The Orville: season one

After expressing my disappointment about Star Trek Discovery, I heard from a couple of sources that I should be watching The Orville – the “true successor” to Star Trek. With that in mind, I set about watching season one. To put it mildly, results were mixed.

The Orville is basically Seth MacFarlane’s Star Trek fanfiction, given a solid budget and a TV slot. MacFarlane himself stars as Ed Mercer, captain of the USS Orville, a Planetary Union starship. Serving under him are a varied crew of humans and aliens, but more on them later. The episodic plots are all very Star Trek inspired, and the look and feel of the show can be considered, depending on how generous you feel, as either an homage to or a rip-off of TNG.

The first half of season one is pretty poor, and it was only on the promise of future improvements that I got through it at all. Whilst one might appreciate the intent behind writing characters who are more flawed and human than the paragons of TNG, the execution is almost painful to watch. The male characters are largely shallow and idiotic, whilst the female characters adhere to all the worst tropes and stereotypes. One episode spectacularly fails the Bechdel test, with the two female characters using their one scene together to talk about men. If there’s a dick joke to be shoehorned in, you can bet you’ll hear it.

Things do calm down a bit by the second half of the season, but even then the quality is only really raised from ‘poor’ to ‘average’. On the whole, these episodes aren’t actively bad, but it’s unclear what ecological niche they fill. It’s Star Trek Atlantis all over again – not terrible, but you instantly recognise that each story has been done before, and this iteration of it isn’t adding anything new.

If there’s one pet peeve I have about future Earth sci-fi, it’s how the characters are always particularly obsessed with 20th and 21st century American popular culture. Star Trek is bad enough for this, but The Orville really leans into the cultural references in a big way. Now, I get that making up an entire set of 22nd century Earth or contemporary alien planet cultural references would also be pointless and annoying, but maybe we can just skip the popular culture jokes altogether. Am I really supposed to believe that everyone in the future is obsessed with this one tiny bit of the history of one nation on a single planet?

Characters

  • Captain Ed Mercer: Formerly an overachiever who put work ahead of everything – including his marriage. After catching his wife cheating on him, Ed became a drunk slacker. Now, a year later, he has the opportunity to relaunch his career as captain of the Orville. Since Ed is literally Seth MacFarlane’s self-insert, he’s generally portrayed as a good guy who was terribly hard done by by his awful, cheating wife (more on that below). As the series progresses, he does evolve from being underwhelming into a mildly likeable character.
  • Commander Kelly Grayson: First officer of the Orville, Kelly is smart and competent – and she also happens to be Ed’s ex-wife. She feels so bad about cheating on him that she puts in the good word that gets him command of the Orville, and also decides to serve as his first officer. It’s somewhat annoying that this otherwise strong character is initially portrayed as having so little agency of her own that her only role in the series is to help out Ed. What’s worse is that for most of the series, she gets constantly teased and sniped at for cheating on Ed.
    Personally, if I were Kelly, I would not have chosen to work with Ed again unless ordered to, and if that situation had arisen, I would have hoped that everyone could have conducted themselves a bit more professionally when on duty. Yes, it must have been hurtful for Ed, but let’s not forget that he was also neglecting the marriage.
  • Dr. Claire Finn: Chief medical officer, Claire is a capable officer and an overall great character. She doesn’t get a great deal to do in the first half of the series, except fend off the creepy romantic overtures of the gelatinous engineering officer Yaphit. Later on, we learn that she’s a single mother with two young children – not for any tragic ‘absent father’ reasons, but just because she wanted children despite not having a partner to have them with.
  • Lt. Gordon Malloy: Helmsman of the Orville, Gordon is an idiot who seems to mostly exist to make stupid jokes and play childish pranks. He’s my least favourite character.
  • Lt. Cmdr. Bortus: Second officer of the Orville, Bortus is a member of the all-male Moclan race (more on that below). Bortus has an excessively robust physiology and an uptight manner, and is clearly meant to be a parody of Worf. His alienness is occasionally amusing, but overall he comes across as quite a dull character.
  • Lt. Alara Kitan: The Orville’s head of security, Alara is a Xelayan who has super strength in Earth-normal gravity. Early in the series, Alara has a promising arc where we see her struggling with the responsibility of being in command of the Orville when Ed, Kelly and Bortus are all indisposed. I really liked this storyline, but disappointingly in subsequent episodes all of Alara’s screentime seems to be devoted to her talking about how various boyfriends haven’t worked out because they don’t like dating a woman who is stronger than them. Things do get back on track later on in an episode where Alara must confront her fears, but sadly that episode just isn’t very good.
  • Lt. John LaMarr: John spends most of the first season as the Orville’s navigator, and has little personality beyond being Gordon’s sidekick and wingman. The penultimate episode of season one does pull a Geordi LaForge by making him chief engineer, after it’s revealed that John is actually the smartest human aboard the ship, but has learnt to hide his smarts in order to fit in. Watching John learn to apply his intellect and leadership skills over the course of that episode is heartening, and almost makes up for him being so boring and forgettable up until that point.
  • Isaac: Isaac is a Kaylon, one of a race of artificial life forms who consider themselves superior to mere biological life. He signed up as the Orville’s science officer as part of an initiative to strengthen ties between the Kaylons and the rest of the Union. Isaac is clearly meant to be a parody of Data, with the twist that, instead of yearning to be human, he takes pride in being a superior artificial being. I do like that twist, but otherwise Isaac is generally only mildly amusing.

Selected episodes

I originally thought about writing something about every episode, but I decided to fold most of the salient points into the character descriptions. The following three episodes, however, deserve special mention.

s1e3: About a Girl

In episode two, Bortus is stuck in his quarters for most of the episode, incubating the egg that he and his partner Klyden have produced. At the end of the episode, the egg hatches, and the baby is revealed to be a female. Shock horror!

It turns out that the Moclan aren’t actually all male – every so often a female is born, and when that happens, the baby is usually given “corrective surgery”. I think we can all see where this is going, but let’s step back a moment. What exactly do male and female even mean when it comes to an alien species? Do they have the same sex organs as humans? Since Moclan males can reproduce with each other, then presumably not. It’s implied that the uniformity in Moclan society is meant to be across biological sex, gender identity and gender expression, but since the writers don’t really seem to know the difference between any of these, it’s hard to draw any conclusions.

The bulk of the episode is taken up with a court case in which the Moclans assert that being female is basically a hideous and disadvantageous disfigurement, and that in every species across the galaxy, women are smaller, weaker and generally a bit shit (even ignoring that last one, on Earth alone it’s not true that the females of every species are the smaller and weaker ones). Kelly’s counter argument basically boils down to “girl power!”, but she ultimately fails, and upsettingly the baby undergoes the surgery and is referred to as male for the rest of the season.

It’s clear that this episode wants to mould itself in the image of those hard-hitting Star Trek episodes that explored relevant societal issues, but sadly it doesn’t quite succeed. Is it meant to be about trans issues, or about the surgery that often gets performed on intersex newborns? Is it meant to be a satirical look at the misogyny present in modern society? As it is, it’s just a mess that fails to properly address any of these things.

s1e5 Pria

A beautiful blonde woman claiming to be from the future arrives aboard the Orville. Unsurprisingly, given that Seth MacFarlane penned the script, she’s both keen to get into Ed’s pants and to commiserate with him over how awful his cheating ex-wife is. For her part, Kelly falls into the stereotypical “of course I can’t trust this beautiful blonde” trope, and enlists Alana’s help in finding out what’s really going on. Tired tropes abound.

s1e10 Cupid’s Dagger

Whilst the second half of the seasons is generally better quality, this episode is a bit of a low point. The Orville picks up a specialist for a crucial mission, only to discover that it’s none other than Darulio – the man Kelly cheated with. Unbeknownst to the crew, Darulio’s race secretes a pheromone that ramps up the sexual attraction between people who come into contact with it. Over the course of the episode, Ed and Kelly both end up massively attracted to Darulio, whilst Yaphit inadvertently picks up some of the pheromone and infects Claire with it, causing her to finally succumb to the gelatinous blob’s advances.

Love potion episodes are always on suspect ground when it comes to consent, and this episode is no different. At least having a same sex attraction between Ed and Darulio is something a bit different, but other than that there’s little to recommend here. It’s questionable whether any of the sex acts in this episode were properly consensual, and the fact that Darulio knows about this pheromone but neglects to tell anyone is extremely creepy.

Claire comes off the worst in this episode – for several episodes we’ve seen her have to reject Yaphit’s advances with increasing firmness, even threatening to involve HR if he doesn’t give up. Now, under the influence of the pheromone, she immediately goes for gelatinous sexy times, and then acts like a jealous lover when Yaphit doesn’t call back the next day. Quite apart from the fact that Claire doesn’t deserve this treatment from the writers, the last thing we need is anything that reinforces the all too entrenched idea that all a man needs to do to get a reluctant woman to sleep with him is to relentless pursue her (or worse yet, slip her some chemicals).

Inspired by

Where have we seen these stories before?

Episode Seen before
“Old Wounds” Any Star Trek episode where a civilian outpost gets attacked by Klingons or Romulans
“Command Performance” TOS: The Cage
“About a Girl” TNG: The Outcast, TNG: The Measure of a Man
“If the Stars Should Appear” TOS: For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky
“Pria” TNG: A Matter of Time
“Krill” DS9: Apocalypse Rising
“Majority Rule” Black Mirror: Nosedive
“Into the Fold” Picard stuck in the turbolift with three kids in Disaster
“Cupid’s Dagger” DS9: Fascination, TNG: The Naked Now
“Firestorm” TNG: Remember Me, Voyager: The Thaw
“New Dimensions” TNG: The Loss
“Mad Idolatry” Voyager: Blink of an Eye, TNG: Who Watches the Watchers?

Final Thoughts

With all that in mind, does The Orville really deserve to be known as the “true successor” to Star Trek? On some level, I can see where people are coming from when they say this. Star Trek has always been of its time – that’s why each series of the franchise looks and feels different. Discovery is not like TNG because Discovery is the Star Trek of today. It has the good things about modern times – namely increased diversity and better visuals – and it also reflects the not-so-good things in its questionably plausible science and overblown, paper thin main plots. The Orville, however, tries to tap into our nostalgia for the TNG era, and obviously for some people, it succeeds. For me, however, it just hovers between being distinctly average and outright bad. That being said, I do have season two recorded on my TiVo box, so I guess my journey with The Orville is not over just yet.

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