Imagine you have the wherewithal to create your own TV space adventure series. You’ve always been a fan of Star Trek, so you model your universe on the one presented in that classic show: your crew is diverse, your captain is both decisive and flawed, your ship is beautiful and your conflicts reflect those of today’s society. But imagine, too, that you’re Seth McFarlane, creator of the irreverent animated comedy Family Guy and the Ted movies. That means your space adventure/homage to Trek must be funny, too.
The result, of course, is The Orville, McFarlane’s new SF show, now running Thursday nights on Fox. Instead of the bleak dystopias dominating television these days (Walking Dead, Colony, The 100, The Expanse), The Orville offers a vision of a bright future full of shiny starships, abundant energy and peaceful cooperation between species.
Early-Trek optimism infuses McFarlane’s work, from the sleek ship exteriors to the clean, colorful interiors lit to banish all shadows. Plot lines may bring some conflict among the crew that includes not only humans of color, but also beings of several alien species. (After all, Captain Ed Mercer’s ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson is his Executive Officer.) But The Orville is no Rosinante; no one is getting killed in a disagreement with another crew member here.
Largely because of McFarlane’s true love of Trek and his dedication to the underlying principles of that show, The Orville has some strong points right out of the gate. The characters are likable, the universe is a place you want to spend time in. Watching the first episode, I felt like I was exploring an old neighborhood. It was familiar, but just different enough to intrigue me. I even enjoyed watching McFarlane ham it up as the Captain. There was love behind every Kirkian pause and posture. And, after a while, I stopped thinking of Mercer as a Kirk wannabe, seeing him as a new, slightly wacky, but touching, character.
The second episode is even better, as the captain and crew of The Orville deal with an ethical dilemma drawn from our own times. A mated pair in the crew from a planet of all males reproduce and deliver a female baby. (Don’t ask. I have no idea how this works.) This happens only rarely on their planet, and almost always the baby is given a sex-change operation immediately. But the Chief Medical Officer on the Orville refuses on ethical grounds. Which is the set-up for one of Trek’s cultural sovereignty vs. universal ethics debates. You can probably guess that the universal right of a being to choose its own path wins out. The only thing missing is an impassioned plea from Jim Kirk.
Fox just moved the fledgling show from Sunday nights (where it would have been subject to interruption throughout the football season) to Thursday nights. It already has a solid audience, debuting in the Top Ten in its first couple of weeks, according to TV Guide magazine. The move should help, not hurt. McFarlane has his own huge following who will go with him, but The Orville has a wider appeal to the vast Trek audience that is currently being dissed by CBS. (More about that later.)
The Orville’s biggest drawback is that it seems McFarlane’s not sure just what he’s doing with the show. Is it a comedy? The jokes fly fast and furious, and several characters seem included just for laughs, but some topics seem more serious. Is it a spoof? The plots are generally not broad enough for parody, so I’d have to say no. Should we watch the show as a straight-up space adventure? Umm . . .
No matter what the thing is, I’ll continue to watch. It’s too much fun to miss, and I confess my DVR is already full of dark and depressing.
STAR TREK: DISCOVERY
For the first time since 1966, I haven’t bothered to watch the pilot episode of a new Star Trek series. This latest iteration seems promising enough, set ten years before the original series five-year mission, at a time when the Federation is at war with the Klingon Empire. The stories are told not from a captain’s POV, but from that of a junior officer, a woman of color at that. There’s even a gay couple on board the ship. So, what’s not to like?
CBS All Access, that’s what. The network and the producers of the show propose to air only the pilot on broadcast television. (That happened this week.) If you want to watch the rest of the series you’ll have to pay for CBS’s new All Access streaming service. Um, no.
Unlike the producers, who obviously live in New York or Los Angeles, I live in rural North Carolina. Maybe some of you out there can relate—maybe you live in a small town, or out on the prairie or in an underserved suburb. Here in the hinterland, streaming is slow and expensive. I’ve got enough Internet connection for social media and work. But downloading a show? Takes hours. I only do it (through my free On Demand service) if I absolutely have to, and then I download, record and watch later. The idea of paying for a streaming service—Netflix, Hulu or CBS All Access—doesn’t make much sense.
I can’t help but think that Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, is rolling in his grave right now. He would have hated to think his creation would increasingly be available only to an elite few. The future he envisioned was more open and democratic by far.