Seth MacFarlane’s brilliantly flipped a sci-fi captain trope on its head when creating his sci-fi comedy-drama The Orville. First airing on Fox, The Orville was an affectionate homage to the sci-fi dramas of the 1990s, most notably Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, unlike TNG, MacFarlane’s show was peppered with pop culture references and low-brow jokes. For example, where the crew of the USS Enterprise-D would enjoy opera and classical music recitals, the crew of the Orville enjoyed screenings of Seinfeld episodes.


This presentation of a galaxy class starship as a more relatable workplace marked The Orville out as unique from the shows it regularly riffed on. The personalities and tastes of the human characters meant that many of The Orville‘s sci-fi storylines were underpinned by very human emotions like jealousy or pettiness. Key to this was the character of Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), who was created to flip the traditional presentation of a starship captain.

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Seth MacFarlane Wanted The Orville’s Ed To Be Mediocre

Seth MacFarlane standing on a podium in The Orville

When writing The Orville, MacFarlane decided that he wanted to create a mediocre character, who was nothing like the likes of Captains James T. Kirk (William Shatner) or Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). He felt that the Star Trek captains were almost always infallible paragons of virtue, who would unwaveringly do the right thing. What made Ed Mercer so different was that he was fallible, prone to the same human emotions as the audience. Key to illustrating this was in making Ed’s ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adriane Palicki) his second-in-command, which brought a fresh take on Star Trek‘s Captain and Number One relationships.

This was particularly true in The Orville‘s Charlize Theron episode “Pria”, when Kelly was suspicious of Pria’s intentions toward Ed. In a normal sci-fi show, it would likely be explained that Ed fell for Pria’s scam because of mind control or another sci-fi device. In The Orville, Ed almost dooms everyone because he’s lonely after his divorce from Kelly, and sees her concern as jealousy, rather than the legitimate concern of a senior officer. Through his mediocrity and human fallibility, Ed Mercer provided a fresh perspective that meant that The Orville was never derivative.

The Orville’s Captain Ed Mercer Is Key To The Show’s Success

The Orville season 3 killed off Charly Burke, played by Anne Winters

The focus on interpersonal relationships and human frailty was what made The Orville so interesting. On a surface level, a dejected and divorced starship captain working alongside his ex-wife is the stuff of a corny sitcom. In The Orville, it lent dramatic weight and personal stakes to the stories as The Orville grew darker in tone. The best example of this shift in tone came at the start of season 3 when the Kaylon war led to hostility between the human crew and Kaylon crew member Isaac (Mark Jackson).

As The Orville had spent two seasons building a relatable, fallible, crew it was devastating to see Isaac so badly treated by season 3’s new character Charly Burke. However, as with Ed’s jealousy and loneliness, Charly’s prejudice was rooted in her own grief and trauma. Her heroic sacrifice to save Isaac and the Kaylon at the end of The Orville season 3 was a perfect summation of why Seth MacFarlane’s focus on human mediocrity and fallibility paid off so dramatically.

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