After The Fabulous Wife made a big splash with her review, I got jealous and decided to write one of my own.
But whereas she chose high art, I’m going with TV sci-fi.
When I was a child I loved the original Star Trek. It likely had more impact on me than I give it credit for, because to this day my ideal world is one in which money and fame are irrelevant, everyone takes care of each other, and humanity’s chief pursuit is the search for knowledge and understanding. Evil exists in Star Trek, but it’s always embodied by aliens: the martial Klingons and Romulans; the cyber-souled Borg; the hyper-capitalist Ferengi. True, Khan is human, but he’s a relic of the violent, far-away twentieth century (specifically the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s — remember those?).
Most of a lifetime later, Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a rational, cooperative earth seems, well, childish. In the early Nineties, Star Trek: The Next Generation earned critical and popular plaudits, but to The Fabulous Wife and me the psychological depth of J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 put it to shame. And just a few years later Galaxy Quest, the only Tim Allen movie I ever liked, hilariously trashed the entire Star Trek phenomenon.
None of that stopped Roddenberry’s successors from churning out a slew of solemn series and movies. Yet another show, this one featuring a black female captain, is starting on CBS next week. Possibly by coincidence, Fox last Sunday introduced a Star Trek knock-off called The Orville, developed by Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated Family Guy. The Fabulous Wife and I watched the first episode a couple of times, and we each give The Orville a thumbs up.
MacFarlane plays Ed Mercer, an officer in the Union (as opposed to Star Trek’s Federation) who spends a year binge drinking and screwing up after discovering his wife cheated on him with an alien. Despite his dereliction, he’s offered command of a “mid-level” craft, the Orville. “You were no one’s first choice, but we have three thousand ships to staff and we need captains,” Admiral Halsey (!) explains. Imagine a Federation admiral blaming a questionable promotion on Human Resources.
So off Mercer goes. Two of his senior staff are obvious parodies of Next Generation characters: Bortus, the second officer, is the Worf stand-in, and Isaac, the science and engineering officer, does a perfect Data impersonation. Though mechanical, Isaac is different from the android Data; he comes from a planet of bigots, and probably is one himself. He didn’t get any good lines in the first episode, but our hopes are up.
The theme of The Orville is that the banal realities of everyday life will still exist in 2419. The biggest concern of Mercer’s new navigator is whether he can continue drinking soda on the bridge — the last captain let him do it. (Sure, as long as he doesn’t spill any, Mercer mumbles.) On two occasions urination is the subject of conversation, but of course that could just be MacFarlane. Why do so many comedians carry their pre-adolescent fascination with excretions into middle age? When Mercer discovers his wife cheating, MacFarlane has the alien spurt blue fluid from his eyes — basically a vomit joke. Grow up, Seth!
But that’s forgiven when Mercer’s ex is assigned as his first officer, she meets him in his office adjoining the bridge (the equivalent of Captain Picard’s ready room), and they argue so loudly the cringing crew hears them through the wall. We’re back in territory Star Trek can’t handle.
There are other significant differences from Star Trek. Toward the end of the premiere, Mercer and his team jump into a shuttle craft (no transporters!) to flee a planet. They buckle their seat belts before taking off (no inertial dampeners!). When an armed alien stowaway emerges, those of us conditioned by Star Trek wonder how they’re going to escape. But the answer is easy. They just slam on the shuttle’s brakes and the alien hurtles through the cabin into a wall, knocking himself out. Nice.
The show has gotten a tepid critical reception, due mostly to reviewers’ need to fit it in a box. Is it sci-fi? Is it drama? Is it comedy? They can’t handle that it’s all these things — Star Trek with a healthy dose of human frailty, up to and including vomit jokes.
The Fabulous Wife and I are fine with that. The Orville may yet lose us, but we will definitely be watching the next episode tonight.
The Fabulous Wife has asked me to pass along this update to last week’s post:
I have read more about the opera Elektra. The herky-jerky dance Pudgy Goth Peppermint Patty does at the end is a Dance of Death.
I had no idea. I thought she was lying there on the museum floor at the end all passed out and psychotic. Nope, she danced herself to death.
And she didn’t die of embarrassment about her dancing: she died from exuberance.