IS ORVILLE BETTER THAN STAR TREK?
Contributing writer Jon Wiesman beams aboard to talk aboot the Orville.
Everybody on this blog agrees that the best show in television history started in 1966. That's not in dispute. The disagreement stems from Jimmy's insistence that the best show in television history is Batman (a great show!), while I maintain that it is Star Trek, of course.
Knowing this, you could probably guess that my favorite new show of 2017 would be Star Trek: Discovery, which debuted on CBS in September then moved over to the CBS All Access streaming service. And why not? The series has a great cast, headed by Sonequa Martin, Jason Isaacs, Doug Jones, and James Frain, with a great mini-arc by the wonderful Michelle Yeoh. We even got Rainn Wilson as Original Series Kirk foil Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
And the look! This is absolutely the most beautiful of any of the Star Trek series we've seen. Discovery boasts gorgeous set designs, special effects, even the opening title sequence is stylistic and cool.
So yeah, you could guess that, and it would be a reasonable guess. But it's wrong.
Not only is Discovery not my favorite show from 2017, it's not even my favorite Star Trek series from 2017. The best new Star Trek show of 2017 is The Orville, by Seth MacFarlane. (In fact, one could argue that Discovery isn't even the second-best Star Trek series of 2017, if you count the Black Mirror season 4, episode 1 episode "USS Callister". But we won't.)
Now, sure, technically Discovery is the only Star Trek show and The Orville takes place in an entirely different universe, but other than that, it's The Orville that best captures the spirit of both the original Star Trek and especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. You could take literally any of the 12 Orville episodes, swap out the characters with Jean-Luc's crew, and you'd have a perfectly fine ST:TNG episode.
Discovery, on the other hand, is a complete departure from what Star Trek has always been, in almost every way. From just a nuts-and-bolts view, Star Trek has always been an episodic show, with nearly all adventures wrapped up in a standard 48 minutes, minus a couple two-parters each season. Discovery is a serial, with one long (depressing) story arc spanning the entire first half-season. Thanks to rules-defining blockbusters like Game of Thrones, serials are the new rage and I love them, so it's not a complaint, but it's just one more way that Discovery is such a departure.
The Orville follows the old episodic format, for good and bad. It sacrifices a little realism (in general major interspecies conflicts and crises are probably not solved in 48 minutes) for the format that MacFarlane grew to love growing up. And the truth is, I hadn't realized how much I missed episodic television until I started watching Orville. It's comfortable. It's not prestige television, but it's fun and I enjoy it. Isn't that what is important?
On a more substantial level, Discovery is (at-times) an R-rated Star Trek, which is obviously new for a franchise that has been on broadcast TV or safely within PG and PG-13 movies. It's a weird decision, and I'm not sure what it accomplishes. It's not like they decided to go for an R-rated show all the time. Most Discovery episodes would fit neatly within broadcast standards with little problem. But one episode featured a somewhat humorous scene with cast members dropping a couple f-bombs for no good reason other than to say, hey look at us, we can swear! And the season finale featured a (very) brief shot of naked Klingon boobs. Now, if you had to guess which show would feature a boob shot, would you pick the Star Trek one or the Seth (guy who sang "I Saw Your Boobs" while hosting the Oscars) MacFarlane one?
But the most important way in which Orville is a better Star Trek than Discovery is in tone. It was a well-known complaint of ST:TNG writers that Roddenberry's vision of humanity's future deprived them of story ideas. Roddenberry insisted that the crew of the Enterprise be beyond petty human squabbling and greed. I can sympathize with them; dramatic tension is rooted in the (sometimes negative) humanity of characters. But Discovery didn't just tweak Roddenberry's vision; they decided to completely ignore it and, in my opinion, just go too far.
Jason Isaac's Captain Lorca is a borderline war criminal. The hero, Michael Burnham, is a mutineer. Even Harry Mudd has been given a makeover. In the original series he was a criminal, sure. Definitely a scoundrel. In Discovery, he's a sadistic murderer. Oooh, so edgy, CBS! Does this make the show better? I would argue, it does not. Discovery feels more like the Battlestar Galactica reboot than a Star Trek show, and that's fine, but if you want a show that feels like Battlestar Galactica, then you're already watching The Expanse, and The Expanse is better than Discovery.
As I said earlier, The Orville would fit nicely in the universe of ST:TNG. Its crew members are, spoiler alert, all good people. Some of them are a little more immature than is probably wise for a crew of a starship, but they all mean well. The Union of planets and civilizations they belong to have strict moral guidelines (if not an explicit Prime Directive) for conduct. War criminals not welcome!
If you only watched the commercials for The Orville before the season started, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a spoof, like the awesome Galaxy Quest. It is not a spoof. (I know, I know. Who could have guessed that Fox would mishandle a science fiction show about the crew of a spaceship? It's crazy.) In fact, I think the word that most describes this show is "earnest." MacFarlane is, first and foremost, a Star Trek nerd. This video was just unearthed from MacFarlane's teenage years. He made a fan video of Star Trek with himself as Captain Kirk.
This is not someone who wants to mock you, Star Trek fans.
The Orville is captained of course by MacFarlane's Ed Mercer, a promising officer whose career was knocked a little off course by his complete meltdown following a divorce. Adrianne Palicki plays his first officer (and ex-wife from the aforementioned divorce). Now, right away, that seems like a bad setup for stupid bad comedy in space, but the show pulls it off. Palicki is great; I think her Commander Grayson is the perfect complement for Mercer. They work well together; they trust each other, despite their history. They call each other on their B.S. And they are both good at their jobs. The captain/first officer relationship has always been crucial to Star Trek series, and MacFarlane does a good job here. I'd have preferred no prior relationship, to be honest, but it's on par with Riker/Troi or Decker/Ilia.
The rest of the crew is great. The weakest character is probably Scott Grimes' Malloy, a hotshot pilot who is nevertheless a complete idiot. He's the comic relief of the show, pulling practical jokes on his crewmates and always finding the least appropriate thing to say at any given time. Nothing wrong with Grimes' acting, the character is just a little one dimensional.
The best character is Mercer's chief of security and pickle-jar-opener, Alara Kitan, played by Halston Sage. There have already been two Kitan-centric episodes and I think this is a breakout character. She's young and ambitious and powerful and doesn't really have time for anyone who is not comfortable with that.
Fans of Deep Space Nine will recognize Penny Johnson Jerald as the ship's Chief Surgeon. J. Lee plays John LaMarr, who starts out as the navigator and becomes Chief Engineer (Geordi much?). Mark Jackson is Isaac, an artificial life form just like Data except that... okay, he's just like Data. And Peter Macon is Worf, er Bortus, who comes from a planet of all males, and gets all the good lines, which he delivers perfectly.
If you are a fan of Star Trek (and there is no chance you are still reading this if you are not) and you haven't watched The Orville yet, give it a shot. The show has featured some pretty good cameos and guest starring appearances by Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, and Rob Lowe. This is a good show, folks. Don't let the Fox promos fool you. Happily, Fox has already renewed it for next season so we will have more time to get to know this crew.
I hope we get a full season of 26 episodes next year.
Jon is Retro Cool Nerd's Star Trek universe expert. he also has some thoughts on the Middle Earth Stuff as well. follow him on Twitter @jonwiesman
The Orville is available on Hulu and Fox on Demand to keep you satisfied until that next season satrs.