Ads for Fox’s new sci-fi series The Orville have tended to paint it as Seth MacFarlane’s Galaxy Quest, with the Family Guy creator and star riffing on Star Trek with a mix of irreverence and affection. This makes sense: MacFarlane is an unabashed Trekkie, and he’s known primarily for crude comedy (and occasional tributes to movie musicals). If that’s what MacFarlane and friends had made, it would still be a risk — MacFarlane has had many successes voicing animated or CGI characters, but the only other time he was a flesh-and-blood lead of something he created, it was A Million Ways to Die in the West — but it would be largely on-brand.
That’s not what The Orville actually is, though. (It debuts Sunday night at 8; I’ve seen the first three episodes.) Instead, it’s an hour-long drama that basically is 1990s Star Trek — or, rather, a mediocre facsimile of that era’s lamest Trek components, and with MacFarlane (who also created the series) as the lead instead of Patrick Stewart. Every five minutes or so, all the technobabble will pause so that MacFarlane or one of his co-stars (including Adrianne Palicki, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Chad L. Coleman, Halston Sage, and Penny Johnson Jerald) can make a joke about alien genitalia or 20th century Earth pop culture — one episode manages to combine the two — to keep the Peter Griffin fans in the audience from tuning out.
The whole thing’s bizarre, down to the employment of a bunch of Trek veterans behind the scenes, most notably executive producer Brannon Braga, who was responsible for many of the dumbest and most formulaic parts of The Next Generation and Voyager, including the script for what many fans consider the worst modern Trek episode ever, Voyager‘s “Threshold,” where Captain Janeway and Tom Paris devolve into amphibious creatures. (Paris himself, Robert Duncan MacNeil, directs the second episode, and Jonathan Frakes directed another.) Long stretches play out like Braga had a lot of unused Next Generation scripts in a drawer and just changed the names, and while very little of it’s good — it’s the concepts without the humanity behind them that power the best of all Trek incarnations, and this brand of exploratory sci-fi in general — there’s at least a consistent vision to it. It’s a borrowed vision, but one that makes sense together.