As a Star Trek fan, I’m admittedly nervous about the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery later this month. My favorite sci-fi franchise has had a less-than-stellar track record with its most recent television and film offerings. Not that Star Trek doesn’t make money — it definitely does — it’s more that Star Trek doesn’t seem to make ‘Star Trek’ anymore.
That task appears to have fallen to Seth MacFarlane, one of the biggest Star Trek fans in Hollywood. In what feels like some kind of mirror universe, MacFarlane’s new series, The Orville, premiered Sunday night on FOX, just two weeks before the debut of CBS’s long-awaited television reboot of the final frontier.
Coming from MacFarlane, one might expect an irreverent comedy with some measure of social commentary and a good amount of crude humor. Seth’s best known offerings, from Family Guy to Ted, seem to exist in that orbit.
The Orville is not so easily described. It is certainly part comedy, and not without its share of bathroom humor, but the jokes in ‘Old Wounds,’ the premiere episode, were surprisingly tame. You might even find the subject matter downright family-friendly in comparison to MacFarlane’s other work.
Set in the year 2417, the series revolves around Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), an officer in the Planetary Union fleet who finds his career lagging as he deals with the fallout from a recent divorce. His ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), whose extramarital affair prompted the split, winds up as the first officer aboard Mercer’s new ship, the U.S.S. Orville, a mid-level exploratory vessel setting out on a rather routine mission.
In place of MacFarlane’s typical absurdist approach (Peter Griffin’s never-ending rendition of ‘Bird is the Word’ as one of many examples), The Orville is a comedy peppered with relatable characters and human moments that range from funny to awkward, and even a little touching at times.
It’s also full of familiar sights and sounds for Star Trek fans. From the starship sets and uniforms to the dialogue and devices used by the Orville crew, there is no mistaking MacFarlane’s intentions. The unabashed borrowing is apparent from the first seconds of the premiere — the opening notes of the cinematic score are seemingly lifted from Star Trek’s past.
The crew itself is a mix of human and alien characters that checks off an impressive list of Trek tropes. Lt. Cmdr. Bortus (Peter Macon), the Second Officer, is an intimidating, Worf-like character whose species, the Moclans, are said to be single-gendered (all men).
Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), a Xelayan, is the Orville’s Chief Security Officer. Like the U.S.S. Enterprise-D’s infamous Tasha Yar, those who mistake the young woman as a pushover are in for a surprise. Xelayans hail from a planet with intense gravity, meaning Alara possesses superhuman strength in an Earth-like environment.
Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) is the Orville’s helmsman. Despite his disciplinary problems, he joins the crew at the request of his best friend, the captain. Fans of Star Trek will notice Malloy’s background smacks of another behaviorally challenged helmsman, Lt. Tom Paris of Voyager. Fans may also notice the holodeck-like simulation in which we meet Malloy bears a distinct resemblance to the “calisthenics” program of Lt. Worf, in which he battles an ogre-like creature — one of the funnier moments in this premiere episode.
Other Trek connections include the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Claire Finn, played by Star Trek alumna, Penny Johnson Jerald, who is better known as Kasidy Yates Sisko, wife of Captain Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine.
Then there’s Isaac (Mark Jackson), an artificial life-form resembling an Asimov-style robot (no doubt the origin of his name), and hailing from Kylon. In the most Star Trek moment of the premiere, Captain Mercer questions Isaac’s intentions for joining the Union fleet, noting that Kylons are known for being “extremely racist” against organic species.
Turning on its head the almost-human outsider trope central to the Star Trek format — from Spock to Data to Seven of Nine — Isaac responds, matter-of-factly, that he is indeed a superior being and has joined the crew to observe “human behavior.”
The Orville may look and sound like Star Trek, but that’s clearly by design. More like The Monkees or Spinal Tap than Space Balls — parodies that became classics in their own right — it’s inspired by (even ripping off) the genre-defining series on which its based, yet likely charting its own path within that format to find a following of its own.
Seth’s intentions are easy to spot, as are his influences — some even work on The Orville. Brannon Braga, former writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation and show-runner for Voyager, is an executive producer, as is Andre Bormanis, formerly a science consultant and later writer for various Star Trek products, including Enterprise. (MacFarlane himself once made a cameo appearance as a member of the Enterprise crew, just to fill out his bucket list.)
Herein lies the strange reception for The Orville, which was met with surprising criticism in the media. The series has been widely slammed, with reviews ranging from critical to outright vicious (see: io9’s “5 Science Fiction Comedies That Prove How Bad The Orville Is")
Some of this is less about MacFarlane’s program and more the hard-left turn seen from outlets like io9 since the 2016 election — now sounding more like the feminist geek blog, The Mary Sue, than the fandom news staple it had been. The new political climate appears to have produced a rather humorless approach to genre entertainment, demanding uber-diversity and a social justice agenda from seemingly every show.
If past is prologue, MacFarlane will not be offering a politically correct program. In that regard, critics using such a lens may never find peace with The Orville. However, MacFarlane will almost certainly follow a socially relevant path, making his commentary through comedy where Star Trek may have used pure allegory.
Aside from the politics of Hollywood, the unusual volume of criticism does suggest additional motivations beyond the typical problems found in any pilot episode. As one fan, a friend of mine, put it on Facebook, it seems some critics have been “paid off to do a hatchet job” on The Orville.
Whether or not there’s a coordinated effort to lampoon the the series, one thing is clear — CBS must be pretty upset with MacFarlane right now. After stumbling its way through the last decade of Star Trek, including a fumbled 50th Anniversary, it’s become clear that Paramount and CBS (the corporate parents of Star Trek films and television series, respectively) have some difficulty understanding the franchise and its fans.
For decades, both studios have sought, inexplicably, to reboot Star Trek into something other than it was — a family-oriented, socially conscious, intelligent franchise with more than fifty years of history — and success — behind it.
Rather than continuing the mission of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator and auteur, recent producers have repeatedly abandoned his format in favor of disjointed prequels, gratuitous space battles, and big-budget blockbusters like those from J.J. Abrams.
“When I was a kid, I never liked ‘Star Trek’. Growing up, honestly, I could never get into it. My friends loved it and I would try. I watched episodes but it always felt too philosophical to me.”
– J.J. Abrams
Seth MacFarlane is no J.J. Abrams. He is a ‘Star Trek’ fan. It’s likely ‘The Orville’ emerged on some level from the same frustration many fans have at the lack of real Star Trek in at least 15 years (some argue longer). One can imagine Seth thinking to himself, “If they’re not going to do Star Trek right, I’ll make it myself.”
With Star Trek: Discovery primed for its a big debut in two weeks, only time will tell whether CBS will recapture the essence of Roddenberry’s creation. Many longtime fans, including this one, are skeptical. Early trailers and clips haven’t helped ease concerns. They just don’t feel like Star Trek — or look like it — though trailers are often deceiving.
As the Star Trek universe waits anxiously to discover the reality off Discovery, it’s possible MacFarlane has dared to do what CBS won’t — to boldly go where Star Trek has gone before. In that case, it will be Seth, and his Orville, that have the last laugh.