This fall will see the debut of Seth MacFarlane’s new series The Orville. This comedy sci-fi series, about the crew of a spacefaring paramilitary starship, roaming the galaxy and encountering human colonists and oft-antagonistic alien species, is, according to MacFarlane, his original idea for an optimistic SF series, with his trademark humor applied to it.
But let’s call a spade a spade: The Orville is clearly a parody of Star Trek. As it should be.
Star Trek originally debuted in 1966… yes, fifty years ago. At that time, it represented a modern take on a positive future for humanity, as imagined by Gene Roddenberry, TV writer and visionary. Borrowing a bit of its look from Forbidden Planet, it featured a ship of exploration that was also outfitted for battle against hostile forces known and unknown; a crew of humans of every race, as well as aliens (well… one in particular, at first, but in later series the crews featured aliens from throughout the Federation); a view of cooperation, tolerance and IDIC—Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations—the trademark philosophy that guided their actions and principles and guaranteed the success of the future.
Star Trek depicted a cooperative team of players, spreading the peaceful and supportive message of the Federation throughout the galaxy. Although Roddenberry sold it as “Wagon Train to the stars,” it was really the story of an American battle cruiser, steaming around the vast oceans to help and protect the primitive natives of foreign lands and spread Democracy far and wide, set to an outer space backdrop. It has since modernized, refined and redeveloped its look and trademark elements, and become a world-recognized fanchise.
Star Trek’s appearance officially captured the flag of the future from another long-running SF franchise: Buck Rogers, the Philip Francis Nowlan-written series about a man who falls into suspended animation and wakes, 500 years later, to a brave new world. Originally appearing in newspaper serials in 1928, Buck Rogers was later presented in comic books, then a series of movie serials starring Buster Crabb. Buck Rogers was popular, widely known and for decades seen as the template for our future. Prior to 1966, any new technology was often referred to by the public as “that Buck Rogers stuff.”
But as time went by, the look and technology of Buck Rogers became quaint and anachronistic to modern eyes. Largely thanks to the advances of real technology, Buck Rogers was increasingly viewed as our more primitive view of the future. This made it, and the many TV shows and movies that developed in its wake, ripe for satire, and the silvery jumpsuits, ray guns, complex machinery and wild gadgets became regular fare for comedy shows and cartoons. Buck Rogers, and its later competition, Flash Gordon, became fodder for kids’ television channels by the sixties, running between cartoons and grade-B sci-fi and adventure flicks; no adults took it seriously by then.
Once Star Trek debuted in ‘66, Buck Rogers was officially consigned to the annals of past science fiction, where it was regularly derided by a more modern and savvy public (even Star Trek: Voyager satirized it, represented by the Captain Proton holographic program run for recreation by helmsman Tom Paris.) Trek now represented our glowing vision of the future. From then on, any futuristic science or technology was referred to as “that Star Trek stuff” (a title it would hold until the advent of a movie series set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away).
Over the years, and through multiple TV series and even more movies, Roddenberry’s vision of the future persevered. But after fifty years, we now of necessity see the possibilities of our future differently. We also see technologies like faster-than-light travel, transporters, inertial dampeners, subspace communication, androids, photon torpedoes and deflector screens, not to mention humanoid aliens on every third planet, as fanciful ideas designed to look good on 1960s television, but pretty much impossible in real life. It’s 2017, and thanks to what we’ve learned about physics since the 1960s, we know better. And even as Paramount plans to introduce a new Trek series, we’ve already seen SF TV series and movies that are seen to better represent our vision (or, at least, expectations) of the future, such as Firefly, The Expanse and Gattaca.
Compared to these productions, Star Trek and its now-dated vision of the future seems as quaint and ripe for parody today as Buck Rogers seemed in 1966. Enter The Orville.
With its massive faster-than-light starship, bright and wide ship’s spaces and corridors, and a crew of humans and aliens in colorful uniforms, it’s pretty hard to deny that The Orville is specifically designed to look like it’s set in a Star Trek-type universe. And the trailers have given us glimpses of the overall plot (the ship is on a mission of exploration and assistance in the galaxy), the fantastic technology, the presence of many humanoid aliens, including a very bumpy-looking race that is at odds with our heroes, and planetary occupants in various states, from very modern to very rustic. The trademark MacFarlane humor is also clearly tailored to make specific fun of tropes specifically familiar to Trek fans.
And so, while we yearn for (and are occasionally rewarded with) more up-to-date SF fare… and even as Paramount gifts us with yet another Star Trek series, for the few who will sign up for a premium TV channel just to watch it… we also get The Orville, conceived to remind us of what we used to enjoy so much, and can now look back on with amusement and tolerance for how simple and silly our vision of the future used to be. And it’s telling that at this year’s Comic-Con, fans were presented with trailers for both… and voted in a vast majority that they’d rather see The Orville.
Now, I understand that many people don’t see Star Trek as something to look back and laugh at; after all, Star Trek and its iterations have been with us for so long, have given us many series and (some) movies to enjoy, and promoted Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a pro-humanity-pro-science-pro- manifest-destiny future. But remember: Buck Rogers was considered a serious look at the future once, too; and we really have learned a lot since 1928.
I’d guess that MacFarlane’s denials that The Orville is a Trek parody are largely due to the public’s continued fondness of the Trek Franchise, and a desire on his (and Fox’s) part not to alienate its many fans overmuch. After all, those Trek fans will be a large segment of his new audience; why piss them off? Better for reviewers to reference the movie Galaxy Quest, which was itself an unabashed parody of Star Trek and the tropes of fans, conventions and media… with a wink to the audience to soften the blow, I guess.
And at least Star Trek isn’t full of a lot of the more odious past expectations of the future, like slavery (oh wait, Orion slave girls… never mind), aliens as political stand-ins (hold on, the pig ambassadors speaking in Russian accents… maybe not), jingoism (uh, other than barely-concealed efforts to make every new culture a Federation extension) or obvious sexism (oh yeah, mini-skirted female crew, 1960s women denied significant command roles, Seska using a child as leverage against Chakotay)…
Will I watch The Orville? Sure, I’ll check it out, because even a lifelong Trek fan like myself can accept the inevitability of history and appreciate parody aimed at that venerable institution. My only concern is… how long will people laugh at an entire series parody of any SF concept? After all, such parody shows have never lasted long beyond the obvious digs of the premise and the first few episodes (anyone remember Quark? Look it up. I’ll wait.). If MacFarlane’s Trek-inspired gags are spent (or at least, visibly drying up) by the end of the first season, how much mileage beyond that will The Orville have? And how much rope will Fox give it, considering their clear lack of appreciation for sci-fi? Only time will tell. (Personally, I’d make a running gag of running through the jelly crewman… but I was also a big fan of Pigs in Space. Look it up. I’ll wait.)
But we can hope that this presentation of Trek parody will remind everyone that, yes, it’s time to move on from Gene Roddenberry’s late-20th century visions, just as we once moved on from Philip Francis Nowlan’s early-20th century visions… and develop more sci-fi for a 21st century audience.