TL;DR: The Orville is the true spiritual successor to Star Trek: The Next Generation, delivering on the fundamental promise of good sci-fi. It's supremely accessible, even to those who don't typically like sci-fi. Hulu had better renew it for many seasons to come, or else I'm cancelling my subscription. Go watch (or rewatch!) The Orville ASAP!
- Initial Skepticism
- Delivering on the Promise of Sci-Fi
- Comparison with NuTrek
This post is long overdue. And yet, from another perspective, maybe the quality of season 3 makes my timing perfect. Part of me wanted to wait for season 3 to finish airing, but I just couldn't wait.
Aside from just sharing my own excitement about this show, my hope is to encourage you to watch it on Hulu. Yes, I care that you derive even a fraction of the value that I have, but more urgently, I want Hulu to have as much signal as possible that they should renew the show for a fourth season (and beyond). If you're already motivated, you can sign the change.org petition, not that I know how much good that'll really do. (If, miraculously, someone from Hulu is reading this, let me tell ya: When and if you don't renew The Orville, that's when I'll be cancelling my Hulu subscription; that's how strongly I feel about this.)
I was initially skeptical of a show created by Seth MacFarlane. While I could tell from the handful of cutaways in Family Guy that he was a Star Trek fan who had a real reverence for the franchise, I found myself often frustrated and disappointed by what I call his "philosophic drive-bys": strawmanning and lampooning a political position he disagrees with in a snide way or putting forth a political viewpoint in a way that suggests that disagreement implies one's stupidity.
Annoyed though I might be when I disagree with the message (which, more than anything, tends to be more of an eyeroll moment for me), I'm more disheartened when I agree: It's long been my view that there's nothing worse for the right ideas than their bad defense or justification. (Just look at where our culture is now on the issue of abortion because Roe v Wade was decided on such shaky, absurd reasoning. Or observe our culture's (mis)understanding of and attitudes about capitalism because of the inconsistent and hypocritical ways that so many Republicans and Conservatives parade around as its alleged champions.) I'm not saying that Family Guy or any of his other animated comedies is the place for serious philosophical inquiry or discussion, but then just leave all that political content out of it; delivering comedic value does not require it, and it ultimately does more harm than good.
Side note: In the interests of transparency, I want to confess that I have, even in the not-too-distant past, characterized it as Seth MacFarlane's "dishonestly using Family Guy as a vehicle for his naive and misguided political views". Dishonesty--including intellectual dishonesty--is a serious charge, so I want to walk that back. I don't know the man personally, and I haven't even watched or read any interviews of him. While I definitely have an eyebrow raised as to his motives and attitudes and struggle to imagine benign explanations for what (and how) political viewpoints are expressed in Family Guy, given my context, I cannot in justice conclude dishonesty.
So I was understandably worried about Seth MacFarlane's creating a show that manifests his love of Star Trek. I was also worried about his irreverent comedic style and how that might be disrespectful of some of Star Trek's serious values and particularly the meaning that Star Trek has for me.
When I watched the first episode on 2017-10-07, I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Seth MacFarlane certainly knows how to do humor, and it was funny to see the unfiltered quips of and banter between ordinary modern-day people, but on a 25th-century starship. In a way, the naturalistic contrast to traditional fictional archetypes landed with me as "This is basically Star Trek: The Next Generation, but if the characters were, like, real people.". And mixing them with traditional sci-fi archetypes (eg, Bortus, Isaac) heightened the humor. But it also struck me as extremely irreverent, and I was feeling a combination of grief that Star Trek has been over for so long and also a sort of pain in the spirit of "You've resurrected Star Trek, but you've bastardized it.".
But I decided to stick with it, and I'm ever so glad that I did. By the third episode, About a Girl, any doubt about whether The Orville is serious sci-fi was erased from my mind. I don't want to risk spoiling it for you, but I'll say this: The chief drama in the episode was a courtroom scene in which good, legitimate philosophical arguments were given about a difficult and controversial issue on which reasonable people could disagree. And what's more, it wasn't just some contemporary issue blindly and superficially transposed into a 25th-century context where everybody is already going to have made up their minds, but taking an issue that really is important in our culture today and modifying the parameters in a way that prompts the viewer to think about and (re)evaluate the different dimensions of the issue. And while it's pretty clear that the writers (and Seth MacFarlane himself, probably, not just his character) had a particular viewpoint on the matter, they didn't just cram it down your throat: Whatever passion accompanied expressions of those viewpoints, they were supported by good, thoughtful, careful, nuanced arguments. This episode reflects intellectual honesty par excellence. Even if sci-fi is not "your thing" or if you never cared for Star Trek, do yourself a favor and watch at least to episode 3. If you don't love it, then okay, maybe this show isn't for you.
Delivering on the Promise of Sci-Fi
Seth MacFarlane's characteristic comedic style never really goes away (and that's more than fine), but as the show has progressed and evolved, it has also shown how serious it can be, tackling difficult and important issues. It's not that every episode is now about some somber and dramatic topic; heck, there are still plenty of silly and absurd episodes, as well as those that really are about fun, fictional sciencey/techy/futuristic things. But it's not just Star Trek with a humorous coat of paint slapped on, either...it is the true spiritual successor to Star Trek: The Next Generation, treating storytelling and writing with respect and doing an amazing job of uniting the light-hearted with the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. More than any other science fiction show I've watched, The Orville is relatable to because of how it integrates the fantastic "what-if"s and a futuristic context with the kind of issues that we confront and care deeply about as people...and the drama is played out by real people with real feelings and values we can connect with.
And that's really the essence of science fiction (however much I love all the fun technology-centered episodes of Star Trek and Stargate): It's taking today's real-world issues and putting them in an alien--but not too alien--context, so that we can look at those issues from a different perspective, hopefully learning and growing along the way. I'm not sure if I'm using the phrase correctly, but good, important sci-fi always has to have a strong aspect of being a morality play; it must make us question what we would do in this other weird context, so that we can abstract and take away fundamental principles that we can apply to our own real lives.
I'm always surprised when I hear people express that they don't like sci-fi because they find it to be too absurd or they don't get the weird aliens or they're not into futuristic technology. Yeah, okay, sci-fi uses those things as devices, but they're devices to tell a deeper story and serve a deeper purpose that I think anybody could connect with. And there are examples of things that fall into the sci-fi category that don't dramatize important issues, and that's okay, I guess. And then there are examples of things that get mistaken for being science fiction (just because they happen to take place in space or something), when they're more readily fantasy fiction (eg, Doctor Who, Star Wars). So I get why people might conclude that sci-fi is not for them, but I might challenge those people to consider what I'm claiming is the essence of science fiction and at least give The Orville a shot.
For those who know me, saying that something led me to cry is not really saying much, but for what it's worth, I can tell you that I've cried over half of the season 3 episodes so far. They are touching, they tug at the heartstrings, and they simultaneously evoke sorrow and hope.
Comparison with NuTrek
I've saved this substantive section for last and tried to avoid too much sideways commentary above about modern "Star Trek", which I derisively refer to as "NuTrek". (This is a term I picked up from friends, and now that I think about it, I wonder if it has some connection to Orwell's term "Newspeak".) Aside from wanting to avoid focusing on the negative, it's really that The Orville stands on its own. It's just good sci-fi (and good TV, plain and simple) on its own terms. It certainly doesn't need to be compared to NuTrek in the spirit of "Hey, this is the best Star Trek we have today, so we should be grateful.". I mean, we should be grateful, and it is (in a very meaningful way) the best Star Trek we have today, but you don't really need the contrast to appreciate it, however much that contrast heightens my own appreciation because of how invested in Star Trek I am. To belabor the point-- My references to Star Trek in the preceding sections were not meant to judge The Orville as a Star Trek show (even though I believe it really is), but rather to highlight what is so great about Star Trek and to claim that here, The Orville follows in that fine tradition.
So I'll try to keep this brief, because I don't want to detract from my positive account above: I am sorely disappointed with basically everything titled "Star Trek" created after Star Trek: Enterprise in 2001-2005, so much so that I pointedly make sure to use the phrase "the (shows|movies) titled 'Star Trek'" to refer to them, to indicate that despite a common name and characters who have the same names (who aren't even the same characters), there ain't nothin' actually Star Trek about these productions. It basically correlates with everything that Alex Kurtzman has had a hand in, and while I don't have a lot of first-hand familiarity with him and direct knowledge of his influence, the evidence is looking rather bad.
There is so much I could say about NuTrek, but I'll say that my chief complaint relates to what I claimed above is the essence of sci-fi: When it comes to dealing with important issues, NuTrek's approach is mostly to just assert by fiat "that bad; we don't like". There's no nuance, there's no transposition into a novel context, there's no debate, there's no suggestion of solutions.
In Discovery, we have a character making a direct point about how their preferred pronouns are "they/them", like pronouns is something we're still going to be wrestling with in 1100 years. It's just too on the nose, alienating the people they're preaching to and emboldening those who already agree to be more tactless in social discourse. Contrast that with how Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dealt with non-binary, transgender, and sexual orientation issues via plot lines to do with the Trill or the J'naii, to name two examples off the top of my head. Bringing it back to The Orville, observe how they use this thing called allegory to wrestle with similar issues in the character of Topa (only click through if you don't mind spoilers).
In Picard, the characters literally have to travel back in time to the 21st century so that they could complain about climate change, health care, and America's immigration policies. Talk about blind copying-and-pasting of today's issues into a TV show! And it's just brow-beating the viewer with their negativity and bitterness and condescension by stating, matter-of-factly, how horrible we are. It's just crass. And it's the same reason that people find Social Justice Warriors so insufferable, however much I personally may agree with aspects of their viewpoints (eg, respect for LGBT folks, being careful with words generally, being in favor of open borders, being pro-choice with respect to abortion). But for the gods' sake, stop--we get it; you writers are really woke. It's really sad how they're doing their own causes more harm than their explicit enemies ever could, and they don't even realize it. (This goes back to my point above about how there's nothing worse for the right ideas than their bad defense.) And they're doing it in the name of Star Trek. Ugh. So this kind of approach is precisely what I dislike about Family Guy and why I was so worried that Seth MacFarlane would repeat it in The Orville, too. But as I hope I've made clear and to Seth MacFarlane's tremendous credit, he has treated The Orville with more care and respect than the folks in charge have with any of these other productions titled "Star Trek" since 2005. Apparently, Seth MacFarlane knows what allegory is and knows how to present an engaging, thought-provoking debate, not just drive-by complaints.
It's sad, really: Given my nerdy interests, I had every reason in the world to love Discovery and Picard, ranging from parallel universes to time travel to a Borg-like entity to androids/AI to Q. And yet, I was left heartbroken and disappointed.
If you're interested in some more indepth and thoughtful analyses, I highly recommend looking through all of RedLetterMedia's Star Trek videos on YouTube, where Mike Stoklasa (and in some videos, his cohost Rich Evans) do a much better and thorough job than I of dissecting NuTrek, both in terms of concrete things that only Star Trek nerds would care about and also on a more abstract aesthetic level.
I want to end on a positive note, and that's one of gratitude, especially to Seth MacFarlane, who channeled his love of Star Trek and science fiction into a quality piece of art. Seth MacFarlane has given me--and the world--something I feared was lost to time. My life is so greatly improved by The Orville in it, and I look forward to each upcoming episode, even if I don't get to watch it on the big screen, like I did with the season premier of season 3!
I also want to thank Hulu for picking up the show, and I so hope that they also see its value and will continue to renew it for seasons to come.
And the actors, the way they portray their characters and really get you to feel what they're feeling...wow. Just one example among many that stands out to me-- Penny Johnson Jerald's Dr Claire Finn had me in tears over her performance in Electric Sheep.
Thank you to everybody involved in creating The Orville; your work means more to me than you know.
Go watch The Orville. Really.