Did The Orville plagiarize a 1970’s sci-fi TV series last night?

I’m becoming more and more intrigued in watching The Orville, Seth McFarlane’s sci-fi comedy-drama homage to Star Trek.  Yeah, I know, people who watch The Orville are frustrated Trekkors who think that the new Star Trek: Discovery is a Trek show that lost its way, and that The Orville is the Galaxy Quest TV series we deserve.

Okay, enough of the meta.

Because last night’s episode of The Orville – entitled “If The Stars Should Appear” seemed to me, rather familiar.

Almost TOO familiar.

To the point where a certain Hollywood sci-fi writer should be contacting his legal team.

In last night’s episode, Captain Ed Mercer (McFarlane) and his away team discover a gigantic spaceship.  They investigate, and discover that the spaceship is actually a bioship, a structure designed to save an entire population by transporting them to a new planet.

See, this week’s plotline of The Orville involves that bioship.  Over time, the inhabitants of the bioship, through generations of life cycles, completely forgot they were on a ship, and thought that they were living on their own planet.  However, the engines on the bioship were damaged, and the ship itself is on a collision course with a star.  And it’s up to the crew of The Orville to find the engines and fix them, and hopefully direct the bioship to a new home – despite residents of the bioship fighting against any notion that they’re on a spaceship of any kind at all.

That’s inspired writing, isn’t it?  It really is.

Because that was the sci-fi TV show Harlan Ellison wrote 40 years ago.

And if you ask me “Who’s Harlan Ellison,” I will hit you with a rock.

Harlan Ellison is one of our greatest living science fiction and fantasy writers.  His short stories are classics like “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and “A Boy and His Dog,” the latter of which became a popular 1975 movie.  He was also the author of the greatest Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever” – you know, the one where Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock go back in time and meet Joan Collins … yes, that episode.

Suffice it to say that Harlan Ellison is a screenwriting genius, with amazing stories written both under his real name and his pen name, Cordwainer Bird.

And it was under the “Cordwainer Bird” pseudonym that he created the 1973 sci-fi TV series The Starlost.

The Starlost‘s plotline is of a giant space ark, carrying the inhabitants of a dying Earth.  Over time, the inhabitants of the bioship, through generations of life cycles, completely forgot they were on a ship, and thought that they were living on their own planet.  However, the engines on the bioship were damaged, and the ship itself is on a collision course with a star.  And it’s up to three members of the ark ship to find the engines and fix them, and hopefully direct the bioship to a new home – despite residents of the bioship fighting against any notion that they’re on a spaceship of any kind at all.

Woah.

The Starlost lasted for half a year – approximately 16 episodes – before it was cancelled.  And unless you’re a hardcore sci-fi fan, you probably never even knew there was such a TV show in existence.

Well, at least until now.

Now granted, I was looking at the credits for The Orville‘s episode last night, wondering if Harlan Ellison had simply rewritten his original series pitch as an Orville episode.  Nope.

Which menas, at some point in time, if Harlan Ellison discovers this episode exists …

There’s going to be a lawsuit.

James Cameron knows this.

See, the credits for Terminator 2: Judgement Day had to be altered to credit Harlan Ellison, in that several themes from the sci-fi classic were too close to two stories Ellison wrote for the 1960’s TV show The Outer Limits, “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.”

Yep, the idea of a time-traveling robot that was built to kill / save those in the past to protect the future… Ellison wrote that 50 years ago for a TV anthology drama.  And he was able to get a screenwriter credit on Terminator 2: Judgment Day because of those similarities.

In other words … Do not piss off Harlan Ellison.  He will sue.  And he will eventually win.

So to the writing team of The Orville – be careful about where you’re pulling your sci-fi episodes.  Because last night’s episode ventured TOO CLOSE to something that was previously crafted.

Or you’ll receive a call from Harlan Ellison’s legal team on line 3.

Just sayin’ is all…

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12 thoughts on “Did The Orville plagiarize a 1970’s sci-fi TV series last night?”

  1. There are only so many damn stories in the world to be told and at some point there will be repetition. Should there be a lawsuit by:
    1. the blood line of Shakespeare every time someone writes a story or movie involving a convoluted love story or a bereaved loved “taking themselves out?” Geez
    2. the blood line of Beethoven every time someone composes an orchestral piece in the key of d minor?
    3. Led Zeppelin every time a rock band composed a bombastic guitar riff that is mirrored by the bass player?
    4. Stephen King every time an evil clown is used in a story line? (Cuz I hate clowns and they do look evil)
    5. I was even live when that 70s syfy show existed and probably neither most of those involved on The Orville..

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    1. 1 Romeo and Juliette was taken from an Italian poem
      2 Beethoven’s favourite composer was Mozart
      3 There are a total of 17 songs that Led Zeppelin that are in dispute. For Dazed and Confused Mr Sloppy Page didn’t even change the arrangement – its the same arrangement that was played on television with the Yardbirds – he only forgot the actual words. Sometimes they are called the world’s greatest cover band.
      4 In the Shining the living haunted house self destructs – ever seen Devil Car ? He called it Christine. Did you watch any prison movie – corrupt warden, innocent banker who starts balancing the book (see Papillion for one example)? He called it Shawsank Redemption.

      Anyway, this was like Led Zeppelin – its way, way too close to the pilot – much more so than the Trek episode. If you watched it you would know that. And MacFarlane – can’t believe he didn’t know how volatile Ellison can be,

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  2. I also noticed the similarity to the Star Trek episode, “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”. A generation ship is on a collision course but the people who live in it have been there so long they’ve forgotten it’s a ship. That was credited to Rik Vollaerts and aired in late 1968.

    Harlan Ellison wrote the pilot for “The Starlost” but left the project. He later published a novelization of his own script (with Edward Bryant) called “Phoenix Without Ashes”. This all happened between 1973 and 1975.

    If anyone can claim to own this premise, it’s not Ellison. It’s either Vollaerts, or possibly Robert Heinlein whose “Orphans of the Sky” (about a generation ship whose inhabitants have forgotten their mission and devolved into a superstitious society) was published in 1941 in “Astounding Science Fiction”.

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  3. Plagiarism or homage?
    Did you gather any facts before you wrote this damning and accusatory piece for your blog?
    Just sayin’ is all…

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  4. GREAT pickup by the author. Bravo.

    “So to the writing team of The Orville – be careful about where you’re pulling your sci-fi episodes. Because last night’s episode ventured TOO CLOSE to something that was previously crafted.”

    McFarlane wrote the episode in question and his history has proven him to be creatively bankrupt and a shameless plagiariser. Funny comment saying it “ventured too close to something that was previously crafted” when the entire show of ‘The Orville” is a shameless, morally bankrupt plagiarising (in the EXTREME) of ‘Star Trek’.

    How is MacFarlane different to the Chinese who shamelessly rip-off manufacturer’s original products? And I bet those who work on ‘The Orville’ show are against download pirating yet here they are pirating, blow by blow, in every design and setup, ‘Star Trek’. The Chinese don’t just say, “That’s a nice handbag, we’ll make our own handbag,” no, they COPY the EXACT same HANDBAG exactly. Which is the MO of MacFarlane.

    It’s a total disgrace. Artists and inventors get ripped off all over the world every day, have to fight for their rights and this charlatan is doing it in broad daylight and getting away with it. Perhaps someone told him once that every successful person simply “borrows” from someone else and MacFarlane has no qualms or moral compass about taking it to the extreme in everything he does. Look at his track record. ‘Family Guy’ a rip-off of ‘The Simpsons’ , a lawsuit about the motion picture ‘TED’… nothing this guy does has a shred of originality. On behalf of artists everywhere I can only wish that CBS and Paramount will sue him and win, teaching the imbeciles who green-lit his plagiarism a lesson. He can move on to trying to get an original idea. Good luck with that. If he had to rely on any originality he would never work again.

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    1. And just to reiterate, we’re not talking about an original “spin” on an existing genre or theme or story beat, we are talking blow by blow shameless ripping off. There’s a difference. Disgraceful.

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  5. Actually this story line is one written by Robert Heinlein earlier on, written In1941. “Universe” the control room and the opening of the cover or shield to reveal the stars was just like the Heinlein version. A good free version of this story is available by quick search on line, a radio play from 11-26-1950, the show “dimension X” the episode “Universe”

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