I have to confess that The Orville has left me somewhat confused. As a drama, it’s got too many silly gags in it to be taken seriously. But the jokes are too few in number and not nearly funny enough to qualify the show as a sitcom. It has an earnestness that suggests it wants to be a proper grown-up show, but an insecurity that suggests it feels it can only get away with the attempt if it also laughs at itself. The end result is a show that feels like it wants to be more homage than spoof, only to find itself more of a pastiche than satire.
Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane (famous for Family Guy, American Dad! and Ted), the show is set onboard a 25th-century space exploration ship named the Orville. MacFarlane plays Captain Ed Mercer, whose first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) is also his ex-wife whom he divorced after he found her having an affair with an alien. Much of the early ‘humour’ in the series comes from Mercer’s continual sniping and point-scoring about their acrimonious split, while of course it’s clear to everyone that the two are still somewhat in love.Other crew members include ship’s doctor Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), stern second officer Bortus (Peter Macon), inexperienced security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), android science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson), sharp-witted navigator John LaMarr (J Lee) and show-off helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes).
The crew line-up, along with everything else in the show, is strongly modelled on the constituent parts of the 1990s Star Trek franchise, specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager. The visual aesthetic of the Orville itself and other ships in the Planetary Union are clearly inspired by the design of the Enterprise and Voyager vessels, with a few tweaks for copyright reasons (nacelles are replaced by arched propulsion drives for example) but that’s not going to fool anyone for more than two seconds. The execution of the FX and set design shows just how much things have moved on in the 25 years or so since the original shows aired – the budget is big enough to afford showing shuttlecrafts zipping back and forth to the planet of the week, rendering the old cost-saving transporter unnecessary – but the old style is still retained in its essence. Even the music riffs on well-known scores from previous series and movies.
In fact the show is so closely modelled on TNG and Voyager that it becomes an exercise in nostalgia for those who find that the recent Star Trek movie outings from JJ Abrams and Justin Lin have been too big and bombastic for their taste, lacking as they do the true spirit and ethos of the original franchise. People who miss the light-hearted optimism of the old shows will find much to smile about here. Perhaps MacFarlane is among them, and The Orville is his attempt to relaunch the series albeit under a different name. Or perhaps he always wanted to star in a Star Trek spin-off and this is the only way he’s going to see his dream fulfilled. The show even boasts franchise alumnus Brannon Barga as executive producer.
I tend to find all of MacFarlane’s work to be a bit of a mixed bag: Family Guy can be laugh out loud funny but also uneven, veering into crude overkill, too often missing its targets and simply not nearly as hilarious as its makers clearly believe it to be. The same up-and-down sense is true in The Orville: the first episode emphasises Mercer’s general incompetence for command, while the second riffs off original Star Trek pilot “The Cage” to put Mercer and Grayson back into a holographic recreation of their disastrous marriage. But then the third episode largely abandons jokes altogether for a po-faced plot involving a forced transgender operation for the child of two of the ship’s crew members, the sort of storyline that TNG would have been proud to take on with only minimal changes required.
As a result, the show is not nearly as funny as it needs to be to satisfy long-time fans of MacFarlane’s animated output; but the gags that are there tend to undermine the series’ attempt at a futuristic reality. It’s not like TNG never had any jokes, but here they tend to be too puerile, scatological or meta to find a comfortable footing within the show’s implied mise-en-scène.
Of the cast, Jerald seems to get the best balance of slightly sending up her medical forebears without actually over-egging it; Macon gets to play the humourless Klingon-type prosthetic alien, and Jackson is an engaging cross between Data and C-3P0. Grimes and Lee make a good comedy double act, commenting from the stalls on the action going around them; and Palicki gets to play things broadly straight which is rather a welcome relief. It’s MacFarlane who is the weakest link – he’s trying to play things mainly straight, but his matinee-idol good looks also tend to lend him an air of insufferable smugness which extends to the overall production.
The show is certainly watchable and has moments of interest, just not really enough of them to justify a regular date. Most of the things that do appeal are the same elements that made TNG and Voyager a success two decades ago, and The Orville generally doesn’t have enough unique qualities of its own to recommend it. It has the overwhelming sense of a fan rip-off of the originals that reminds you what made them so very special in their day – and what’s emphatically lacking here for all its good looking production values.
That said, it’s been renewed for a second 13-episode run, so maybe things pick up and improve. After all, anyone watching the first half of season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 will recall just how bad that show was when it started, too. Maybe The Orville is just being intentionally sub-par in its first run as one more way of referencing its heroes of old.
Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
The Orville is currently airing on the Fox channel on Thursdays at 9pm.