Cucked in Space: A Curious Look At What’s Poppin’ On The Orville

Brandon Adamson is a writer from Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Skytrain to Nowhere and The Gleaming Crest.

I might as well state this up front. I never understood the appeal of Seth Macfarlane’s popular animated series, The Family Guy. What little of it I occasionally got roped into watching, I hated every minute of. I thought The Family Guy was infantile, unfunny, and that the show’s scatterbrain pacing seemed calibrated for people with miniscule attention spans. I say that not as some pretentious tv snob, but as a grown man who still owns and watches DVDs of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons like Blackstar and The Smurfs. It also bugged me on a deeper level, as The Family Guy often referenced and parodied films, songs, and miscellaneous relics of popular culture from previous eras. The idea that I was supposed to identify with this fatass normie family as my “ingroup” contemporaries while they derivatively lampooned authentically made creations from more artistically sincere times….well, let’s just say it was an idea I had no interest in entertaining at all. “Take a sniff, pull it out. The taste is gonna move you when you pop it in your mouth.” If you ask me, there was more aesthetic and originality contained in that one throwaway Juicy Fruit commercial jingle  (which the show parodied) than could be found in a typical season of The Family Guy.

Suffice to say, that when a girl recently suggested I watch one of Seth’s current shows, The Orville, I wasn’t really expecting much one way or the other. However, I decided to give it a chance and keep an open mind. The Orville is a space exploration comedy/drama, which largely adheres to the familiar structural and episodic format of the Star Trek series. Basically, the crew of an exploration vessel encounters strange phenomena in space while simultaneously working through their interpersonal conflicts. You get the idea. Though there are elements of satire and comedy, The Orville doesn’t function as merely a spoof or parody of Star Trek though, since the episodes typically feature dramatic underlying themes which address complex moral questions. I initially assumed that perhaps The Orville was comedically named after Orville Redenbacher (the popcorn dude) as a bit, but McFarlane has stated in interviews that the show was actually named for inventor and aviation pioneer, Orville Wright of “Wright Brothers” fame. This is the first clue that we are dealing with a show which takes itself at least somewhat seriously. More on that later.

Visually, The Orville represents an authentic, retrofuturistic near-masterpiece, featuring a set design which reflects the vision of the future depicted in 80’s and 90’s SciFi/fantasy television. The interiors of the ships on the show largely resembles those of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine era in terms of design, and overall aesthetic. The same goes for costume and wardrobe. On occasions when the characters end up landing on the surfaces of other worlds, the look and feel take on an appearance that’s slightly more reminiscent of Stargate SG-1 or Xena: Warrior Princess. Though that’s just my general, intuitive observation, which isn’t really based on anything tangible. I also have to grudgingly admit, the CGI effects are quite stunning. I’ve always hated digital effects and prefer the extravagant matte painting backgrounds, in-camera effects, and miniature models which had been previously employed for use in these cinematic endeavors, with The Forbidden Planet (1956) and Disney’s The Black Hole (1979) being two of my favorite representative examples. The transition from movies being made by avant garde auteur megalomaniacs to computer dorks who graduated from the Al Collins Graphic Design School has irked me to say the least. However, I must finally give CGI its due. CGI has come a long way since Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace and those ridiculously shitty digitized sharks in Deep Blue Sea. The computer generated effects in The Orville are top notch and really do enhance the show.  

Story-wise, the series mostly revolves around The Orville’s central character, Captain Ed Mercer (played by MacFarlane himself) and his love interest, commander/first officer Kelly Grayson (portrayed by Adrianne Palicki.) She is also his ex-wife. In the first episode, we learn that the reason they’re divorced is that he walked in on her while she was cheating on him with a scaly, blue alien dude named Darulio (actual brat packer Rob Lowe,) who resembles a crossbreed between a dark elven warlord and a member of Blue Man Group. After being cucked by her, Captain Mercer initially does the sensible thing and breaks off all ties with his cheating, filthy “blueshark” wife. However, because she still harbors feelings for Ed, Kelly uses her family connections to finagle her way into an officer post on the ship Mercer’s been assigned to command, The Orville. It is also revealed that the only reason the mediocre Captain Mercer was selected to command this exploration vessel is because Kelly had put in a good word for him to the higher ups. When Mercer discovers this, it represents yet another blow to his already fractured ego. Over time, the combination of Mercer’s loneliness and his close proximity to Grayson leads him to pathetically open the door to seeking romantic reconciliation with her. The sexual tension between them, and the ongoing flirtation they maintain with the idea of rekindling their relationship endure as a recurrent subplot.

There are a host of supporting characters, most of whom function as token caricatures of common spaceship television archetypes. There’s the standard pretentious “droid supremacist,” Isaac (presumably a reference to author Isaac Asimov, known for devising the “Three Laws of Robotics“) who believes humans are inferior. Lieutenant Commander John LaMarr is the fairly likable and stereotypical, cool and chill black guy. Lt. cmdr Bortus and his “mate” Klyden are an alien couple, part of a species known as Moclan. Moclans visually resemble the Tamarians from an iconic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. What’s unique about Moclans is that they have a very “traditional” culture where the males mate with one another and start families. Female Moclans are heavily discriminated against and usually are forced to undergo sex change operations shortly after they are born. I’m very socially liberal, so this sort of thing doesn’t bother me much at all. However, it’s not hard to see what they are getting at by promoting this idea of drive-thru gender interchangeability, even if this thinly guised tumblrista dog whistle is couched within a fictitious creatural framework. On the other hand, Moclan society could alternately be read as an alien variant of Sam Hyde’s Utopia. As far as other notable regular characters in The Orville, there’s helmsman Gordon Malloy, a hotshot pilot played by Scott Grimes (best known to my generation as Will McCorkle in the hit 90’s series, Party of Five.) Norm Macdonald also provides the voice for a cynical, gelatinous green blob creature named Yaphit, who is probably the most relatable character on the show from my perspective.

I hinted earlier at some of the ideological content present in the show. Like most contemporary corporate programming, The Orville is littered with so many unintentionally hilarious, tired and worn out, “woke” social justice memes that if some AltRight outfit like MurdochMurdoch were to make an “SJWs in space” style parody vid, they probably wouldn’t even have to change anything in the script for it to be work. To give you an idea, almost all of the black characters on the show are portrayed as brilliant scientists, doctors and enlightened scholars, always ready and available to explain every complex phenomena to the confused, bumbling, white frat-ronauts. To paraphrase Orwell, “if you want a picture of the future, imagine Dr. Claire Finn pejoratively explaining the concept of quantum bubbles to you, forever.” Nothing against her by the way. Penny Johnson Jerald does a great job with her role. I wouldn’t really take issue with this kind of thing either or find it so annoying if it weren’t so predictably forced. Of course, there are plenty of notable black scientists in real life, but when a show like this goes all in for such disproportionately contrived representation, it’s transparent to anyone that they’re just trying to check as many “woke” boxes as possible. It’s shameless virtue signaling..

A much more blatant example is contained in the episode, New Dimensions. While Kelly Grayson is examining personnel files, she discovers some old academic test scores which reveal that Lieutenant/Navigator John Lamarr is actually the smartest person on board the ship! This surprises Captain Mercer, because to him (and anyone watching,) Lamarr never appeared particularly bright. Grayson convinces the captain to make Lamarr Chief Engineer. His critical decision of course ends up saving the day after the ship goes through a portal and becomes trapped in an alternate, two-dimensional universe (inspired by Edwin Abbott’s novella, Flatland, which is discussed in the show.) As an irresistible digression, I feel compelled to mention that I once had a copy of Flatland in my bathroom for nearly 5 years as toilet reading material, and the book probably indirectly influenced one of my poetry volumes, Sidequests (released within that same period.) Anyhow, Lamarr later explains that the reason he had always concealed his intelligence was that being perceived as an “egghead” was seen as uncool in the colony he grew up in. This is obviously an analogy for the trope of blacks growing up in the ghetto not wanting to appear smart and well spoken, in order to avoid being labeled sellouts, “cornball brothers,” etc. I admit, I actually felt bad for the black actor in this episode and wondered whether he had any reservations about being subjected to such patronizing neo-blaxploitation. When are they gonna let these guys just be humans! This show is set in the current year 2400 A.D. for pete’s sake! It really makes you think. This is one of those episodes which might just leave discerning viewers with some unintended takeaways.

Likewise, the episode, Mad Idolatry concerns a planet in a “multi-phasic orbit,” whereby time advances several hundred years there for every eleven days the people on the ship experience. When they visit the planet during a “medieval” era, it is filled with cruel, religious white people engaging in brutal inquisitions and delivering barbarous punishments to criminals and heretics. However, when the crew returns after the planet has advanced thousands of years and blossomed into a technofuturist utopia, they are greeted by leaders who are (unsurprisingly) enlightened black women and men, wise and genteel Wakandan kangz…the stuff stale memes are made of. If it seems like I’m being too critical, it’s only because it’s impossible for me to avoid noticing this stuff. There is still plenty of political incorrectness and problematic language that managed to sneak its way into the show though. When Captain Mercer is berating Kelly for having cheated on him with the blue Retepsian creature, the Captain disparagingly laments how she “banged Papa Smurf” in their bed. Ethnic stereotypes and speciesist slurs are apparently tolerated in The Orville as long as they’re directed at alien lifeforms (even if humanoid in appearance.)

On a brighter note, one of the best episodes of The Orville is Lasting Impressions. In fact I would say that the episodes of this caliber are what redeem the series for those who might not otherwise care much for the show’s trajectory. In Lasting Impressions, the crew finds a 21st century time capsule which contains a young woman name Laura Huggins’ iPhone (complete with photos, videos, texting history, etc.) Even though she has been dead for centuries, as Lt. Gordon Malloy peruses the photos and videos of the 21st century girl’s phone, he becomes infatuated with her. He decides to use the data in her phone to create a virtual reality simulation, which he then enters and proceeds to develop a relationship with Laura. Unlike the similar yet darker Black Mirror episode, U.S.S. Callister, which dealt mainly with issues of consent and power fantasies, Lasting Impressions grapples with metaphysical questions like “what is real?” Rather than attempt to control or use Laura for sexual exploits in this simulation, Lt. Malloy genuinely falls for her. As he gets more immersed in her world, his friends become concerned and continually remind him that even if it seems real, it’s only a simulation. Several years ago, I wrote a review of the film Cherry 2000, where I suggested that interactions with women were becoming so superficial and vapid, that for a romantic guy…it wouldn’t seem all that far-fetched to imagine a near-future where a simulated “relationship” with a bot might be comparatively more fulfilling than attempting to form a bond with a flesh and blood human female. In the case of Lt. Malloy, it’s important to remember that he is on a ship in the middle of deep space. It’s probably very lonely, and he may not have very many options in the romance department. Within this context, the simulation with Laura might be the realest romantic experience available to him. To put it another way, playing through Final Fantasy IV might constitute more of an adventure than a trip to Walmart or the local bar.

Ultimately though, Lasting Impressions is about something else. When Lt. Malloy discovers that Laura is still in love with her ex-boyfriend, Malloy deletes the guy completely from the simulation, literally wiping out the competition. After doing this though, he notices that Laura has changed and no longer seems interested in pursuing her dream of being a performing musician. It is revealed that Laura’s ex-boyfriend was the one who inspired and encouraged her to pursue her passions. Malloy then realizes that by selfishly deleting the rival suitor, he deprived Laura of an important part of herself, and she subsequently became an unrecognizably different person. Malloy restores Laura’s boyfriend back into the simulation. Things revert to how they were and  Malloy sings with her on stage and then says goodbye to the couple, wishing them well. The lesson here is that everyone we come into contact with in our lives affects us in some way. The mark or “impression” they leave on us changes us forever, sometimes in undetectable ways and sometimes dramatically. It’s really a very touching entry in the series, and I almost can’t believe it was actually directed by the same person who directed that cringeworthy New Dimensions episode.
Well, if you’ve managed to make it this far into this bloated article, you might be wondering if I think The Orville is actually worth your time.

What’s the final verdict? Like most contemporary media, The Orville is only worthwhile if you’re willing to watch it on your own terms. You have to find your own meanings and creative interpretations and not simply accept the narratives as they’re presented in the storylines. This involves admiring characters you’re not supposed to like, laughing at things which aren’t meant to be funny, and applying the moral lessons to situations in ways the creators surely didn’t intend. Just remember that it’s a controlled framework. When you root for the antagonists in the Planet of the Apes sequels, you’re embracing caricatures which were created to poorly represent certain ideas. When you empathize with Jack’s character in Lord of the Flies, realize that you’re identifying with a hostile alien’s strawman of British nationalism. Unlike The Family Guy, there’s a lot of substance to appreciate in The Orville. The actors’ performances are also solid, and the show is actually pretty funny. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that everything that happens, does so within the constraints of someone else’s imagined universe.