At the TCA press tour today (that’s the TV Critics Association), it was Fox’s turn to present their upcoming and returning fall TV shows to a room full of critics and journalists in Beverly Hills. Late in the day, we got a panel on The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi series that was at first called a comedy, but after we all discovered it’s an hourlong series, it’s being renamed an adventure show. Critics were given access to the first 3 episodes, and visited the set on the Fox lot to get a more complete picture of what MacFarlane’s new show is all about.
The answer is: it’s Star Trek. It’s not even remotely trying to hide those influences, including having the show composer be a Star Trek alum, same with an EP, and alluding to things like synthesizers (instead of replicators) and “The Union” (instead of the The Federation). There are slow fades to act breaks, and an overall and unshakable feeling of being within the Star Trek universe. Except, MacFarlane is adamant that those comparisons are just superficial ones.
MacFarlane spoke to the room during the panel about how there are “sci-fi tropes in so many different series,” and not just Star Trek, but that his intention with The Orville was born out of a fatigue over dystopian series. “I miss the forward thinking, optimistic, aspirational space that Star Trek used to offer,” he said. “It’s a space waiting to be filled in this day and age when we are getting a lot of dystopian fiction.”
The Orville’s tone, though, is a puzzling one. It’s not what people will be expecting from MacFarlane — it’s not that it’s not funny, is that it is trying very hard to not be funny. It’s an earnest and sincere homage to Star Trek, and yet, MacFarlane and the producers did everything they could to distance themselves from those comparisons, with EP Jason Clark saying that they do not see the show as being in competition with Star Trek: Discovery. MacFarlane added, “we’re doing something a little more old-school.”
I will say this: the production values for The Orville are, at times, very impressive. We learned on set how much MacFarlane really wanted to be sure there were practical effects and less CG, and those touches definitely show. In fact, the bridge of The Orville features a partial wrap-around screen that has three times the resolution of an IMAX screen, which makes it feels like you are actually traveling through space and seeing the stars and planets. As was noted, it also helps the actors feel fully immersed in the world.
Unfortunately, the dialogue and some of the story choices the show makes are far more questionable. There’s an episode that deals with forced gender reassignment surgery of a baby in a rather harrowing way. MacFarlane addressed the confusion over whether the show is a comedy or just Star Trek or what it is by saying, “Each week you’re seeing a little movie, and there will be some variance in tone.” He’s also proud that they are able to have the “breadth and variety to tell a different story each week, while staying true to these characters.”
As for the gender reassignment story in particular, MacFarlane added, “Part of the fun of sci-fi is telling stories with relevance but exist in the world of make-believe, so that you don’t come off preachy — if you’ve done your job right.”
The Orville premieres September 10th on Fox. Look for our full review coming soon.