I fucking love The Orville.
If you haven’t seen it, here be spoilers. You should prpbably just go watch it if you haven’t. But, on the other hand, this is a fairly episodic show. It’s not serialised like so many things are these days. So while there will be spoilers, I think it’s probably not such a huge deal for a show like this. Still, you have been warned.
I think perhaps my favourite moment in the entire show (so far) is in Season 2′s “All the World is a Birthday Cake”, when the captain says “attention everybody, prepare to initiate… First Contact”.
And all of the crew cheers.
It’s fucking glorious.
Oh, optimistic sci-fi, I’ve missed you! It’s been so long! It’s so rare these days that I really can’t even remember the last time I saw any. I suppose there are a few movies that might count: Arrival, Interstellar, The Martian. Perhaps. But they’re all movies rather than TV series. Perhaps Stargate, but it’s now been over a decade since that ended. What I’m really talking about is obviously Trek.
I don’t want to talk about the current dumpster fires with Trek stickers slapped onto the side of them as they gang-rape Roddenberry’s corpse. I’m not here for that. I’d rather not think about them. I think the best thing is if I just stick my fingers in my ears and pretend they don’t exist. As far as I’m concerned, they’re absolutely definitely non-canon. but I kind of have to talk about them at least in passing. The comparison is inevitable, because the Orville is more Trek than any of that trash will ever be. And there’s one simple reason:
This is a show written by somebody who actually likes Science Fiction.
And I mean REAL Science Fiction, not braindead action crap set in space. Not heroic stories about wizards with laser swords. Not another frankenstein “oooh scence bad!” story, or other hamfisted moralising (cough).
Now, real sci-fi doesn’t have to be optimistic. There’s lots and lots of great sci-fi that isn’t. Lexx is one of my favourite shows ever, and it oozes cynicism from every pore. Babylon 5 might be hoepful overall but it gets into some pretty dark territory, and I fucking adore it. But I think that probably the very best of it tends to be optimistic. Much of Asimov’s work (particularly the foundation and robot stories) springs immediately to mind. The Oddysey series. The Galactic Milieu series. All of these are favourites of mine. But the point isn’t that you can’t make good sci-fi that isn’t optimistic. The point is that there’s basically no optimistic sci-fi these days. Certainly not on TV or movie screens. It’s all gritty, edgy stuff where people are cunts. And that’s a huge shame, because it’s the very core of the greatest sci-fi TV/Movie franchise ever. And I’ve missed it. So when the Orville’s crew cheers at First Contact, with comments from the crew like “This is why we’re out here!”, it just about brings tears of joy to my eyes. And I’d like to think that maybe Roddenberry’s corpse is at least taking some comfort, while being gang-raped, in the fact that some people paid attention, even if those people have seemingly been banned from working on anything with a Trek license because the people in charge of trek obviously hate Trek.
I’m starting to think, and this is a big statement, that The Orville might have the potential to be better than Trek. All of it, not just the current dumpster fires.
Wait, don’t close the tab, hear me out.
Firstly, I’m not saying that it IS better. It’s got some pretty huge boots to fill if it wants to take the crown. That’s 50 years of some of the best TV sci-fi ever that you’re going up against. A little 2-or-3-season run isn’t going to allow you to come close. We won’t be able to really consider whether it IS better until it’s at season 10, or movie 5, or something like that. Seth MacFarlane is going to have to keep it up to the same (of higher) levels of great for a LONG time to truly compete with the king.
But I can see that it might have potential.
Firstly, the comedic aspect. The Orville doesn’t have to always take itself so seriously. They’ve leaned hard into the drama and sci-fi side, and I think that’s for the best (it’s one of the things I love about season 2, the comedy has been dialled back and it’s gone 95% sci-fi), but they could do a very comedy-heavy episode and the audience wouldn’t bat an eye if it was done well. Trek really struggled to do that kind of thing. Yes, there is the odd outlier like The Trouble With Tribbles, but even with episodes like those, Trek can’t really be self-referential or examine itself. It has to take it’s premise seriously. But the Orville doesn’t have that limitation. And that means that it has the potential to do something that we really don’t see enough of: The Orville is perfectly positioned to start examining sci-fi tropes. Oh how I’d love to see an episode that deals with the fact that sci-fi writers have no sense of scale. The comedic side of the show gives it the ability to do stuff like that, and I’d LOVE to see it. Deconstruct those tropes. Reconstruct them. Play them for laughs. Make the sci-fi fans chuckle. Reference classic stories and point out how absurd they are. Have somebody mention that we’re entering an asteroid belt, and have somebody say “all hands brace for impact!“, and somebody else say “What are you talking about? The average distance between asteroids is like a hundred thousand kilometers. The chance of hitting one is in the billions to one. We’ll be lucky if we come within visual range of anything larger than a grain of sand”.
Secondly, and this is going to be a bit contentious: Canon. Trek has 50 years of history sitting behind it, and there was no concept of “canon” when it started, it was just a sci-fi show. The idea of canon developed gradually over years. There’s really no canon to speak of in TOS: things tend to mostly be self-consistent, but the idea of canon didn’t really come about until TNG. So there are a bunch of things that are inconsistent, particularly in TOS. Hell, in the second (or first, depending on how you count) episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, at the very start of the episode, they talk about how they’re at the edge of the galaxy. According to later (and more consistent and realistic) canon, that’s a multi-decade journey. Similarly in Star Trek V they go into the galactic core, a similar distance. Another that springs to mind is that I recall a mention of travel at warp 13, but another episode establishes that warp 10 would be “infinite speed” and is basically impossible (if you travelled at infinite speed you would be at every point in the universe simultaneously). These are just two inconsistencies of many. Most of the time, they’re not a big deal, and we kind of just go with the one that makes the most sense and keeps things as internally consistent as possible.
But more than inconsistencies, this canon serves as a huge pile of restrictions for writers. If you want a trek story to feature regular travel to and from another galaxy, you’re probably going to have to explain that there’s been a huge leap forward in propulsion technology allowing travel literally millions of times faster than what we’ve previously seen. And it’s going to have huge implications for all future stories set in that universe, e.g the delta quadrant is now suddenly a day or two away rather than 70 years. It’s not impossible, but not exactly simple either. So, let’s come up with a totally ridiculous example: Say that I was a trek writer and I wanted to include some kind of, I don’t know, let’s say it’s a “spore drive” that allows instantaneous travel to pretty much anywhere in the galaxy via the power of magic mushrooms, or something. That would have all kinds of huge implications on the canon of the rest of the series. And if I was to put something stupid like that in, say, a prequel series set before other pre-existing shows, it’s going to be pretty unavoidable that I’m going to break canon pretty majorly, or I’m going to have to come up with some very contrived reason why the voyager crew doesn’t have knowledge of or access to any information about this ridiculous technology that could get them home in 15 minutes. And anyway, that’s a particularly absurd example because it doesn’t “feel” right for trek – it feels like magic, and trek has always been grounded in science. It would be similar to introducing magical powers into trek. Like, say, I don’t know, let’s go with the ability to telepathically communicate over interstellar distances. Something dumb like that would be very out of character for a trek show and only somebody with no understanding of and/or contempt for trek would contemplate adding something like that to the canon.
I’m not saying that canon is bad, or that there are no more interesting Trek stories to be written (I have like 5 different ideas). What I’m saying is that writing in the Trek universe is by definition fairly restrictive. You can’t, for example, suddenly declare that the Federation has become evil and… I don’t know, let’s go with something off-the-wall and totally absurd and say that they decide not to help an enemy when they’re in need due to some catastrophe, using it as an opportunity to start talking and potentially ushering in a new era of peace, like they did in Star Trek VI, because such an idea would be totally ridiculous and go against everything that Trek is about and destroy the very core of the concept.
Instead what I’m saying is that the canon is restrictive, and that it’s difficult to keep consistent with it. It makes the writer’s job harder. There’s a huge body of stuff that you need to know, and even somebody with the most encyclopaedic knowledge of Trek can make a mistake.
But that doesn’t mean it’s OK to just not try, or that it’s time for a reboot, or anything like that – if you want to set your story in the Trek universe, you’re taking on the responsibility to live by that canon. If you don’t like it, set your story in a separate canon and don’t slap a Trek label on it.
But The Orville doesn’t have that issue. They can make up their canon as they go. And because they have the benefit of Trek’s hindsight, they can stop and think about what they say before they say it, with an eye to future continuity. They can avoid doing things like saying “we’re at the edge of the galaxy” in an early episode. They can build a new canon, one which might be a bit more consistent.
I’ve heard that there are rumours that CBS has been thinking about selling it’s dumpster fire to Universal, and that they want to put Seth MacFarlane in charge. I don’t think they’re true. But even if they were, I say “why would he want that? He’s more free where he is, and he’s doing fucking brilliantly, thank you very much, and his property hasn’t been perhaps-irrevocably tarnished by people who hate science fiction”
To reiterate: All of this is speculative, and The Orville has got a LONG way to go before it can even reach for the crown. But I think I can see a potential there. There’s certainly a potential for a few classes of stories that Trek couldn’t do.
And we’ve already seen some of the best allegorical sci-fi in a long time come from The Orville: The arc about Bortis’ child is a very interesting meditation on some current trans and gender issues. Bortis’ porn addiction episode is a great bit of science fiction, and something that Trek would probably struggle to cover due to being so family-friendly (but that might also be a product of the times, There are some oblique references to various types of holosuite programs you can get from Quark in DS9, so perhaps a modern trek could do a story like that, it’s just a pity they’re not making any trek any more). Bortis seems to get a lot of the interesting stories. His race is almost purpose-built for a lot of great allegory about some pretty current stuff. But there are others. I really really loved “Majority Rule”, which discusses social media and mob mentality, and “All The World is a Birthday Cake” which is an hour-long indictment of astrology, and “Mad Idolatry” where time passes quickly on the planet and Kelly is their god (which reminds me a lot of a really great Voyager episode, “Blink of an Eye”). And the final two episodes of season two (“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” and “The Road Not Taken”) are a great time-travel story. And these are just the “real” sci-fi episodes which spring to mind. I also really liked the Kaylon arc in season 2, even though it was fairly standard stuff I thought it was well-executed. I think just about every single episode has been enjoyable, I certainly can’t think of one that sucked.
I was particularly struck by the first few episodes of season 2. I didn’t get around to watching season 2 until recently. I had just watched the first episode of a certain brand new dumpster fire that shits all over the core concepts of a certain 50-year old franchise, and needed to wash the taste of disgust out of my mouth, so season 2 of The Orville was particularly refreshing. I loved that the first episode was just a quiet little character study/drama thing. No explosions. No roundhouse kicks. Just a trip to Bortis’s homeworld so he can take a piss, and a couple of other little character things.
Nobody even fires a gun until episode 3. Though to be fair there is one isolated and ritualistic stabbing in episode 2.
It’s fucking glorious.
And then there are the references. And the guest cast. And the people behind the scenes. Brannon Braga, Jonathan Frakes, Robert Duncan McNeill. Robert Picardo. Marina Sirtis. Charlize Theron. Liam Neeson. Ted Danson.
It’s fucking glorious.
And then there’s the episodic nature of it. It’s not heavily serialised. If you miss an episode, it’s not the end of the world. If you just want to watch one episode in isolation, you can do that. You can jump in and watch a season 2 episode without having seen ten hours of backstory to understand what’s going on. Not that serialised stories are bad – I might have to write another ode one of these days for The Expanse. But there are definite advantages to smaller, self-contained, episodic stories.
Can I think of flaws? Sure, I guess, nothing’s perfect, but I don’t know that “flaws” is the right word, I think “finding its footing” might be more appropriate. It can be a bit derivative. Some of the episodes have strong flavours of certain episodes from other franchises. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ll be hard-pressed if you want to write completely original sci-fi, or any kind story for that matter. And the show’s premise IS pretty derivative, that’s what it is intended to be: it’s not trying to be something totally new and unlike anything you’ve seen before. In fact it’s specifically NOT going for that. It’s trying to be like something great that you haven’t seen in 15 or 20 years, while also having its own feel. And I think it does a really great job at that. I think that the early episodes were a bit comedy-heavy and some of it didn’t really land for me. I’m glad that they seem to have shed that and gone for a mostly-serious tone with the odd joke thrown in. But on the other hand, Isaac cutting off Gordon’s leg was gold. I wouldn’t mind seeing perhaps the odd comedy episode.
“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”
– Isaac Asimov
As far as I’m concerned, season 2 cements The Orville in the pantheon of most worthy science fiction shows. I bought both seasons on DVD when I was mid way through season 2, I figured I should put my money where my mouth is. And I’ve got them sitting on the same shelf as my Trek box sets, where they belong. It was a nice feeling, I hadn’t added to that shelf in over a decade and didn’t think I’d be adding to it any time soon.
The Orville is fucking glorious. Go buy it. Let’s see if we can make it a big deal. Let’s see if we can get it to season 10.