Space, The Final Front-Bore
These are the voyages of the starship Orville. Its meaningless mission: to explore a world that has already been established; to seek out moments that are meant to be humorous (and aren’t); to badly go where science fiction and comedy have probably gone before.
“Hey, there’s a new Seth MacFarlane show on TV that’s basically trying to do a comedy version of Star Trek. Will we give it a shot?”
I don’t want to suggest that The Orville is a bad show; but it’s definitely not a good one. To say it feels like it’s ripping off Star Trek would start the process of Paramount and Gene Roddenberry’s estate suing them for a level of plagiarism that would get you in shit in college.
It being a Seth McFarlane show, I was expecting a full-on piss-take of Star Trek and that level of science fiction, a show that (like most of his shows) would try too hard to deliver aggressive “you can’t say that” jokes, some of which will make you laugh while others just “aren’t for you.” (For reference, I love American Dad, Family Guy has its moments, many of which were a long time ago, and The Cleveland Show never made it to decent TV scheduled times to make it memorable for me.)
Those occasional laughs in MacFarlane shows that make you think of watching again next week? Yeah, they didn’t show up in watching two episodes of The Orville, two hour-long episodes of a show posing as either science-fiction or comedy, and delivering neither.
In terms of sci-fi, there’s nothing wrong with The Orville; it’s not particularly good, but it’s also not particularly bad; MacFarlane plays Ed Mercer, a man who finally gets his first captaincy of the titular ship, the Orville. It’s his first command, so of course Mercer faces some challenges, and is more than happy to drop some cynical and sarcastic comments when dealing with…well, anything. It works in MacFarlane comedy, but it’s a level of comedy that doesn’t work well here: borrowing so much of its settings from Star Trek, The Orville lacks the warmth and wonder of the series in lieu of weed and piss jokes. In terms of sci-fi, the show is trying that bit so hard to mirror Star Trek that it lacks any originality, and instead feels like it belongs in the 80s or 90s, embracing a style of classic 20th century storytelling (that’s a polite way of commenting on scene-transitions, which are distracting and awkward when seen on modern TV.)
The sci-fi on The Orville isn’t too hard: we get treated to a few big words here and there for the purpose of a story, but so far, food replicators (and space-ships) are pretty much all the major technology in two episodes. Some of the central characters of the show are aliens (some more alien than others) but this is probably one element of the show that really isn’t working: like the show itself, these characters are played partly for comedy, partly as legitimate relating, and in between that process, they’re being completely irrelevant.
This is where the show highlights its other, and much bigger, problem: if it’s aiming to be a comedy, its not embracing enough humour; and if it’s trying to be a serious sci-fi show, its throwaway humour is misplaced.
One of my biggest issues with the show is its attempt to use fish-out-of-water humour with reference to the alien characters (usually coming from McFarlane’s character Mercer.) Peter Macon’s character Bortus is a Moclan, an alien race with a single gender (who look and act a bit too much like Klingons for my liking): rather than allowing that to become a subtle development in the show, Captain Mercer takes the character’s introduction as an opportunity to talk about the race’s irregular urination habits. On the flip-side, Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) is the twenty-something head of security who has grown up on a planet that gives her enhanced strength. In comparison to Bortus’ throwaway comedy (which isn’t funny; he’s just an alien), Kitan is treated seriously, and is presumably meant to be the audience surrogate (at least in the second episode). But the show has also paid more attention to MacFarlane’s Mercer to truly allow any other characters on the ship to have a chance to breathe.
Well, except for Mercer’s ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson, played by Adrianne Palicki who becomes second-in-command of the ship. The relationship between the two comes across a little bit too similar to Riker and Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation, were it not for the fact that Grayson and Mercer were previously married and he caught her in bed with another man/alien. The caught-in-the-act opens the show’s first episode, suggesting that their relationship issues will be at the heard of the rest of the show: unfortunately, the show isn’t dramatic enough to suck you into the couple’s relationship, and isn’t brave enough to play the alien sex scene for more humour (come on, you’re showing a human having sex with an alien; you can give us a bit more than a badly delivered premature ejaculation joke. On an alien.)
The show is clearly depending on the relationship between Grayson and Mercer to live at its heart, but I’m unconvinced that MacFarlane comes across as a serious (or likeable) enough character to deliver that. Palicki is likeable, but with her introduction coming in a scene of infidelity, her character is not, and the audience aren’t really given any sense of regret. With the main couple defined as so problematical, the series depends on other characters, or the action, and neither of them are good enough.
Other cast include Scott Grimes as the ship’s pilot (and Mercer’s old friend) whose attitude is problematic. He’s a trouble-maker, but also an amazing pilot (just like Tom Paris in Star Trek: Voyager; the actor Robert Duncan McNeill also directed the second episode.) The problem is, The Orville exists in a world where those skills aren’t overly necessary for any other reason than dialogue. The ship’s doctor is played by Penny Johnson Jerald, very memorable to me as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Kasidy Yates: in this world, there is no way that this casting isn’t intentional, but my own memories of DS9 means she’ll never be another character in my head.
I could make sense of some of these issues if The Orville were a 30 minute show, desperately trying to establish its world, give some plot and introduce its characters within half an hour. Instead, we get a full hour that isn’t quite magically sci-fi enough (for the 21st century), is forgetting to be funny, and failing when it tries; and doesn’t have the heart or soul to properly work. At any other time, the show might actually have worked; in the modern era of TV, we’re instead getting what comes across as a meaningless vanity project with its stoner jokes
Also published on Medium.