Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.
It’s difficult to make a TV show set in space without sending a message. Shows about cops or doctors can take place in the real world, but if you want to make a show in space, you have to create not just characters but the world they inhabit. In 56 years of manned spaceflight, human beings have never traveled more than the 250,000 miles to the moon, and never more than a handful of highly trained professionals have gone up at a time; there just isn’t much of a story there. Even in successful historical space films—Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures—most of the drama happens not in space but on the ground.
If you’re going to put TV characters in space, you have to put them in another time or another galaxy, which can be apolitical in a two-hour movie, but over the course of a TV series, the world itself becomes a character, revealing the creators’ beliefs about how people build a society, or how they ought to. For this reason, Star Trek, the most influential and successful TV franchise about space, is also one of the most explicitly political television shows ever created. When Star Trek: Discovery comes out in two weeks, we will have spent seven TV series and 13 feature films in Gene Roddenberry’s multicultural socialist utopia, spanning almost 250 years of in-universe time.
The executive producers of modern space dramas often learned those lessons not just from watching Star Trek but from writing on one of the turn-of-the-century spinoffs. Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica, Bryan Fuller of Discovery, and Naren Shankar of Farscape and The Expanse all cut their teeth as writers or producers on Star Trek, and their shows take place in worlds that say something—good, bad, or mixed—about where humanity is headed.
So what’s the particular perspective of Seth MacFarlane?
The Orville, which debuted Sunday night on Fox, is almost explicitly a Star Trek spoof that tackles the question of what utopia looks like for people who are not themselves perfect. The Orville is one of 3,000 starships of the Union (read: the Federation), and while the Enterprise is a state-of-the-art ship crewed by exceptional people, the Orville is a middle-of-the-road ship crewed by middle-of-the-road people.
Star Trek: The Next Generation revolved around the patrician Jean-Luc Picard, an accomplished tactician and diplomat who kept Shakespeare’s collected works by his desk and whose favorite hobby was archaeology. He was played by an accomplished English stage actor. The captain of the titular Orville, Ed Mercer, has a dumpy name, keeps a Kermit the Frog doll on his desk for inspiration, likes to drink beer for breakfast, and is played by an actor who’s never headlined a live-action network TV show before, but has spent the past 22 years making raunchy cartoons.
Taking the perfect world of Star Trek and asking, “OK, but what are the normal people doing?” is a clever premise, although as A Million Ways to Die in the West showed, MacFarlane’s capable of taking a clever premise and whiffing on it. There are other obstacles, such as the fact that any Star Trek parody will invite comparison with the note-perfect Galaxy Quest as long as that film is in living memory. Most of all, I worried that MacFarlane, whose humor is frequently crude and cruel, would turn his guns on Star Trek’s sometimes overpowering message of diversity and inclusivity, making the idea that we ought to be good to each other into the show’s punch line. The crew introduction set up jokes about sexism and affirmative action that left me terrified of how the auteur of Ted might pay them off later.
But I never worried that MacFarlane didn’t understand the material well enough to parody it well. When J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, he gave us familiar characters and the right color palette and he knew that the redshirts die and Chekov can’t pronounce the letter V, but he grafted the skin of a franchise that had four decades of history as a slow-burn political allegory onto a dizzying shoot-’em-up. Abrams so thoroughly misunderstood the source material it makes me wonder that if he found out your beloved golden retriever had died, he’d earnestly offer you a lemon to replace it, because they’re both yellow and that makes them the same.
If MacFarlane hadn’t illustrated that he understands Star Trek through momentary parodies on Family Guy, he proved it with The Orville, and, just in case, he brought in reinforcements. Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays ship’s doctor Claire Finn, had a recurring role on Deep Space Nine. The first episode was directed by Jon Favreau, but the third was directed by Robert Duncan McNeill, most famous for playing Tom Paris on Voyager. And one of the executive producers is a member of the Roddenberry Coaching Tree: Brannon Braga, veteran of three Star Trek spinoff series and MacFarlane’s collaborator on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
Because of this, Star Trek fans will recognize images, sound effects, character notes, and story lines in The Orville. But that doesn’t necessarily make it good, even though MacFarlane clearly has the love for the source material that’s necessary for great parody.
There’s a scene in the pilot that perfectly illustrates my ongoing frustration with MacFarlane. The crew of the Orville defeats the bad guys, in short, by causing a huge redwood tree to grow inside their ship in a split second, tearing the enemy vessel apart from the inside out. As he executes the plan, MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer stares down his opponent on the viewscreen and says, “Happy Arbor Day.”
It’s a good line, one that purposely or not captures the weirdness of destroying a spaceship with a tree, but in the 30 seconds that followed, the bridge crew holds a discussion that reveals that nobody knows what Arbor Day is, and Mercer should’ve said, “You got wood,” instead. Mercer eventually agrees. “You got wood” isn’t as clever and doesn’t really make that much sense, but it’s a dick joke, so that’s where MacFarlane goes.
In Star Trek: Nemesis, both Picard and his android second officer, Data, are fighting doppelgängers: Data an earlier android prototype called B-4, Picard a clone called Shinzon, played by a bald and pleather-clad Tom Hardy. At one point, Picard and Data are talking about the difference between themselves and their enemies, and Data says this: “I aspire, sir, to be better than I am. The B-4 does not. Nor does Shinzon.”
The problem with MacFarlane is the same. He’s smart enough and talented enough to be the “Happy Arbor Day” guy, but left with the choice, he always turns back into the “You got wood” guy.
So is The Orville good? Sort of. The visuals are nice, and MacFarlane’s performance is pretty good. The characters are generally likable, and two in particular—Lieutenant Alara Kitan, the security chief, and Lieutenant Commander Bortus, the second officer, on whom the second and third episodes focus respectively—show a lot of potential for growth. I laughed out loud a few times over the course of three episodes, both at things I recognized from Star Trek and from new jokes.
On the other hand, if The Orville is going to last more than a season, it will have to start exploring its own universe more and rehashing Star Trek’s less, and apart from those laugh lines, the dialogue is bad. Like its inspiration, The Orville gets earnest fairly frequently, and those earnest lines are so clunky I thought at first that MacFarlane was making fun of the self-seriousness of Roddenberry’s material.
But after the pilot, The Orville starts to confound the expectation that MacFarlane will always be the “You got wood” guy. Behind the farce, the crew of the Orville turn out to be generally competent and well-meaning people, which makes the show feel unexpectedly big-hearted. That’s not to say it becomes any less farcical, but out of nowhere The Orville becomes a social commentary of its own, with views on everything from love to animal rights. The third episode deals with sexism and gender identity in an imperfect, but well-intentioned and open-minded manner. The jokes I was afraid of in the pilot never materialized; MacFarlane might be that guy, but apparently this isn’t that show.
What we get, then, is a clunky but eminently watchable television show, as well as evidence that—judging by the world he’s created—at least part of MacFarlane aspires to be better than his reputation.