Bold, clever and heartfelt, The Orville is a gorgeous piece of sci-fi – and I’m as surprised as anyone.
When it was announced that Seth MacFarlane was fronting an ode to classic Star Trek, to be shown in direct opposition to the heralded return of TV Trek in Discovery, it was easy to assume the worst. After so many years of stomping over the line in Family Guy, and tepid film comedies after the success of the first Ted, a MacFarlane Trek seemed like it could only be an overblown comedic vehicle. At best, it might have reached the occasional slapstick of Galaxy Quest or Spaceballs, but it was fair to say most expected the worst.
This baggage affected the first episode of The Orville, initially confirming fears: MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a slovenly, mildly alcoholic joker who is permanently bruised by the infidelity of his ex-wife. His introduction paints him as someone who doesn’t really want to work towards the goals he supposes he has, dragging his wise-cracking friend along for the ride on his first Captained starship just because they’re buddies. It’s uneven, and does little to assuage the growing impression that the show would just be another stage for this type of humour.
The change comes with Adrianne Palicki. The introduction of the ex-wife as new First Officer of the Orville comes at first with some eye-rolling, given that it could seem like just another avenue for Captain Mercer to be miserable. However, here’s where the magic of the show starts to show its true colours. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to write them as bickering, sniping enemies who constantly have to be ignored by the suffering crew. Instead, The Orville‘s humanity starts to shine through. Yes, they are at loggerheads initially, but then the dust settles and they react to each other in more realistic ways: the dull sting of betrayal, the pangs of guilt over a decision somewhat justified yet still wrong. On their first official mission, they work together instead of as disparate entities; their wonderful duel sarcasm over what appears to be a banana-destroying device is a hilarious hint of what made their relationship work in the first place. It’s a lovely moment of warmth.
This warmth and humanity proves to be a constant thread in the show. MacFarlane and Palicki have smaller roles in episode two, leaving the focus on the crew (and especially on one particular member) as they work together to save their crewmates. It’s a journey of self-discovery, strength and compromise that is surprisingly well-written and realised. Episode three is even better, choosing to take on an incredibly sensitive subject and handling it with wonderful tact. MacFarlane and Palicki take centre stage again, but nothing is played explicitly for laughs. The ending in particular, removed from the expected happy conclusion, is beautifully handled and genuinely emotional to watch.
The Orville‘s penchant for hitting contentious subjects head-on continues with explorations of religion, and the power of religious messages, in later episodes. It starts to read like a laundry list of issues that should be avoided, but the writing and acting is so strong that each story arc has a meaningful payoff. The jokes are still there, of course – and some of them definitely don’t work as well as others – but they are never the focus. The Orville is classic Trek with jokes, true, but the humour actually just underlines the show’s key strength – its realistic humanity. There is no monologuing or bandstanding here – something that definitely weighs down Discovery‘s pilot episode – but, instead, actions and reactions come across as things that a normal human would do in that situation. The closest parallel I can use is Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers – instead of hero army men spouting motivational dialogue, it has British squaddies shouting and hitting werewolves with frying pans. It makes the whole thing more relatable, and ultimately adds heart.
It’s this heart that made me fall in love with The Orville. As I’m sure you know, in the great Star divide I fall cleanly on the Wars side, but I watched a great deal of original Trek when I was growing up and it holds a special place for me. I couldn’t tell you much about the lore, and I certainly can’t say that anything after The Next Generation held my interest for long, but what The Orville does is remind me of why I enjoyed the original crew. For me, Star Trek was always about a group of friends who, despite their differences, worked together to explore the unknown. There was always a sly humour that cut through the seriousness, from Bones’ acerbic grumpiness to a million tiny furballs flooding the Enterprise.
And in the middle was the ship and the heart, giant and beating warm around the cast and crew. This is what MacFarlane has somehow emulated more perfectly than any other Trek since the original crew signed off, giving The Orville a strength and warmth that you won’t find anywhere else.