The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s science fiction drama with a touch of comedy has been renewed for a second season, just halfway through its first.
Seth MacFarlane did the unexpected. He stepped away from his money-making television to dare something more ambitious: to create a space opera filled with characters you can admire, doing something you can relate to. They are traveling into space and instead of being idealized beings, they still have a relatable Human demeanor. They could be your neighbors, loud, argumentative, and sometimes more than a little disruptive.
The Orville is a ship of the line in a Federation-like civilization called the Planetary Union; a collection of various species, complete with strangely-shaped ships, aliens with the requisite forehead makeup, portrayed with an added touch of humor. Fear not. It’s not the toilet humor found in Family Guy or American Dad; by MacFarlane’s standards it’s tame by comparison.
It was the general consensus that The Orville was considered a vanity project, the height of madness and perhaps hubris for McFarlane to consider doing such a show. This seems especially apparent, given CBS was also putting the finishing touches on their own ‘heir apparent’ of Gene Roddenberry’s classic series, Star Trek: Discovery.
Here at SCIFI.radio we have enthusiastically embraced his madness and have been rewarded with a complex, nuanced show which is less like parody and more like a low-budget homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has a similar feel, staging and lighting and the only place it falls a bit short is its CGI, which in its way, is still very much a Star Trek kind of thing, because Star Trek: The Original Series, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy wasn’t known for its outstanding computer generated graphics but for its drama.
While The Orville’s numbers have cooled a bit since its opening, it still commands an audience sufficient for the network to greenlight another season. The Orville continues to challenge CBS’ Discovery by being lighter, warmer and more people-oriented. While Discovery has spared no expense on its visuals, the show has struggled to present the soul of Star Trek in its delivery. Discovery is also not on network television, opting instead for the streaming-only service CBS All Access.
The Orville opened to some of the highest numbers on Fox since Empire debuted in 2015. It reached 14 million viewers across all platforms, or an eye-popping 3.25 times the total viewership Star Trek: Discovery had on the CBS All Access platform, assuming that every single one of CBS’ subscribers watches the new Trek show.
While I was among the initial naysayers as to the potential of The Orville, I have come to enjoy the crew, their quirky sense of humor and the actors attempting to bring more life to their roles.
Seth McFarlane plays Ed Mercer, a captain devastated by his divorce. He goes from heroic Captain to drunken wreck and is almost drummed out of the service. The Orville is his last chance to pull himself together. His first officer is played by Adrianne Palicki and she is unfortunately Ed’s former wife. The tension is often palpable but we are routinely reminded why the two divorced. Nonetheless, their familiarity has lent itself to saving the day more than once.
Penny Johnson Jerald as Dr. Claire Finn, is the Chief Medical Officer, a highly-skilled scientist and medical practitioner. She could have been on a heavy cruiser but chose to serve on the Orville believing her experience would be needed upon a ship with such a challenging and diverse crew complement.
Scott Grimes is Lt. Gordon Malloy, the resident helmsman, television historian, and practical joker (though the jokes become decidedly less funny for him over time). I have mixed feelings about this character because when he is written well, I enjoy his antics — but he often is a bit too much of a joker and can occasionally work your nerves while he runs a joke into the ground.
Halson Sage is Lt. Alara Kitan, a Xelayan whose physical strength makes her capable of crushing metal with her bare hands and knocking down doors with her superhuman strength. She is, however, intimidating to all of the Human crew and unable to maintain a relationship due to her physical capacities.
J. Lee is Lt. John LaMarr, navigator, pilot and wing-man to Malloy. Both have a similar sense of humor and are most likely to tell bad jokes if given the opportunity. A recent episode has revealed hidden depths of personality and a bit of a temper when provoked.
Mark Jackson is Issac, the Science and Engineering officer. He is also an alien, non-biological species from the planet Kaylon-1, which depending on whom you ask, may consider themselves superior to biological lifeforms. Issac is an ambassador of sorts, trying to determine if Humans are more complicated than his species originally thought. His education continues apace, complete with sarcasm and practical jokes. He may fit in one day …
Peter Macon is Lt. Commander Bortus, a no-nonsense second officer from the planet Moclus. Bortus seems to be completely lacking a sense of humor and is stoically formal with his crew mates. He is a dedicated officer and loving partner. We’ve noticed a bit of humanity rubbing off on him as well.
There have been two episodes which surprised me with their depth and complexity. About a Girl (S1:E3) was directed by Star Trek alum, Brannon Braga, and focused on Bortus, the ship’s second officer, and his mate Klyden as they discover that they have given birth to a female. In Moclan society this is something quite rare and apparently correctable in their society, which boasts an all male population. The voice of this episode, where gender reassignment surgery and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer are key elements, is as serious and compelling as anything seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Another excellent episode was Pria (S1:E5) directed by another veteran Star Trek alum, Jonathan Frakes. In this one, a miner named Pria Lavesque, played by Academy-Award winning Charlize Theron, is far more than she seems. Pria is discovered crash-landed on a comet and after being rescued, her charms hide an unimaginable secret.
The Orville is a small ship by the Union’s standards. Her lines were strange in the beginning, but she’s growing on me. The ship is both fast and nimble but is best suited to visiting other planets, fighting and running away before things get serious. With a second season optioned, the Orville will have the opportunity to flesh out the ship and its crew, as well as challenge their writers to explore their Universe.
I look forward to more stories of the Planetary Union, its awkward, intrepid and very Human explorers stumbling four hundred years, sometimes one-legged, into the future.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.