THE ORVILLE: TREK’s Double, and a Quibble

Episode 101 “Old Wounds”
Written by Seth McFarlane
Directed by Jon Favreau

What if Star Trek and MAS*H had a baby that didn’t quite yet understand sophisticated humor?

When we first started seeing promotional material for this show from Fox, many assumed it was going to be a straight-up parody of Star Trek. But if you paid attention to what Seth MacFarlane said in interviews, you knew to expect something different from that. And after delivering Cosmos, MacFarlane bought himself a little leeway with those of us (including myself) who are put off by his particular brand of crude humor.

So it’s with mixed feelings I have to say I really like The Orville.

The pilot episode of a new series always faces a complex mix of challenges: 1) introduce the characters and setting, 2) tell a decent story, 3) balance world-building with plot. On top of that, The Orville also has to face the challenge of how people see Seth MacFarlane.

To say that The Orville is a Star Trek parody misses the mark completely. Comparisons to MAS*H are more appropriate that you could realize, at least until you watch a few episodes. This is a dramedy. There are comedic bits, yes, but the overall story is more in line with anything you’d see in Trek.

“Take her out.” (Michael Becker/FOX)

The plot: Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) is recovering from a messy split from his wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), when he gets assigned to command the USS Orville, a mid-level exploration vessel that’s just one of several thousand ships that need crews. The Orville is not the flagship. It’s more like the ships that show up after the Enterprise goes on her way.

Mercer pulls in Lieutenant Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) to be helmsman, and Kelly ends up assigned as his executive officer — the jokes may try to write themselves, but they don’t — thus setting up the main source of awkward comedic bits and a redemption arc all at once.

The Genesis MacGuffin (FOX)

Assigned to transport supplies to a research station, the Orville gets caught up in intrigue when Dr. Aranov (Brian George) reveals that they’ve had a breakthrough in temporal mechanics, developing a device that can speed up time within a confined cone of energy. The implications are clear — including safety against marauding bananas — food supplies, medical recovery, disaster relief and more could be aided by this technology. But as observed by security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), the dangers are there as well. “We are dealing with something that could be… perverted into a dreadful weapon.”

OK. She doesn’t say exactly what David Marcus said, but it’s the same concept.

Got a bad feeling about this? (FOX)

Aranov kept the true nature of Orville‘s visit secret because he didn’t want it discovered by the Krill (analogue to the Romulans). Nobody’s heard from the Krill in years (“Balance of Terror”), but they have a mole in the science team’s staff. Cue pew-pew action sequence that’s actually pretty good.

And the shuttles have seat belts. So when Mercer pulls “Emergency Landing Plan…B” (Star Trek V), they manage to stay in their seats.

With a damaged ship and few options, Mercer ends up having to hand over the temporal technology, but not before taking Kelly’s idea of attaching a redwood seed to the emitter. So when the device gets activated, a giant redwood tree blasts through the Krill ship. Happy Arbor Day, indeed.

MacFarlane’s STAR TREK

The parallels to Star Trek are obvious, so much so that it’s clear MacFarlane is doing an homage. All of the elements are there:

  • Mercer and Kelly Grayson (named for Spock’s mother?) are the show’s Riker & Troi, who were TNG‘s Decker & Ilia.
  • Bortus (Peter Macon) is the Worf analogue, and should prove to be the source of some interesting stories given that his race is all-male.
  • Isaac (Mark Jackson) is the Data analogue, except he feels superior to humans rather than wanting to be human.
  • Yaphit (voiced by Norm MacDonald) is the Jell-O Horta.
  • Ship shots, fly-bys, transitions going into and out of commercial breaks, all could easily slip into any episode of The Next Generation or Voyager.
  • Crew meeting on the rec deck is straight out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as is Mercer’s shuttle flight to the Orville.
  • The episode title “Old Wounds” evokes Kirk’s line to McCoy in Star Trek II: “As a physician, you of all people should appreciate the dangers of re-opening old wounds.”
Where’s Bjo Trimble? (FOX)

Also, take a look at the crew, which includes Trek alumni like Brannon Braga (producer), Jonathan Frakes (director), Robert Duncan McNeill (director), Joel McNeely (music), John Debney (music).

Casting also pulls from Trek, with DS9 alum Penny Johnson Jerald (Kassidy Yates) as Dr. Claire Finn. Brian George (Aramov) played Dr. Bashir’s father on DS9. And in an upcoming episode, we get Trek guest star Ron Canada as Union admiral…

Overall, the pilot works to deliver the world-building and character introduction while telling a story worth the time investment. But there is one… little … thing…

The Trouble with Quibbles

If there’s one thing that could potentially kill this show in the first season, it’s MacFarlane’s crude humor. It’s not as blatant here, but there’s also not a good balance with the dramatic elements. The comedy bits feel shoehorned in, as if the producers suddenly remembered, “oh yeah — we’re supposed to be funny” and then insert a body fluid joke or something.

The divorce drama “humor” is going to get very old very quickly, and the writers need to remember that this show is set 400 years from now, so the pop culture references are totally out of place. Are you telling jokes that are 400 years old? Here in 2017, how often do you hear anyone make a reference to the first one-way streets in London? Peace of Stolbowa, anyone?

There’s a tremendous amount of potential here, and that’s reflected in the overwhelming positive response on social media. People are ready for optimistic science fiction. Grim and gritty has been Done. To. Death. and it’s time to move on and tell ourselves “Yes, it can be better in the future.”

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

2 thoughts on “THE ORVILLE: TREK’s Double, and a Quibble

  • September 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    You nailed the trouble with the humor on the head. Every “joke” made me think, “do they have two writers’ rooms, and neither knows about the other?” We’ll see if the Trekkies and the Family Guy masses can find common ground or this will never hit warp.

  • September 19, 2017 at 10:06 am

    I gave the premiere some slack because there’s so much to try and accomplish in a pilot episode. But, that being said, they can’t keep giving plot exposition in future episodes. It really slows down the story telling.
    I really liked some of the banter between Ed and Kelly. But like you said, some of the jokes seem forced and drawn out too long. I think the show will have to make some choices about what it is. Yes, as basic as that sounds the show needs to know what it’s trying to do. Is it a comedy? In which case it needs well, more comedy or is it a scifi? And if it’s going to be a hybrid how will that be accomplished?
    I did like the reveal at the end that Kelly put all this in motion and she is still trying to reconnect with Ed.


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