The last Star Trek TV series was the underrated Enterprise. It came to an end all too soon in 2005 after four brief but wonderful seasons. Since then have been a couple of dissolute films that made a ton of money while sidestepping the character development, scientific speculation and moral dilemmas that make the franchise as special as it is.
The good news is that a new Star Trek is here. It’s called Discovery, and it starts its initial 15-episode run today (Monday September 25). And as a warm-up, we have The Orville to keep us on the scent.
The Orville? It’s a Seth MacFarlane production. You’ll know Seth from the Family Guy, American Dad, That Cleveland Show and the big screen franchise, Ted. Yeah, him.
The Orville is a live action Star Trek spoof and has gone down hard with the critics. Apparently, MacFarlane doesn’t seem to know what he wants from this series. Is it comedy or satire, or a stab at the real thing?
Here’s the deal, Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) is recovering from a bad divorce and for the last year he has been hung-over and unreliable. The Union (Federation of Planets) has almost lost faith in him but they are desperately short of captains, so they give him one more shot: the big seat on an exploratory vessel called The Orville.
The first episode gets off on the wrong foot with a series of hackneyed gags that are more cringe-worthy than funny. Imagine Brian from Family Guy captaining a Starship with a wise-cracking bridge crew. Yeah, it’s at about that level, and anytime about here I could have turned it off. But then something happens, the cheap gags slack off and everyone gets a little serious. Ed Mercer proves to be more than the sum of his parts and except for the two wise-ass pilots, everyone else seems to be playing it straight, even Ed’s Number 1, his ex-wife.
Commander Grayson’s unexpected arrival sets the crew a-buzz and causes the second officer Bortus to ask if they should be discussing the Captain’s personal matters. ‘Oh, we’re talking about it alright,’ is the consensus. Otherwise, the crew manage a reasonable job of fighting off aggressive aliens and coming up with solutions to insurmountable problems in double quick time, just like the real thing.
All the Trek archetypes are present and accounted for – The Doctor, Chief of Security, an AI Science Officer (think Data) and a curmudgeonly Chief of Engineering. Nicely played by Larry Joe Campbell (American Vandal, According To Jim), Steve Newton looks to be every bit the equal of Miles O’Brien and Scotty. As for the straight-faced Bortus, he sits out the second episode on an egg (his firstborn) and like all the aliens on display, is cleverly crafted, (Bortus: think Commander Warf).
The obvious comparisons are Mel Brook’s Star Wars spoof Spaceballs (1987) and the 1999 Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest, and though it retains something of that tradition The Orville quickly becomes something all its own, a real honest to goodness Star Trek sitcom.
MacFarlane is a Trek devotee and knows his stuff. The Orville is closely modelled on Voyager/Deep Space Nine-era Trek and every detail is correct right down to the music, pace, sets, lights and CGI. As for the stories, they are classic Trek styles and would fit neatly into any one of the five ‘actual’ series.
Star Trek is a franchise with a big conscience and is just as much about society as it is about inventions, speculation and adventure, and MacFarlane stays true to these traditions. The second episode includes a clever dig at celebrity culture and offers up a pitch for animal rights. And was that a subtle dig at Trump? If it was, job bloody well done.
Warm, earnest and a little bit funny, The Orville shouldn’t work but it does. Bugger the critical consensus, I am giving this the big tick and predict it will only get better. With this beautifully crafted love letter to all things Trek, MacFarlane confounds again.