It’s easy to see the similarities between The Orville and Star Trek. In fact, you’d probably have a harder time pointing out the differences – from the aesthetic to the character archetypes, The Orville is essentially Seth MacFarlane’s self-insert Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off.
To laud it as a particularly intelligent show in the same vein as its inspiration is probably a mistake. Certainly, it’s big attempts at socially conscious science fiction have been strained at best – one of the show’s early episode, About a Girl, was a story ostensibly about gender that managed to be both baffling and archaic in its approach to the subject. A more recent episode, Majority Rule, took on a premise that both Community and Black Mirror had already tackled; the premise was executed competently enough, certainly, but was hardly going to earn The Orville a reputation as something particularly revolutionary. In short, it’s a programme that’s easy, if you’re feeling harsh, to term as superficial, replicating only Star Trek’s surface level aesthetic and not a great deal else.
What’s interesting about The Orville, of course, is that this piece of slavishly traditional Star Trek style fanfiction has come at exactly the same time when a new iteration of Star Trek itself tried to reinvent the wheel. It resulted in something of a split between Star Trek fans; while some accepted the main franchise’s latest instalment, others were more inclined to champion The Orville. While Star Trek: Discovery has, undoubtedly, struggled so far, it is a fundamentally more inventive and creatively interesting programme – if nothing else, it’s willing to try and do something new, even if it doesn’t always work. You can see, though, why The Orville has become so popular amongst Star Trek fans who feel alienated by Star Trek: Discovery; there’s a comforting familiarity to the trappings of The Orville, a refuge that’s not so different from just watching old episodes of The Next Generation over and over again.
In turn, though, that’s exactly why it’s not difficult to understand why The Orville has been quite so resoundingly rejected by critics. When watching television is, essentially, your job, one of the things you begin to look for is something new – something that’ll challenge you, something to engage you, and something you’ve not quite seen before. The Orville never aspires to that; indeed, you can argue that it actively resists that, given that it is, in essence, just an excuse for Seth MacFarlane to live out his childhood fantasies. That’s not an inherent limit the show can’t get past – after all, Black Mirror recently showed us how to do something new and engaging while using the aesthetic of old Star Trek – but just a fact of The Orville.
Having said that, though, that does undercut the show’s strengths. Or, maybe more accurately, misrepresents them – in a way, that’s sort of the joy of the show. Yes, for any given episode of The Orville, you can quite easily point to which episodes of The Next Generation it’s riffing on and remixing. No, it’s never quite as clever or novel as the source material that inspires it – if nothing else, they got there first. What it does offer is the feeling of watching Star Trek, in largely the same way fanfiction does. And that makes sense, because that’s pretty much exactly what this show is. Not fanfiction at its most subversive or compelling, no, but at its most basic level – a fun little thing on the side that lovingly recreates the sense of the show you love.
The Orville is not necessarily good, exactly. It’s certainly not particularly thought-provoking. But it is, broadly speaking, a diverting bit of fun that’s easy to enjoy. And that’s all it really has to be.
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