The Orville – A Season One Review
By Chris M. Barkley
The Orville (Twelve Episodes, Rating **1/2 out of four stars) created by Seth MacFarlane with MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes, Peter Macon, Halston Sage, J Lee, Mark Jackson and Chad L. Coleman. Executive Producers: Seth MacFarlane, Brannon Braga, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark.
Fifty-one years ago, I was ten years old and having my mind blown by watching Star Trek. Six years later, I was reading Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Madeline L’Engle, Harlan Ellison and getting acquainted with the authors of the two volumes of The Hugo Winners. Three years after that, I attended my first sf convention.
Throughout my life in and out of fandom, Star Trek has remained one of my cultural lodestones. But as I got older, I often wondered if it would remain relevant or if there were new avenues that the basic premise could explore.
In the early 1980’s, I had the rare privilege of chatting with the late Gordon R. Dickson and had an extended conversation about Star Trek in particular. When I asked him about the possibility of writing a novel for Pocket Books, who were producing a number of paperback books in the wake of the success of The Wrath of Khan, Dickson demurred.
“The universe they created is so big and wide,” he said, “but all they’re interested in are stories about Kirk, Spock and McCoy. And I’m not interested in that.”
The point was well taken. Gene Roddenberry, the cast and the universe that had been created, were slowly becoming cemented into the culture as the ONLY acceptable version of Star Trek people were interested in supporting.
But when Roddenberry was presented with the opportunity of trying to re-create that sort of lightning in a bottle in 1986, he could not resist. Thus, he and a dedicated group of creators and launched The Next Generation, which, defying all odds, ran for seven years in syndication and to this very day in various outlets across the communication spectrum. Many other sf based television shows and movies have followed in its wake but only a few (The X-Files, Doctor Who or Lost, for example) can even attempt to approach its cultural and historical significance.
Actor/Writer/Producer Seth MacFarland is not only a fan of Star Trek, but of sf in general, as he repeatedly demonstrates in his new tv series, The Orville. He wanted to re-launch Star Trek as a series as far back as October 2011, when he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I don’t know who would give me the keys to that car. But I’d love to see that franchise revived for television in the way that it was in the 1990s: very thoughtful, smartly written stories that transcend the science fiction audience.”
When he was asked directly during a 2017 summer press tour if The Orville was a parody of Star Trek, MacFarlane said not really. “For me, it’s a space that’s kind of waiting to be filled in this day and age when we’re getting a lot of dystopian science fiction,” he said. “This is sort of an attempt to fill that void in that genre.”
When Fox announced it had greenlit a 13-episode order for The Orville in May 2016, I did a mental eyeroll. While I was well aware of his somewhat caustic and crude sense of humor (Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show) I had NO IDEA how much of a diehard sf fan at heart.
I had very low expectations when my partner Juli and I decided to watch the pilot. In fact, our first experience with The Orville started out very ominously. The day after The Orville premiered on Fox, we sat down to stream the pilot episode. And, quite frankly, we both were feeling quite underwhelmed by what we were seeing.
Approximately 400 years in the future, Ed Mercer, a starship officer of “The Union”, a spacefaring federation (heh!) has just gotten off duty to come home and find his wife and fellow officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) committing adultery with an alien. A year later, Ed and Kelly are divorced but find themselves thrown together on a newly commissioned Union ship, The Orville.
As much as Mercer dislikes Grayson being assigned to the Orville, he’s stuck with her, at least for the time being. Their bickering and bitterly sarcastic jokes about it take up a great deal of the first half of the show, like a very bad, bizarro version of The Honeymooners.
Fortunately, the crew picks up a priority distress signal from a Union research station. Once there, they discover that the scientists there have developed a process that ages matter. They want the crew to take custody of it before the Krill, the Union’s ruthless counterparts, arrive and seize it for themselves…
And suddenly, literally midway through, the streaming of the pilot (and ONLY the pilot, we learned) abruptly cut out and could not be restored.
After trying several times, I looked at Juli and said, “Maybe this is an omen.” And with that, we both decided to give the show a complete pass.
Over the following weeks, a curious thing happened; I saw a few posts online and on social media either expounding on the virtues of The Orville. To be sure, there were some withering commentary as well but I became intrigued by the good notices. Finally, after a rave from sf author (and Star Trek enthusiast) Robert J. Sawyer renewed my interest in giving it a second chance.
I also did a little research before I binged the twelve aired episodes. (A thirteenth episode was held back due to a scheduling conflict and will serve as the second season premiere later this year).
In an effort to make The Orville as authentic as possible, MacFarlane surrounded himself with a virtual Murderer’s Row of veterans of with previous sf series; producer and director Brannon Braga (The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise and FlashForward), David A. Goodman (Futurama, Enterprise), director Tucker Gates (Angel, Alias, Lost and Carnivale), actor-director Robert Duncan McNeill (Voyager and Chuck) writer-producer Andre Bormanis (Star Trek, Threshold and Cosmos) and actor-director Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Roswell). In addition to Adrianne Palicki’s genre chops (Smallville, Supernatural, S.H.I.E.L.D. and John Wick), he added Penny Johnson Gerald, who was a regular on Castle for several years and had a pivotal recurring role on Deep Space Nine.
Some of the characters MacFarlane created for The Orville mirror some of the archetypes from other Star Trek series; the somewhat brusque Doctor Finn (a blend of Doctors Crusher and Pulaski), Peter Macon’s second officer, Lieutenant Commander Bortus (Worf), Halston Sage as the super strong security chief Kitan (Tasha Yar), J Lee’s John LaMarr (Geordi LaForge) and Mark Jackson’s android Isaac (Data, which I highly suspect is a nod to Isaac Asimov). Character actor Scott Grimes plays the amiable helmsman Gordon Malloy, who is not based on anyone in the Star Trek canon but fills the rather thankless role of a humorous foil for the crew.
I began by re-watching the pilot, “Old Wounds” from the beginning. (Juli decided not to participate.) On the whole it was a slow-moving affair with a lot of McFarlane’s trademarked crude humor being somewhat forced into the storyline. The pilot, directed by film vet Jon Favreau and written by McFarlane, was uneven at best but in the end, was somewhat redeemed by a rather funny and unorthodox solution for eliminating the Krill threat that involved a glue gun and the seed of a redwood tree. I actually laughed out loud when it was executed, which gave me some hope that the other episodes were better than the pilot.
As I proceeded I found that by varying degrees, the quality of some the stories improved, but the overall quality was somewhat uneven:
1) Mad Idolatry (Episode 12), ***1/2
2) Into The Fold (Episode 8) ***
3) Cupid’s Dagger(Episode 9) ***
4) Pria (Episode 5) ***
5) If the Stars Should Appear (Episode 4) **1/2
6) Krill (Episode 6) **1/2
7) Firestorm (Episode 10) **1/2
8) About A Girl (Episode 4) **1/2
9) New Dimensions (Episode 11) **
10) Majority Rules (Episode 7) **
11) Command Performance (Episode 2) **
12) Old Wounds (Pilot Episode) *1/2
Some basic sf concepts are sprinkled throughout these episodes and for the most part they are well handled. “If the Stars Should Appear” realistically features a generation ship with all of the requisite problems that would have made Robert Heinlein himself smile. “Majority Rules” and “About A Girl” are about cultural assimilation and are a bit uncommon because they do not cop-out with a quick denouement or easy answers. We learn more about the Union’s main adversary, the Krill, in the episode of that title, and in the process explore the double-edged consequences of espionage.
While J Lee’s character, Navigator Lieutenant John LaMarr is in the spotlight in “Majority Rules” and “New Dimensions”, I found his character’s development somewhat dissatisfying; he’s portrayed a bit of an idiot in one instance the former episode and is outed as a closet genius and is subsequently promoted to be the ship’s chief engineer in the latter. While I welcome these changes, it’s done in a way in which seems a bit disingenuous at best.
“Into The Fold”, “Cupid’s Dagger” and “Pria” are clever and engaging character studies. Doctor Finn and android Isaac (Mark Jackson) particularly shine in their side adventure “Fold”, while Mercer and Grayson’s past and present relationship is explored a bit further in these two episodes. (I must say that “Pria”, whose presence was graced by Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, could have been a better outing if the focus had been on Grayson’s character rather than Mercer.)
The season’s highlight of the season was the last episode, “Mad Idolatry”, which, I say surprisingly, I am contemplating putting on my shortlist for Beat Dramatic Presentation-Short Form. When Grayson helps heal a little girl’s injury while on an away mission on an uncharted planet, her small charitable action sets off a series of events that finds her being beatified by the inhabitants. When she, Mercer and the crew try to rectify matters, they only make matters much, much worse. Amazingly, 95% of the action is dramatic and the atonal humor is kept to a minimum.
I must admit that the production design and special effects are well done and deliberately invoke the feeling of watching The Next Generation. The only two things that I definitely dislike are the design of the Orville (that business with the three quantum drive rings is not very well designed or pleasing to the eye, in my opinion) and the uniforms (which ape The Next Generation’s a little too closely).
This past November, Fox announced that The Orville has been renewed for a second season. There is some possibility that MacFarlane, the creator and producer of several long running shows, might have another gem on his hands. I have a feeling that like Galaxy Quest, it may gain a toehold in the hearts of fandom and social media, which can only help things along.
It will be interesting in seeing how he and his cadre of actors, writers and producers, refine and adjust The Orville as they continue through the season two and beyond. And, for now, so will I.