The Orville

2020-04-09 14:26
 
J. Lee and Seth MacFarlane in 'The Orville.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Seth MacFarlane brings his satirically comedic touch to a series about the crew of the starship Orville and their adventures to find new worlds and new civilisations some 400 years in the future.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

To call the Orville (both seasons of which are now available on Showmax) a Star Trek parody is... not entirely inaccurate. At least, not for its first batch of episodes. At the outset, The Orville is very clearly Seth MacFarlane's attempt to recreate the feel, aesthetic and episodic storytelling of Star Trek: The Next Generation with jokes thrown in that all too frequently fall either into lazy pop culture references or, well, dick jokes.

The inclusion of a gelatinous blob-like alien named Yaphit (voiced by Norm MacDonald) who is basically a serial sexual harasser, is enough, all by itself, to have one wondering why on earth you're wasting time with this puerile nonsense in the first place - when Galaxy Quest (the truly brilliant but overlooked Trek-like parody film with Tim Allen and the always tremendous, Alan Rickman) is pretty easily available.

The answer, as it turns out, is that The Orville doesn't remain this particular show for very long. The Star Trek influences certainly don't start easing off – quite the contrary, in fact – but McFarlane steadily stops trying to jam a bunch of ill-fitting jokes into what is otherwise a reasonably enjoyable homage to the Next Generation and instead allows the humour to more naturally come out of the characters themselves and from playing with sci-fi conventions. It's a subtle change, but it's incredibly significant.

The first half of the first season pretty much gets better with each episode as MacFarlane discovers exactly what the show is that he really wants to be making and, by the halfway point of the season, The Orville has transformed itself from a, frankly, very bad idea into something genuinely quite great. The second season, however, has no growing pains whatsoever (though MacFarlane's decision to start the season off with one of the show's quietest episodes is... certainly a choice) and it ranks, pretty easily, as one of the best seasons of a science fiction television show ever.

Rumour has it that the awkward humour in the first few episodes comes from the executives at Fox (on whose network it runs in the States) wanting the show to be very much a full-blooded comedy – effectively Family Guy in space – while that was never entirely MacFarlane's own plan. This isn't impossible, of course, as Fox is known as the network where good sci-fi shows go to die, but it might simply be that MacFarlane himself had a bit of trouble letting go of his own predilection for a certain kind of comedy that can be great but was clearly not working on this show.

Either way, once you get past the very shaky start, The Orville shows itself to be MacFarlane's answer to why Star Trek largely has so much trouble attracting a wider audience than the faithful, passionate fan base it already has. Even JJ Abrams' reboot of the films (of which I am a staunch defender, it has to be said), which clearly had larger, mass-market appeal, couldn't keep the momentum going. By only the third instalment, Star Trek Beyond, the box office draw had diminished enough that a fourth Star Trek movie with the same crew is still uncertain.

Why, in a time when superheroes rule the movies and nerds rule the earth, is Star Trek still mostly seen as a hopelessly uncool property, aside for the odd blip like JJ Abrams' first Star Trek film and the surprisingly popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (it's pretty much the most Star Trek-y of the original films)?

It's worth noting the two different approaches to this. At the same time that The Orville launched, Star Trek: Discovery was released as CBS' calling card for their streaming service, CBS: All Access (with Amazon Prime showing it outside the US), and it was a remarkably different Star Trek. Gone was the optimism, the lightness, and the episodic nature; in was edginess, despair and an altogether more caustic crew than Trek has ever had, navigating a season-long arc that dispensed almost entirely with standalone episodes. Even the way it was filmed was a radical departure as it replaced the bright but straightforward style of classic Trek with plenty of hard edges, a dark-grey-blue colour palette, lens flare and more Dutch angles than you can shake an L Ron Hubbard adaptation at.  

Though I quite like Discovery and the only slightly more classic, Star Trek: Picard, The Orville has proven to be an infinitely more successful attempt at recapturing what's good about Star Trek, while widening its appeal considerably. It is funnier than most incarnations of Star Trek, to be sure, but what's great about what MacFarlane does here, isn't that he made Star Trek: The Next Generation with jokes but that he made Star Trek: The Next Generation with characters that actually come across like real people.

I certainly have a soft spot for Star Trek, but even I think that the Trek of the Next Generation era suffered considerably from characters that were mostly just a bit too stiff and just too perfect to really invest in. Some fans liked this as it was a good illustration of the more utopian future that creator, Gene Roddenberry, envisioned. Personally, though, despite the likeable cast led by the great Patrick Stewart, I find the characters in TNG to be fairly boring – and they certainly did nothing to dispel the sense of sterile nerdiness that the endless technobabble created. 

By contrast, though it isn't as tightly plotted as Star Trek at its best and its characters are probably just a wee bit too enamoured with early 21st-century pop culture for its own good, The Orville's mix of optimistic, episodic science fiction tales with a massively likeable, recognisably human crew (and that's including the aliens and robots), results in a show that has the appeal of a good "hang out" sitcom. Even if the plot of an episode isn't that great, this crew is just a blast to hang out with for an hour at a time.

MacFarlane heads the cast himself as Captain Mercer but, to his credit, this is no ego trip as Mercer may be a pretty classic captain character in the mould of a cross between Kirk and Picard, but he doesn't overshadow the rest of the cast – often, in fact, playing the straight man to just about everyone else. And, aside for Yaphit who gets a bit better but is still pretty "yeuch" and, fortunately, appears less and less as the show goes on, the rest of the cast rules, pretty much without exception. So much so that I'll refrain, for the sake of brevity (ha!), from going through each of them. Besides, you may as well discover them for yourselves. 

The other way that MacFarlane differentiates the show from its obvious inspirations, is that there is precious little technobabble to be heard as it goes for a more grounded, looser approach that relies far more on character than on nerdy, jargon-heavy gobbledegook. Similarly, though there are some very effective long-running plotlines, especially in season 2, there's something genuinely wonderful about how almost every episode stands alone, with the character interaction proving to be the glue that draws all the episodes together. If you miss something like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in an age when most TV dramas are basically 10-hour long movies split into parts, then this will definitely scratch an itch that you didn't realise you had.  

The irony of all this is, of course, that The Orville is a modest hit at best. Fox has already shunted it off to its subsidiary, Hulu, for a third season with a release date that was nebulous even before Covid-19, and further seasons looking depressingly unlikely. Still, if you enjoy good science fiction or even just hanging out with a super likeable cast during these troubled times, hang on past those first few episodes and prepare yourself for one of the most purely enjoyable shows around. 

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

WATCH IT NOW ON SHOWMAX

NEXT ON CHANNELX
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