The Orville
The OrvilleSeason 1 - present

The Orville has changed a lot over the course of its run. This is a series that was created during a 'trek drought', where there were no Star Trek shows running. There are obvious parallels: the Federation is the 'Planetary Union', the flagship Orville itself is the Enterprise, Isaac is Data, the Moclans are vaguely Klingon-like, and warp drive engines are known as quantum drive engines.

It began in the first season as a kind of comedy Star Trek. Season 1 consisted of the usual classic trek episodes: the visit to the alien civilisation that somehow looks a lot like 21st century Earth with a few poignant differences, an unemotional alien/robot struggling with social interactions, and the usual struggles with the Prime Directive and primitive alien civilisations. But being clearly a comedy, and without the baggage of having to be as serious as old trek, the show had room to crack many jokes. For instance, the deity worshipped by the alien Krill is known as 'Avis', creating many opportunities for car rental-related jokes: "We try harder" as a prayer before a meal, humans worshipping their own god, 'Hertz', etc. There's also room for the aliens to be a bit more alien and off-colour: e.g. a highly religious yet advanced alien race,

But somewhere in Season 2, the show abandoned most of its attempts at humour and became much more serious and hard-hitting. Star Trek, especially The Next Generation (TNG), is generally optimistic, idealistic, and PG. There's very little interpersonal conflict amongst the TNG crew, everyone is generally reasonable, understanding, competent, and they get along well. Almost all of the drama comes from conflict with external elements, and tends to result in happy resolutions with few loose ends. The Orville is not like that. It covers marital problems, prejudice and animosity, and non-humanoid interspecies relationships. There's an obvious layer of social commentary on modern hot button issues:

  • Affirmative action: Xelayans have a prejudice against the military in the vein of the Chinese proverb 'good steel does not become nails' so they are fast-tracked and promoted quickly when they do join up
  • Allies with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and the US, Turkey and NATO, Russia and the ECHR -- is it better be idealistic and firm or conciliatory and hope to effect change
  • Suicide due to bullying
  • Misinformation, deepfakes, and populists
  • Conflict between religious beliefs, shared values, and a culture of tolerance, such as the Belkarian belief that it is a sin to wear clothes on the first day of the month, or anti-hetrosexual prejudice in a single-gender race

It does a decent job of making a case for what would ordinarily be considered the 'evil' side. One of the recurring antagonists is a race of genocidal robots, but it is revealed these sentient robots were previously enslaved and tortured by organic lifeforms, and hence are traumatised and extremely wary of other organic lifeforms. At the same time, the commentary rarely feels heavy-handed or overbearing since the show generally maintains its light atmosphere (despite the shrinking quantity of jokes, which is very unfortunate).

The storyline and resolutions are also more realistic and less 'clean' than the Star Trek ideal: Gordon was accidentally sent back in time refuses to return after having lived in the 2020s for 10 years, and in fact violated temporal law by taking part in events in the 2020s. Since time travel is involved already, the crew take the obvious step of travelling further back in time to bring hum back before he developed this unhealthy attraction to the 2020s. The side effects of this additional jaunt in time are not ignored: Gordon's family in the 2020s, including two children, are completely erased. Compare this with Season 2 of Picard where Rios abruptly decides to stay in the 2020s to be with someone he met just a few days ago despite the changes to the timeline that will undoubtedly result, and everyone accepts that decision. Somewhat miraculously, it is subsequently discovered that Rios was always meant to stay in the 2020s and his presence in fact made the present timeline possible.

The show is not perfect. The light atmosphere means some of the drama and tension isn't as impactful as it could be. But it is certainly a unique and valuable addition to the trek-verse.

17 Jul 2022