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The Orville: A Star Trek pastiche

How many episodes should a series need to work out what it’s about? No, I don’t mean the audience working it out, but the show itself. The Orville can’t seem to decide what it is going for. Is it a spoof? Is it serious? Is it just all about the dick jokes?

I have to admit that knowing it was created by Seth MacFarlane, I had gone in assuming it was a spoof. And on the surface, it lives up to that expectation. The Orville is deliberately riffing on classic Star Trek tropes. There’s the logical science officer, cocky helmsman, wise doctor. Each week has the crew encountering a new crisis, often involving a clash of cultures. So far, so Trek. The spoof element comes in with extremely low hanging fruit. In true MacFarlane style, the humour is crass. I don’t have anything wrong with dick jokes, I make them all the time. But they always feel forced in The Orville. There isn’t enough humour to make it feel properly spoof-like (Spaceballs this is not) and much of the humour is too obvious and repetitive.

To muddy matters further, The Orville does actually attempt to replicate some of the serious philosophical musings that made Trek great. New Star Trek has tended to fall flat for me, going for action and explosions over the examination of culture, ethics, and philosophy. On this front, surprisingly, The Orville is a breath of fresh air. But how do these two sides of the show go together? Not particularly well, is the answer. Perhaps if the humour had been black humour, or even simply more intelligent wit, it would have worked better, bringing to mind the stark tonal contrast of M*A*S*H. Instead, all we are left with is something that feels disjointed and confused. Until The Orville works out what it wants to be, it will continue to struggle to deliver on either side.

‘Paint some flames on the side.’

Alara, The OrvilleWe have come a long way from balls on a string for asteroids and robots that look more like vacuum cleaners than functioning futuristic tech. Then again, I feel like old-school special effects looked a lot better than the shit we have to put up with now. The Orville looks terrible. The CG is overdone. It is too shiny and looks like a video game from the early 2000’s. Why is this happening so much these days? We have the skills to make CG look better than this, hell, we’ve had skills to make it look better than this for at least twenty years. I can’t be the only one who misses actual sets and wishes that they wouldn’t rely so heavily on green screen for absolutely everything.

If the ratio of actual set to CG weren’t bad enough, the general look of the show is supremely un-original. Again, we come back to the element of spoof, where the series is attempting to look like Star Trek to make a point. But there are so many more interesting things they could have done with this, especially to lampoon the tropes more. It just feels like a wasted opportunity. Instead of feeling like an amusing spoof, it too often feels like a poor imitation.

Meeting the primitive locals

It must be nice to be Seth Macfarlane. Not only was he able to bring a fairly bland sci-fi spoof to the Fox network, but he can call on him A-lister friends for cameos. And these are some really exceptional cameos. Then again, the cameos were bound to stand out amongst a bland central cast. Not that it is entirely the actors’ fault. Few of the characters are given much personality or characterisation outside their broad brush stroke caricatures. Obviously, with time, this could be rectified. Already the show is mimicking its inspiration with having episodes that focus on each character and their culture, and hopefully with time it will be able to develop more interesting relationships between the crew. The worst offenders on this front are the helmsmen. Despite Gordon being Ed’s best friend, he is given a very standard comedy sidekick introduction and subsequently little else to build on that.

‘Wanna open this jar of pickles for me?’

Gordon and John with beerThe Orville is hardly offensive and it does fill some of the gaps left by newer Trek excursions that seem to have forgotten what Star Trek was all about. But television has come a long way since 1966 or even the 90’s. We should be able to explore these larger philosophical questions in more sophisticated ways. And while I do enjoy feeling as though I’m transported back to The Next Generation, there is something to be said for moving with the times. That said, if the aim is pure spoof… This is my problem. The show is neither spoof nor modern idea of episodic science fiction drama. It is frustrating in that it is neither one or the other, neither great spoof nor exploring the philosophoical commentary adequately. And which is its main goal?

It currently looks as though The Orville will get a second season. As such, I have one request of the producers: please decide what the ‘voice’ of this show is and pursue it with focus. And no matter which way it does go, can we have a few more interesting jokes than just 12-year-old boy humour?

Verdict: The Orville is one of the most average shows you will meet. Not awful, not good. Until it decides what it is actually trying to achieve, I can’t see it getting any better. But hey, at least several members of the crew are women, that’s something!

About Megan Leigh

Writer and editor of Pop Verse. Co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper. My special interests include publishing, creative writing, and geekery.

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