Monday, September 11, 2017

Star Trek: The Orville Quest

This past Sunday night I hunkered down and watched the premiere of The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's new sci-fi series, because I hate myself and believe I deserve to suffer. None of the trailers or previews led me to expect greatness, and it certainly wasn't great. I tweeted many of my impressions at the time, and if you're really interested you can do an archive dive, but I feel my first impression is the most critical - it's aggressively mediocre. Still, it's been nibbling at the corners of my brain since I turned off the TV, and it's at least worth talking about.

The Orville is a unique show in that it is so transparently a Star Trek parody/homage/ripoff. This isn't unique across media, with 1999's Galaxy Quest being the first thing that came to mind when I heard of it, but it's different here. First, Galaxy Quest was a one-off; this is a series, though at least it being live-action means it can't stretch across decades the way Family Guy has. Second, Galaxy Quest knew what it was doing. The Orville doesn't. The fundamental problem with the series is that it's too Galaxy Quest to be Star Trek and too Star Trek to be Galaxy Quest. Galaxy Quest is that it gleefully deconstructed trope after Trek trope, from the captain's penchant for losing his shirt to casual interstellar exploration to things that only exist to put the heroes in danger.

The Orville, on the other hand, is one of the purest examples of the second artist effect I've yet encountered. If you haven't run up against it before, it's a phenomenon described by Charles Stross: the first artist goes outside, beholds the landscape, and paints it, but the second artist goes to the gallery, beholds the first artist's painting, and paints that. It's the artistic equivalent of clone degeneration, and The Orville is shot through with it. Why does the Orville have a navigator and a helmsman? Because the Enterprise did. Why is the Orville's bridge at the top of its primary hull with a big honking skylight in the roof? Because that's how the Enterprise was. Why does half of the bridge crew go down on away missions? Because that's how things were done on the Enterprise.

The Orville isn't a parody of Star Trek, even though it has so many opportunities to be. The episode's climax has the Orville under attack from a totally-not-Klingon ship, and the daredevil helmsman flies the ship on a death-defying series of attack runs that look like the video half of a motion simulator ride, weaving around the enemy ship, blasting all the way. It's a lot like a scene that was the climax of a Deep Space Nine episode, where the Defiant makes a death-defying series of attack runs, weaving around the enemy ship, blasting all the way. It was ridiculous then, it's ridiculous now, and yet both series play it completely straight. But even DS9 knew enough to keep that bit down to twenty-five seconds. In The Orville, it went on for so long I'm surprised Seth MacFarlane didn't cut away to five minutes of Conway Twitty.

The Orville isn't a homage to Star Trek, either; from the look and feel of the sets to  the fades-to-black before commercial breaks to the same streaming-stars effect in quantum drive, it hews far too close to its source material to be called that. It doesn't poke at the structure it's built around the way Galaxy Quest did, and it wastes its advantage of being made in the future.

The future is of particular importance here. One thing I've seen again and again, both in official commentaries and in some reactions to it, was on the need for optimistic science fiction in this hellscape of a decade. But The Orville doesn't feel like the future because it isn't; it's the future of the 1960s. Sure, the chassis may be smooth and modern-looking, but under the hood there is absolutely nothing that 1967 would be surprised by. Hell, considering how much of the first episode consisted of Captain Ed Mercer, Seth MacFarlane's character, complaining about his ex-wife and his divorce to anyone who would listen, it sometimes feel like it is more honest to 1967 than to 2017.

For all its attempts at being not your father's Star Trek, with a navigator who cares a lot about being able to drink pop on the bridge and a helmsman who casually throws the word "bitch" around, the fact is that this is your father's Star Trek with its hat turned backward, earnestly willing to rap with you all in a most tubular manner. This attitude was made clear in the premiere's first scene, a place-setting shot of New York City in 2417. It's the standard sci-fi city, with monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge contrasted with supertall skyscrapers, flying cars, and so on.

What weren't there were the seawalls. You see, for the past while, my usual encounters with future New York have been through The Expanse, which is everything The Orville isn't. In that series, Manhattan is surrounded by seawalls the size of small apartment buildings. It's a stark image, but given what we know, it's a reasonable extrapolation of what New York might look like in 2350. The Expanse looks ahead with eyes open and unblinking and sees some pretty ugly stuff. The Orville covers its eyes, plugs its ears, and builds its optimistic future with fifty-year-old blueprints.

The thing about The Orville is that there are so many ways MacFarlane could have done it without being what it is. Something that took inspiration from, say, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor would play to his strengths, but The Orville is far too wedded to being Star Trek without being Star Trek that it couldn't go too far without falling apart. It's like the holodeck: one shows up in the episode, and it requires no explanation where Star Trek: The Next Generation took five minutes explaining it, because MacFarlane can rely on audience knowledge. It's also like the holodeck in that beyond the door, the photons and force fields that give illusions substance dissolve into nothing.

In the end, that's all The Orville is, really - thoron fields and duranium shadows.