Some decades ago, an an excitable young teen, I purchased what these days we would consider to be a pulp magazine from my local newsagents. It turned out to be a religious publication aiming to proselytise young people, but what attracted me was the cover photograph from a TV sci fi series and the headline asking whether sci fi would be the religion of the coming decade.
No, I thought to myself in answer to the question, sci fi was based upon science and was secular – such consolation and reassurance coming from the contemporaneously messianic prophetic figure connected to Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry, also known as The Great Bird of the Galaxy). Any irony in my mindset was later discerned after intervening decades matured my life perspective.
But it cannot be denied that sci fi taps into a very powerful impulse that also empowers religion: seeking hope and consolation from awe, wonder, and pondering our individual/collective place in the Universe. (In my own case, I lost my reverence for religion in my twenties when I realised that while sci fi looks ahead, religion too often looks backward and seeks to perpetuate archaic attitudes and moralities that humanity strives to outgrow. I like to think, however, that science and sci fi enabled me to retain my sense of awe and wonder, and my questioning impulse).
It is this same sense of veneration of our cosmos and our material, humanist potential that was captured in the recent return of the Cosmos TV series (produced in part due to the hard work of Seth MacFarlane) and then extended into his more recent sci fi series, The Orville, which recently telecast season 3 after a COVID-induced hiatus.
The wait for Season 3 was worth it.
Whereas its first two seasons struggled to balance sci fi aspirations with low-brow populist college undergraduate humour, Season Three has matured into a series beyond its inspirational sources (the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV programs) and even occasionally outstripping them with nobility and marvel.
The longer production time for Season 3, along with presumably a bigger budget, have enabled the series to expand into a noble and creative masterpiece within which each episode rivals the length and cinematography of a TV movie. Forget college undergraduate humour; this is a serious and philosophical sci fi production.
The opening episode of Season 3 takes an excursion into our modern world: our fear of developing technology and emergent sentientism, wherein the character of Isaac is bullied to the point of desparation. While this touches upon a prejudice first explored by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry who created a robot in his Questor Tapes TV pilot (he is credited as quoting the anti-robotic attitude of studio executives: “Yes, but would you want your sister to marry one?”) but it also provides arguably the weakest premise of the season, where prejudice and bullying are tolerated aboard the starship Orville with barely more than a metaphoric shrug and slap on the wrist. This opening episode also introduces the character of Charly, who is readily established as a nuanced but unlikeable character who must make her own journey through the season in order to find redemption.
Subsequent episodes explore strange new worlds both without and within. The Orville’s characters undertake journeys through metaphor and social issues that are as relevant as today’s news headlines: same sex marriage, LGBT rights, racism and prejudice, anti trans* bigotry and its ties with misogyny, war, hate and forgiveness, the morality of withholding life saving technology from deprived people, and definitions and clarifications of family. Go back and watch the first two seasons as an introduction to this optimistic season, which, retitled as The Orville: New Horizons, definitely takes us from familiar territory into new explorations of the human adventure.
The final episode (episode 10) brings Season 3 full circle, showing how race, culture and species can grow together into a form of family. This conclusion should be enough to bring human audiences (and a collective army of ten billion robots) to their feet in applause. In maturing into a serious series, the Orville points the way ahead with hope and optimism for our humanist and sentientist future. A new, better species traverses the heavens where once only trod the gods. All that and human too.
Hey Hulu, please bring on Season 4!
©2022 Geoff Allshorn