Sunday, June 24, 2018

Some Thoughts About "The Orville..."


So my wife and I have watched the first five episodes of "The Orville," by Seth MacFarlane. I have thoughts. Here they are.



It's Highly Derivative

"The Orville" is a show about the adventures of a starship's crew. The ship belongs to a Union of Planets, which is administered by a series of admirals and has a naval command structure. Their mission is to explore the galaxy and render aid when needed. They have a stoic second officer whose culture is vastly different than most of the people on board, as well as an android who struggles to comprehend human peculiarities. The ship travels at faster than light velocities, and features a holographic entertainment room and a matter replication system.

Sound familiar?



So yeah, this show is in many ways a straight-up iteration of TNG. It does alter things a bit - the Captain and First Officer are ex-spouses, which led the captain to a spate of bad performance in his career. The Stoic second officer is a part of a single-gender species and has a same-gender mate on board. The security officer is a young woman from a high gravity planet, and possesses mega strength.

But ultimately, this is TNG Lite. Even the plot lines are derivative of past Trek shows. The second episode has the Captain and First Officer captured for an alien zoo, in a story extremely reminiscent of "The Cage." The third episode has the same-sex alien couple giving birth to a girl - an extreme rarity on their planet, and wrestling with "corrective" sex reassignment surgery - in a story extremely reminiscent of "The Outcast." The fourth episode has the crew finding a giant bio-ship, in which the inhabitants have forgotten that they are on board a space vessel and are controlled by a dictatorial theocracy, in a mash-up of TOS stories "For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky" and any number of plots involving a dictatorial government that keeps inhabitants in the dark. The fifth episode features a villain from the future who wants to steal technology from the past in order to sell it, in a story extremely reminiscent of "A Matter Of Time" and "The Most Toys."

But you know what? Much of the Trek franchise is derivative of itself. It would be hard to ask any show to avoid similarities to something that has 700 hours of material. The question is whether the characters work and whether the tellings of various trope stories bring anything new or interesting to the table.

It Engages The Part of My Trek Brain that Discovery Fails To
And the answer to the above question is, "yeah, basically it does." The stories are not straight up retellings, and they bring different character dynamics and different solutions into play. "About A Girl" brought the transgender element into play in a way that "The Outcast" did not, and did a somewhat better job of giving the alien part of the story some internal logic, even if we do not agree with it. The bioship episode "If The Stars Should Appear" went into greater depth with respect to the politics of the world than various TOS outings did. Basically, in every show, even as I was saying "Hmm, this is a lot like episode X that I've seen," I was still interested in the outcome and even mildly surprised in a few spots.

Discovery never made me question the ethics of the other side, or ponder what it would be like to live on a bioship. It just deadened my senses with incessant violence and gore, and pissed on continuity that I already know and love. So "The Orville" has the benefit of being untethered to Trek lore, with all the pitfalls that might entail. But then, Discovery could have been similarly untethered, if they had just told a future (i.e. post-Voyager) Trek story. So there is really no excuse.

The Humor is Distracting at times, but does Frequently Work

There is a lot of Seth MacFarlane-type humor. People call each other "dicks," there are pop culture references, and occasionally this humor's presence calls into question the professionalism of this space fleet. On the other hand, it reads as very real, and I get the impression that MacFarlane is trying to show how a non-idealized crew might actually behave in a Trek-style environment.

It Is The Safest Possible Series We Could Have Gotten


What if this is what Discovery had been? Would we be disappointed? Probably. Because it is so derivative of TNG, it would feel a bit like running in place for the franchise. Thus far it has reached for no more than "tell a series of episodic stories with sci-fi themes and continuing ensemble character development."

With that said, Discovery does exist, and is quite bad. As such, having a "Poor Man's TNG" to watch is quite a nice tonic. This feeling, having my imagination tickled every week, and having a group of people I basically like navigating various perils, is what I want from Star Trek. Especially now, in our current time in the US, I want some optimism, some escapism. Discovery just makes me sad and anxious. But I'm already sad and anxious for several hours of the day! I don't need more!

The Actors Are... Fine
Penny Johnson of DS9 fame is back as the Doctor. Seth MacFarlane has a certain doofy charm as the captain. Adrianne Palicki brings a bit of sass to the First Officer's role. Overall, it's a reasonably diverse bcast that delivers enough to make me sort of care about the characters. I'm only five episodes in, but I do want to know whether the Captain and First Officer will get back together. I do want to know about the alien child and whether it prospers. So although there are no standout "wow they're a great actor" performances like Patrick Stewart or Kate Mulgrew, there are also no standout poor performances.

I Want To Keep Watching It, And I Don't Dread Every New Episode
At the end of the day, I think this show deserves Trek fans' support. It is unlike anything else on TV right now. It is very much like things that were on TV 20 years ago, things we all love.

Can it replace Trek? Hell, no, not given what I've seen so far. I am not invested int he world in the way I was with the various Trek series. There doesn't seem to have been the attempt at world-building that exists in those other shows (which is not to say there couldn't be going forward). It all reads like a pretty good, hugely lavish fan production set on a different ship, telling reminiscent Trek stories.

And I want to keep watching it. I don't approach every episode with consternation and a mild bit of dread, wondering what they're going to fuck up about the Trek I grew up with this week. Does it challenge me? Not really. Does it break amazing new ground with the concept? Nah. But it's halfway decent, and it makes me feel good to watch.

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