It’s been a rough few years for science fiction on television. While Star Trek hit its heyday back in the 90s, and Battlestar Galactica owned the 2000s, there hasn’t been much of significance in recent times. Sure, there’s a Fringe here and there, and the SyFy Channel has started investing in the likes of Killjoys and The Expanse. But promising, thought-provoking science fiction on a regular basis has been depressingly hard to come by.
Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville debuted last week to largely negative reviews. It was lambasted for a confused tonal quality, with critics expressing frustration at the uncertainty of what exactly the show is trying to be: an imbalanced dramedy in the realm of Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest, while perhaps also striving to be a kind of Star Trek of its own.
But the thing is, The Orville honestly isn’t all that bad. In fact it already has a lot going for it; there are kinks, but no more dramatically so than most show pilots. (And there are plenty of go-to examples of a great TV show that developed out of a so-so premiere.) It also has solid plotting, a foundation for interesting characters, and a refreshing new attempt to revitalize the genre.
It's A "Classic" Science Fiction Show
It's encouraging to have someone making an honest attempt – any attempt – to put science fiction on network television again, something that’s been scarce to the point of non-existent. It’s been even more rare to find anyone attempting classic science fiction fare: futuristic, outer space exploration, and a myriad of alien races.
And that’s where a lot of the show’s charm comes from – its obvious affection for the Star Trek model. There's a wistfulness to the premiere, hearkening back to an era of TV that thrilled in the adventure of space exploration, and the fun of less grim genre storytelling. One that needn’t cater more to the action-movie crowd - as the recent Star Trek films have done - but instead invests in exploration, alien relationships, and emphasizing the “science” part of the genre descriptor.
In a very real way, The Orville is Star Trek without all the baggage. For all that Star Trek is a wonderful franchise, it's very difficult to drop into it given the abundance of canon, complex history, and numerous TV shows and movies to work around. The Orville invents its own new canon that seeks to accomplish what classic Star Trek did back in the day, without having to cater to all those demands.
It's Willing To Actually Be Science Fiction
There has perhaps been a growing fear about including the more challenging concepts of science fiction in big and small-screen adaptations of the genre, yet The Orville hasn't shied away from that. In its first two episodes, it's already touched on ideas of science and the complexities of alien relationships. And in the arena of futuristic space opera, it's pretty much the first time anyone has attempted such since the last Star Trek TV series went off the air.
Which is another reason to be rooting for The Orville to succeed. If it becomes a ratings hit for Fox, and if it makes any kind of cultural impact whatsoever, it will inspire more to do the same. It could become the first in a line of science and science-fiction driven television – the kind that has been depressingly lacking for far too long.
The show has a bit of work to do in settling its tone and becoming more comfortable in its own skin. But given time, it could very well live up to its potential, in its earnest love for optimistic, adventurous science fiction storytelling. And while Star Trek has been struggling to play catch up in the modern era of film and TV, The Orville could very well show how it's done. If we’re lucky, maybe the success of The Orville could help even Star Trek to find its own way into the 21st century.
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