The Orville, on FOX, Thursdays 9pm
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Before I even start talking about this show, I must first talk about its creator and star, Seth MacFarlane. As writer-director-producer-actor-singer/all-around-public-personalities go, he's someone I've always had rather a hard time getting a bead on, or forming any sort of cohesive opinion about. Partly this has to do with my perspective of him as an artist, and partly as just... himself. He seems in some ways to be mostly liberal, but he can also be quite problematic at times. And while his shows can be clever and genuinely funny and often include some relatively highbrow influences, a great deal of the time they can be incredibly juvenile, crude, or downright offensive (whether towards entire groups or individual people). I have enjoyed some of his work well enough to watch it for years (before finally giving up on it), and I have disliked some things enough to give up on them almost immediately. But, whatever. I also know he's a fan of science fiction (such as the Star Trek franchise, which "The Orville" tries very hard to emulate, in some ways... maybe even more ways than you might think). So, with some trepidation, I gave the show a chance. And I ended up liking it slightly more than I expected to. (Or maybe more than slightly, considering my expectations weren't all that high.) I think that, much like MacFarlane himself, this is a show you're either going to hate or love. Or, you know, fall somewhere in between, like me.
Also like MacFarlane, it's hard to pin down the precise nature of "The Orville." MacFarlane wants it to be seen more as a serious science fiction show than as a comedy, but it's pretty much impossible not to see it as a hybrid. (And I'm sure a lot of viewers will see it more as a comedy than as a drama.) The series begins in 2418, with a brief scene of Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) catching his wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), cheating on him with an alien named Darulio. The show then skips forward one year, to 2419. Because of his self-destructive behavior ever since divorcing Kelly, Ed's career as an officer in the starfleet of the Planetary Union has been suffering. Once a highly promising officer who was expected to be captaining a starship by now, at this point he's lucky to still have a job at all. However, Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) gives him one last chance: Ed is offered the captaincy of a mid-level exploratory ship called the U.S.S. Orville. (I want to say, the ship's design reminds me more like something from Andromeda than any Trek series.) The newly-promoted Captain Mercer makes just one request: that he get to select his ship's helmsman. That would be Lt. Gordon Malloy, Ed's best friend, whose own career hasn't been doing so well. He's an excellent pilot, but far from professional. Admiral Halsey reluctantly agrees.
Upon boarding the Orville, Ed and Malloy meet the rest of the officers (or most of them; it'll be a little while before they meet the first officer). The ship's second officer is Lt. Commander Bortus, a member of the Moclan race, who are entirely male (and rather warlike; the Moclans seem like this show's stand-ins for Trek's Klingons, though they are members of the Union). Aside from being second officer, I'm not sure what Bortus's duty actually is, but I can say that he's married to a civilian Moclan named Klyden, who lives with him on the Orville. The chief medical officer is Lt. Commander/Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), who seems to me to be the most level-headed, serious person on the show. The chief of security is Lt. Alara Kitan, a member of the Xelayan race. Their world has heavy gravity compared to Earth (and presumably most planets that will be encountered on the show), so in gravity settings that humans and most other aliens are used to, Alara, like any member of her race, has enhanced physical strength. She's young and inexperienced, but since Xelayans so rarely join the military, her career has been fast-tracked. Then there's Lt. John LaMarr, who I guess is the navigator and/or tactical officer. His position on the bridge is right next to Malloy, and luckily, they seem to have compatible personalities, so they get along pretty well. (I'd say their friendship is kind of a cross between Chekov and Sulu, and Bill & Ted.) The science officer is Isaac, a member of a robotic race called Kaylons. They consider all biological life-forms inferior, and Isaac considers his job as an opportunity to study humans. (He seems like a stand-in for Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, except for looking more robotic and essentially being racist against... well, pretty much any non-Kaylons. Although he doesn't generally act racist, that's just something we're told about him and his race. Still, it's an interesting counterpoint to Data's desire to be more human. And at times, Isaac's desire to learn about humans can lead to similar- if more juvenile- humor to Data's own confusion about us.) Finally, it's revealed that the only first officer available for assignment to the Orville is Kelly, Ed's ex-wife. So that provides some tension in the show's plots, but on the whole, the two of them handle working together pretty well. (Ed occasionally makes gibes about her infidelity, and she seems sorry about what she did, but they make a good team.) There are also some relatively minor characters, including a gelatinous crew member (which I presume to be CGI) named Yaphit (voiced by Norm MacDonald). He often makes unwanted advances toward Dr. Finn. And the chief engineer is Steve Newton, but he's fairly unimportant to any of the stories.
So anyway... each week, the crew will have adventures in space, just like on any Star Trek series. Also like Trek, the stories will be used to make allegorical social commentary about the issues of our own world (and our own time). But most of the time, the atmosphere of the show is much more relaxed than that of more serious science fiction shows. This allows for more humor, even when on duty. And because this is a Seth MacFarlane show, that means the humor will often be somewhat crude, which I'm sure is a major turn-off for a lot of viewers, and a large part of what makes them choose not to watch the show. For others, it may be one of the things they like best about the show. Again, as for myself, I fall in the middle. I'm generally not a fan of crude humor, so that is something I could do without. But believe me, there are are much cruder shows and movies out there than this, so I don't really find it to be an unbearable level. And as I've said about MacFarlane's other works, there can be a mix of different types of humor, from lowbrow to highbrow, and anywhere in between. And that broad range goes not just for the humor, but for the intelligence of the writing and stories in general. And... other than that, I feel like I have to mention that every Trek series has had its share of humor, and casual camaraderie among the crew(s). That element is just somewhat heightened on this show. And while it may be impossible for some people to look past that to take the actual stories seriously, a lot of people can look past it, or even enjoy the show precisely because of the mix of comedy and drama. Of course, there are any number of other reasons some people won't like the show. They might find the writing too weak or the characters too flat or the stories too familiar. (I've also seen some people say the characters' slang and pop culture references are too much like that of the 20th and 21st centuries, which I find ridiculous, when you consider that even formal language itself tends to evolve more in 400 years than we've seen any sci-fi show depict. If you really wanted the writers to make it accurate, everything the characters say should be nearly incomprehensible to a 21st century viewer.) Anyway, I think it's important to remember that it's kind of rare for any shows to reach their full potential right out of the gate (or right out of spacedock). I don't believe that this show will ever be as great or even as good as most Trek series (maybe Enterprise, at best). But I found the first few episodes enjoyable enough, and the show grew on me as the season progressed. I find some of the jokes amusing, the stories interesting enough, the attempts at allegory commendable (even if it doesn't necessarily always quite hit the mark), and the characters have room to grow. Plus I think a more casual atmosphere is a nice change of pace from some more serious dramas. Yes, it could stand to be less juvenile at times, but otherwise... it's not so bad.
Other than that, I did want to mention a few things. We occasionally see a race called the Krill, who are the Union's main enemies in the series. But there's not much I could say about them, at this point. In the penultimate episode of the season, it is discovered that Lt. LaMarr has a really high IQ, and when Chief Newton leaves the Orville for a job elsewhere, Grayson wants to give him a chance to become the new chief engineer. (This is contested by Yaphit, who was next in line for command of that department. Captain Mercer had his doubts, too, since LaMarr tends to act just as immaturely as Malloy.) At first, Lamarr isn't comfortable with the idea of command. But in the course of the episode, he proves his worth not only to himself and to Mercer, but also to the other engineers (including Yaphit). So he's promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and chief engineer. And... I guess that's all I want to say, for now. But I do look forward to season two.
Details coming soonish.