Now in its 2nd season, Seth Macfarlane’s The Orville has significantly surpassed the expectations of most sci-fi fans.
Instead of a lazy parody, viewers were shocked to instead see a series that embodies the spirit of Star Trek arguably far closer then the officially licensed products of the last ten years.
Seth Macfarlane has always been a lifelong fan of the Star Trek franchise. As a teenager Macfarlane made his own fan film inspired from the original series. Many years later he achieved a lifelong dream of being in Star Trek when he appeared in the prequel series Enterprise for two episodes: “The Forgotten” and “Affliction“.
Macfarlane would go on to unsuccessfully pitch a proposal for a new Star Trek series to CBS/Paramount. When that met with failure, he set out to create his own space-based sci-fi series for Fox, inspired by the style of storytelling seen in Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
On the 10th of September 2017, The Orville made its debut running against Star Trek Discovery on CBS. Interestingly enough, Star Trek Discovery received an 82% critic approval rating but a mere 54% audience approval rating. The Orville on the other hand suffered a startling 27% critic rating yet proved to be much more popular with audiences overall receiving a 94% audience approval rating.
How do the two shows differ?
While Star Trek Discovery went for a dark, gritty tone focusing more on action and spectacle, Macfarlane took the Orville in a different direction. The Orville instead focused on more intimate character driven self contained stories with no significant story arc. The result was a series that was far closer in tone to classic Star Trek than Discovery ever was.
Not only is the format incredibly close to that of Star Trek, but the show features a number of core Trek elements with simple name changes. The Federation is now called the Union, the ship uses a quantum drive instead of a warp drive and the Holodeck is now the environmental simulator.
Furthermore the series is shot using the same camera angle techniques that were used in the earlier incarnations of Trek. The camera shots are more often than not steady and still, the sets are lit clearly and in conversations they often cut between two differing fixed angles.
All of this leads us to ask one simple question: “Is the Orville a love letter to Star Trek or is it simply plagiarism?”
What about the Trek alumni from past productions?
Incidentally Macfarlane has managed to get a number of Trek alumni to work on the Orville ranging from guest actors such as Robert Picardo to former Trek producer Brendan Braga who is not only a producer here but also one of the writers. Then there is Penny Johnson Jerald who plays Doctor Claire Finn, who was a recurring guest character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Discovery by contrast has had just a few alumni names involved in its production. Former show runner Bryan Fuller left the production midway through season 1. Fuller had previously worked as a story editor and co-producer back on Deep Space Nine and Voyager, while current show Runner Alex Kurtzman previously penned the scripts for the first two JJ Abrams Trek films.
Jonathan Frakes, who is best known for the role of William Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation has directed episodes for both The Orville and Discovery, proving it is possible to work on both productions.
So is The Orville a parody, a homage, or a carbon copy?
A term that gets batted around a lot for fans of The Orville is that its the spiritual successor to Star Trek which is incredibly high praise. The problem is that beyond modernised humour aimed at an adult audience, there isn’t really a great deal of original content. In fact most of the stories with a few modifications could fit quite easily into Star Trek: The Next Generation.
For many, the fact that The Orville is more or less Star Trek in everything but name is the key selling point. The Orville has a great deal of heart and is at its best when it is focusing on the character interactions. MacFarlane has created a crew that viewers not only enjoy seeing but are emotionally invested in.
So where are the two shows now?
Now entering its 2nd season, The Orville is finally starting to get praise from critics. The 2nd season carries a 100% fresh rating on Rotten tomato with a 93% audience approval score with five episodes under its belt at the time of this article.
Discovery is at present just two episodes in and currently has an 87% fresh rating and a 29% audience approval score. Whether the numbers increase over the next few weeks remains to be seen but CBS certainly has its work cut out for them.
In America, Star Trek Discovery is considered to be the flagship show for their CBS all access streaming site. Consequently they have a lot riding on the series, so don’t expect it to disapear any time soon. Given its ratings, success and popularity I would equally be surprised to see The Orville get cancelled.
The war between these two giants is only beginning and we have yet to see if the galaxy is big enough for both of them.