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The Orville ••1/2

Movie Greg Scott
The Orville


The Orville

The Orville
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time to review Family Guy. Oh wait, I mean The Orville.

Yes, let’s review the only ship to be named for the First name of an historical figure.

We meet Ed Mercer, an officer in the Planetary Union, who once showed great promise but is now a shell of his former self. He’s recovering from a terrible personal setback – he caught his wife Kelly cheating on him. But Kelly has put in a good word with Admiral Halsey, who asks Ed to Captain a new ship, The Orville. Ed is thrilled until he learns that Kelly has been assigned to be his first officer.

But at least Mercer has a competent crew. His best friend Malloy is the helmsman, Bortus the Moclan is an alien who is a super warrior, Isaac the android is super smart, Alara is a super strong woman, and LaMarr is another great helmsman. It’s almost as if Mercer has cloned his favorite characters from some other star trekking crew.

Greg, I’m a fan of The Orville. Is the series perfect? Not even close. But The Orville does a better job of capturing the spirit of Star Trek than pretty much every Star Trek series since the original series – with the possible exception of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

What exactly is that “spirit”? For one thing, there is a general “lightness of being”. In the original Star Trek series, Roddenberry cultivated an optimism about the future, a utopic vision of a society in which there is no longer any hunger, poverty, and conflict. Once Roddenberry died in the early 1990s, Star Trek abandoned those principles and got dark and gritty. Sometimes this made for great television (e.g., ST: Deep Space Nine) but sometimes things got so dark that viewers wondered if Star Trek had morphed into a series about dystopia rather than utopia.

There is also an emphasis on combining comedy with drama – although the comedic elements are certainly more subdued in season 3. I’m not sure it’s been a good decision make The Orville a more series drama as time has gone on.

When evaluating a series, the writing and the stories are the most important criteria. Here The Orville gets a ‘B’ grade from me. Some of the storylines are first rate, but some fall flat. This inconsistency is frustrating, but it also characterizes every Star Trek series. In addition, there are some copycat ideas – The Moclans, for example, are too much like the Klingons. And Isaac is too much like Data. We are subjected to a re-hashing of old ST :Next Generation plotlines involving Isaac’s “sentience” and his capacity to participate in romantic love. Still, The Orville often approaches these ideas in a fresh way.

I have no love for The Orville – none. From the beginning Seth McFarlane had a scattered idea as to what the show was to be. At first it seemed to be a Galaxy Quest remake. Then, in interviews, McFarlane said he wanted to imagine what The Office would look like in space. Ultimately, The Orville is McFarlane’s wet dream of sitting in the captain’s chair of the Starship Enterprise. And he used his popularity and power in Hollywood to do that. Mission accomplished.

However, without a coherent idea, the show meanders from topic to topic. The jokes fall flat as they are not based on anything happening in the moment. Much like his Family Guy cartoon, the plot is largely a throw-away backdrop for the jokes. But unlike Family Guy, The Orville attempts to take itself seriously as a drama. In my humble opinion, Seth McFarlane is a comedic genius. But frankly, he’s terrible at drama.

Ouch! That’s harsh, Greg. But while I don’t agree with you, I understand what you’re saying. This is all a matter of taste, and I can see why the McFarlane touch rubs you the wrong way. Some of the stories are indeed lightweight, or they are mishandled re-treads of old sci-fi tropes. I get that, but I also appreciate the effort to “Make Star Trek Great Again”, in the sense of making us enjoy the characters, their integrity, and their positive vision of what the future of humanity could (and should) look like.

Some episodes have been quite poignant. For example, there is an episode in which Gordon falls in love with a simulation of a real 21st century woman. He can rationalize it being true love because the woman did exist, and now exists in the simulator. But when he is forced to tamper with the simulation to retain her love, he recognizes he’s overstepped the bounds of reality and must leave the “relationship”. Episodes like this are effective in showcasing the complexity of human emotion and human relationships within a futuristic sci-fi context.

I wish McFarlane had such lofty goals as to “Make Star Trek Great Again.” The problem is, he’s woefully out of his depth. Firstly, a science fiction show must adhere to known science. Time and again, The Orville ignores science. In the first episode a Redwood seed grows to immense proportions to destroy an enemy ship – which is ludicrous to say the least. In another episode the details of time travel are inconvenient for the plot, so Mercer quite literally waves them away with his hand. I could go on.

Secondly, McFarlane wants to deal with culturally significant challenges. Again, he is ill-equipped to handle these topics. One must either be a participant in these issues, or include sensitivity readers for the scripts. He’s done neither. One example is Alara as a pun on “strong woman.” Perhaps the most egregious failing is McFarlane’s Bortus plotline. The joke here is “what if Worf were gay?” But to add insult to injury, McFarlane wades into gender identity issues. Every episode dealing with the gender manipulation of Bortus’s daughter has been roundly criticized by the LGBTQ+ community. McFarlane’s own Family Guy has a number of episodes making fun of transgender folks. He is simply the last person who should be writing about gender issues.

And, the writing stinks. In the case of the gender identiy episodes, there is a lack of understanding of the difference between sex and gender. In another episode, the crew had to confound the alien entity so they used an electric drill because it was too “arcane” for the alien to understand. I’m pretty sure they meant “archaic” because there’s nothing particularly “confusing, mysterious, or secret” about a drill.

Greg, that episode you mention, A Tale of Two Topas has received much acclaim. Check out one such positive review – and there are more. I disagree that no one should be allowed to write about a community unless they’re in the community. Men should be allowed to write stories about women, and women about men. Blacks can write about Whites, and right-handers about left-handers. And yes, all such writings should be critiqued. But to deny McFarlane’s right to have anything to say about transgender issues is to be pro-censorship and pro-cancel culture. Let’s hear what everyone has to say and then be willing to offer fair praise and criticism where appropriate.

You know I respect your opinion immensely. But I have to disagree with you on this. It’s not censorship that I request, but self-censorship.  If we’re going to play duelling articles, consider that your article was written by a Christian pastor and doesn’t address the gender issues. Here’s one discussing “About a Girl” and another about The Orviille’s approach to transgender issues in general. Both are from folks in the LGTBQ+ community and make compelling cases that McFarlane should just stop writing about something he has no knowledge or experience of.

But as much as it hurts my brain to watch The Orville, there are some bright spots. The show shines when it deals with relationships between the crew. And it’s especially good when characters go back in time. I’m not sure why this is, but the episodes “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” and “The Road Not Taken” deal with Kelly having to face her younger self. Much like many Orville episodes, this steals wantonly from Star Trek: The Next Generation (specifically “Second Chances”). But it is a thoughtful look at regret. Similarly, the Season 3 episodes dealing with Gordon’s trip to the 1980s and how he made a life for himself – only to have Mercer extract him – raises interesting ethical issues.

Another plus is how McFarlane’s love of music imbues each episode with wonderful offerings. He uses a 70+ piece orchestra for all the incidental music. And each episode includes some member of the crew playing an instrument or singing a song. For me, this verges on a variety show rather than a science fiction dramedy, but I have to give the man credit where it’s due.

Also, the performances are exceptional. Especially when you consider the terrible writing and plotlines. In particular Mark Jackson as the android Isaac is phenomenal. Considering that he is clad in a suit that completely hides his face and limits his motion, Jackson delivers a compelling performance. And on the rare occasion when his holographic human presence is shown, he comes to life.

And the CGI is quite good (although it’s a little too much in Season 3).

But, what’s with all the 1980s cultural references? It’s like the crew and even the computers are obsessed with a decade that’s over 500 years in the past. Or maybe the head writer is? Hmmm…

Overall, I enjoy The Orville and am more than delighted that Seth McFarlane decided to pay homage to Star Trek by creating a nearly identical world full of hope, idealism, and vision. While not perfect, the stories are usually entertaining, and sometimes they are borderline brilliant. Until Star Trek: Strange New Worlds came along, The Orville was my favorite “Star Trek” series. In terms of my ratings, I give The Orville 4 Reels out of 5, and the heroes 4 Hero points out of 5.

I wish I had warm feelings for The Orville. Certainly fans on Rotten Tomatoes consistently agree with you. My opinion is that audiences were so starved for something resembling classic Star Trek, than anything would have sufficed. One of the measures we both use for quality is repeat viewings: would we want to rewatch a show or movie. I cannot imagine watching another episode of The Orville. I give The Orville 1 out of 5 Reels and 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Movie Greg Scott
The Orville