As the world clamors for the first “Star Trek” series in a more than decade, a streamlined usurper with no interest in Klingons is entering the space race.
Sci-fi parody “The Orville,” from Emmy award-winning Seth MacFarlane, debuts two weeks before “Star Trek Discovery” and critics have been remarking on the striking similarities.
Squint and you might think “The Orville,” which debuts on Fox on September 10, was a re-run of “The Next Generation,” save for the blue uniforms.
When it was presented at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Los Angeles on Tuesday, journalists wondered aloud if Fox was worried about being sued.
“Seth’s intention is to do something that clearly pays homage to ‘Star Trek,’ that clearly was inspired a lot by Star Trek,” Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden said.
“He (also) talks about ‘The Twilight Zone,’ a show that examines the human condition in the future… through little morality plays.”
Walden said no one associated with “Star Trek” would think of the similarities between the two shows as “anything other than a compliment.”
Set 400 years in the future, MacFarlane’s series follows the exploits of the U.S.S. Orville, an exploratory ship with a crew facing the wonders and dangers of space, as well as more mundane problems.
Down on his luck after a bitter divorce, Planetary Union officer Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, finally gets the chance to command his own ship.
– Levity –
Determined to prove his worth, his first setback comes when the first officer assigned to his ship turns out to be his ex-wife Kelly (Adrianne Palicki).
As the new commander, Ed assembles a qualified but odd-looking crew, including Bortus, an alien from a single-sex species, Isaac, an artificial life-form from a machine society and Yaphit, a gelatinous creature.
It’s not just the premise of “The Orville” that has the ring of familiarity.
Many of its crew members are “Star Trek” alumni going back decades, including veteran producer Brannon Braga, an intern on “The Next Generation” in 1990 who worked his way up to becoming a key creative figure on three of the franchise’s four modern series.
Also on board are Robert Duncan McNeill, who worked on “Voyager,” and Jonathan Frakes, who played bearded first officer Will Riker in “Next Generation” and is directing an episode of “Discovery” as well.
The show has its share of jokes but plays more like a dramedy than the broad comedy of Mel Brooks’s “Spaceballs” (1987) suggested by the marketing.
“Because we’re an hour-long show, it can’t just be gag, gag, gag,” says MacFarlane, an ardent Trekkie who created hit animated show “Family Guy” and directed live action comedy “Ted” (2012).
“There has to be some reality from where the comedy comes from… We really see it as a sci-fi comedic drama. We allow ourselves room for levity in ways that a traditional sci-fi show doesn’t. We’re trying to break new ground.”
Conceived in a more innocent age than the dystopian sci-fi movies of the 2000s, the original “Star Trek” series was imbued with the optimism of its creator Gene Roddenberry.
– ‘Nightmare scenario’ –
MacFarlane said he wanted to make sci-fi happy and upbeat again, adding that it “can’t all be ‘The Hunger Games,’ it can?t all be the nightmare scenario.”
“I’m tired of being told everything is grim and dystopian and people are going to be murdered for food,” he said.
“I miss the hopeful side of science fiction. Now things are very grim.”
Explaining how his show would be different from “Star Trek,” he pointed to the serious, grounded tone the new “Discovery” series appears to be taking.
“I think they’ve chosen to go in a different direction and it’s worked very well for them in recent years. What’s happened is that has left open a space that has been relatively unoccupied for a while,” he said.
“In a lot of ways, ‘James Bond’ moved into a different area than classic ‘James Bond’ and then ‘Iron Man’ came along and filled that void.”
While relatively unknown, “The Orville” ought to reach a larger audience than “Discovery,” as Fox is a widely-available broadcast network.
“Discovery” only goes out on the CBS All-Access streaming service after the September 24 pilot, guaranteeing a more specialized audience.
“I think there is room for two shows on a spaceship. There are more than two cop shows,” said David Goodman,” executive producer of “The Orville.”
“I don’t see us competing with them.”