December 15, 2018
Seth MacFarlane’s slick sci-fi throwback invites comparisons to “Star Trek” with its very nature, but pokes fun at sci-fi platitudes every chance it gets while still fully embracing them with a charming mix of humor and earnest storytelling.
Stars Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J. Lee, Mark Jackson.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Seth MacFarlane is flattering the heck out of “Star Trek.”
MacFarlane, a hardcore “Star Trek” fan who parlayed his fame into appearing as an extra in two episodes of “Star Trek: Enterprise,” has often said in interviews, and repeats the assertion in the DVD’s bonus materials, that he always wanted to make a sci-fi show that embraced the idea of an optimistic future for mankind, not unlike “Star Trek.”
Of course, MacFarlane is also the creator of “Family Guy” and Ted, a reputation that brings with it the expectation of a certain type of off-the-cuff humor.
“The Orville” presents a typical sci-fi future that serves as an obvious stand-in for the constructs of “Star Trek” — namely an enlightened Earth-centric interplanetary alliance, a fleet of starships devoted to exploration, and the alien enemies they encounter. Paradoxically, the show is eager to lampoon the platitudes of “Trek” while at the same time fully embracing them.
The series is set 400 years in the future, and starts with a Planetary Union officer named Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) flying back to his apartment after a hard day’s work only to discover his wife in bed with a blue alien (who, it turns out, is played by Rob Lowe in a cameo that is revisited with a fuller guest appearance in a later episode).
A year later, with his life and career spinning out of control, the fleet offers Mercer the captain’s chair of the mid-size exploratory vessel U.S.S. Orville, which he accepts as a chance to move past his troubles. The only hitch is that his now ex-wife (Adrianne Palicki) is assigned as his first officer. Resentments aside, they still work well together, as she’s doing her best to atone for what she did.
With the introduction of the rest of the ship’s senior staff to establish the requisite quirky personalities that will serve the show’s needs, the mission can get underway.
From there, “The Orville” begins its tricky balancing act between being an homage to “Star Trek” and a parody of it, from aping the general style of the legendary franchise to referencing very specific scenes (the ship’s launch from spacedock is heavily inspired by the departure of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, down to a guy in a spacesuit waving goodbye).
The show even uses the same camera angles for the establishing shots of the ship that were a staple of the “Next Generation” era of “Star Trek.” In its second episode, “The Orville” introduces an old-school opening title sequence that is practically a shot-by-shot re-creation of the “Star Trek: Voyager” main credits, showcasing adventures of the ship encountering various galactic phenomena while the cast’s names fly by to the strains of a lush musical score.
Enhancing the connection to “Star Trek” is the fact that many of the producers, directors and crafters of “The Orville” are former “Trek” staffers bringing those old sensibilities to the new show.
For the most part, though, the show pokes fun at the tropes of “Star Trek” or reframes them using current sensibilities, stepping back from the “Star Trek” depiction of an evolved humanity (which the “Star Trek” franchise itself began to poke a stick at once Gene Roddenberry’s involvement diminished).
The look and feel is very reminiscent of the fictional series at the heart of “Galaxy Quest,” another sci-fi “Trek” homage comedy to which “The Orville” is often compared.
The show has a distinct visual style, loading the screen with color and glossy visual effects that strike the right balance between verisimilitude and a cartoonish sense of fun, from the title starship looking like a bottle opener to crewmembers who are essentially just talking blobs of goo.
Jokes typically involve pop-culture references, comments on the mundane vagaries of life, or clever sight gags. The constant pop-culture references do expose a gap in the writing in that there doesn’t seem to be any pop culture between now and when the show is set. (A similar problem shows up in Ready Player One.)
For his part, MacFarlane is essentially playing himself as if he were Capt. Kirk, the ultimate self-referential fantasy fulfillment. McFarlane has too much respect for “Star Trek” to do a full-on parody, so he’s trying to settle on a laid-back approach akin to co-worker office banter, rather than go full tilt comedy and just stuff the frame with gags like an Airplane or Naked Gun.
In many ways, “The Orville” plays like a sci-fi version of MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, which surrounded a lampoon of Western stereotypes with the trappings of a traditional cinematic epic. (“The Orville” is also an excuse for MacFarlane to reunite with some of his West cast, with guest star turns from Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron.)
The show’s breezy style stands in contrast to the earnestness of its storytelling, which may be why its makers seem to have trouble in interviews and Q&A’s explaining exactly what the tone is supposed to be. Many episodes are even topical with their exploration of modern issues and parallels to current events.
That’s probably why so many fans of “Star Trek” from its 1990s heyday love the show so much, as it fills their need for the simple, eager thoughtfulness the franchise used to be known for, rather than the over-produced, action-based noise that has taken over since it was rebooted.
Some of the high-concept morality plays also bring to mind episodes of the parallel-reality series “Sliders,” particularly an episode centered on an Earth-like world that has structured its society around the dictates of social media reactions.
The tonal shift is a major reason why critics have been stingy in their appreciation of the show, with most of the major criticisms come from people who never really embraced “Star Trek” the way its fans do — for not only its message, characters and settings, but despite its idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies and even its flaws (and, in many cases, love it because of those things).
They also complain that the show’s shifts between comedy and drama make it hard to follow, but I find it’s easier to just accept it all as comedy, especially the parts that try to be serious. It’s like performance art, with the joke being how much they’re trying to present serious sci-fi during insanely absurd premises. It’s kind of like when Andy Kaufman would upend his set by just reading The Great Gatsby all night. The intense commitment to the material is the joke. This isn’t a sci-fi show with an optimistic view of the future. It’s an homage to fans of such shows.
In the framework of its brand of existential comedy, “The Orville” goes to great lengths to put its audience in the mindset of watching a “Star Trek” show, only to completely obliterate the seriousness of televised sci-fi. The comedy isn’t always just in the jokes or the dialogue. It’s in the fabric of the show and the situations it presents as seriously as it can.
First, it basically takes Starfleet and staffs it not with a stuffy crew of humanist explorers driven by idealism, but with regular people. That gives us a “Star Trek”-style show in which the ship’s crewmembers are basically fans doing cosplay — complete with whatever side remarks and jokey banter fans might make while watching a “Star Trek” show together.
Characters often behave as if they know they’re on a sci-fi show, and that seems to be the intention. For example, in one scene an alien character is shown sitting on an egg — not unusual in the “Star Trek” sense of celebrating the diversity of alien biology. But then the show doubles down on the gag by showing the character’s naked backside on top of the egg. It’s not funny because it’s an alien hatching its young, it’s funny because we all know it’s an actor who was subjected to heavy makeup just to be put in a ridiculous situation for a cheesy gag. That’s the whole point.
In another episode, the captain and first officer are captured by a technologically superior alien race and placed in a zoo to be gawked at by strangers. Eventually, the officer responsible for rescuing them is given a commendation, the ship leaves and the episode ends with hundreds of sentient beings left behind in captivity with nary an ounce of further concern from anyone on the Orville, or any subsequent episode dealing with trying to free them. Since the template for these kinds of shows really only requires worrying about the main characters, ancillary concerns suggested by the episode tend to fall to the wayside.
The not-fully-developed plotting gives the show a lot of its charm, as stories may lead to unanswered logistical questions that are so obviously sitting there without the show seeming to care if anyone asks. That’s why it’s so great as a “Star Trek” pastiche. Episodes might raise questions they never intend to address, but viewers aren’t meant to think the show really thought things through too much to begin with. It’s lovingly poking fun at how and why we take things like “Star Trek” so seriously to begin with.
For as much as the show is trying to be “Star Trek,” it’s the contrast with “Star Trek” that makes it so brilliant. The more it takes itself seriously, the funnier the show becomes on a meta level, and thus more endearing.
The DVD set presents all 12 first-season episodes spread across four discs. All the bonus materials are on the fourth disc, comprised mostly of short promotional featurettes covering various aspects of the show in a minute or two. These include “Designing the Future,” “The Orville Takes Flight,” “The Science of ‘The Orville’: Quantum Drive,” “The Science of ‘The Orville’: Alien Life,” “Crafting Aliens,” “A Better Tomorrow” and a “Directed By” featurette that that focuses on Jon Favreau directing the first episode.
The making of the show is further covered in a five-minute “Inside Look” featurette.
There’s also an eight-and-a-half-minute “The First Six Missions” montage that recaps the first six episodes with some very serious overtones and music.
The most interesting extra is the 35-minute “‘The Orville’ at Paleyfest 2018” video of a Q&A with the cast, writers and producers that offers a lot more insights into the mindset that goes into making the show.
The second season of “The Orville” premieres Dec. 30 on Fox.