bull physician. J. Lee is Navigator LaMarr, who seems chill.
It’s a long introduction, this pilot, complete with long shots of the Orville setting off from Earth. It’s like the least watchable parts of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the stuff in the first hour with Kirk endlessly taking meetings in huge rooms and the Enterprise endlessly sailing through the stars. The inciting incident arrives, finally. The Orville is assigned its second-in-command – and it’s Kelly, Captain Mercer’s ex-wife!
Now, Palicki’s had a rough go since her fine work on Friday Night Lights. She had two superhero shows that didn’t happen and had the only unfun role in John Wick. The stolid formality of Trektalk suits her well. Palicki has a champion side-eye, and there’s a droll-humor tradition in Star Trek, commanders secretly insulting nemesis creatures to their face, Picard patiently talking Data through the vagaries of humanity.
But the only truly un-Trek-like part of The Orville is how the crewmates interact with each other. It’s not droll. Gordon tells the other bridge officers that Kelly “a total b–h.” When Ed keeps bringing up her infidelity – often in public! – Kelly tells her ex-husband, “Don’t be a jerk.” Enterprise officers were often prone to light flirtation, but in episode 3, a talking blob with the voice of Norm MacDonald tries to convince Finn that their two species could intermingle, and the argument involves the space blob forming a long shaft, ho ho ho.
It feels like the pitch on The Orville was “Star Trek, but the people talk normal,” without the militarized respectfulness that defined Trek and so much midcentury science-fiction. That means Kelly and Ed argue openly, in front of everyone; Ed tells everyone about Kelly’s infidelity, even an enemy starship captain. And it’s not the worst idea, a spaceship run by a divorced couple, their galactic heroism B-plotting their late-stage romantic warfare. But Palicki can only do so much. MacFarlane’s given himself a weird role here. Ed’s meant to be a lovable every-guy nerdishly excited about his first command, and a dynamic officer ready for anything, and a ruined sad sack still nursing a broken heart, and the kind of brash tough guy who will tell a major politician from another planet, “Dude, you’ve been a colossal dick all day, shut the hell up!”
It’s beyond MacFarlane’s abilities as an actor. You want him to choose a direction and stick with it. But that would require some truly compelling new idea about what a show like this should be. And The Orville so far just feels like some lost show from late in Trek‘s ’90s Renaissance. The series wants to reclaim the old possibilities of a pre-serialized era, telling concept episodes with surface-level themes. What if humans were animals in the zoo, eh? And what if a woman was born to a species of men, right? The Orville captures the lost grandeur of twerpy science-fiction, the brash goofy willingness to solve everything with lasers and colorful uniforms. But it also captures everything that made the latter days of Trek TV so stale and unmemorable. I share MacFarlane’s yearning for the lost wonder of Star Trek, but I don’t need to watch brand new C-level Next Generation episodes, especially not when some creative force behind the scenes keeps tossing out unfunny crude gags.
I want to stick with the show, though. The third episode is the by-default best, and most boldly strange. Bortis and his partner have given birth to a young female child. Their culture considers female-ness a genetic defect, and so Bortis asks the doctor to give his newborn a sex change.
Now, the notion of Seth MacFarlane exploring transgender politics probably sounds like a living nightmare to anyone who will never forgive the “We Saw Your Boobs” singer for his litany of dudebro transgressions. (A race of men who hate women = everyone who liked Dads?) And the episode itself is horribly structured, dependent on a deus so machina it might as well come from Sha Ka Ree. (There’s also a horribly staged boxing match; the show’s action scenes are indifferent at best, and visuals, in general, are pretty bland, but that was true of a lot of Star Trek, but it is possible to honor your influences and learn from their mistakes.)
But I admire the impulse. Here’s The Orville tackling the politics of our moment as brazenly as Star Trek ever has. It’s goofy and weightless, and requires someone to say, “Don’t start passing out the penises just yet.” It also pointedly sidesteps the question of what the Federation – sorry, the Union – thinks about transgender politics. But there’s an endearing resonance to Macon and Coleman’s performances, two decent people struggling within their own prejudices (and within their marriage).
I think that’s the show MacFarlane wants to make. His ambition might have hit a ceiling, though. There’s one notable departure from Trek tradition in The Orville. The characters on various Enterprises – and on Deep Space Nine and on Voyager, too – always seemed to share a fascination with what you might call highbrow culture. Even the Klingons quoted Shakespeare, and the Next Generation holodeck was a gateway for history nerds. Some of this might have just been genre peacocking – we’re not just a space show! – but it also reflected the deep seeking intelligence on display. The Undiscovered Country has the best dialogue scene of any Star Trek movie, when a Klingon commander quotes Hamlet and Chekov talks about inalienable human rights and all sides debate the possibility that universal assimilation means cultural annihilation. Inevitably, talk turns to Hitler.
On The Orville, characters seem to derive their whole philosophical being from the pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s. Ed calls Kermit the Frog “a leader I admire.” The Doctor tells a young colleague, “I’ll try to be your Obi-Wan.” One character learns about the value of individuality by watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s a scene where Gordon gets tested on basic knowledge: The capital of America, the parts of a human heart. “I would like to switch to movie trivia!” he begs.
Again, I get the idea here. Of course a new show set in the future shouldn’t ignore the last half century of pop culture. Hell, you could argue that the original Star Trek – 51 years old last week – is an artifact from before pop was culture. But there’s a weird echo chamber effect here, a sense that even the characters have lived through these stories before. “This is just like on Star Trek!” is something they might say, with good humor and grace. It is. But Star Trek has problems, and at least now we finally know dick jokes won’t solve them. C