Tackling tough, human topics like gender and identity early in its first season, The Orville quickly proved it was more than a joke.

When The Orville premiered in late 2017, critics went on the attack against what seemed to be little more than a crude parody of Star Trek. With Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane in the leadership chair, it was a legitimate concern for some sci-fi fans. But audiences warmed up to the show, an act of faith that paid off as MacFarlane gradually revealed the true secret of the show’s success. Sometimes funny, The Orville is also a heartfelt homage to the old days of Star Trek. And like its forebear, The Orville began to use its platform to tell classically human stories.

Under the hood of The Orville is a production crew of real quality — many of them with science fiction legacies of their own. Longtime Star Trek producer Brannon Braga was on board from the start, and with him was former Family Guy collaborator David A. Goodman. A hard-core Trekkie with a history of penning loving parodies of his favorite franchise, he and Braga created, alongside MacFarlane, a core of people who would do more than make The Orville a funny ripoff. They understood the heart of what made Star Trek special.

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The first season with a bit of a slow burn, presenting a variety of anthological stories that introduced the Orville’s crew and its setting. But even in its series premiere (directed by Jon Favreau), the ship’s crew dealt smartly with the common science fiction threat of time travel. Though philosophical insights weren’t a major feature in that first hour, the third episode then took a brave approach towards big questions about gender, identity, and galactic politics. It was the point where The Orville revealed it understood what fans loved about Star Trek better than some of the franchise’s own spinoffs.

“About A Girl” was placed early in the season to see if the audience would accept the show’s dual nature of humor and meaningful discussion. The episode opens with Second Officer Bortus and his Moclan mate, Klyden, stunned after the revelation that their child is a girl. The Moclans are a single-sex race — or so their society has been led to believe. The episode’s tale of politics and gender identity and gender erasure isn’t a simple one, nor is the question of the newborn girl’s fate ever made into a joke.

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The episode instead handles the pain of the reality with astonishing grace. Societal change is difficult, it rarely happens quickly, and sometimes what’s right isn’t what happens. And though the series would stick with its established pattern of one-shots and two-episode arcs, the ramifications of this early episode are felt throughout Bortus’ future appearances, sometimes to heartbreaking effect.

Isaac having a night out on The Orville

The second season of The Orville would be emboldened by the success of its more thoughtful moments. While The Orville would stay light, it leaned further into its insightful tone. In addition to committing to a deeper complexity in how it explored relationships, the show began to frequently weave in recurring elements. Isaac, a Kaylon robot, spends the first half of the season as a foil to Dr. Finn’s self-admittedly awkward romantic interest. It becomes an exploration of the humanity Isaac, in contrast to Lt. Cmdr Data, insists he does not have.

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Yet it’s that question of whether there’s any humanity in Isaac’s robotic soul that begins to shape the season’s biggest moments. The “Identity” two-parter reveals the Kaylon’s origins and the secret of Isaac’s purpose on the USS Orville. It’s a grim shift in tone and a deliberate echo of the Borg, but with questions about the culpability of organic life. It pushes Isaac’s story towards something closer to The Terminator, and like Bortus, his arc has no easy answers.

The season finale wrapped by bookending its premiere with a return to the consequences of time travel, this time with higher stakes. Rather than dwell on the science, the two-parter addresses the changes and the maturity — or sometimes, the lack thereof — in the relationship between Captain Mercer and his ex-wife, First Officer Kelly Grayson. It’s an emotionally poignant episode, and if that was to be the series’ swan song, it would have been a good one. Fortunately, the series is due to return in late 2021.

The Orville stars Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Penny Johnson Jerald, Jessica Szohr, J. Lee, and Mark Jackson. Currently available on Hulu, a date for its third season premiere is not yet set.

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