Episodic science fiction in the style of Star Trek returns to broadcast television tonight, with a comedic twist, in The Orville, the new Fox series from Family Guy creator and longtime Star Trek fan Seth MacFarlane.
Set 400 years in the future, The Orville follows the USS Orville, a mid-level exploratory spaceship. The ships' crew consists of both humans and alien and together they will encounter new life, new adventures, and new threats in the uncharted regions of outer space.
If the premise sounds familiar it is because it is unabashedly an homage to Star Trek. MacFarlane’s Trek fandom runs deep. He not only orchestrated a Star Trek: The Next Generation cast reunion on an episode of Family Guy, but made small appearances on two episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise.
While everything about The Orville is legally distinct, there are still elements clearly borrowed from Star Trek, particularly the era of The Next Generation. The ship’s purpose is very similar to that of the Enterprise, the show’s uniforms take a visual cue from those worn by the crew of the Enterprise-D, and the Planetary Union sounds like a government body with a very similar function to the United Federation of Planets.
What sets The Orville apart is that, in between away missions and spaceship battles, and sometimes during them, the crew deals the significantly more mundane challenges of everyday life. In the case of Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) that includes navigating his awkward relationship with his first officer, who also happens to be his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicki).
It's in these cracks in the science fiction splendor that MacFarlane slips in his signature humor, laced with pop culture references, off-color quips, and the uncanny ability to scratch an itch in your memory that you didn’t know was there.
Those are the basics of The Orville, but there are some more specific notes of interest that you may want to know going in.
Those who have only seen Fox's advertisements for The Orville would be forgiven for assuming it's a straight up spoof of Star Trek.
However, MacFarlane has denied that is the case, saying that its closer to actual Star Trek than it is to something like Futurama, Galaxy Quest, or Spaceballs, though it will ideally fall somewhere in between drama and humor and fill a void in today's television lineup.
"What's happened is it's left open a space that has been relatively unoccupied for a while in the genre. ... For me, it's a space that's kind of waiting to be filled in this day and age when we're getting a lot of dystopian science fiction," MacFarlane explained during the summer TCA press tour. "This is sort of an attempt to fill that void in that genre."
Adding to its credibility as a pseudo-Star Trek replacement, Brannon Braga, one of the key voices in the Star Trek television boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, is serving as executive producer.
Braga worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. He says he misses that old school Star Trek flavor of storytelling and that The Orville will be a return to it.
"It’s kind of its own thing," Braga said of The Orville during a panel at this year's Star Trek Las Vegas convention, "it’s funny, at times very funny, but the stakes are real, its science-fiction ideas I think are really cool, it’s a good mix of comedy but also drama. It’s like M*A*S*H, you’ll be laughing one second and the next something very serious is going on. You have to be involved, you can’t do an hour long satire of the genre. It’s a loving tribute to this kind of [standalone] storytelling."
"I missed the kind of storytelling that Star Trek did which are standalone parables, with beginning middle and end," Braga said. "I worked on 24 and I did
As you may expect from this kind of show, The Orville has a colorful cast of characters serving on its ship:
- Ed Mercer, captain of the Orville. Mercer was obsessively dedicated to his job in the Planetary Union until his marriage hit the rocks and the divorce left him listless.
- Kelly Grayson, first officer of the Orville played by Adrianne Palicki. Grayson felt ignored by Mercer when he was obsessing over work and cheated on him with an alien.
- Dr. Claire Finn, ship's doctor, played by Penny Johnson Jerald. Finn is one of the best doctors in the galaxy.
- Gordon Malloy, the ship's helmsman and Ed Mercer's best friend, played by Scott Grimes.
- Lt. Commander Bortus, played by Peter Macon, is the second officer on the Orville. He's also Moclan, an all-male species.
- Alara Kitan, played by Halston Sage, is a young, inexperienced security officer. She's part of the Xelayan race and grew up on a planet with high gravity, making her deceptively strong.
- John LaMarr, played by J. Lee, is the laid back and sardonic navigator of the Orville.
- Mark Jackson plays Isaac, an artificial lifeform Kaylon, a machine society that looks down on organic beings.
The Orville debuts with a special two-night premiere on Sunday, Sept. 10 (8:00-9:00 PM LIVE to all Time Zones) and Sunday, Sept. 17 (8:00-9:00 PM ET LIVE to All Time Zones), immediately following NFL ON FOX doubleheaders and The O.T.
The Orville will then move to its regular time slot, airing Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on Fox, following Gotham in its new time slot.
As a new show in a television landscape that grows more and more crowded each season, The Orville will need dedicated fans to survive. Fox must be hoping that giving it a primetime weekend slot will get it some more exposure, and that will hopefully carry over into regular Thursday ratings.