The Orville season 1

My summary for The Orville is: subverts expectations.

The thing to understand about The Orville is it is straight-up Star Trek, specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), with Seth MacFarlane’s sense of humour layered on top.

Every element of TNG is here: starship, bridge, colour-coded uniforms, Captain, Executive Officer, Security Officer, Doctor, Science Officer, helmsman, navigator, Chief of Engineering, replicators, no money, crew lounge, touch control panels, holodeck… this show is TNG.  A TNG with seat belts and cup holders, and without transporters and synthehol, but nevertheless TNG.

The expectation that is set up, given that this is not actually in the true Star Trek universe, is that this will be a Galaxy Quest type of parody or satire but… it isn’t.  It’s straight up science fiction with all of the Star Trek conventions.  The ship is definitely TNG, some of the missions are a bit more The Original Series (TOS).

There are some nice touches I like, for example the spiral staircase up to the bridge.  Or the Wright Flyer on the Captain’s desk.  Or when Commander Grayson puts a cannabis brownie in her pocket, setting up a Chekhov’s Gun (um, different Chekhov) expectation of it being used and then… it isn’t.

To try to describe the mix of the show is pretty hard.  It is more a kind of science fiction with a sense of absurdity than “comedy-drama”.  In an episode about a two-dimensional universe you first have Seth MacFarlane as Captain Mercer talking sincerely about Flatland, the classic story of two dimensions, and then the Captain and the navigator with tissues stuffed up their noses from the giant nosebleeds they got from being partially flattened.  It’s basically very sincere Star Trek fan fiction, written by MacFarlane.  (In a way it’s similar to Star Wars VII and VIII, which are basically Star Wars fan fiction written by J.J. Abrams.)

The Orville probably works best if you’re very familiar with TNG.  I have seen all of the TNG episodes as they aired and many many times afterwards.  But I can’t count myself exactly as a fan.  Roddenberry did a bold thing, but I think ultimately a failed thing, in making the show not just a future in terms of technology, but a utopia in terms of people.  Everyone in TNG is nice, professional, calm, supportive, rational, sincere, intellectual.  It’s kind of perfect adults, all super-ego, all control, no id.  It’s a kind of remarkable aspiration to put into a show.  But it also makes for a super boring show.  There’s no drama when everyone is super nice.  They drink sometimes in the very calm, very subdued 10 Forward, but even their alcohol is non-alcoholic.  It’s Jacques Cousteau, except on a cruise ship.  They could never even make it seem like the TNG crew were friends, despite very forced attempts to e.g.  put them all together in weekly poker nights.  The cast is super stiff in the early seasons, it gets a bit more relatable in later seasons.

Also, as with TOS, TNG has basically no cultural anchors in the 20th century.  No one watches TV or movies.  It’s basically as if culture ended some time in the 19th century.  (If you want to contrive something, the Third World War probably didn’t help with 20th century cultural preservation.)

The Orville is basically all the future technology and look and structure of Star Trek, but with characters who are all id.  They drink (in fact to rather enthusiastic and frequent excess, as if they were all in first year university).  They swear.  They’re crude.  They have sex.  They’re basically kind of stereotypical American young adults except with adult jobs.  It’s very Seth MacFarlane’s humourverse, in other words.  It is to be honest a lot more relatable than the perfect humans in TNG.  And it very definitely is populated with people who are in our cultural universe.  From Seinfeld to The Sound of Music, it’s all there.  (Even a scene with observations on which fictional characters have Tardis-like houses, which I’ve always wondered whether anyone would ever put together.)  It also has other aspects of MacFarlane’s style, with digressive discussions about elevator music or hobbies.  Sometimes MacFarlane works a bit too hard to insert his sense of humour into scenes unnecessarily, but otherwise I find it mostly works.

Science fiction is often basically present-day people and culture, wrapped in a future technology envelope.  Roddenberry took a remarkable step in trying to populate the Enterprise-D with 24th century people in addition to 24th century technology.  It made it aspirational but really made it difficult to have any kind of relatable drama.  I basically never found that it worked for me.  Every episode would either end up with a conclusion that happened to match exactly late-20th-century liberal ideals, or with Geordi doing some made-up-particles equivalent of magic.  By contrast MacFarlane has basically populated the Enterprise-D with 21st century people, and they make lots of flawed decisions with imperfect conclusions.  For the most part, it makes for a much more relatable show.

I’m not sure how long you can maintain the cognitive dissonance between a serious science fiction show and characters who say things like “let’s get the engines to 97% efficiency so we can finish work early and all get wasted”, but for now I am enjoying the attempt.