The Orville, and Criticism as Intolerance

During the fall of 2017 I noted some online disagreements about the quality of the most recent Star Trek franchise, Discovery, and the overtly campy alternative, the Orville. I have not watched Discovery as of this writing, so I will not comment on it nor compare the Orville to it. But since I have been back in the U.S. I did just watch the first season of the Orville, and I really enjoyed it. The tone certainly reflects Seth MacFarlane’s humor on Family Guy. It is considerably racier, cruder, and more irreverent than Star Trek, but there is no mistaking that it is an homage to Star Trek. And even though the Orville mocks itself, it seems very respectful of the series that inspires it. Most of ‘the aliens’ are actors in simple prosthetic make-up, and they all speak English. The point, from a world-building point of view, is that the focus of the show is human relationships, not speculative science. Given the quality of the CG effects for exterior shots and the portrayal of one protoplasmid alien crewmember, the choice of humanoid ‘aliens’ for the rest of the cast and guests is very explicit.

The Orville references Roddenberry’s concepts in the same way that the film Galaxy Quest does. In fact, it feels like a serialized adaptation of Galaxy Quest—and other Trekkie-produced fan fiction such as Starship Exeter (outing myself as a committed nerd here, yes; but those are my credentials for making this commentary). Not only is The Orville derivative; not only does it declare its own awareness of its source of inspiration; it says pretty clearly: “We will use this established genre and world in the way Roddenberry intended. We will use it to make strong commentary about present-day prejudices and cultural issues.” The official Trek franchise has done that, especially in the shows Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and from what I can tell from reviews, social commentary on our own present plays a major role in the new Discovery series as well.

One major improvement MacFarlane has made on the ‘orthodox’ Trek formula is that he uses a lot of humor to avoid making the storytelling feel like pedantic moralizing. This comic-ironic-melodramatic tone was first demonstrated in this genre in the film Galaxy Quest. Furthermore, MacFarlane uses humor to open the space to explore emotionally painful situations. For example, the dysfunctional relationship of the captain and his first officer/ex-wife is initially reminiscent of the Honeymooners, or the Taggart/DeMarco relationship in Galaxy Quest. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear how devoted Grayson is to Mercer. Her devotion can be interpreted simply as a heartbroken relationship. But I see a much more interesting dimension to her character: the shame and atonement of a soldier who is devastated by the taint of being regarded as a betrayer. MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a more blank everyman; but it is the character he wrote for Adrianne Palicki (who plays his ex and First Officer Grayson) who has much more depth and dramatic internal tension.

Several of the episodes revolve around difficult issues of parenting, both for Bortus and Dr. Finn. The most disturbing sequence in the season was the portrayal of Dr Finn’s “mama bear” reaction to being separated from her sons. She kills her captor/protector, Drogen, in cold blood to get back to her children. After she escapes, she encounters precisely the dangers Drogen had warned her about: biological contamination and deranged survivors. Drogen’s motives for locking up Dr. Finn are never clearly revealed. Perhaps his intentions were not entirely honorable; but it becomes clear that he was entirely truthful in what he actually did say. It therefore becomes a little troubling that Dr. Finn never indicates any regrets or second thoughts about having killed him.

In the next scene, a horde of zombie-like infected survivors approach the crashed shuttle where she is tending to her younger son. Dr. Finn hands a weapon to her older, adolescent-age son and gives him terse advice about taking a “wide stance” to stabilize himself as he fires. The whole sequence has the emotional brutality of another likely dramatic inspiration: Firefly. Maybe that weapon was set to stun, but when a ship arrives to rescue them, the heavy-weapons fire it uses to drive off ‘the natives’ is clearly lethal. My main criticism is that I would like to see the emotional consequences of that scenario explored much more. There are questions of colonialism and deeply asymmetrical conflict, which shapes a lot of the reality I live with in Kabul. But I was impressed that MacFarlane would go that dark in a series that seemed to start off as a satirical comedy. The mixture of sarcastic, ironic humor and very serious melodrama is not completely new with this show (Firefly and Galaxy Quest both did this), but it is a relatively new narrative form that seems to enable unexpected room for emotional depth in a teleplay drama.

What surprised me most, however, was the extremely negative reaction of official critics towards the show. Variety, Vox, and Indiewire condemned the show in ways that were so skewed I wondered whether these critics have ulterior motives they are ashamed to reveal.

First, they each criticized the show for being derivative. That is a strange criticism, since The Orville clearly admits that it is derivative, and uses that tongue-in-cheek stance as a central theme. The criticism itself seems absurd; but it also suggests that the critics share an assumption that I find much more disturbing. These critics implicitly assert that we are not allowed to build on previous storytelling. They are insinuating the ultimate monopolistic privilege: that the creative work of previous storytellers is not just copyrighted, but trade-marked—a perpetual condition of lock-out from anyone else building on prior work.

That aspiration for perpetual monopoly exclusion is exactly why I object to the Disney Corporation’s efforts to extend copyrights in perpetuity. Rather than protect their own specific portrayal of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Belle, and the Beast as corporate trade-marks (a reasonable use of existing intellectual property law), Disney has successfully lobbied Congress to grossly extend copyright protections solely for the sake of protecting their old films. This is especially perverse because most of the stories they use are based on Grimms’ collection and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, which are available precisely because their copyrights have expired.

The original intention of copyright was to give the creator monopoly rights to revenue for a limited time: seven or 14 years. Monopoly profits to the creator were balanced against the encouragement of cultural development, by limiting the duration of copyright, to allow future storytellers to continue to build on prior creativity in exactly the way storytellers did before the existence of copyright. Since the original Star Trek series is now 50 years old, MacFarlane should not even have to avoid using exactly the same terms that were used in Roddenberry’s teleplay a half-century ago. The problem is not derivation—the problem is the opposite: the culturally stifling intellectual property restrictions which these ‘critics’ seem to advocate. Whose side are the critics on?

Second, each of these critics portrays the show as ‘culturally regressive’ especially because the captain is a white male. I recommend that you actually watch the episodes and then look at what the critics omitted and insinuated. Is the captain a white male who is slightly thick and probably less qualified than both his First Officer and (as we later discover) his navigator? Yes; and the show’s own writing is very clear on that point. Not only is it a comic device, but by now it should raise the question for the viewer about white male privilege. That is the point of dramatic irony—the viewer knowing more than the characters in the drama. Do the critics have so little respect for viewers that they think this irony will be lost on the viewers? Wait—have you never worked for a privileged white man whom you clearly feel does not deserve the pay, authority, and status he has as your boss? I think the only people who could miss the irony of this situation are people who themselves are so privileged that they have not had to work under a boss. We even know that First Officer Grayson was instrumental in putting Mercer in the Captain’s chair, and she later plays the same role of advocating for the promotion of the navigator (LaMarr). Again, she is the more interesting character, and she is exemplary in showing how to work in an organization, specifically as an XO. Compare her to Saul Tigh on Battlestar Galactica, or Will Riker on The Next Generation; she is a model of competence and leadership within her chain of command. Is she recognized for this? Yes, explicitly by her ex, the captain.

And when it comes to gender politics, I am completely at a loss as to how The Orville is regressive. Bortus’s male-male marriage to Klyden is one of the few things that is not played for laughs. Furthermore, there is a scene where Captain Mercer invites another male to rejoin him in bed. Later, when he discovers that his desires were manipulated with pheromones, he is irritated by the deception but not in any way ashamed of his own bisexuality. How is this ‘regressive’? If anything, it clarifies the point that sexuality is completely distinct from the issues that really disturb him: deception and betrayal.

I am not alone in my confusion about the hostility of critics towards this show. The Variety review allows readers’ comments, and the tone of those responses is very similar to my perception. Why the hostility? The Orville is interesting because it is both goofball and occasionally very dramatic. No one is claiming this is high art. No one is claiming this is original world-building. Quite the opposite: it is not original world-building; it is cultural commentary wrapped in satire wrapped in explicit homage. If that is too many layers of irony for you, then you are not going to like most of the creative work of the early twenty-first century, because this is the hallmark of this moment.

As for the critics, I worry—their snobbish condescension seems not only disproportionate, but really off-base and either tone-deaf or intentionally perverse. Are they skewed by their own social-media echo-chamber, their own elitist social bubble? Do they want to prematurely kill off another interesting social commentary show, as happened to the original Star Trek series and Firefly? A side-by-side viewing of Orville episodes with how critics characterize the series undermines the critics’ credibility, in a time when I would like to see much more support of shows that have a diverse cast (as the Orville does) and challenges many gender and sexual stereotypes (which the Orville does) without being heavy-handed and pedantic (which the Orville successfully avoids through self-deprecating humor). As for great drama? Go back and watch all the original Star Trek teleplays. A few were great: most especially the heart-breaking “Let that be your last battlefield.” But most of them were pretty cheesy, as were most of the Next Generation teleplays. And if a critic thinks that is heresy—if they imply that previous creative works cannot be criticized and must never be emulated, imitated, or satirized—isn’t that critic revealing their own fundamental incompetence at their professed job?

The Wikipedia article on the Orville has separate sections for “critical response” and “audience response” because official critics panned the show (19% approval ratings) and viewers really enjoyed it (90%+ approval ratings). Maybe viewers like crass, vulgar satire; I admit I hope the intrepid crew of the Orville encounter an archvillain based on Stewie, or a sentient, martini-drinking canine species based on Brian. But far more so, I hope the show uses the light touch of humor to gain access to more painful and sensitive emotional issues of human relationships.

And more clowns. They really are scary.

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