Perspective is important. One of the fundamental cornerstones of modern popular culture even beyond the realm of science fiction which it has dominated periodically for over half a century, Star Trek knows the importance of not taking itself too seriously: The Trouble with Tribbles, The Voyage Home, Data telling a Romulan commander she might be happier in another job, McCoy observing that Spock gifted his girlfriend a tracking device.
Star Trek has also been parodied many times from countless fan fictions and theatrical productions to Saturday Night Live and the Futurama episode Where No Fan Has Gone Before which featured the voices of several of the cast of the original series and The Next Generation, to say nothing of Galaxy Quest which spoofed the show, the actors and the fans as knowingly and lovingly as only those who count themselves as part of a family can do.
Creator of Family Guy, American Dad and writer/director of Ted and A Million Ways to Die in the West as well as serving as a producer on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Seth MacFarlane has versatility and talent, but as creator, producer, star and writer of Old Wounds, pilot episode for new science fiction comedy drama The Orville, does he have the necessary perspective to make the show fly?
The year is 2418, and at the New York headquarters of Planetary Union Central Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) is appointed as captain of the USS Orville, ECV-197, a mid-level exploratory vessel. With over three thousand ships in the fleet, Admiral Halsey (Legends of Tomorrow’s Victor Garber) explains that he wasn’t the first choice but the need to fill the chair overwhelmed concerns over his many shortcomings.
With his best friend Gordon Malloy (long time MacFarlane associate Scott Grimes) serving as helmsman, the senior staff are rounded out by Doctor Claire Finn (Deep Space Nine’s Penny Johnson Jerald), security officer Alara Kitan (Goosebumps’ Halston Sage), a super-strong Xelayan, teutonic second officer Bortus (Shameless’ Peter Macon) representing the single-gendered Moclan, navigator John LaMarr (J Lee, another MacFarlane collaborator) and artificial lifeform Isaac (Mark Jackson).
That leaves a vacancy for executive officer, and en route to their first mission they rendezvous with Commander Kelly Grayson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Adrianne Palicki), Mercer’s ex-wife who will serve as his XO, a bitter surprise sprung on Captain Mercer which pleases only his bridge crew who now have something to gossip about.
Launched only two weeks before the new “official” Star Trek show Discovery, there has been much speculation that The Orville might be a threat to the success of that prequel series: it is comprehensively not. With set design, lighting and costumes all lifted directly from the era of 1987 to 2001, from Encounter at Farpoint to Endgame, The Orville is already caught in a timewarp, late to the game by spoofing something which is already relegated to what is in television terms the distant past.
Crucially, The Orville is also caught in a narrative trap of compromised goals: after the backstory is relayed with remarkable efficiency in the opening moments Old Wounds then moves to a simplistic and obvious plotline with nothing to set it apart as unique, feeling more like an ambitious fan film than a professional production and simply not good enough to stand as a modern science fiction drama, and while MacFarlane’s humour is predictably unsophisticated the juvenile barbs are never sufficiently sharp or current for the show to work as a comedy and light years from MacFarlane’s outrageous best work.
Unlike Peter and Lois of Family Guy where despite his dominant lead she is the more rounded, intelligent and capable head of the Griffin family, the dynamic of Orville’s command team is unfairly skewed from the start, Grayson shown to be the cheating wife before her name is even spoken allowing MacFarlane to position Mercer as the wounded party, stoic and honourable as he undertakes his duty, eternally possessed of the moral high ground in any dispute with his future first officer.
While beyond the consciously dated artistic decisions the show is technically flawless, from the obvious mimickry of the soundtrack and effects design to the subtle hint on Mercer’s ready room desk of the inspiration of the name of his ship, a model biplane similar to that flown by pioneering aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright, aiming for the gutter rather than the stars and without a clear route plotted and a firmer mission statement, so far The Orville is far a diversion rather than a destination.