Even though I have a dozen odd shows to be keeping up with at any given time, for a few years now, I have not been able to escape a consistent recommendation, The Orville.
Originally, the show seemed like it was going to be Family Guy guru Seth Macfarlane’s attempt at a live-action Star Trek parody on FOX, and perhaps that’s how it was originally pitched and greenlit. Because the actual show? It’s not that. Not even close.
The Orville, now about to finish up its third season under new ownership at Hulu, is far from a parody of anything. It’s much more of a homage or tribute to early Star Trek, which Macfarlane clearly adores, but given the current state of Trek, somehow, improbably, it’s actually a lot better than all the other current Star Trek projects, be they Discovery or Picard. Recently, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has felt like it’s been drawing on The Orville for inspiration in addition to older Trek, given its shift in focus to smaller, occasionally humorous stories.
Another curious element here is just how much you can watch the budget increase across seasons. Season 1 looks like it’s practically an SNL skit. Season 2 got a lot more money for space battles and such. Season 3, now funded by Hulu/Disney, is producing practically blockbuster-level sequences with runtimes to match, including this past week’s wild ninth episode with a four-species battle royale for the fate of the universe. Things have…escalated. “If a show is good, give it more money” seems like Hollywood 101, and yet that doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should.
But the reason The Orville works so well is because despite all the flashy effects, it remains grounded with its characters. By focusing intensely on the core cast of 6-7 main characters, we get these years-long arcs that really pay off with continued investment. The best ones are about the saga of Topa, a child from a horribly repressive alien culture, and Isaac, a sentient robot constantly torn between his acquired human family and the directives of his home race. If I have any criticism of this show, it’s that the character the show probably does the least with is Captain Ed Mercer himself. Some say that Macfarlane isn’t suited to the role and shouldn’t have cast himself, but I don’t think that’s the issue. It’s more just that he feels like more of an observer to these more compelling sagas than a meaningful participant.
Then of course, there are the politics, which does not feel like a 2022 “woke” thing, but again, a trip back to the original Star Trek which dealt with social issues all the time, even if some fans would like to forget that. Here, the show handles a truly wide array of topics here with surprising heart, whether that’s misogynism, transphobia, even abortion. There are plenty of ways this could have all gone wrong, and none of this would have worked if The Orville was a true “parody.” But after three seasons, it feels like even though it was inspired by Trek, it’s built up its own characters and mythology that can resonate with audiences even if they’ve never watched Star Trek at all. That comes close to describing me, as even though I’ve seen a few seasons and movies over the years, I’ve never been a true Trekkie. But I am now a fan of The Orville, and in this age of non-stop Star Wars and Marvel stuff, Disney would be wise to cultivate potentially new and engaging original universes like this one within its catalog.
Watch it, you won’t regret it.
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Pick up my sci-fi novels the Herokiller series and The Earthborn Trilogy.