“You’re nobody’s first choice for this job,” an admiral sternly warns Seth MacFarlane in the pilot of Fox’s new sci-fi series, The Orville. He has a point. The admiral is ostensibly talking to MacFarlane’s character Ed Mercer, an officer in a futuristic, interplanetary organization awaiting his first starship command, but when it comes to The Orville as a whole, he could just as easily be addressing the real-life MacFarlane, the unlikely mastermind behind the entire show. The comedian has certainly made a home for himself at Fox through animated comedies like Family Guy and American Dad, but he’s still a polarizing figure, and it’s surprising to see him leading any live-action drama, let alone the network’s answer to Star Trek.
If you’re at all familiar with MacFarlane’s work, you probably already have strong opinions about the raunchy, adolescent sense of humor that he’s famous for, both in his animated offerings and in movies like Ted and A Million Ways to Die in the West. It’s that same love-it-or-hate-it sense of humor that makes him such an odd fit for a show that has promised, explicitly, to take up Star Trek’s mantle as a series with an aspirational, utopian vision of the future. Set hundreds of years from now, The Orville stars MacFarlane as a divorced and down-on-his-luck officer in the Planetary Union who has been going through a year-long rough patch after catching his wife in bed with a blue-skinned alien. But with 3,000 ships in need of staff, the higher-ups in the Union can’t afford to be choosy, so Ed is finally assigned to the captain’s chair of the U.S.S. Orville.
His crew is a hodgepodge of the galaxy’s misfits, including Alara (Halston Sage), the ship’s young, inexperienced security chief whose high-gravity homeworld has given her super-strength. There’s also Isaac—an artificial lifeform sent to study humanity on the Orville despite considering biological lifeforms inferior—and Bortus (Peter Macon), the ship’s second officer and a member of an all-male species. The first officer aboard the Orville is Ed’s ex-wife Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), a situation he’s not happy about and which is fodder for many weak jokes about how terrible marriage is. Together, the crew travels through space on various diplomatic and exploratory missions, encountering new species and technologies along the way while dodging the Union’s enemy, a hostile alien race with some funky forehead ridges.
Sounds kind of familiar, right? MacFarlane insists that The Orville draws inspiration from various forms of science fiction, including The Twilight Zone, but the influence of Star Trek, especially its ’90s iterations, is inescapable, found in everything from the aesthetic of the crew’s uniforms to the episodic “case-of-the-week” format to its characters. (The hyper-literal Isaac is really just a poor man’s—or in this case, a poor android’s—Data, while the stoic, humorless Bortus is clearly a copycat Worf.) The Orville even has considerable Trek cred behind the scenes: Brannon Braga, who worked on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, serves as an executive producer, and Jonathan Frakes and Robert Duncan McNeil, both Trek alum, directed two of the 13 episodes in The Orville’s first season. Onscreen, you’ll find a familiar face, too: Penny Johnson Jerald, who played Kasidy Yates on Deep Space Nine, joins the Orville’s crew as Dr. Claire Finn, an experienced medical officer, there to keep the newcomers in line—casting that’s maybe a little on-the-nose.
Let’s be clear up front about what The Orville is not: Despite what the series’ marketing suggests, it is not, thankfully, “Family Guy in space.” There are plenty of jokes in the three episodes made available to critics ahead of the Sept. 10 premiere, and sure, those jokes are frequently dumb and bro-y, revolving around replicators that dispense weed brownies or a dog licking its testicles on a viewscreen, but the show is not an unceasing laugh-fest, even if you are a fan of MacFarlane’s humor. It’s also not terribly interested in spoofing science fiction tropes in general or even those of Star Trek in particular, at least not in the spirit of something like Galaxy Quest or Spaceballs. If anything, MacFarlane takes the trappings of the genre very seriously, which is almost a shame, because his love of Trek translates to an attention to detail that would have served him well in a more satirical show.
What we’re left with is an unexpectedly sincere hour-long drama whose occasional references to Beyoncé and Kermit the Frog clash with the rest of the material. The third episode in particular, about Bortus and his mate’s efforts to expand their family, becomes a long, off-kilter exploration of gender identity that sees an ill-equipped MacFarlane championing girl power and comparing sex reassignment surgery on a baby to circumcision or fixing a cleft palate. It might have made a passable episode of The Next Generation twenty years ago, but in 2017, it feels a little too self-admiring, as if to say, OK, this is a Seth MacFarlane show, but look how woke it is!
As the official Star Trek franchise plans to move away from episodic storytelling with its most serialized series yet, The Orville might seem like a reasonable alternative for nostalgic Trekkies to follow instead, a throwback to 90s-era science fiction where everything is resolved at the end of an hour. Too bad it can’t quite decide where it’s leading them.