Seth McFarlane’s sci-fi series “The Orville” got off to a rocky start. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it based on the pilot “Old Wounds.” Now, the show is (at the time of this blog) about two episodes from the end of the first season, and its leveled off into a somewhat smoother flight.
“Orville” is very 1990s, optimist-future chic (plush carpeted spaceships, snappy uniforms, bright lighting, etc). And in the post-“Walking Dead” dystopian deluge, a series showing that kind of sunny future is almost like a hug from an old friend. “Orville” isn’t a great science fiction series yet, but there have been a few episodes so far that could take the Pepsi challenge with a few of the better episodes of its more successful cousin Star Trek (which is in the middle of its own personality makeover with “Discovery”; see my earlier blog entries on each episode of that series).
Unfortunately, there are a few elements of Orville that aren’t quite working. Some of the humor is truly dreadful; many of the so-called jokes make me literally wince with embarrassment. The gags feel like they’re attached on at the end of a final draft script with a handwritten post-it note saying “Insert these wherever you can, so we don’t get sued by the Star Trek people at CBS.”
Whatever the reason for the godawful gags (anti-Star Trek legal reasons, or to appeal to Seth McFarlane’s comedy base of fans), they’re hurting the show far more than they’re helping it. More on those later…
The real strengths of the show are twofold; its characters (surprise, surprise; based on the pilot “Old Wounds”, I thought that would be a detriment), and the stories. Some of the stories feel exactly like the sort that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” would be doing today if the show were in a 30th season. Part of that may be the not-so subtle Star Trek influences behind the camera. One of the executive producers (and sometimes director) is Brannon Braga; who wrote for ST:TNG and ST: Voyager and co-created ST: ENT. He also cowrote two of the TNG movies (the under appreciated “Generations” and “First Contact”). I met Braga in Vegas last summer at a Star Trek convention and he seemed like a very nice man. At the time, I only heard rumors about “The Orville” (its debut was a month away at that time).
Other ST-to-Orville influences are directors Jonathan Frakes (“Will Riker” on TNG, director of multiple Star Trek episodes/movies), Robert Duncan McNeill (“Tom Paris” on Voyager; director of both Voyager & “Chuck”) and James Conway, who directed episodes in all the Star Trek spinoff series.
Producer/writer/star Seth McFarlane is clearly having a blast as Capt. Ed Mercer. As a longtime Trek fan, it’s clear that this show is his loving homage to the TNG TV series he grew up with. Though I wish he’d had the objectivity to cast an actor with stronger acting chops to captain this series. McFarlane is okay, but the best Treks have always had really strong captains, and make no mistake, “Orville” is Star Trek in all-but-name. One could only imagine this series with “Discovery”’s Jason Isaacs in the lead…
But for now, I’d like to spotlight three of my favorite episodes of “The Orville” so far:
******** SPATIAL ANOMALY-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! READER BEWARE! ********
* “About a Girl.”
Married aliens Bortus (Peter Macon, who has the best deadpan delivery since Trek’s Michael Dorn) and his same-sex husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman) hatch an egg together and it’s a girl. A girl to a species that prides itself on being a ‘male-only’ race. As is done with most female birth ‘anomalies’ that take place on their world, Klyden wants to have the baby’s sex changed to male, while his husband Bortus wants to leave the child female, knowing that she may face life as an outcast in their culture. They return to their home planet to have a tribunal decide their child’s outcome. Orville executive officer Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) acts as Bortus’ defense counsel. Grayson brings a surprise witness; a great female poet of the planet (assumed to be male), who now lives as an outcast. Despite her strong testimony, and in a very un-Star Trek outcome, the baby’s sex is ultimately changed to male. A controversial choice, as were many of better ambiguous (or even tragic) endings throughout Star Trek. Despite nagging questions such as ‘how can a species without females reproduce biologically, yada, yada…’ this remains my single favorite episode of the series’ first year thus far. A brave if brutal outcome, with no copouts or concessions to audience sympathies.
* “Majority Rule.”
The perfect episode for our 21st century’s current obsession with Twitter and FaceBook. Navigator Lt. LeMarr (J. Lee) joins an away mission to find missing scientists lost on a planet approximating 21st century North America in look and technology. While there, LeMarr (very stupidly) commits an unwitting cultural taboo by dry-humping a statue of a revered figure (I sincerely wish I were making up that last sentence…). Lt. LeMarr, and the rest of the landing party, soon learn that the planet approximates 21st century Earth with one critical difference; all citizens use “Like” and “Dislike” transmitter buttons worn on everyone’s clothing to practice a kind of terrifying ‘hive’ democracy. If one accrues enough “Dislikes”? They can be forced to undergo a type of lobotomizing procedure to remove any further ‘negative’ impulses. In lieu of a trial, the accused (or ‘disliked’) can opt to go on an ‘apology tour’ (one of the unique aspects of our current ‘trial by media’ culture that this episode thoroughly explores). Naturally, the Gilligan-stupid LeMarr screws that up as well. While the circumstances leading to LeMarr’s arrest and his banal attempts at apologizing are painful to watch? There is some solid science fiction allegory at work here. As I said before, this is the kind of Star Trek story that we should be seeing on Discovery and not its upstart rival.
The only bitter pills to swallow are watching as a grown man humps an alien statue (especially as he was given explicit orders to remain inconspicuous), and the embarrassing apology tour segments. Honestly, LeMarr comes off so stupid here that I kind of wish he’d received that much-needed lobotomy.
* “Cupid’s Dagger.”
While attempting to mediate a delicate treaty between two hostile neighboring planets, the crew fall under the pheromone-induced love spell of a blue-skinned, visiting alien archeologist named “Darulio” (Rob Lowe, in a great guest role), who is also the alien responsible for the end of first officer Kelly Grayson’s marriage to Captain Ed Mercer (Seth McFarlane), from the pilot episode. In a nice twist that Trek never had the courage to do until only recently, Captain Mercer falls for Darulio as well; as he too, is under the alien’s powerful pheromonal influence (which is transmitted by physical contact). In the end, Darulio is revealed as neither villain nor predator; just a hapless being, driven by his own involuntary sexual heat. Darulio even resolves the rival aliens’ feud by spreading his powerful pheromonal influence to them as well.
While this episode seems, at first, to be a tired retread of original Star Trek’s “Naked Time” and TNG’s “Naked Now”, it’s nice to have an episode where the humor (for once!) seems both germane to the story, and fitting for the characters. The only clunker is ship’s doctor, Claire Finn (DS9 veteran Penny Johnson Jerald) falling for the ship’s obnoxious pile of goo named Yaphit (voiced by Norm McDonald, with a too-human attitude).
And a runner-up would be the recent episode “Firestorm,” which sees the waifish-yet-freakishly-strong alien security chief, Alara (Halston Sage, whose stock is truly rising on this series), feeling intense survivor’s guilt over her perceived failure to save a dying crewman due to her own fears. To remedy the situation she locks herself into a holodeck (generically referred to as ‘simulators’ in “Orville”) to face her greatest fears. She also asks Dr. Finn inject her with a short-term amnesia drug to forget she’s in a simulation, thus upping the stakes in her mind. In some ways, this is a better remake of TNG’s insipid “Night Terrors” episode from that series’ 4th season, but with the added holodeck twist. Nice support from the simulation’s ‘evil’ version of Dr. Finn (Jerald again, relishing her chance to go bad), as well as an evil version of android science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson). Also loved the phone call home to Alara’s parents (dad is played by Voyager’s resident hologram Doctor, Robert Picardo). Best line, “Humans…the hillbillies of the galaxy.”
Not the most original episode, but very well-done.
That said? There are still a few hard bumps in the Orville’s admittedly smoother flight:
* Scott Grimes’ “Lt. Gordon Malloy.”
Up until he was recently usurped by idiotic navigator LeMarr in “Majority Rule”, Malloy was secure in his position as the ship’s resident dope. Always getting the dumb, anachronistic lines of dialogue (why are ALL of Malloy’s references to 20th/21st century American pop culture?) and played with all of the wit and charm of a bored parking lot attendant. Recently, an episode had the ship fly into a dangerous nebula, and Malloy announced with a painful lack of comedic timing, “Looks like a screensaver.” Aside from being a shitty piece of dialogue, it died in the delivery as well.
Lose this character…. please.
* Lt. LeMarr
See: “Majority Rule” review above.
Make it a two-fer; lose both LeMarr and Malloy on one doomed shuttlecraft. Problems solved.
* The show doesn’t need the high profile guest roles.
A recent episode had a guest-star turn from Oscar winner Charlize Theron as a time-traveling con artist in “Pria.” Theron was certainly good in the role, but it felt a bit like using a cannon where a water pistol would’ve sufficed. Another episode (“If the Stars Should Appear”) had the crew on a giant world-ship whose fundamentalist citizens had long forgotten they were on a ship. The ending had a cameo log entry by no less than Liam Neeson, who basically did the ‘dead captain’s log’ cliche we’d seen a dozen times in Star Trek. I’ve nothing against using high-end talent if said talent is both available and necessary, but in “Orville”’s case, the extra star power is downright distracting. Why not save the space credits and offer these roles to talented up-and-comers? Just saying…
* Go full science fiction and lose the dumb jokes.
I wish I could say that Malloy & LeMarr were the only characters guilty of the writers’ horrible jokes and flat one-liners, but sadly, they’re not. All of the characters let one or two of them slip every now and then, like verbal farts; and about as welcome. As “Cupid’s Dagger” proved, the show can be humorous within the context of its situations and characters without the need to ‘yuk it up’ with artificial laughs.
* Change the personality/character of Yaphit (Norm MacDonald).
There is also the gelatinous blob character named Yaphit (MacDonald) who could be a very interesting character if he were freed from the need to be so ‘21st century human’ all of the time. We see him spout human cliches. We see him fall in love with Dr. Finn. For chrissakes, he’s a gelatinous being; what would that be like, having no solid form? With the state of television CGI today you could explore life in that state in ways that “Deep Space Nine”’s shapeshifter Odo never could. But as played by MacDonald (a comedian whose standup routines I actually enjoy, by the way), Yaphit is nothing but a slimy pile of missed opportunities…
My vociferous complaints aside, “The Orville” has toned down some of the obnoxiousness of late, and was recently granted a second season. This is good news, and I hope that the series addresses some of its nagging first season issues before it continues into its second year.
If I seem harder on “The Orville” than I should, it’s because I’m an ardent, old-school science fiction fan and I love having options for science fiction television, especially good old space opera shows (which, till very recently, were in a long drought). It’s great living in a time where we have choices again; there is “The Orville”, “Star Trek Discovery” (another very promising series that is not without issues) and, until recently, there was the amazing online fan-series “Star Trek Continues”; which was easily the best of the three, IMO. We also have the sharper-edged, dystopian space opera, “The Expanse,” which is not easy to love, but rewarding in its own way.
There is also, of course, that lovable 2,000 year old Time Lord from Gallifrey, returning this Christmas for the “Doctor Who” Christmas special, and regenerating into a female form (Jodie Whittaker) for next year’s run. 54 years young and still going strong!
In other non-space opera genre offerings, we have “Westworld” and “Humans”; two terrific (if very different) shows dealing with emergent artificial intelligence. For me, they’re apples and oranges, with “Westworld” taking a more esoteric approach, while “Humans” is much more meat-and-potatoes and arguably more satisfying in the short-term. Personally, I’m just glad to have both. How cool is that?
With a few tweaks to “Orville” and “Discovery,” we could be facing a new golden age of science fiction television, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the embarrassment of riches in the 1990s.
It feels like the pop culture zeitgeist is rapidly moving away from dystopian fatalism these days; former darlings like “The Walking Dead” are losing their appeal. As we move into darker and more uncertain political times, the ratings for that show have plummeted. It’s times like these that we really need science fiction entertainment to act a light in the darkness, much as the original Star Trek did during the height of the Vietnam war and civil uprisings at home.
That is why I would love to see “The Orville” continue to make a few more course corrections as it goes into a second season. I can see this budding, would-be Star Trek parody become something far greater and challenging than originally envisioned. There is so much potential with this show.