I’ve been a Star Trek fan for as long as I can remember, and The Orville is absolutely the Star Trek show I’ve been waiting for. Relaxed, self-aware, smart and open-minded, The Orville succeeds so unequivocally because of its lack of pretentiousness and its ability to place realistic, identifiable humans from the real world in a far-fetched science fiction scenario. It doesn’t trip all over itself in a desperate attempt to be offensive to absolutely no one (which was always my problem with The Next Generation) and it doesn’t go lazily dark for the sake of going “dark” to convince casual viewers of its dramatic significance (my problem with Discovery). Instead, it offers up, each week, a thoroughly entertaining morsel of science fiction adventure with appealing, realistic characters in an optimistic and positive imagining of the future of our civilization. Star Trek is based on the belief that this civilization, the one we’re in right now, is fundamentally good and, once it gets past its inevitable growing pains, it will stand the test of time. In 2017 that is a downright revolutionary notion, allowing us to add yet another feather to the cap of a show that, in its low-key and unpretentious way, has already evolved into one of the most welcome sights on a TV screen.
Debuting as it did, alongside the heavy and ponderous Star Trek Discovery, The Orville was sadly burdened by the weight of expectations. The first of which was that it would be a comedy, which many expected from the mind of Seth MacFarlane. But those who anticipated that have paid little attention to MacFarlane’s work. Consider the Family Guy episode “Road to the Multiverse”, which features Stewie and Brian on one of their Hope and Crosby-inspired road adventures, this time traveling to a variety of alternate realities. One of the most entertaining of these realities is a universe in which Christianity never existed, and thus, “Civilization is a thousand years more advanced,” with sexual freedom and technological innovation the most obvious examples of this iteration of our culture. It’s a small scene but it speaks volumes about MacFarlane’s not-so-covert agenda as an artist, namely to peel away layers of stuffy, uptight, received moral wisdom and instead embrace freedom in its true form, rejecting superstition or repression in any form (including the fear of being labelled that most dastardly of modern terms, “politically incorrect”) and continuing the social and technological optimism of the 1960s. In that context, his love for Star Trek, and the subsequent birth of The Orville, is hardly surprising. Consider as well his maligned western A Million Ways to Die in the West, which relentlessly machine-guns the feet of clay underpinning the anti-modern nostalgia many feel for the time period. MacFarlane is unafraid to sing the praises of the modern world, which puts him at odds with many self-styled “progressives”, but it’s just this positivity, this faith that science shows us the way forward and that the last thousand years of western history were not some ill-conceived mistake, that shines through The Orville, and might be what bothers so many of its critics.
No, The Orville is not a comedy, although it is quite funny at times. But that isn’t its reason for existing. I have no problem with creators known for comedy stretching out in other ways (Better Call Saul leaps to mind), but viewers who go into The Orville expecting Family Guy in space will be disappointed. The best description I’ve seen, and I can’t claim it to be an original observation, is that it’s like Star Trek “…except the characters don’t have sticks up their asses”. There’s no self-important Shakespearean or Operatic posing. Characters are rude to each other, make fun of each other, express real human feelings for each other and in short, feel like real people. There’s also a wonderfully refreshing attitude towards sex and sexuality on the show. Characters flirt with other, even have sex with each other (Dr. Finn, my personal favourite character, even has sex with a gelatinous blob and enjoys it, like a real human being would, without shame or mortal consequence) and that’s never the overriding “issue” of the show. They do it because they enjoy it, and because, so goes the show’s ethos, it’s far enough in the future that we’ve all relaxed about such things. Not to say that people don’t have feelings – the show’s first season features a long-running dance of jealousy and betrayal between MacFarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer and ex-wife Kelly Grayson (played by Adrianne Palicki). But the show is so gender fluid that it barely blinks an eye when Ed actually sleeps with another man (played by Rob Lowe, no less). In contrast to Discovery’s pompous posing and reverential lingering over each supposedly groundbreaking innovation, like having a female Captain (something that Star Trek itself did years ago), The Orville cheerfully dives right into the breach, embracing the freedom that the genre allows in an unpretentious way. The show is at its weakest when it strains to make heavy handed social statements, and at its strongest when it simply relaxes and allows the characters to interact in some sort of casual way, like eating lunch or singing karaoke.
Yes, some of the story arcs are straight from the TNG playbook, but the freshness of the characterizations elevates the material above cliche. MacFarlane’s obvious, uncomplicated and pure love for The Next Generation infuses each frame with a warmth sadly lacking in so much modern sci-fi, but once again, this is remarkable only because of the downward spiral in optimism of the genre in recent years. In an era of “quality TV”, The Orville is an unapologetic throwback, right down to its lack of serialized storytelling. It transcends simply by being “old school”, and having the courage to take the genre seriously without taking itself too seriously. In the Zack Snyder era, that’s wonderfully refreshing.