You know why Fox hasn’t been sued yet for The Orville? Probably because the producers of Star Trek don’t anticipate it lasting long enough for anyone to care that's it’s a blatant, thieving rip-off of Gene Roddenberry’s classic space adventure franchise.
Television is no stranger to creative theft. There’ve been dozens of Friends clones, Sex and the City clones, and most primetime soap operas seem to follow the exact same formula. Hell, the ultra-successful Dynasty was crafted to capitalize on the success of Dallas. But there’s a difference in following a series’ blueprint and getting into the business of theft. Countless television shows have been inspired by Star Trek since its inception in 1966. There’s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Farscape, just to name a few. But in each of those series, their creators took inspiration from Star Trek and told fresh stories in new settings, with different politics on their mind. Battlestar delved into how we struggle to maintain our humanity during war, Firefly was a kooky heist series, and Farscape was a full-blown soap opera full of morally gray opportunists.
The Orville is… Star Trek. There’s no getting around the fact that Seth MacFarlane, a huge Trekkie, basically got Fox to hand over millions of dollars so he could make his own version. From its suits, to the Klingon-esque prosthesis of the Krill race, to the fades to black at each commercial break, to its theme song, The Orville is a Star Trek rip-off that would be obvious even to Shaggy and Scooby-Doo sans Velma. The only real “twist” is that this time, the team is led by a divorced couple: MacFarlane as the captain and his ex-wife Adrianne Palicki as his first officer. If this were some sort of space-set Hart to Hart it could have actually done wonders for the genre.
Bringing romance back into the space opera would at least be a novel approach. Most of the pairings on shows like this seem to be perfunctory or poorly thrown together, a la Spock and Uhura in the recent Star Trek films. Any attempt to do something different would’ve been welcome over whatever the hell it is that MacFarlane made. For some reason, the show is being promoted as some type of Star Trek spoof, but it has no such aspirations. If you find yourself watching The Orville, you will be watching mediocre Star Trek fanfiction infused with bad jokes.
In an interview with Manu Saadia for The New Yorker, MacFarlane discusses his attempts to inject humor into sci-fi: “Oftentimes in science fiction, you’re dealing with life-and-death topics that are so grand and operatic in their size and scope that it’s a hard thing to weave humor in there without it seeming out of place. The Orville tries to recapture a kind of science fiction that celebrates human advancement and achievement and intellectual evolution rather than going for the cheap thrills of the zombie hunt. The inclusion of humor in The Orville is like an experiment.”
But because the show is an hour long and not MacFarlane’s usual comedic half-hour format, the jokes land in the middle of scenes and don’t go anywhere. The show isn’t a comedy so the jokes don’t build; they just exist in a vacuum (maybe it’s a metaphor for space). But the show isn’t a proper drama either, because none of the stakes are particularly high.
MacFarlane obviously has high aspirations for the series. He insists that The Orville is about bringing humanity back to sci-fi; a repudiation of the grim sci-fi we’ve been served recently. In The New Yorker, he says: “I’m personally a little weary of that corner of science-fiction storytelling. I’m getting tired of seeing filthy people running around with guns, fighting for their own survival, rather than fighting for a cause, for values, for the advancement of the human race. There’s nothing like that out there. Does optimism still have meaning for people? It could feel outdated, like a nineteen-thirties musical that’s devoid of cynicism and is looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and is oblivious to what’s going on.”
However, there’s not much that’s particularly optimistic about The Orville either. It relies on hoary stereotypes like the hard-working husband and the nagging wife, placing them in a sci-fi context. Watching The Orville, it’s very obvious that MacFarlane loves its source material, but I fail to see why he decided to make his own version if he didn’t have anything new to say about the genre or the human condition. Optimism has great meaning for people still and it certainly has a place in art, but the idea that a show copying the blueprint of a ‘60s TV show and shoehorning in bad Family Guy jokes is somehow optimistic is MacFarlane believing his own hype.
Or he’s just really, really good at lying. When asked about the similarities between his series and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery, MacFarlane said: “I’ve heard that, and yet I’ve also heard fans echo the desire for a Star Trek where they turn the lights on, where everybody’s not sitting around in the dark. I don’t know anything about Discovery. It looks very dark and very serious, but that’s the trailer—it could turn out to be very optimistic.”
MacFarlane might have turned up the lights on The Orville, but there’s not much to look at.