The Orville: Same great Star Trek taste, but half the calories.
Creator/writer/producer/star Seth MacFarlane’s sci-fi/comedy series “The Orville” took a few episodes to grow on me, I’ll admit. At first, I wasn’t overly fond of some of the clumsily-inserted jokes and one-liners, but over time? Its earnestness, solid stories, diverse characterizations, and good-natured Star Trek style optimism won me over. By the end of the first season (which ended in December of 2017) I was a fan of the exploits of Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and the crew of the Orville, boldly exploring the galaxy on behalf of the Planetary Union.
In the face of so much dystopian science fiction flooding television and streaming services these days (“Westworld,” Black Mirror,” “Colony,” “Handmaid’s Tale” etc), MacFarlane and company went in the opposite direction with a brashly optimistic, anachronistic 1990s-style space opera. Its breezy tone and sense of fun are deeply contagious… even the jokes became more character-based and contextual as the series found its voice. As “Star Trek: Discovery” goes deep and dark, it’s reassuring to have a series that reminds us of how much genuine joy remains in the old exploratory starship format.
The engaging cast found their characters fairly early on. MacFarlane is good enough as Captain Ed Mercer, though at times I wish a more charismatic actor were cast as the captain. That said, I can’t blame MacFarlane (a longtime Trek fan) for wanting the ‘center seat’ for himself. Adrianne Palicki plays Ed’s ex-wife and current first officer “Commander Kelly Grayson” (wonderfully awkward situation, that is…). Kelly cheated on her workaholic husband Ed a year earlier with a libidinous blue alien (Rob Lowe), leading to their acrimonious divorce.
Peter Macon is perfectly deadpan as the formidable, “Worf”-like 2nd officer and new father, “Bortus.” The ‘Moclus’ native Bortus lives on the ship with his husband “Klyden” (Chad L. Coleman). Scott Grimes plays smart-ass navigator “Lt. Gordon Malloy.” Grimes was saddled with most of the worst jokes early on, but created a character in spite of that initial handicap. The same handicap applied to J. Lee’s navigator and eventual chief engineer “Lt. Cmdr. John LeMarr”, who is later revealed to be a closeted genius.
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” veteran Penny Johnson Jerald plays wise ship’s physician “Dr. Claire Finn.” Finn is a single mother of two rambunctious boys, and unofficial ship’s ‘mom’ as well. Mark Johnson is wonderfully snobbish, humorless artificial life-form/android “Isaac” (think Star Trek’s Data with a bit of attitude), and Halston Sage rounds out the cast as waifish yet freakishly-strong alien security chief “Lt. Alara Katan.”
Comedian Norm McDonald also voices recurring character of engineering officer “Yaphit” (possibly named for ALIEN actor, Yaphet Kotto) who is a pile of sentient CGI-green slime. Yaphit also has a mad crush on Dr. Finn.
Solid directors such as Jon Favreau (“Chef” “Iron Man”) and former Star Trek “Number One” Jonathan Frakes (“Star Trek: First Contact”, “Thunderbirds”) have worked on the show, which also featured some unexpectedly high-end celebrity cameos and guest roles, like Liam Neeson and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron.
My personal favorites of “The Orville” Season One.
Of the 12 episodes in season one (all of which have varying degrees of merit), these four were personal favorites:
— “About a Girl.”
This is the episode where same-sex male alien couple Bortus and Klyden have a baby girl… which is a problem for a species that considers rare female births to be a ‘birth defect.’ Bortus wants to let his baby girl live as a female, but his husband Klyden wants her to undergo an immediate gender reversal, as was done when he was born. This third episode was when the series began to show it could tackle genuinely thought-provoking, adult material while maintaining its quirky sense of humor. “About a Girl” also has the courage to avoid cliche audience expectations in its ending as well. Brave on multiple fronts.
— “Majority Rule.”
Another highly topical episode takes on a subject that should’ve been ripe for the new Star Trek series; the real dangers of a pure democracy entirely predicated on the whims of social media. An Orville landing team arrives on a 21st century Earth parallel planet to find two missing scientists. During their investigation, they notice everyone is wearing green and red arrowed ‘like/dislike’ badges.
When LaMarr (in an impossibly stupid move) performs a simulated sex act on a beloved statue, he is ‘voted down’ by the entire population and forced to try and get enough ‘likes’ to avoid lobotomization. Timely, barely-veiled but smartly-done social satire…the kind that Star Trek used to do so well (and should be doing today).
Dark but worthwhile episode centered on the character of Alana Katan, the ship’s young and somewhat insecure security chief, who is unknowingly trapped inside of a sadistic holographic simulator program where she is forced to confront her personal demons and insecurities. The admittedly weak premise makes for a surprisingly strong ‘bottle show’ (taking place more or less entirely on the ship).
— “Mad Idolatry.”
In an episode that, at first, seems very derivative of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Who Watches the Watchers”, “Mad Idolatry” begins with Commander Kelly Grayson healing a little girl on a primitive planet who was nearly killed when startled by Grayson’s sudden appearance. The planet’s orbit makes it routinely disappear into a dimension of faster-moving time. When it reappears relative to the Orville, many centuries have passed on the surface, and the entire population now worships “the Kelly” as a healing god to whom they make blood sacrifices.
Unlike Star Trek, which would see Picard successfully reversing such a situation, the Orville crew is unable to change the planet’s status quo. It has to play out over thousands of years, which includes fanaticism, persecutions, holy wars, etc. Despite this bluntly honest parallel of our own world’s religious tumult, the episode ends on a surprisingly upbeat ‘it’s going to be okay’ note.
The long-awaited hard media release of “The Orville” lays an egg.
Given my affection for this show (and for physical media), I was really looking forward to seeing it on blu-ray in uncompressed 1080p resolution, but sadly the series’ first season is (for now, at least) only getting a DVD physical media release. This was genuinely surprising given the beautiful production values of the show, which uses lovingly detailed, motion-control miniatures for some of its spaceship shots (a rarity in sci-fi television today), as well as feature-film quality makeups (led by Howard Berger’s KNB FX group). But given the choice of a DVD release or nothing, I bought the DVD set.
The good news is that the episodes look as well as could be hoped for, given the limitations of DVD. The cinematography (overseen by former Star Trek director-of-photography Marvin Rush) looks clean, though a bit lacking in overall crispness (even on my relatively small 43” Toshiba HDTV). It’s good enough, but what’s frustrating is that it could’ve looked fantastic on uncompressed HD blu ray.
The not-so-special special features.
The bad news is that after a year-long wait, the bonus features in total clock in at under one hour. We don’t even get episode commentaries, which is very disappointing, given that we waited a year for the series to come to video. Of these somewhat paltry bonus features, the best would be the Paley Center for Media Q&A, with the entire cast and many of the production team. The Q&A is just under a half-hour in length. Most of the bonus features were featured in commercial breaks during the series’ run on Fox, and many include sound-bites that were seen in other segments.
This is the menu of the remaining bonus features of the DVD set:
— Inside Look (a brief featurette).
— Directed by (a segment profiling director Jon Favreau, directing the pilot “Old Wounds”).
–– The First Six Missions (brief synopses of the first six episodes).
— Designing the Future (a look inside the show’s production design).
— The Orville Takes Flight (discussing the FX of the series).
— The Science of the Orville: Quantum Drive and Alien Life.
— Crafting Aliens (detailing the makeup work of Howard Berger and crew at KNB FX).
— A Better Tomorrow (which talks briefly about the show’s optimistic vision of the future).
My own personal mission on “The Orville.”
Last January, I had the opportunity to attend the IMATS makeup trade-show in Pasadena, California, where there was a panel for “The Orville”’s talented makeup team, including Howard Berger and his KNB staff.
Also on hand was actor Peter Macon, who plays Bortus. I had the chance to meet Macon (yes, his voice is that deep) and the talented makeup crew.
You can read about my IMATS experience in full here:
Season two of “The Orville” returns to Fox Network on Sunday, December 30th, 2018.