Well, what do you know? You wait nearly ten years for a new Star Trek series to come along and all of sudden you get two of them. Over the last decade, you’ve packed your one piece Starfleet jumpsuit into a dust-proof cover and hung it in your wardrobe. You‘ve sent all the DVD box sets to the charity shop. Your Airfix model of the Enterprise E was binned. The replica phaser hasn’t come out of its packaging since you were at university.
The world is different now, more cynical, and with realistic adult eyes, it seems harsher as well. The Space Shuttle was prematurely retired in 2011, and with it, your dream of eventually joining Starfleet Command receded even further. Mars seems as distant to eventual human visitation as the Moon did to the Georgians. There doesn’t seem to be the (are you ready for a pun?) cultural space left for a crew based space exploration sci-fi show anymore.
But wait! Much like temporal anomalies, two such shows have come along at once! However, in my humble opinion, one has far more successfully captured the spirit of Star Trek, and from the user reviews on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, and TV.com, I’m not the only one who feels this way. For those of you who haven’t guessed it yet, I’m referring to The Orville by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. The Orville is nearer the mark of what I want from Star Trek, rather than it’s much flashier and official contemporary Star Trek: Discovery.
To be honest, I lost interest in Star Trek in about 2006. Enterprise never entirely enthralled me, despite having the interesting premise of being a prequel to the original series with human-kind taking its first tentative steps into the galaxy with the more technologically advanced Vulcans trying to impede their progress. Since Star Trek: First Contact, (an excellent film in its own right) the films were watchable at best and downright mediocre at worst. The 2009 reboot annoyed me because it was set in an alternative universe, thus disregarding all the rich lore and backstory that Star Trek had accumulated over the years. The crew was too handsome, despite some inspired casting, and the Enterprise looked too shiny, glossy and ‘production line’ for my liking.
For me, Star Trek will always be associated with memories of a happier, more carefree time from about the mid 90’s to the mid-2000‘s. Coming home from school and watching the original series on BBC2. Sitting with friends from university watching Star Trek box-sets in the halls of residence. Finding common ground about the show with other undergraduates, compared with secondary school where I was firmly in the Star Trek closet, for fear of even further social ostracisation.
The Orville has successfully rekindled some of these memories, but more than this, it has reminded me of why I actually watched and enjoyed Star Trek in the first place. In fact, The Orville is more Star Trek than Star Trek. The whole show is designed to stimulate a strong sense of nostalgia. Not so much for the Original series, (although there are numerous nods and references) but for the slightly more severe and po-faced Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager that many people who are now adults enjoyed at the time. The sets on The Orville are all slightly shoddy and look a bit ropey. The interior of the ship has the same lovely beige decor as the Enterprise D from the Next Generation. The bridge has the same familiar layout. Even the intro sequence is similar to the Star Trek franchise, with sequences of The Orville exploring sweeping cosmic vistas accompanied by a beautiful and inspiring orchestral soundtrack. (The introduction to Discovery has animated blueprints. How exciting). For me, this just adds to the charm of the show and it feels visually reminiscent of the glorious triumvirate of the 90’s/00’s heyday when Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were all on TV.
With The Orville, all the familiar sci-fi and star trek tropes are present and correct. Holodeck. Check. Tricorder-like device. Check. Tractor beam. Check. Mostly human crew with a smattering of bi-pedal, homo-sapien like aliens. Double check. Android that will probably discover his ‘humanity’ after spending time with the crew. Check. Replicators. Check. ‘Quantum drive’ (I’m guessing warp, slip space and FTL are copyrighted). Check. Federation like Union of Planets. Again, check.
The crew is likeable and there are some good performances. Seth MacFarlane plays the Shatneresque Captain Ed Mercer, but without the insatiable libido, particularly for green-skinned women, that Captain Kirk had. His First Officer is also his wife, so that’s awkward. Some of the sci-fi archetypes have been combined into one role. For example Lt. Commander Bortus (imposing frame, head ridges) is both the stoic and fearless Commander Worf and the emotionless Mr. Spock from The original series or Tuvok from Voyager combined into one role and is all the better for it. The Helmsman of The Orville is a functioning alcoholic man in his 40s, and as a result is ten thousand more times relatable and likeable than Wesley Crusher from the Next Generation. There’s even an amorphous, gelatinous blob that appears to work in engineering and has a crush on the ships doctor. What’s not to like.
Despite being advertised and marketed as a comedic spoof of the Star Trek franchise, The Orville has enough drama to keep you interested, with the deep space setting giving the writers enough leeway to indulge in a bit of unsubtle social commentary in the finest trek tradition. You will encounter planets and aliens with only a male gender, where being born female is a biological aberration that must be rectified with a sex change operation. Crew members are misled by a holographic ship and are then abducted only to appear in an alien zoo to be gawked at by a more technologically advanced species. Another episode sees the crew explore a seemingly derelict ‘generation ship’, where the population is kept from knowing the truth of their existence by a theocratic and militant regime. To be honest, its all been done before, but The Orville does it with a knowing wink and a touch of gentle humour.
For a charming show like this to exist in 2017 is really special. It’s totally noncynical, largely upbeat, light-hearted and has a genuine sense of fun. There’s no violence, murder, blood, death, mass destruction or sex.
I don’t want to be coddled by entertainment, but there is a time and a place for gritty reality and to question your opinions and assumptions about the world. I don’t always want a hefty side order of contemporary politics either. The Orville doesn’t attempt to do this to the audience. It is what it is; a pleasant and watchable piece of light entertainment.
But ultimately the main theme of The Orville and Star Trek, and something that I forgot how much I needed, is the uplifting view of humanities future. We made it. We didn’t have a nuclear conflagration and totally wipe ourselves out. We came through. We solved all our issues and not only are we treating each other with respect, but we’re exploring the galaxy with a multi-species crew, cooperating for the greater good.
In these fractious and uncertain times, a few hours with the crew of The Orville is the perfect antidote. Tune in. Put your brain in neutral and make it so number one.