The Orville: The Best Star Trek Homages

Orville creator Seth MacFarlane has never shied away from the fact that his show is an homage to the classic Trek he grew up watching.

Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), and Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) in The Orville season 3
Photo: Hulu

This article contains spoilers for The Orville: New Horizons and Star Trek.

With a team composed of comedic writers from Seth MacFarlane’s catalog of animated shows, and Star Trek veterans such as Brannon Braga and David A. Goodman, The Orville: New Horizons has been leaning further away from the comedy, and more toward the “Trek” lately.

That isn’t meant to insinuate that The Orville is derivative, as many of the comparisons have come from the same writing team who created the idea first. However, it does seem that they’ve often used successful character dynamics, tropes, or story beats from their past writing, even perhaps improving upon them the second time. If the writers are trying to make a good thing even better, many fans would agree it has worked, with some even calling The Orville the best Trek out there right now.

Yet one cannot help but make comparisons, especially in this third season of The Orville, as it has resulted in some very specific similarities between the two shows.

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Ensign Burke and Ensign Ro 

A late character addition to an established cast can always be a risk (ask Oliver on The Brady Bunch … or ask your parents if you don’t understand that reference), but it can also be a successful challenge to the dynamic that takes storylines in unexpected directions.

Both Ensign Burke (Anne Winters) in The Orville and Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes) in The Next Generation are low-ranking characters that can easily be seen as annoying or unwelcomed because from the moment they were introduced, they challenged the happy existence of their ship. More importantly, they both challenge their Captain without any regard for command or that aforementioned happy dynamic.

As much as Burke has irked many fans of The Orville in only a handful of episodes of her debut season, that’s precisely what she was meant to do. Both she and Ro challenge the other characters on an ongoing basis because this creates more drama in a show that follows a sitcom or episodic formula; simply resetting back to a happy existence after each hour. 

Having both characters be survivors of war and terrorism gives them excellent motivation for the chip on their shoulder, as well as shows a darker side to the Roddenberry inspired utopia of these universes. The journey they both have to go on to try and find peace and forgiveness, and find a place within the show, reinforces what both The Orville and Star Trek are all about: humanity. 

Both late additions with kindred backstories are simply superficial similarities, it is that journey, and their story that is the most intriguing part.

Dinal and Q 

Despite what you may think of the Picard revival, what made the antagonistic but lovable godlike-rogue, Q (John de Lancie) entertaining in The Next Generation was the love/hate relationship with Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and how Q would torture the beloved captain. It seemed all the Q adventures were never meant to be out of complete malice, but curiosity and respect. Q did treat the Enterprise crew as a lower species, but it was always as if Q had hope for humanity based on what he saw in Picard and his officers.

In “Mortality Paradox,” fans were introduced to Dinal (guest star Elizabeth Gillies), a highly evolved being who, much like Q, put a small section of the Orville’s crew through a labyrinth of terror. The purpose? To study an aspect of humanity that is beyond her and her people’s reach. If that wasn’t familiar enough, Dinal mentioned that the crew, while terrified for their very lives, were never in any real danger. 

Most importantly, Dinal and her species have a very specific connection with Kelly. In the episode “Mad Idolatry,” Dinal’s interdimensional species, the Kandarians, which advances eons while time passes normally for the Orville used to worship Kelly as a deity at one point in their evolution. This could be a hint that audiences have not seen the last of Dinal or the Kandarians, as they have more than a vested interest in Kelly and the crew, much like Q developed an interest in the Enterprise. 

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The Orville Has Two Versions of The Borg

This list is not meant to be merely superficial, however one cannot help but see an easy comparison between the Borg that hunted the TNG-era Federation and the Kaylon, a species of artificial beings who have vowed to destroy all biological beings. 

In one of the greatest Trek stories ever told, Captain Picard was at one point assimilated by the Borg to represent them as Locutus, one of the only individual voices within the collective. For the remainder of The Next Generation storylines, this incident made the battle with the Borg fiercely personal for Picard and his crew. 

As if knowing that the connection between the Kaylon and the Orville crew (which is discussed in the next section) wasn’t enough, the writing team created a new alien species this season that reproduces by completely changing an individual’s DNA. When the crew of the Orville came across this species, the first victim of the invasive transformation is Doctor Finn’s (Penny Johnson Jerald) ex-husband, Admiral Christie (Guest star James Read), adding a much more personal touch the next time they meet. 

At the conclusion of the episode, the writers even gave this new menace a catch phrase, “you will be of us,” threatening assimilation. Perhaps not as catchy as “Resistance is futile”, but the writers certainly knew what they were creating an homage to. 

The War with the Kaylon and The Dominion War

The comparisons between The Orville and Trek aren’t merely limited to Next Generation. While Brannon Braga worked on almost every iteration of the TNG era of Trek, the one show he didn’t really contribute to was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. One of the key story threads which truly carried the show in later seasons was the ongoing war with The Dominion.

Granted, that ongoing story thread may be derivative of Babylon 5, but once again, the personal touch is what The Orville focuses on, and DS9 fans will recognize it. The Orville’s beloved Kaylon, Isaac (Mark Jackson) is that aforementioned connection between the Orville and the murderous army of artificial lifeforms, and certain story points make it more personal. 

In one of the most dynamic storylines last season, Isaac betrayed his people to save the crew, and humanity as well. He is the only one of his kind (up until the discovery of fellow Kaylon Timmis in last week’s episode “From Unknown Graves”) who is on the other side of this conflict. He is alone, separated from his people, and seen as an outcast. His specific archetype, that of an emotionally stunted officer trying to understand humanity, is one used quite often in Trek. Think Spock from the original show, Data from TNG or in this specific case, Odo (Rene Auberjonois) from Deep Space Nine.

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Odo was separated from his people, the Changelings, a traitor to his race and the only one who saw the evil of the Dominion, Odo had to find solace in his Federation friends much like Isaac only has the Orville. Couple that with the Changelings wanting to cull “all solids” much like the Kaylon’s need to kill “all biologicals” and you have a very similar dynamic.  

An Emotional Experience for Isaac and Data

Last week’s “From Unknown Graves” featured another similar story that perhaps could not be helped. With that aforementioned emotionally stunted officer, it is inevitable that they do get their wish and become more human one way or another. For TNG’s Data, it was his eventual taste of human emotion. The concept was teased for seasons, and never took hold until the first TNG film, Generations.

In last week’s episode of The Orville, Isaac was finally offered that same opportunity. The more empathetic Timmis and his reconfigured artificial brain allowed the chance for Isaac to undergo a procedure for him to truly feel. Issac of course, does go through with the procedure, but tragically it does not take because of his brain chemistry compared to Timmis’. With the ongoing relationship between Isaac and Doctor Finn, it’s safe to assume that Issac’s emotional journey is not complete yet, and when it does take hold, it would have featured the same proverbial roller coaster ride that Data had to endure. 

Mercer & Teleya and Chakotay & Seska

Sounds like a science fiction remake of a swinging sixties Paul Mazursky film, doesn’t it? What it really refers to is the common story used in both The Orville and Star Trek: Voyager. Both feature a romance between a high ranking officer of the main starship having a torrid love affair with one of their comrades. In the case of the Orville, it was between Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) and Lieutenant Janel Tyler (Michaela McManus). 

A sexual relationship between shipmates is nothing controversial, that is, until you discover the woman in the relationship is actually a spy for one of your most dangerous enemies who has disguised herself as a different species. That was the case for Voyager’s Chakotay (Robert Beltran) and Seska (Martha Hackett). Seska at first was a comrade in the fringe military group known as the Maquis, where she and Chakotay fought side by side against the Cardasians. When it was revealed she was a Cardasian, it was the ultimate betrayal, exactly as it was when Mercer discovered Lieutenant Tyler was in reality, Teleya, a Krill woman who he befriended and betrayed years ago.  

Couple that with the common story that both women became pregnant with a child they claim to be Chakotay’s and Mercer’s (respectively) and the love/hate relationship in both shows becomes similarly compelling. 

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Alara Kitan and Tasha Yar

This list comparing art imitating art becomes slightly more meta when this particular comparison is also a strange case of Life imitating Life. From the very conception of both The Orville and TNG, each show had a tough female as their chief of security. The Enterprise had Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) and The Orville had their diminutive but insanely strong pickle jar opener, Alara Kitan (Halston Sage). Both characters were about the Roddenberry-ideal of representing all genders and the strength women possess. 

In a bizarrely similar style, both actors left their respective shows early in the run. Albeit for very different reasons, but with Tasha dying before the conclusion of the first season, and Alara barely broaching the second season before leaving, it became a strangely similar hole left in both shows. Even more specifically, the fact both characters were brought back to make a cameo in an episode that featured a parallel timeline is simply too many coincidences. 

Double Dip Casting 

In yet another example of life imitating life, 32 different actors (you read correctly THIRTY TWO) have played featured roles in both Star Trek and The Orville. For those who might deny similarities between both television mythologies, it may be time to see it is more than just a coincidence how similar they can get. 

What’s more amazing, is this includes three main cast members of The Orville. Penny Johnson Jerald had a recurring role as Cassidy on Deep Space Nine for several seasons. The hilarious Lieutenant Malloy (Scott Grimes), known for his uncanny ability to out-talk and out-joke anyone, ironically had his lines cut from a guest appearance on only the third episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Most impressive is that star and creator of The Orville, MacFarlane himself played Ensign Rivers in two different seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. Ok, granted, it was only two episodes in two seasons, but that’s still a great connection, especially when showing how the two universes are inherently linked.  

New episodes of The Orville: New Horizons season 3 are available to stream on Hulu every Thursday. The season finale premieres on Aug. 4.

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