Look, this is hard for me. I wasn’t even going to watch Seth MacFarlane’s latest live-action effort, The Orville, because I didn’t want my shiny happy future sci-fi tainted with boner jokes or weird cutaway tangents or whatever. But then I watched Star Trek: Discovery, and struggled to wrap my head around how it would really fit into the larger Star Trek universe. It’s too early to tell how the series will balance the science and exploration the brand is known for with the military conflicts already established, but it’s also stuck behind a paywall and killed off Michelle Yeoh in the first two hours so there’s some shit it’s gotta overcome.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m cautiously optimistic about Discovery. There are some interesting ideas at play that could make it a solid entry to the canon (and there are a lot of risks it’s taking that might not pan out). But watching the pilot also made me reflect on what I love about Star Trek: the diverse crew from different worlds, the cultures learning from and about each other, the episodic storytelling that challenges their understanding of morality and sometimes doesn’t wrap up neatly at hour’s end. And yeah, fuck it, sometimes it’s just nice to see a future where you can ask for anything your heart desires and the ship will make it materialize for you. Even a pot brownie.
And that shit? That’s what The Orville gets just right. In any other year, perhaps the series would land on the air and be just a simple, forgettable Star Trek parody, but seeing it after Discovery felt like coming home in a way I wasn’t anticipating. I caught up on the first 4 episodes in the past week — the first, because I was in the mood for more Trek and wasn’t gonna sign up for CBS All Access, so I figured “What the hell?” And then I watched the other three episodes because… I cared about the crew and wanted to see where they’d go next.
My husband liked it more than Discovery, a perspective he made abundantly and incessantly clear throughout our viewing. But the real test of my sanity came when I texted my own resident Trekkie friend, a dude who owns a Starfleet uniform and has dressed up as Data several times in the past. I told him I was digging the show, so he turned around and watched it… and even HE loved it.
This show is a parody, wrapped in a love letter to Gene Roddenberry, wrapped in, yeah, a few boner jokes. But it’s that love of Star Trek that comes through the loudest, right down to the pitch-perfect outro music at each commercial break. The series follows Planetary Union officer Ed Mercer (MacFarlane, natch), who catches his wife cheating on him with a blue splurty alien and ends up divorcing her. If you’re not a fan of MacFarlane’s particular brand of whiny man-baby then this might be a sticking point for you, but bear with me. After a year or so of spiraling out of control, Mercer is finally given a ship to captain: the titular Orville. It’s not the biggest, fastest ship in the fleet, but it’s his last chance to prove himself and he’ll fucking take it, thank you very much. Too bad his now ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki, the once and future Mockingbird), is the only First Officer available to join him on the crew. What ensues is a lot of sniping… for the pilot. Thankfully the pair very quickly start figuring out how to work together as mature adults. It’s, frankly, refreshing. And they have great chemistry! Oddly enough, the very Star Trek-iness of the premise seems to rein in some of MacFarlane’s more juvenile impulses, while his quirky humor manages to gently poke at some of the funnier opportunities inherent in Trek’s vision of a utopian future.
But it’s the rest of the crew that really makes The Orville soar. The helmsman and the navigator are two peas in a pod — they’re very funny assholes, who luckily are good at their jobs, because they’re not good at much else. There’s the super-strong Lt. Alara Kitan, the Chief of Security, who hails from a planet with very high gravity and thus can kick ALL the spacebutts. She may be young, but Mercer clearly takes great pleasure in having a female badass bruiser at his side. Isaac, the Science and Engineering Officer, comes from a non-biological race of beings. Dr. Claire Finn, the Chief Medical Officer, seems to be a general expert in literally every field from surgery to psychiatry. And Lt. Bortus, the second officer on the Orville, comes from an all-male race of weapons manufacturers.
And it’s Bortus’ storyline in the third episode that shows just how deftly The Orville can tackle more difficult social commentary. Bortus is in a committed relationship with his partner, Klyden. And no, the stable gay relationship isn’t a big deal on the show — being a single-gender race, all the relationships are homosexual. But then they have a child… and it’s a girl. And what unfolds is an examination of gender identity, including gender reassignment surgery, imposed cultural norms, and the revelation that Bortus’ race isn’t as single-gendered as they like to believe. Klyden, it turns out, was also born a girl, and had his gender reassigned at birth. Bortus has his views on the subject changed through his interaction with the crew, and doesn’t want to make that decision for his child, despite the fact that it will make her an outcast amongst her own people. Even Mercer, who refuses to command Dr. Finn to perform the surgery, takes the time to examine his own human bias. There aren’t a lot of jokes, and things likely don’t end the way you’d want. But the episode stands as a great example of the way sci-fi can explore modern issues from different perspectives and challenge our own biases. It’s not a perfect episode, and it won’t make everyone happy, but the sheer fact that a nuanced examination of gender identity is even attempted on the third episode of a Seth MacFarlane show says something about the times we’re living in.
But don’t worry — not everything is so serious. MacFarlane calls in plenty of favors from his high-profile friends. Liam Neeson pops up for a bit part in the fourth episode, and it looks like Charlize Theron will be a major part of this week’s fifth episode:
How long before we see Patrick Stewart himself in this sector of space? Only time will tell. But from the holodeck hijinx to the materialized pot brownies to that pervy spaceblob voiced by Norm MacDonald, there are plenty of lighthearted jokes to appease the serious MacFarlane fans. For the rest of us, we get the optimistic, lower-budget space drama that Discovery will likely never be.