Lost in Translations tends to avoid parodies. The nature of a parody means that the original won’t be necessarily recognizable in the final product. There are exceptions; Airplane! is a parody of 70s airplane disaster film while being an adaptation of Zero Hour!, using the original film as a scaffold to hang all the jokes and gags. So why look at The Orville, a gentle parody of Star Trek?
Let’s take a step back before answering that question. Science fiction is known for tackling subjects in the time it was written despite moving the problem to the future. Star Trek is known for this, with episodes like “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” pointing out the insanity inherent in racism and “The Trouble With Tribbles” exploring the dangers of removing a species from its natural habitat. The later Trek series continued in the same vein, exploring issues that appeared in eras they debuted in. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine may have been somewhat prophetic, predicting social issues that came about during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq years after DS9 finished.
Why look at The Orville, then? The Orville, created by Seth MacFarlane, set out to be a gentle parody of Trek, adding a layer of comedy to the proceedings. While the original series had a number of light episodes, such as “The Trouble With Tribbles”, “A Piece of the Action”, and “Shore Leave”, later series had trouble finding the touch needed. The goal of The Orville was to pull back from the grim and gritty direction science fiction was taking and show a bright potential future because and despite of humanity. The series also looks at today’s social issues through the science fiction lens.
The series stars MacFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer, commander of the mid-level exploratory vessel Orville; Adrianne Palicki as Commander Kelly Grayson, first officer and Ed’s ex-wife; Scott Grimes as Lieutenant Gordon Malloy, the ship’s daredevil helmsman and Ed’s best friend, Penny Johnson Jerald as Doctor Claire Finn, the ship’s chief medical officer; Halston Sage as Lieutenant Alara Kitan, the ship’s chief of security who hails from a high gravity world, Peter Macon as Lieutenant Commander Bortus, the second officer who comes from a single sex species, J. Lee as Lieutenant John LaMarr, navigator and, later, chief engineer, and Mark Jackson as Isaac, science officer and an artifical life form on board to study humans. The make up of the crew is more inspired from Star Trek: The Next Generation than from the original Trek. Indeed, the uniforms wouldn’t look out of place on board the USS Enterprise-D.
The Orville herself is a shiny ship, brightly lit, with familiar amenities including the bridge, crew quarters, a lounge, a shuttle bay, even a holodeck. Missing are transporters and a quantum drive replaces the Trek‘s warp drive. The Orville acts as home for the crew during the mission, a base of operations, and a way to get to the adventure, much like the Enterprise in Trek. Uniforms are colour coded by department. Someone unaware of The Orville‘s creation would be wondering why things are different on a Star Trek series.
There are differences. Characters on The Orville are as likely to screw up as people are today.. Little mistakes, major mistakes, it’s what the characters do afterward that counts. The characters are also more likely to use less high-brow entertainment. Where on Star Trek, characters would listen to classical music or read classic literature, Picard’s preferences for Dixon Hill notwithstanding, the crew of the Orville are listening to classic rock, reading popular literature, and enjoying a few drinks in the crew lounge. On The Orville, humanity can reach the stars and still listen to a rocking tune.
The Orville, even with the comedy aspects, does tackle the social issues of today. from cultural differences to social media use. One episode, “Mad Idolatry” examines Trek‘s Prime Directive, the non-interference with pre-warp cultures, and the nature of cultural contamination, with the result being that, while Kelly did influence a young society, the society itself realizes that it didn’t matter who or what happened, the conflicts would have occurred one way or another; Kelly’s portrayal as a god wasn’t a catalyst. Being science fiction and being part comedy allows The Orville to examine the issues, poke and prod them, and present them in a way that the audience can take and mull over. The presentations aren’t heavy-handed, unlike “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, but do leave the audience thinking.
As a parody, The Orville may be doing Star Trek better than current Trek offerings. The series hearkens back to both The Original Series and The Next Generation, with episodes that explore characters while still examining today’s social issues. The series provides a change of pace from grim and gritty, allowing its audience to see a future of hope, much like Star Trek pioneered in.