When I was little, I used to write fanfiction about my favorite shows. (It was as “good” as you’d expect from a 12 year old.) For those unfamiliar with the nerdy world of fanfic, it sometimes is an exploration of an event seen on screen — almost like another screenplay — and it sometimes is nothing more than a self-insert fantasy of joining the author’s favorite cast on adventures.
I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and in my writing, I have tried, and failed, to highlight human interaction with a science fiction backdrop. There are stories in my head bursting to get out, but I’ve found, time and time again, that my science fiction backdrop is basically Star Trek.
Enter “The Orville,” Seth McFarlane’s science fiction show on Fox. “The Orville” is good — very good — “Star Trek” fanfiction. It appeals to generations of fans whose introduction to science fiction in their formative years was “Star Trek,” whether “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” (TNG) for people my age, or the Original Series for those older.
“The Orville” features McFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer, an up-and-coming officer in “The Union” (a barely-disguised Federation), who suffers a career setback after catching his then-wife in bed with a blue-skinned alien (a cameo by Rob Lowe, who fleshed out the character in a later episode). A year later, he finally gets his own ship, but to his surprise, his executive officer is his ex-wife.
McFarlane, the creator of shows and movies such as “Family Guy,” “Ted,” and “American Dad,” is best known for his sophomoric, low-brow humor. “The Orville,” too, is humorous in similar ways. That is, of course, a negative to prospective viewers who are tired of (or were never enamored with) the bumbling exploits of “Family Guy’s” Peter Griffin, obscure cut away gags, and gross-out jokes about anatomy.
“The Orville,” however, isn’t that, not exactly. As with any show, you should not judge “The Orville” solely by its first episodes, which featured humor that was not just irreverent, which is fine, but also irrelevant, unrelated to the particulars or the seriousness of events, contributing to the feel of it being yet another soulless McFarlane comedy. As with many shows, it has begun hitting its stride as it goes. The humor has not abated, and it can still be sophomoric at times, but it fits. The people themselves are the funny ones with their own particular quirks, as opposed to events being a set-up for a punchline.
Along with the humor are actual gosh darn exploratory missions, new life and new civilizations, moral dilemmas, and cultures that put a mirror up to our own. I’ll be honest — they get some of it right and some of it wrong. What they get right is a relative lack of preachiness and moral aggrandizing, without delving straight into moral relativism.
That being said, their adventure-of-the-week plots still in many cases seem cliche and amateur, but I’m also seeing sparks of potential and one or two stellar installments. It seems as though McFarlane et al are excelling in character development, at the slight expense of world-building — a holdover from basically stealing the “Star Trek” universe. It’s something I’m willing to put aside and assume will improve with experience.
Critics panned “The Orville” upon its premiere, mostly because they saw it as a parody show that fell flat when it tried to be serious. “Galaxy Quest,” that wonderful cult movie that spoofed Star Trek fandom, worked, they argued, because it pointed gentle, affectionate fun at sci-fi tropes without actually trying to replicate a “Star Trek” episode. “The Orville,” they said, couldn’t make up its mind. Is it a parody, or is it a really bad “Star Trek” clone?
Fans immediately saw what critics didn’t. The show is not a parody at all. “The Orville” is its own earnest show about humans in space, without the Rodenberry directive that humans have “evolved.” On the U.S.S. Orville, we haven’t evolved at all. We’re the same snarky, meme-ing, soundbite culture we are in the 2000s. Just in space.
If I were a critic, not just a viewer, I would skewer the show. If it is its own show, then why did McFarlane not even bother to create an original universe instead of just renaming Trek concepts and passing them off as his own? Why is everyone so unprofessional in formal situations? And why, for the love of God, are all the funny references related to the inside jokes of today’s culture (400 years before the show’s setting)?
As a viewer, though, I argue McFarlane has scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. Not only has there been a TNG-shaped hole in my heart since it went off air, but I’ve long had the desire for a similar show but with people that didn’t seem so … perfect. Some of that is from my geeky innate desire to self-insert into shows; I wouldn’t survive more than a few weeks in a highbrow U.S.S. Enterprise world of symphonies and Shakespeare.
Subsequent Trek shows have tried to be less utopian — some with serialization and grit, some with more relatable characters. I could write a whole treatise on how “Star Trek: Enterprise” came so close with the relatable characters. It showed a time period closer to our own, with a humanity new to space, well intentioned but still fumbling.
Other non-Star Trek shows had characters with easy humor, notably “Firefly.” But “The Orville” is nothing like those shows and instead more an heir to Peter David’s ridiculous “Star Trek: New Frontier” book series, which also has a wise-cracking and irreverent crew and a captain serving alongside an ex. That description does not do it justice when I try to explain that while reading the series, I think constantly, “how did he get them to agree to publish this?!” Like “The Orville,” I sometimes hesitate to recommend it, saying cautiously that it’s not for everyone.
It’s not for everyone, but it does work for me. “The Orville” has “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” heart and optimism, without the heavy sadness that permeates shows like the new “Star Trek: Discovery.” It features moral dilemmas and dangerous situations, but the crew doesn’t always come out on top. Because the humor doesn’t try to update to the 2400s, there’s no need to explain the jokes, or to reach back to Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare to make it understandable to viewers.
When I try to imagine being on that ship, I don’t have to create some idealized version of myself; I can just be me. It’s like McFarlane crawled into my brain and created something I thought no other person would like. And the novelty of that alone is well worth the price of admission.