One-note Trek parody 'The Orville' never hits warp speed
Review: "Family Guy" and "Ted" creator Seth MacFarlane delivers a sci-fi spoof a little too fond of its source. Still, it might balance the darker "Discovery."
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
In his new Star Trek parody, "The Orville," Seth MacFarlane plays Ed Mercer, a promising officer whose performance has taken a dive since he caught his wife in bed with another guy -- who happens to be blue and have fins. And that sums up "The Orville." It's essentially an everyman workplace comedy. With aliens.
Plenty of the laid-back gags land and there are laughs to be had, depending largely on how you feel about MacFarlane. The "Family Guy" supremo brings a familiar schtick to the show: What if the characters of a genre story, whether cowboys in "A Million Ways to Die in the West" or a fantastic teddy bear in "Ted," talk like we do today? More specifically, what if they talk about their balls?
Workaday gags like officers asking if it's OK to drink soda on the bridge mix with jokes about leaving the toilet seat up when encountering a race made up entirely of males. There's also a racist robot, which is a funny twist on Star Trek's Borg.
But the central dynamic of the show set 400 years in the future is a staple of Earthbound sitcoms. When resolutely normal guy Ed is begrudgingly offered the captain's chair on a nondescript exploratory vessel, he's stunned to discover the identity of his executive officer. You guessed it, Ed's ex is his XO.
The moment when Ed finds this out and flees the starship bridge at a panicked clip provides a fun visual gag hinting at a more absurdist take on the sci-fi source. But apart from that, "The Orville" largely plays it straight. One minute McFarlane's crew is kicking back with a beer at the helm. The next, they're earnestly going on about "quantum field manipulation of the flow of time" as if they think they're in an actual Star Trek show.
It's actually kind of fun to see McFarlane's genuine affection for Star Trek.
The introduction to the Orville itself is a pretty straight Trek-style shuttle ride out to the space dock, the crew gazing in wonder as they swoop over the Orville's curves. The swelling music is a straight-up Trek copy as the Orville glides out of the space dock and accelerates to warp speed -- sorry, quantum drive speed. But you watch these faithful homages waiting for a joke. It's kind of like those off-brand "Space Captain" fancy dress outfits you see in shops. They're not different enough to be funny and not fooling anyone either.
It's worth comparing "The Orville" not just to Star Trek but to other Trek-inspired offerings. Those succeed when they bring an extra dimension to the source material.
The movie "Galaxy Quest" skewered the mutually dependent ecosystem of Trek creators and fans. Seventies British sci-fi show "Blake's 7" savagely explored the potential for a galactic federation to become an authoritarian nightmare. "Red Dwarf" takes well-worn sci-fi tropes and twists them until they burst with mind-bendingly inventive comedy. Compared with those shows, "The Orville," like the very similar and equally one-note British spoof "Hyperdrive," is basically just Star Trek with beer.
If each "Orville" installment was a brisk 25 minutes, I'd be perfectly happy with Beer Trek. But at 45 minutes an episode, the joke gets stretched thinner than the Enterprise in that special effect when it gets all long and thin before snapping into warp speed.
Still, even a Trek parody traveling at half impulse power might fulfill a need. It arrives just ahead of an actual new Trek show, "Star Trek: Discovery," and judging by early publicity, that show doesn't exactly look like a laugh a minute. Maybe MacFarlane's slightly silly sci-fi spoof will give fans a lighter look at starship life than the more serious "Discovery". (Disclosure: "Discovery" is a CBS show, and CBS is CNET's parent company.)
Seeing the two arrive side by side harks back to "The Enemy Within," that original Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk is split into two sides of his personality. While "Discovery" seeks out new life and new civilizations, "The Orville" boldly goes for alcohol.
"The Orville" premieres on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 10.
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