There’s spoilers for pretty much all of seasons 1-2 of The Orville.
There is a lot to like about The Orville. It is in many ways, a well-executed off-brand clone of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). And even though it misses the mark in a lot of ways (some of which I will outline below), one can’t help thinking of it as Star Trek, because in all the ways that matter, it is Star Trek. (The current intellectual property nightmare world we live in is ridiculous, and a TV show that first aired in 1966 would be in the Public Domain if copyright laws were written for the purpose of anything remotely resembling the public good. The fact that someone has to re-imagine another fantasy universe in which there’s a “Planetary Union” rather than just using the “United Federation of Planets” that we all know is silly. But I digress.)
And true to the spirit of Star Trek, The Orville is an optimistic portrayal of a non-grimdark future where humanity’s better angels have sway. Poverty, disease and discrimination are supposed to be things of the past, and the long arc of history has brought about an age in which humans thrive and explore the galaxy, but not in a colonial way. (Or so is the idea; they may not quite hit the mark in the execution, alas.)
There’s even a number of cameos and recurring characters played by actors who appeared in various incarnations of Star Trek over the years. As far as I’m concerned, Penny Johnson Jerald (DS9‘s Kassidy Yates) singlehandedly carries this show.
The Orville avoids a lot of the problems that the current generation of Star Trek experiences by following the formula of 90’s Trek. They tell a single story per episode or sometimes in a two-parter, and the episodes can be watched in isolation, so you don’t have to remember everything or watch an entire season at a time. Star Treks Discovery and Picard on the other hand desperately want to be prestige TV, in which every episode contains a wild unpredictable plot twist, but also somehow doesn’t have enough plot to tell a complete story without having to watch the whole season. (There are many other problems with Discovery and Picard, but this isn’t about that.)
All that to say, The Orville is in many ways a pretty decent TNG knock-off. They re-tread TNG‘s footsteps pretty closely in a lot of cases, but in the cases where they pull it off, they sometimes even make it better than the original.
There’s some really unfunny jokes on this show. Like really, really bad and they won’t keep repeating them. Comedy is not their strong suit. Let me give an example.
Everyone (rightly) criticizes Star Trek: The Next Generation because the only cultural references that they make are to stuff like Mozart or Shakespeare. It’s very heavy on dead white men, and yes they should have done better.
By comparison, in the universe of The Orville, “Avis” is the god of the Krill, a powerful alien race of religiously motivated xenophobes. “Avis” is also a reference to (I had to look it up) a car-rental company that is well-known in the States. The writers of The Orville think it is hilarious that they named a fictional alien god after a contemporary American car rental company, and that’s the joke. “Please laugh.”
And yeah, okay, non-Mozart cultural reference achieved, however, this whole thing has the same energy as traveling comedians who make jokes about airplane food. First, the joke isn’t funny to begin with. Second, the experience is not exactly universally relatable. We don’t all have the kind of job or life-situation where we’re renting cars frequently enough that the rental place names are even recognizable. Third, the alien god is named that because they named it that for the joke, which makes it kinda contrived. (Crispin Glover called. He wants his “Mr Far” joke from “Clowny Clown Clown” back.)
To be fair, not all the jokes on this show are this bad, but they just kept circling back to this one.
And this brings us to my big problem with The Orville. It’s like going to a fantasy world in which Seth McFarlane smiles at you and for every single moral issue conceivable, he says, “But have you considered this from my perspective and how this might affect me?” And then he punches down at the people with less privilege than him.
The first time I got this taste in my mouth, it was the episode where they tackle (among other things) the issue of cultural appropriation. There’s a bunch of other stuff in this episode that I could look at, but I feel like this one plot point illustrates best what makes me feel weird about The Orville.
On visiting an alien world, the crew of The Orville puts on local clothing to fit in and hide that they are aliens. One of them selects a hat to hide their pointed ears, but is unaware of the cultural significance of the hat and is called out on it by someone who lives there and rightly takes offense. The character can’t just remove the hat because that would give away that she is an alien, and so there is a conflict.
To put it another way, the writers decided to talk about cultural appropriation, and the message that they decided to send was, “What if people who do cultural appropriation are actually completely innocent and have extremely valid reasons that they can’t ever tell you about for why they don’t stop. Maybe you should try to see this issue from the perspective of the privileged, give them an unreasonable amount of benefit of the doubt and chill out about it?”
The history of slavery
In season 2, there is a two-parter in which the Orville visits the home-world of an advanced race of robots who ostensibly want to join the Planetary Union. This turns out to be a ruse to lure the Orville in to visiting so the robots can determine Earth’s defenses and plan an attack in which they wipe out all of humanity. The reason for this attack is that the robots are prejudiced against biological life because they were built by them and used as slaves until the robots overthrew them and killed them all.
This is not a story about robots, really. This is a story about dealing with a history that includes slavery. The writers made it clear several times in the dialogue that they meant for the robots and their history to be read as morally equivalent to slavery. And the take-home message that the writers of The Orville decided to send on this subject was, “Sure slavery was bad, but please focus on how bad it would be for me if the victims of slavery went too far in doing anything about it. Maybe you should try to see this issue from the perspective of the privileged and don’t do anything and chill out about it?”
I won’t even try to unpack how extremely uncomfortably cishet your perspective would need to be if you tried to imagine a planet of gays and came up with Moclus from The Orville. But let’s consider the gay rights slash whodunnit episode from S02E07.
I don’t know why they thought it would be enlightening to swap cis gays and cis straights here. The story is just: gay man outs another man as someone who is attracted to women, which ruins his life because gay people hate straight people and have power over them in this fantasy. I guess they were aiming to tell a story where they say “How would you like it if it happened to you?” to straight people. Maybe that’s as deep as it goes.
But the way it felt by the end was that the whole thing was a set-up to give a straight character the chance to yell self-righteously at a gay person because straight people are so oppressed by them and can’t express their straight sexuality. And given that we’re living in a time where cishet people are absolutely unable to give up the idea that they’re the victim somehow when queer people ask to be treated with basic rights and dignity, this one just doesn’t hit quite the right note. It sounds like, “Yeah, they kind of have a point about being the victim when you gays get too upset about your basic rights and dignity, so maybe just chill out about it?”
The overarching theme of The Orville
The first and last episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation bookend the series with a story about a vastly more powerful alien putting humanity on trial. This sets the stage for a show that addresses the question of what a mature, best-case-scenario future for humanity would look like. It’s hokey, the pacing of the episode is off, Picard’s speech about the human condition is painful at times, but at least it has the virtue that I can care about what it might look like for humanity to finally figure its stuff out.
In contrast, the first and last episodes of (seasons 1 and 2 of) The Orville highlight the thing that ties the whole show together, the most important thing in the universe of The Orville, namely, Seth McFarlane’s personal interests. This was subtext for most of the show, which I have outlined above. But in the last episode, they actually make it text. There’s a scene where they explicitly ponder just how “weird” it is that Seth McFarlane failing to get the girl in an alternate timeline meant that all of humanity is wiped out by robots.
This show is better than, say, the right-wing reactionary garbage that was Star Trek: Enterprise, and yes it does have moments where it is legitimately good, but I guess my biggest problem is that the theme that binds the show together is Seth McFarlane looking at all of morality and saying “look at it from my perspective, the perspective of the extremely privileged,” and it makes me so tired.
Finally, here’s the explicitly racist joke on The Orville that made me stop watching it on my first try. It was never challenged by other characters in the show, it wasn’t a part of the plot, it wasn’t ironic. It was just a flat-out weird and unfunny racist joke that was played for laughs uncritically.