Sometimes, imitation is the most authentic form of flattery.
If you’ve watched our “Trailer Trashin'” of The Orville Vs. Star Trek: Discovery (or STD, in a regrettable abbreviation of the title), readers already know which show I have decided to invest in. Bear in mind that this was a hard decision for me. I grew up watching the adventures of Kirk and Spock, although Star Trek: The Next Generation was truly my show. The first two shows captured the thrill of exploration and discovery, friendship and adventure, all while set within a semi-utopian society built on the premise of seeing what was out there.
How strange that this new non-Star Trek show has become the most Star Trek experience that I’ve had in a long time.
The Orville really does feel like a loving homage to The Next Generation. Everything from the costumes, to the set design, to the ships themselves all feel incredibly familiar, yet with a newly polished style. I was genuinely impressed with the overall look of this new series, and everything from camera angles to crew dynamics feel like the show is screaming “I love you, Star Trek!”
And yet… everything felt right. Like it was supposed to. For someone who has missed the old “feel” of those early Trek adventures, this was so welcomed, though I hope The Orville will try to find its own voice within its self-nostalgic lovefest.
In this pilot episode titled “Old Wounds”, Captain Ed Mercer (played by Seth McFarlane) has been granted command of the mid-level exploratory vessel, The Orville. Along with getting used to his new crew, he has to put personal feelings aside in regards to his newly assigned First Officer, Kelly Grayson. A year prior, Mercer and Grayson had been married, until Grayson was caught by her husband in bed with an alien lover. This is, as the navigator LaMarr noted, “a thing” that the whole senior bridge now has to deal with in addition to their spacefaring mission.
While Grayson takes a few sarcastic barbs for her previous actions, she nevertheless proves herself a competent and loyal first officer, and it should be interesting to see how the show handles the dynamic between the strained couple. I think the more diverse alien cast will help to bring something fresh to the show.
The Orville takes a casual approach to space exploration, with much more of a humor focus than any Trek show has. Some of it works, and some of it is a little too “present day” for a show that is set 400 years in the future. In this respect, it reminds me more of Galaxy Quest than Star Trek. There are a few moments that are quite funny, such as Mercer and Grayson arguing with the enemy Krill commander about everything from his “dead space” positioning on the viewscreen to who was “right” in a “hypothetical” marriage situation. There’s also a “seatbelt” joke that longtime Trek fans will get a chuckle from.
As stated before, The Orville is incredibly reverent to the 1980’s-1990’s era of Star Trek. Modify some of the humor writing, and it would fit perfectly within Trek‘s franchise of shows. Not surprising, as Brannon Braga is an Executive Producer on The Orville (he was also an Executive Producer on The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise). While some Trek fans found him divisive, it’s still quite the pedigree for a fledgling program without those related ties.
While only one episode in, The Orville has great potential to appeal to Star Trek fans that miss the adventurous fun of the old shows, something that got lost in the questionable plotlines and over the top action sequences from later shows and films. The two biggest challenges that The Orville faces right now is finding a better balance for some of its jokes, and finding its own identity within its love letter to Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Still, the first two seasons of The Next Generation didn’t always have a smooth transition in breaking free of its Kirk-era predecessor, but it found its path. I have confidence in The Orville that it can do the same. I loved it more than I questioned it.
As for Star Trek: Discovery, time will tell. Between its controversial ship and alien redesigns and lack of any seeming adherence to the canonical universe (I simply don’t see how they can justify the show taking place a mere decade before Kirk’s adventures), I’ll at least try the pilot, but it presently seems that the more “authentic” Star Trek experience is going to be found in the Union, and not the Federation.
UPDATE: Since this review was scheduled, three new episodes have debuted: “Command Performance”, “About A Girl”, and “If The Stars Should Appear”.
“Command Performance” focuses on Mercer and Grayson being captured on an away mission, while the inexperienced Alara assumes command of The Orville as the next in command (Bortus) is busy hatching his egg.
There are a few interesting storylines in the episode. From establishing Bortus and his mate’s (Klyden) relationship during their culture’s birth process, to Mercer and Grayson being trapped in an intergalactic zoo, with their cage looking exactly like their old apartment. This episode works to establish character development, from giving Alara a chance to mature and take confidence in herself, to Mercer and Grayson falling into old married habits that remind them why they divorced in the first place.
The humor starts getting less “present day” jokey than in the pilot episode, and overall works better. The social commentary that Star Trek was known for starts taking better effect here, especially with the substitute for the best type of human inclusion in a zoo. The result is more than fitting. The ending of the episode features a “shock” moment by showing that *SPOILER* Bortus and Klyden’s baby is a girl, which is a once in a generation occurrence for the Moclan’s all-male species.
“About A Girl” really hits its stride for the series so far. Bortus and Klyden discuss gender reassignment for their female child to conform with the norms of their society. After Malloy and LaMarr show Bortus the Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to show that “different” is not only “okay”, but still useful, Bortus has a change of heart, and feels that when their child is of age, can make that decision for herself.
Regardless, a trial is held, relationships are tested, and while some science fiction tropes are present, the ending is perhaps more realistic than expected for the scenario. This episode takes some narrative risks, and highlights the strength of relationship through adversity, while better touching on those hallmarks of current, real-world topics.
The fourth episode, “If The Stars Should Appear”, is another great episode. It not only features a fun guest appearance by fellow ‘Cana’ alum, Julie Mitchell, but features an interesting story about a 2,000 year old spaceship that has been adrift for so long, that it has forgotten that it is a spaceship. It’s an interesting premise, further crew development, with a multi-faceted “villain”, a genuinely surprising guest appearance, and some great elements that remind the viewer that wonder and hope still have a place in sci-fi exploration shows.
In the long run, The Orville is still finding its way. We are still learning about characters and new cultures. The writing is still working to find its place between comedy and sci-fi drama, but it is treating the primary subject matter with a mature, and surprisingly nuanced approach to understanding it better, and not with the throwaway style antics that Family Guy is known for.