Critics may have misread the sci-fi comedy series, missing the underlying tribute to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.
First we had two weeks devoted to music, and now two weeks I’ve covered sci-fi TV shows. It’s a coincidence, I promise. Anyway, The Orville is a sci-fi comedy-drama masterminded by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, which debuted in the fall 2017 season alongside its drama counterpart and heavyweight franchise contender, Star Trek: Discovery. Here is a trailer:
Star Trek vs. The Orville
Leading up to fall 2017, it seemed almost unfair to pit a humorous pastiche of Star Trek pitted against the latest iteration of the sci-fi titan itself. It would be like having a rap battle between Kanye West and your fifth-grade summer camp bunkmate. Rivalries between creative works like Star Wars vs. Star Trek or The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones always seemed kind of silly to me, but people like to feel superior to one another for some reason.
Unsurprisingly, critics generally praised Star Trek: Discovery and panned The Orville, including the oft-quoted 19% aggregate rating on Rotten Tomatoes (this has changed, but it’s the number everyone seems to mention). What was surprising was that audiences loved The Orville practically from the outset, and based on IMDb ratings alone, the praise did not wane as the season went on. On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of hatred (deserved or not) directed at Star Trek: Discovery. The Orville continues to enjoy strong support from ordinary television watchers and sci-fi fans, even earning the status of the “true Star Trek,” or “what Star Trek should have been,” and other variations on that theme, from self-identifying Star Trek fans.
I have not started Star Trek: Discovery yet (no spoilers please), but I was convinced by buzz alone to check out The Orville, and by the end I simply couldn’t understand the hate from critics. Sure, the episode about gender reassignment was . . . misguided, to say the least (although I think they nailed the ending, what with how the good guys don’t always win and how social change takes momentum). But by the time the series truly hit its stride, I realized this show could become a significant force in TV sci-fi.
The cast is spot-on; yes I liked Adrianne Palicki as Cmdr. Grayson, shut up! Also, the writing hits just the right balance between humor and introspective drama. I really appreciated how topical many of the issues tackled in the series were, but on top of that, the show was generally very even-handed in its treatment of the topic du jour, even when it had a stake in one side of the issue. The sixth episode, Krill, comes to mind, in which the show tackles the catch-22 of our society’s attempts to address militant religious fundamentalism, where there are equally grave costs to both an aggressive and a conciliatory approach. My personal favorite is the episode after that, Majority Rule, in which the crew encounters a civilization governed entirely by the court of public opinion, demonstrating just how important the rule of law is to the balance of a society.
Finally, there’s this sense of spacefaring wonderment throughout the show that brings me back to Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the original Star Trek, a stagecoach in space. And hey, the CGI isn’t half bad for a primetime sci-fi comedy either.
What sets The Orville apart
So what’s up with the critics? They rightly exalt such TV smash hits as Game of Thrones, The Good Place, and Stranger Things, so why do they get The Orville so wrong?
There’s no accounting for taste of course, and critics and audiences alike tend to be either hot or cold when it comes to Seth MacFarlane in general. I’m sure there were also many who believed the moral lessons from the episodes fell short or might have been a bit tone deaf, and those people are entitled to their opinions. But it seems odd, doesn’t it? Critics almost universally hate this show; audiences almost uniformly love it. Something is not connecting here, and while I do not have the answer, I do have a theory.
I think what the critics got wrong about The Orville is that they expected a Family Guy-style roast of Star Trek, much like the Star Wars parody Blue Harvest. When faced with a show that attempts to work in sci-fi action and moral dilemmas with the jokes, many critics might have concluded that the show was trying to do too much or simply didn’t know what kind of show it wanted to be.
But The Orville is not a parody of Star Trek, and I don’t think it’s an homage either. It’s a spiritual successor. If you strip away the specific characters, the names of the alien races, and the setting in general, and refine The Orville down to its most basic elements, what do you get? Optimism, wonder, the occasional action sequence (but not too much action), people who behave like people and not just the idealization of what future people should be like, and the ability to take itself seriously . . . but not too seriously. In other words, you get Star Trek: The Original Series with better special effects.
Because while The Orville often spoofs minor elements of Star Trek such as having the bridge crew watch movies on the central screen and one of the crew members being a literal pile of goo, it plays the core of Star Trek totally straight. The Orville takes place in a future in which currency has been eliminated from human civilization and people pursue careers and other ambitions because they want to. There’s a sort of unabashed optimism to the show, just like there was with the Federation in Star Trek: The Original Series, with Earth having set aside its historic squabbles and formed one harmonious world government. With most of TV sci-fi and fantasy nowadays being so gritty and dark, it’s refreshing to see a show play an advanced and prosperous futuristic society completely straight with no caveats or catches.
Like I said before, the show also recaptures the sense of wonder that comes from space exploration, in a way that I haven’t seen since the days of Captain Kirk. In the fourth episode, the crew of the Orville comes across a generation ship the size of a planet and discover an entire biosphere inside (to say nothing of the beautiful starry scene at the end of the episode, no spoilers). I was personally awestruck by a post-apocalyptic planet in the eighth episode; the environments were not only well thought out, but looked pretty epic as well.
The humor of The Orville is not sci-fi humor, and it’s mostly based on how people today talk to each other. Science fiction humor usually has an element of the bizarre to it, like the quirky things aliens do or Luke Skywalker aggressively drinking alien milk at Rey. But not The Orville; this show’s humor is based on the ordinary, down-to-earth humor of workplace banter. As one reviewer succinctly put it, The Orville is Star Trek that merely happens to be funny.
But there’s more to it than even that; the humor reveals something about the way in which The Orville predicts humanity’s future. Most of Star Trek, especially since The Next Generation, has insisted that we will someday evolve into advanced beings who have outgrown the vices of our Earth-bound ancestors, because that’s the only way we’ll make it to the stars. But not on The Orville; characters interact to each other the way we would in the 21st century. The show seems to say we will never be the too-perfect, marble likenesses of humans that characters like Picard were, but that’s okay. People will always be people, and there’s nothing wrong with the future being filled with people who are just as silly, selfish, and flawed as we are. We’ll reach the stars being exactly who we are.
To boil it all down, I think what threw a lot of people is that a show like this shouldn’t work. We have preconceived notions of how sci-fi should be, and what a serious science fiction work should be like as opposed to a comedic one. The elements The Orville mashes together ought not work together, and really should result in an incoherent mess.
But what critics miss is that a sci-fi universe both making fun of itself and taking itself seriously are not and ought not to be mutually exclusive aims. What I mean by that is this: I think the critics have conflated serious with realistic. Only serious, gritty shows like Star Trek: Discovery can be reasonably described as believable, right? If it pokes fun at itself, we seem to think it requires even more suspension of disbelief because of all the tropes being exaggerated for humor, or because the characters act like us, not like future people.
And that’s where critics and even most people are wrong. Old, lighthearted – even campy – sci-fi shows and movies of the past didn’t need to be serious to be realistic or to be adored by their fans, and comedy doesn’t automatically mean the show loses some of that realism. Someone can probably say this better than I am right now, but people have gotten so used to convincing settings needing to look dirty and lived in, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. They “have” to be gritty to be believable, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
So when presented with a specimen like The Orville, which tries to be lighthearted and realistic, it appears to fry some circuits. I will address this in another blog post down the road, but like I hinted at above, I think gritty realism has abused the notion that a creative work has to be serious in order to be taken seriously. That may be why nothing feels original anymore, and why people are getting tired of all the same gritty movies and TV shows. Fortunately, I think people are coming around to the idea that we can suspend our disbelief for a fictional world that takes itself seriously without being dark and serious all the time. It’s okay to be optimistic and to have hope for a future that is bright, shiny, futuristic, and even funny.
I guess we just need to maintain our faith in reason, in discovery, and in the endurance of the logical mind. Thanks for reading, everyone. See you next week.
Do you think The Orville deserves to be called “the next Star Trek?” Why or why not? Tell us below in the comment section!