“Can There Be Star Trek Without Star Trek?”
Seth MacFarlane’s new show on FOX, The Orville did not get off to a great start. Its pilot was wretched. Directed by the overrated Jon Favreau, “Old Wounds” (September 10, 2017) opens with Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) discovering his wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) in bed with a blue alien.
A year after the divorce, Mercer is given command of a starship, the U.S.S. Orville, only to discover that Kelly has been named his first officer. The pilot tries desperately to be funny, failing at every turn.
MacFarlane’s premise was to make a funny version of Star Trek. Indeed, almost every cliché from the Utopian Gene Roddenberry universe is replicated precisely. Captain Kirk worked for the well-meaning Federation. Mercer works for the Union, another group of happily incorporated species from around the galaxy.
Lieutenant Commander Bortus, the second officer is, like Mr. Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series, an emotionless alien whose eccentricities the crew must learn to navigate.
MacFarlane’s premise to remake Star Trek as a comedy makes little sense because Roddenberry’s show itself was already very funny. “The Trouble with Tribbles” and the episodes with Harcourt Fenton Mudd are as funny as any 1960s American television sitcoms.
Worse still, MacFarlane already made the mistake–replication rather than transformation–on his sitcom, Family Guy. Entire episodes are devoted to faithfully retelling the stories of the Star Wars movies, shockingly unfunny because of their reverence for the specious source material.
Compare this to the Cubist, postmodern genius of the Robot Chicken episodes devoted to Star Wars (Peter Griffin: “I don’t think people are even aware of that show’s existence”: the evil emperor as the CEO of a failing corporation, and the bounty hunter Boba Fett as an obnoxious narcissist, are placed in numerous devastatingly funny short skits that rival anything ever on Saturday Night Live.
As the episodes of the first season of The Orville unfolded, I warmed up to the show, not because it got any funnier, but because I really like Star Trek. As The Orville stopped trying to be funny, it began offering up mediocre Star Trek episodes. Given the decade-long dearth of Star Trek on television, this is better than no Star Trek at all. (I’ll save my love for Star Trek: Discovery, a streaming show on CBS All Access, for another time).
The Orville is now Star Trek in all but title. Brannon Braga, showrunner for the more recent Star Trek series is practically running MacFarlane’s show. Actors and directors from the earlier Star Trek series are directing: Jonathan Frakes from The Next Generation, Robert Duncan McNeill from Enterprise, among them.
The Orville just delivered an episode that is every bit as good as anything Star Trek ever did. In “Home,” which just aired on January 10, 2019, Alara, the ship’s chief security officer, great at her job because her home planet’s heavy gravitational field gives her superhuman strength in Earth’s gravity, is forced to return to her planet when she begins losing her powers as she acclimates to life on the Orville.
While she is recuperating with her parents, obnoxious intellectuals, their home is invaded by angry neighbors whose son committed suicide. Alara’s father is played by Robert Picardo, also the actor who performed the role of the holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. His terrorist foe is played by John Billingsley, who portrayed the ship’s alien doctor, Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise.
The terrorists are anti-vaxxers: Alara’s father repudiated the son’s research, allowing a vaccine to save the citizens of their planet. The terrorist blames Alara’s father’s assault on the peer review of the terrorist’s son’s research for his suicide.
Cannily using the conflict between two former Star Trek doctors, the episode re-enacts the legacy of the falsified data in a 1998 British study purportedly linking vaccines with the increase in autism in children.
The scientific community has spent decades repudiating the claim, yet gullible people googling on the Internet continue to believe there is a link between vaccines and autism. The Orville’s use of the history of Star Trek to engage a public health crisis on our 21st Century Earth is contemporary science fiction at its very best.
In one of the essays of which I am most proud, written on the occasion of the cancellation of my favorite Star Trek series, Enterprise, I queried, “Can There Be Television Without Star Trek,” as the show had been virtually omnipresent since 1966.
The triumph of The Orville in its second season suggests that I simply posed to wrong question: Did Star Trek inspire a television landscape unalterably transformed by it? The Orville answers, triumphantly, it absolutely did.