The past few years have been good to sci-fi lovers. Doctor Who continues to display that British/James Bond longevity – and the willingness to diversify with a female Doctor. The Syfy Channel is actually making sci-fi shows again like The Expanse right along with Sharknado N+1. We’re about to see the next installment of Star Wars untouched by the creator who brought us Jar Jar Binks. And now, sci-fi is making a return to prime time… well, kind of.
Thirty years since The Next Generation premiered, Star Trek is coming back to the small screen with Star Trek: Discovery (until it moves over to an even smaller screen). If you don’t want to shell out $5.99/month or $10/month without commercials, or simply think the U.S.S. Discovery’s design will make you long for the days of the Space Battleship Yamato, Seth MacFarlane just might have a good alternative. Yes, the Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy, American Dad, and Ted fame. Yes, the same Seth MacFarlane with his own music album titled “Holiday For Swing.”
This funnyman/musical crooner is at the helm of the new sci-fi dramedy/parody series, The Orville. Coming to Fox, this show is leaving many people wondering just want they should expect. Is it a Star Trek spoof? Will it be A Million Ways To Die In Space? Should we worry about MacFarlane seducing exotic female aliens with Frank Sinatra classics and a lit cigarette?
In truth, the trailers and news up to this point haven’t been much to go on. Here is what we do know.
Star Trek Meets Galaxy Quest
MacFarlane plays Ed Mercer, a newly minted commander of the U.S.S. Orville. If this sounds like a mistaken summary of Star Trek: Discovery, you aren’t too far off. The Orville seems more like a parody of Star Trek than Galaxy Quest was, and that movie essentially explored an alternate reality where William Shatner discovered space was actually full of technologically advanced Trekkies. But to assume this show is only going to be the Spaceballs of classic Trek would be underestimating the show’s potential.
MacFarlane himself is no stranger to science fiction, particularly Star Trek. He cameoed on Enterprise and has worked with a variety of Trek veterans like Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Rene Auberjonois on his animated shows. In 2011, he even expressed a desire to see Star Trek return to television:
“I don’t know who would give me the keys to that car…But I’d love to see that franchise revived for television in the way that it was in the 1990s: very thoughtful, smartly written stories that transcend the science fiction audience.”
CBS obviously wasn’t willing to give him the controls to Discovery, so he went out and made his own series. The Orville even has some Trek blood working on the show, with long time Trek showrunner Brannon Braga, Penny Johnson (Cassidy Yates from DS9), Jonathan Frakes, and Robert Duncan McNeil lending their talents to the show.
A Comedic Yet Serious Tone
While some critics have called The Orville a “Star Trek spoof,” the show has more to offer than just a kitbash of Trek meets Futurama. Executive Producer Brannon Braga has expressed a desire to return to the storytelling style that made Star Trek unique. Even Futurama, which had its own toes dipped in the Trek pool, had its moments of touching emotion. To this day, I still blubber like I’m five when I watch Leela discover her true parents.
MacFarlane, as Mercer, will face the burden of command during a time when his superior (played by Victor Garber) tells him he is literally the last but only choice for the job. Yes, this is similar to the premise of 2009’s Star Trek, but Younger-Kirk got the job because that universe still runs on the physics of “one magical captain on one magical ship is enough to save the day.” Not to mention, Younger-Kirk didn’t have his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicki from Agents of Shield) as his first officer.
The show’s ensemble cast includes a single-sex alien and a gelatinous blob – and the required amount of human characters to keep the makeup budget under control – and will offer plenty of complex narratives if the show’s writers get things right. MacFarlane has never been afraid to explore the darker, more controversial and relevant issues that other shows dive into. So it’s a safe bet The Orville will be more than just a bunch of exaggerated characters delivering easy, halfbaked jokes in space.
Will It Succeed?
That is the multimillion dollar question. Fox gave the go ahead for an initial 13 episode run, but the fate of The Orville will no doubt come down to the ratings of the first few episodes. These ratings set the tone for the show. If they are good, Fox may order a full or second season. If they are okay, they will probably wait to make a decision. If they are poor, Fox could very well pull the show off the air after a couple of episodes.
Unfortunately, the network doesn’t have the best track record with sci-fi shows. Firefly was canceled before the entire first season had aired. Futurama’s original run on Fox lasted as long as Star Trek Enterprise. And does anyone remember Terranova? The one where Director Mace (RIP) from Agents of Shield goes back to the time of the dinosaurs with his family to have a “better life?” Yep, that one was canceled after a few months too.
Still, there is hope for this new show. Fox has had a lot of success with MacFarlane’s other shows. That’s no guarantee, obviously. Just look at the fate of Firefly compared to Buffy (both Joss Whedon’s babies on Fox). But it does give the show a fighting chance. There also hasn’t been a Star Trek-like show aboard a starship on prime time for many years. Even the presence of Star Trek Discovery will be a different factor given its subscription status.
Ultimately, it will come down to the usual: will people watch it enough so Fox makes money? We don’t know if The Orville universe has done away with money like the Federation has, but the fate of this show still can’t escape the economic realities of our own universe. The advertisers are the real gods this time around.
Look for the show’s initial 13 episode run to start September 10th on Fox.