Hands up, ardent Trekkies and those who are happy to dip their intergalactic-loving into the narratively-rich waters of sci-fi storytelling, if you have ever seen someone on their way to the toilet on Star Trek?
Or bickering about marital troubles? Obsessing about child-raising methods? (Worf excepted.) Or voicing all those idiosyncratic private thoughts such as how hot an alien is or how much they want to finish their shift on the Bridge so they can go and chill after an exhausting day?
None of you? That’s likely because Star Trek has more loftier themes in mind on which to hang its episodic hooks, but also because it does kind of tend to interrupt storytelling flow, especially when time is of the essence and you’re racing, all phasers blasting, to the narrative finish line.
But The Orville, from the comedically-twisted mind of Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, is not as beholding to the idealistic tenet governing Gene Roddenberry’s much-loved universe though it does, in appearance and underlying philosophy, mirror much of the social incisiveness that has gone, and continues to go into Star Trek.
Initially styled as a parody of sorts, I suspect largely because of McFarlane’s involvement – he not only created and executive produces the show (along with Star Trek alum Brannon Braga) but stars in it as Captain Ed Mercer on his first command – The Orville would be more-realistically described as an affectionate homage with the show demonstrating again and again the debt it quite deliberately owes to Star Trek.
That is, in itself, not such a bad thing.
After all, Star Trek has created a template from which many other sci-fi properties have drawn, with everything from an alliance of peaceful, advanced planets, a multitudinous array of alien species, voyages of exploration, and themes of grave importance, many drawn from our current politically-vexed climate, all present and accounted for in The Orville.
Lest you think The Orville just some slavish copy of the franchise inspired it, MacFarlane has taken all those touchstones and woven around them a show that feels far more naturalistic and true to how people would behave in these situations.
Taken the back-and-forth banter between helmsman Lieutenant Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and navigator Lieutenant/later Lieutenant-Commander John LaMarr (J. Lee) who complain about staying at their stations beyond the end of the shift and whose willingness to have very frank and honest discussions stands in stark contrast to their Star Trek counterparts.
They’re also very good at their jobs and save The Orville on more than one occasion, so they’re not unprofessional; simply very human and exactly the kind of people you and your workmates likely are in the office.
Similarly, the tension and yet friendship between Mercer and his First Officer and ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) (who recommended him for the captaincy, unbeknownst to her former husband) feels incredibly real.
They’re excellent officers, make well-informed and well-judged performances and act in many ways like a Starfleet officer would – the big mistake, and one McFarlane is far too savvy a storyteller to make, would have been to make them the jokes, rather than the way they react, in part, to the situations – but they are real people who bicker, fight and make-up, who laugh and cry and discover, little by little, that there may still be something between them.
It’s this refreshing element of humanity that gives The Orville such a tonal point of difference to Star Trek; that, and it’s willingness, within certain boundaries, to be absurdist and point out the obvious such as in the fourth episode of the first season “If These Stars Should Appear” when farmers onboard a generation ship, unaware they are on a spacecraft and not on a planet, server Mercer and the rest of the “away team” a meal.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, this would be a moment of gracious, unquestioned hospitality; in The Orville, however, it leads to a lovely small funny moment where each of the crew have to admit, quietly, that the food tastes awful.
They still bond and help the inhabitants of the ship who are drifting on their giant spaceship into a sun but it’s clear that it’s not some utopian experience at play here and people, even hundreds of years into the future are still very much people.
McFarlane’s genius is being able to weave these comedic moments into some very serious storylines without compromising them.
When The Orville was first announced, it was obvious that many people expected some sort of madcap, yuk-yuk-yuk satire that barely paused for serious breath, but the show moderates what could have been an open-slather tendency towards silliness and absurdity with an informed recognition that all good comedies, or dramedies, even must have good characters stories and engaging stories first and foremost or all those jokes will end up swallowed up in a non-ending and increasingly unfunny barrage of humour.
With season 2 due to premiere on 30 December, promising bolder and more cinematic adventures, it’s clear that The Orville is doing a great deal right and not a lot wrong, a worthy addition to the canon of intergalactic adventures that proves you can be both silly and serious all at once, precisely because people, for all the gadgetry and technology surrounding them will always be people, as will, unsurprisingly, the people watching them.