It is no secret that I am a huge fan of a small franchise called Star Trek. The life of a Star Trek fan is an interesting one—we are never wanting for content, but depending on who you ask, around 50% of it is of a high quality. We are subjected to episodes about orgasm-machines, ladies falling in love with lamps, or our heroes turning into lizard-creatures and bonking. We have dealt with love-hate relationships with main crewmembers (Wesley Crusher and Deanna Troi coming to mind), and have tried to find the positives in Star Trek: Enterprise. We have seen the utmost heights of the sci-fi film with Wrath of Khan, only to have that soiled by Into Darkness. We have watched our golden trio sing ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ in a moment of conflict, and had to witness a woman in her seventies perform a sexy dance as a ‘honey trap’.
My point here is that I adore Star Trek, and no matter how many times it has hurt me, I will always rewatch whatever content I can, reaching out for the soothing classical score and primary-coloured outfits. The thing is, to me, the world of Star Trek is a home away from home. Yes, sometimes it can be ridiculous, but mostly, my viewings of the franchise are soothing and comforting. When Star Trek: Discovery was announced, I was excited, just because it was more federation content that I could chew on. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I was incensed to learn that Seth MacFarlane, creator of the dreaded Family Guy, was planning to satirise and ruin my beloved.
Star Trek: Discovery was fine, but didn’t capture my tiny, nerdy heart in the same way the other series’ did. Stylistically, it took more from modern, shiny sci-fi tropes than it did its predecessors. It was a great science-fiction series but didn’t seem to be ‘Trek’ to me. I began to believe that I would never receive more of the series I loved, with its monster-of-the-week, bright colours and ethical quandaries. Instead, I realised the changing nature of television would take the property into new, more serialised, directions. So, in a last-ditch effort to capture my nostalgia, I watched the first episode of The Orville—and was treated to a new series that, surprisingly, gave me more of the Star Trek that I so desperately wanted.
When I watched The Orville for the first time, I found a love letter to the franchise I hold dear. Really, I would be hard-pressed to call this series a satire or parody, and instead truly believe that Seth MacFarlane wanted to make some more episodes of the Star Trek he remembered before Hollywood gave it a makeover for its blockbusters, or the shows became ‘darker’ and ‘edgier’. Even more surprising is that he pulled it off—giving us a heartfelt science fiction series with some genuinely funny jokes and an abundance of heart. However, critics did not agree—giving it a terrible 22% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Oddly, the bad press seems to disagree with the very approach I found so endearing; with NPR’s Eric Deggans stating that “the Orville is trying so hard not to be so many things, it isn’t fully any one thing. Which makes it, officially, the strangest misfire of the fall TV season” and IndieWire‘s Liz Miller providing the scathing comment that “the only unique sounds made by “The Orville” are things we wish we’d never heard.”
If we listen to the critics, we see a shallow ripoff, made to make money off a franchise that has long since passed the phase The Orville is hearkening back to. The Observer’s Brandon Katz even went as far as to say “this is not a frontier we’re interested in exploring any further.” So, is this it? Are audiences tired of the Star Trek of yore?
Well… not exactly.
The audience score for The Orville sits at 93%, and Fox has renewed The Orville for a second season. To add further insult to injury, Star Trek: Discovery received an 82% critics score on the aggregate website, whereas its audience score sits at a middling 56%. Both series aired almost simultaneously, both premiering in 2017, and The Orville, oddly, seemed to win the favour of Trekkies.
So what’s going against The Orville where critics are concerned? Well, some say that the press has a grudge against its creator. How could a man who has made a living off obscene jokes and cheap laughs create a good science fiction series? I have already admitted that I had my own biases against MacFarlane, before the show itself endeared me enough to let my preconceptions disappear. However, I don’t think it is that simple.
Star Trek: Discovery is a series that encapsulates what such a franchise should be in the modern television landscape. It moves forward—hoping to bring the series into 2017. The Orville, however, is more concerned with the property’s past—hoping to recapture what Trek fans have missed in later outings. By holding The Orville to criteria it fundamentally has no use for, critics have done it a disservice. MacFarlane isn’t trying to go where no man has gone before, he is instead attempting to recapture what we, as the fans, loved about the previous Star Trek shows. The Orville is throwback television done exceptionally well—its characters, writing, and performances are all of a high quality. It is a hard task to recapture the heart and spirit of something so iconic with grace and precision to detail, and for me, this was a welcome departure from Discovery’s constant retconning, visual updates, and recasts. It is detrimental to criticise any television show which does not align with a narrow definition of ‘quality tv’ as if we have no use for other types of programming, and we can see the response to The Orville as a fundamental misunderstanding of its goals. The Orville is thrusting in the opposite direction to what is generally accepted in modern television, and I for one, am enjoying the rebellion.