The Orville, the new science fiction/comedy/drama show from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, premiered on Fox September 10th. MacFarlane stars as Captain Ed Mercer, new commander of the Planetary Union exploratory space vessel the Orville, with his ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) as his first officer. Three episodes in, I’m still not really feeling it. The promos made it look like it was more or less just a straight Star Trek parody, but the actual show is something odder than that. It’s a weird mix of Star Trek parody and… Star Trek.
MacFarlane is obviously a massive Trek fan, even making a cameo on Star Trek: Enterprise in its fourth season.
And that’s partly the problem. MacFarlane is such a fan of Trek that he’s barely changed anything about it to do this show. The Orville is basically just Star Trek: The Next Generation with the serial numbers filed off. It’s got a multispecies crew in multicolored uniforms with emblems on the left breast, working for an peaceful interplanetary organization with a naval rank structure, traveling to strange new worlds in a metallic grey spaceship with a faster-than-light means of propulsion that glows blue in the rear of the ship.
They’ve got phaser-like rayguns, handheld communication devices, holodecks, and shuttlecraft. They’re missing the transporter, but that’s about it. They’ve got a android crewmember on the bridge, a female doctor and security chief, and a grumpy brown alien with a bumpy forehead. Regular DS9 guest star Penny Johnson Jerald plays the ship’s doctor. Hell, four of the first five episodes are directed by veterans of various Star Trek shows (Robert Duncan McNeill, Brannon Braga, James L. Conway, and Jonathan Frakes).
That’s a lot of Trek elements. There have been other science fiction properties that had a distinct Trek influence (Babylon 5 and Galaxy Quest both come to mind), but they aspired to do more than just that. They made pains to differentiate themselves. They’d zig where Star Trek zagged. Babylon 5 got more political, had commlinks on the tops of their hands, and had blue collar contractors working in their docking bay. Galaxy Quest had a different means of transport to the ship, a laconic Engineer instead of a hyperactive one, and a redshirt who talked back. There’s doing a Star Trek satire and parody, and then there’s doing Star Trek fan fiction, and so far MacFarlane is doing the latter.
Overall, I’d say that the comedic elements of the show are the most successful ones, with my favorite gags being the gelatinous crewmember voiced by Norm Macdonald, and holodeck characters that defy expectations, like the viscous-looking sparring partner with a gregarious personality or the western bad guy who wants to settle his dispute with a dance-off instead of a shootout. And that makes sense, since the comedic stuff is MacFarlane’s basic brand. His previous projects Family Guy, American Dad!, Ted, and A Million Ways to Die in the West were all comedic. So it’s an odd mix when the humorous subplots are mixed with a straight dramatic stuff. This is a show that has a main plot where Bortus of the monogender Moclan race unexpectedly gives birth to a baby girl and must decide whether or not to give the baby a sex change, interspersed with a scene of Norm Macdonald’s gelatinous Yaphit hitting on ship’s doctor Claire Finn. I’d like to see the show go more comedic so that it could be more effective overall. It’s nice to see MacFarlane trying to stretch and do something different from his previous work, but at this point, The Orville doesn’t do anything that Galaxy Quest and Star Trek itself didn’t do first and better.
So what’s happening with the actual Star Trek? Well, after several delays, and behind-the-scenes changes that saw co-creator and original showrunner Bryan Fuller stepping away of the series, Sunday night saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. It’s the first television incarnation of Star Trek since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005, and the flagship show for the new CBS All Access streaming service.
Set ten years before the famous five-year mission of Kirk and Spock seen on the original Star Trek, Discovery grabs you right from the first teaser, as a Klingon named T’Kuvma plans to unite the 24 houses of the Klingon Empire. An early mention of Kahless the Unforgettable assures Trek continuity freaks that they’re in good hands. And for a deep dive into Star Trek nerdity, the Black Fleet from John Ford’s classic Klingon novel The Final Reflection is officially incorporated into Trek canon.
The show then introduces our main character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her commanding officer, Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), facing a classic Trek dilemma of how to save an alien planet without revealing their presence and violating the Prime Directive. Captain Georgiou’s means of contacting her ship when sandstorms disrupt their communications is pretty damn clever, and a great introduction to the series. And the main plot seems intriguing, with the Vulcan-raised Commander Burnham seeking to unravel the Klingon plot and avoid plunging Starfleet into a war.
I also liked the opening title sequence, even though it lists a staggering NINETEEN producers.
The look of the series is fantastic, with great sets, cool costumes, and stupendous, movie-quality special effects. They use sound effects from both TOS and TNG, making it feel more like the regular Star Trek Universe and even throw in a few J.J. Abrams-style dutch angles and lens flare from the current movies. And of course, you get glimpses of cool aliens throughout.
So the show is great. What I saw of it, that is. Because CBS only gave us a small sampling of what Discovery is about on Sunday night.
You’d think that a show called Star Trek: Discovery would actually show us the USS Discovery at some point during the premiere, but nope, all of the Starfleet action takes place aboard the USS Shenzou, the domain of Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou. The USS Discovery isn’t glimpsed, or even so much as mentioned. According to the character listing on the show’s Wikipedia page, Shazad Latif’s Ash Tyler, Anthony Rapp’s Paul Stamets, Mary Wiseman’s Sylvia Tilly, and Jason Isaac’s Captain Gabriel Lorca were all absent from the CBS network airing. That’s FOUR out of six of the show’s regulars. How are you supposed to judge a series premiere that only gives you a look at ONE THIRD of the show’s characters?
Seeing how little CBS’s one-hour premiere of Discovery set up the actual series, it seems pretty obvious that the first two episodes were originally a two-hour premiere that was split down the middle to try to get audiences to subscribe to CBS All Access. I’ve been following Anthony Rapp on Twitter for a few months, and he’s been enthusiastically diving into the Star Trek Universe, marathoning the various series and even diving into classic Trek novels like Diane Carey’s Final Frontier and John Ford’s The Final Reflection. His newfound passion for Trek was infectious, and I was really looking forward to seeing him on the show. So it was a shame to find him completely absent from the CBS premiere.
I was waiting to decide whether or not to plunk down the cash for CBS All Access until after I watched the Discovery premiere, and now that I’ve watched it, I’m still not sure if I’ve seen enough of the show to properly judge it. Generally speaking, introducing all your characters and setting up the entire premise of your show in the premiere episode is a good thing. Imagine if the TOS pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before” ended before the death of Gary Mitchell and Kirk & Spock’s newfound understanding of each other, or if “The Emissary” ended before Sisko met the Prophets and decided to stay on DS9. That’s what it felt like we got here. I liked what I saw (Hell, I mostly LOVED what I saw) but this premiere was CBS trying to entice potential regular viewers with just half a story and only one third of the cast. I’m not sure if that’s quite enough yet.
So, creatively, I give Star Trek: Discovery an A-. Business-wise, it rates a D.
Addendum: Like any good geek, I expressed my concerns on Twitter. Discovery actor Anthony Rapp was classy enough to respond to me. you can read our exchange here.
Reminder: If you use any of the Amazon Associates links above, the AJS gets a small commission from your purchases, even if you buy something else. So help us out of you can. Thanks.