Late last year, FOX released a little show called The Orville. It was charming, nostalgic, irreverent, and funny as hell. Audiences loved it. I loved it. But critics? Not so much. The difference between the audience and critic reception was truly staggering, and one of the primary criticisms of the show was a lack of originality. Some reviews were softer, implying that the show was a somewhat heavy-handed approach to homage, but many were far harsher, deeming it to be a blatant Star Trek ripoff—and that’s where I think the critics are dead wrong.
The Orville is a brilliant example of the difference between ripoff and homage. Ostensibly, the deciding factor is the creator’s intentions—“ripoff” implies a certain level of disrespect for the source material. But beyond that, to me, what is really important is the effort.
On Star Trek, we always got to see the absolute best the Federation had to offer. The Enterprise, in every incarnation, has been the flagship of Starfleet. Everyone onboard, down to the lowest-ranking janitor, fought hard to get that post. The Orville, on the other hand, shows its audience something we’ve never really seen from Trek crews: normal people. The USS Orville is not crewed by the best and brightest. It’s crewed by middle management. Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) is competent and ideologically driven, but he doesn’t have the bravado and cunning of Kirk or the stoicism and leadership of Picard. The beauty of this series is that it shows its audience what they themselves would honestly be like in a utopian, idyllic, Star Trek–like future. In doing so, it manages to bring back a world we’d been longing to see again since the ’90s (The Orville premiered just before Star Trek: Discovery) while simultaneously giving us something fun, new, and more relatable than Star Trek has ever been.
In order to accomplish that goal, however, The Orville has to feel as close to the original as possible. The show does far more than skirt the boundaries of copyright to pay lip service to Star Trek; it’s a love letter to it. Every detail is painstakingly crafted to convince you that you’re watching Trek, which is really what makes the offbeat humor and comedic moments—such as Malloy (Scott Grimes) engaging in a prank war with the resident sentient android or the bridge crew experimenting with Bortus’s (Peter Macon’s) ability to “eat anything”—work as well as they do.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 D—in contrast to the cramped hallways and exposed pipes of the original Enterprise—was practically a flying hotel. It had luxurious quarters, wide hallways, and tidy corridors, and it was jam-packed with recreational facilities. In addition to its numerous holodecks, there was an arboretum, a gymnasium, and even a bar and lounge staffed by none other than Whoopie Goldberg (Starfleet spares no expense). While the Orville is a much more compact ship, the set nonetheless reflects the design philosophy of The Next Generation. With carpeted floors, cream-colored walls lined with discreetly numbered doors, and spacious multiroom crew quarters, the Orville truly goes where no Marriott has gone before.
Of course, one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable parts of Star Trek is its uniforms. Though they’ve changed much over the years, the basic structure has remained roughly the same: black pants; a shirt or jacket in prominently displaying the appropriate color for the relevant division; and the Starfleet insignia proudly worn over the heart. The Orville makes this pattern its own, with a uniform that follows the structure to the letter but feels a little more grounded and practical. The main piece is a stylish zip-up jacket, color-coded, like Star Trek, by division (but with a different scheme from the Federation’s). The rank is displayed on thick shoulderpads, reflective of the epaulets on naval uniforms.
The Orville also does a great job of staying true to Star Trek’s aliens. Though the show now has both the budget and the technology to create far more “alien” aliens than any previous Star Trek show could, so far it’s stuck to traditional prosthetics to create its nonhuman characters—aside from the perennially bizarre Yaphit, a computer-animated gelatinous blob and one of the lead engineers aboard the Orville—and has gone above and beyond the old “forehead ridge of the week.”
There’s one more area in which The Orville calls back to Star Trek, and it’s perhaps my favorite: the music. As soon as I saw the opening credits, I felt that despite the name, I really was watching Star Trek. Composer Bruce Broughton absolutely nails what a Star Trek theme really should sound like and brings me right back to the ’90s. (Well, okay, fine, I binged it all on Netflix starting in 2009, but you get the idea.) The theme opens on strings and gradually builds to a triumphant crescendo from the entire orchestra, simply oozing with hope for the future and pride in humanity’s accomplishments. The fluttering high notes on the brass help maintain a certain level of energy and excitement, even in the slower sections of the theme, and it all accompanies some of the finest and most extravagant “starship porn” since Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s infamous four-minute “drydock scene.”
Star Trek: Discovery is not without its merits, but if you ask me, it’s clear that the spirit of Roddenberry’s Star Trek has moved to a new body. Season 2 of The Orville arrives later this year, and I’m eager to see what Seth MacFarlane has in store.