clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Seth MacFarlane could save his terminally bland Star Trek clone The Orville

New, 41 comments

Faux Trek

Seth MacFarlane’s new faux-Star Trek show The Orville premiered on Fox recently, and the reviews ranged from scathing to indifferent. People clearly aren’t sure what to make of its weird blend of straight-faced Next Generation-era Trek pastiche and MacFarlane’s particularly lowbrow brand of humor. So far, The Orville isn’t exactly a bad show, but it’s disjointed and formless as it oscillates between the different things it’s trying to do. Here’s what it’s going to need to do better to survive as a series.

Commit to something, anything

The Orville is two different shows. One is live-action Family Guy in space, with crude humor and casual racist and sexist jokes. The other is a bland, off-brand Star Trek imitation. In theory, either of these ideas on its own could let the series survive on network television. MacFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad have seen tremendous success on the foundation of that same kind of bro-humor. And while it does feel out of place on the deck of the Enterprise, given Star Trek's history of diversity and inclusiveness, it’s possible that jokes featuring a racist robot or banal, sexist arguments about leaving the toilet seat up will bring something new to the Trek table. There’s clearly room on TV for mediocre Star Trek — after all, Star Trek: Enterprise somehow made it through four full seasons.

But The Orville’s problem is that it doesn’t commit to either of those ideas. The Star Trek-esque setting isn’t played for laughs. It’s overwhelmingly earnest, with everything from the opening sequence structure to the costumes and sets to the music ripped straight out of Next Generation. (I would swear that the dramatic commercial break cliffhanger score is exactly the same.) That’s understandable, since MacFarlane is a self-proclaimed huge Trek fan, and Brannon Braga — the writer, showrunner, and producer responsible for a considerable amount of the modern Star Trek oeuvre — is created as one of The Orville’s executive producers.

The humor is completely disconnected from anything else in the show. Much of it is based around Seth MacFarlane’s character, Captain Ed Mercer, clashing with his ex-wife Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), who also serves as his second-in-command. The second episode features an extended bit where Jeffrey Tambour spends far too long berating Captain Mercer about getting a colonoscopy. At other times, The Orville clings to modern pop culture references. (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a serious plot point in the third episode.) But none of it is tied to the setting, or relevant to the episode plots. Picking a tone and sticking to it would benefit the series greatly.

Photo: Fox

Root the humor in Star Trek and science fiction, not references

It was essentially inevitable that The Orville, as a comedy in a Trek-esque setting, would be compared to Galaxy Quest, which became a Trek-parody high-water mark because it actually succeeds as a movie in its own right. But Galaxy Quest built its humor around fan expectations of tropes and clichés from these series, and then told stories about characters with them. Take the awkward scraping the side of the ship scene, which satirizes the incredibly long panning scene of the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture by adding an awkward screech of metal. Or take Sam Rockwell’s character, who spends the entire film worrying about being killed off (and then narrowly avoiding death each time the crew gets into trouble), since he played an unnamed redshirt on the film’s Trek-like TV show, and dying piteously is what unnamed redshirts do. These jokes are funny in their own right, but they work better because Galaxy Quest took the time and effort to build them out around specific characters and the foundations of Trek lore. It’s elaborate recognition humor, not just random off-color inserts.

With The Orville, all the jokes could be seamlessly cut from any given episode, and what’s left would be a bootleg TNG knockoff. There’s a similar “leaving spacedock” scene in The Orville, where the ship — piloted by a man whose defining characteristic until that point is his unreliable nature — simply leaves the dock, with soaring music in the background. There’s no subversion, no character-building moment. There’s enough absurdity in the overall cultural history of science fiction, and especially Star Trek, that satirizing it doesn’t require jokes about how the Kardashians belong in an alien zoo.

And there are a few moments where The Orville does get the idea, just by imagining how Trek tech might work in the real world. Or at one point in the first episode, there’s a good bit where an alien captain communicating via viewscreen isn’t aligned properly in frame, prompting Mercer to ask him to shift over before resuming his death threats. That isn’t just an anatomical gag; it’s a familiar Trek moment, reconsidered and recast as straight-faced absurdism. The Orville could use more gags that high-concept.

Photo: Fox

Tell more unique stories

This is admittedly an early judgment, but over three episodes, The Orville hasn’t done anything particularly novel. The first episode is a Trek “villainous alien race of the week” episode. It’s as standard as they come, complete with a technobabble solution that saves the day, with no repercussions for the crew or ship. The next two episodes respectively revolve around a young lieutenant forced to take command for the first time when senior officers are incapacitated, and a culture clash over the customs of an alien species. (This happens specifically around gender-reassignment surgery, a topic which the show mercifully handles with relative grace compared to MacFarlane’s other work.)

But all of these stories come direct from past Trek series. To name a few, the “steal a doomsday weapon from well-meaning scientists” most famously appears in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Deep Space Nine has “Valiant,” which was a more dramatic version of the “young ensigns in command” story. And “Half a Life” in Next Generation covers similar cultural differences, with a species that voluntary euthanizes the elderly. But real Trek told these stories better — since Next Generation or Voyager don’t undercut dramatic moments with dick jokes, as happens during a fairly serious legal trial in the third episode of The Orville. And since the show isn’t using the humor to modify these Trek stories, or take them away from their most familiar clichés, The Orville is just offering poor rehashes.

The Orville occasionally breaks some new ground. For example, when Captain Mercer first boards the ship, he doesn’t immediately know his crew’s names, unlike in Starfleet, where every crewmember is automatically aware of one another’s name, rank, and history. On a similar note, one of the crew members asks Captain Mercer to represent him in a trial. Mercer refuses, since he doesn’t actually know anything about interstellar law. That feels more like the real world than the usual TV-show move, where a central protagonist regularly steps up into new roles in spite of a complete lack of experience.

It’s certainly a big ask to say a science fiction show should come up with new angles that haven’t been covered in the 726 existing episodes of the various Star Trek shows. But if it can’t become more than a crasser, paler imitation of the real McCoy, The Orville is heading toward a short, fast death — especially since it’ll have to deal with the direct competition of an actual Star Trek show on the air soon, when Star Trek: Discovery airs.

Photo: Fox

Grow the beard

In the Star Trek canon, there’s the idea of “growing the beard,” or defining a transition point for a new beginning. It comes from the start of the second season of The Next Generation, when the show changed over from poorly rehashing the original 1960s Trek to breaking its own new ground. (That coincided with actor Jonathan Frakes — who, incidentally, is set to direct the fifth episode of The Orviille — growing a beard, which vastly improved his character.)

Seth MacFarlane doesn’t necessarily need to consider literally growing facial hair of his own. But the people behind The Next Generation did some soul-searching about what kind of show they were trying to make, and what they could do to make it unique. If The Orville is designed to copy everything else Next Generation did, it could certainly benefit from some emulation on this front, too.