As The Orville finishes its debut run here in the UK, Baz Greenland reviews season one of this latest space-bound sci-fi show
Back in the 90’s we were spoilt for choice when it came to true spaceship-bound sci-fi drama. Star Trek ruled the airwaves with three spin-off sitting comfortably alongside other cult classics like Babylon 5. It was a good time to be a sci-fi fan, but like the Star Trek franchise, it died a death. Since then, proper sci-fi spaceship shows – at least the good ones – have been rare treats, like the gritty remake of Battlestar Galactica or the more recent (and tragically) cancelled Dark Matter.
But things have changed and suddenly it’s like we’re back in that golden age of sci-fi. The TV arm of the Star Trek franchise has been resurrected and we’ve even got more The X Files back on our TV. The Orville, Seth Macfarlane’s attempt at playing homage to the Star Trek series has also made it onto the airwaves, and while many may have been quick to dismiss it as a cheap Galaxy Quest knock off, it is actually so much more. With Star Trek: Discovery taking the Star Trek franchise in a bold and exciting new direction, The Orville is something far more comforting. Miss the glory days of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Then The Orville is exactly what you need.
Sure it may have cruder jokes, some of which land, some of which don’t. Seth Macfarlane is decent in the role of Captain Ed Mercer often upstaged by most of the other characters but still has enough presence on screen to convince as the ship’s commander. His greater success however, may be as showrunner and writer; The Orville has buckets of charm and when the show is at it’s best, it truly captures the feel of those adventures with the crew of the USS Enterprise D.
Let’s talk about that humour first. Now I happen to love the office banter on the bridge; it is probably a whole lot more realistic than the utopian simplicity of Picard’s flagship; the crew gossiping over Ed and Kelly’s tumultuous past or Alara’s failed attempts to move past first date because every man in intimidated by her strength? Having karaoke in the mess hall, Isaac playing an horrific practical joke on Gordon? These are all genuinely funny moments; heck, I even loved the Krill commander not standing central in the viewscreen in the first episode. Sure it might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is fun in a way that even Star Trek failed to be consistently be at times.
But it was more than just a cheap Star Trek spoof. Sure the Krill are the Klingons and Isaac is this show’s Data, but I was surprised at how genuine and heartfelt it could be. While the second episode Command Performance, which saw Ed and Kelly being captured and placed in an alien zoo was pure 60’s Trek, the third episode About a Girl struck a surprising nerve as it attempted to tackle a story of gender roles and persecution in a patriarchal society. The plight of Commander Bortus’ child wasn’t played for laughs and the outcome was genuinely shocking, despite all the fun court case hijinks. This was followed by the surprisingly good If the Stars Should Appear which dealt with a society living in a world inside a spaceship drifting towards a star. There was a sense of wonder and tension that took me back to those good old days with the Enterprise D.
Some influences are more subtle than others; the opening title sequence is pure Star Trek: Voyager and I loved it for that. On a more intimate level, the music that flowed through each episode had the same beats and emotive scores I was familiar with in 90’s Star Trek television. Having traditional Star Trek actors like Robert Picardo turn up was quite the treat too.
What’s more, The Orville wasn’t afraid to mine great sci-fi ideas; the next episode Pria was straight out of those time travel episodes of the TNG era, with a great mystery, wormholes, time travel, the morality of a ship surviving when history had proclaimed them dead and a great guest star role from Charlize Theron herself. It also helped that that episode was directed by the great Jonathan Frakes (who’s also performed double Trek directing duty on the first season of Star Trek: Discovery).
And there really is a sense of the Trek community welcoming The Orville; executive producer and writer of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise – Brannon Braga – came on board as executive producer on this series. As such, his influence was keenly felt; he directed four episodes but it was the one he penned (Into the Fold) that was pure TNG; A shuttle containing Isaac, Dr. Claire Finn and her two sons crashlands on a planet and the artificial lifeform was forced to protect and bond with them in a hostile environment. Supplement Isaac for Data and it worked have worked just as well, though that shouldn’t take away from the humour and charm of this series. Isaac playing a parental figure was bloody funny too.
The Orville had everything we loved about Star Trek (alien societies that mirror Earth’s history (Majority Rule), deadly spatial anomalies (New Dimensions) and the crew succumbing to their passions (Cupid’s Dagger) while throwing in alien peace treaties and character rivalries in the same episode.
And there was a real heart to the performances too; The aforementioned MacFarlane really attempts to imbue his Captain Ed Mercer with a moral strength and good-natured desire to do the right thing. Adrianne Palicki also adds class and strength as first officer, Commander Kelly Grayson and isn’t afraid to embrace the silliness from time to time. There was a great banter between Scott Grimes’ Lt. Gordon Malloy and J Lee’s Lt. John LaMarr, though they largely remained unchanged during the show’s run (LaMarr abrupt promotion to Chief Engineer late in the season not-withstanding). And Penny Johnson Jerald was a strong presence as Doctor Claire Finn; a non-nonsense single mother and wise mentor to others without ever coming across as a cliché.
But the alien characters are where the show really shines. Peter Macon has a perfect deadpan delivery as Lt. Cmdr. Bortus (there’s a touch of Brooklyn Nine Nine‘s captain Holt in his stoic performance). Mark Jackson’s superior android Isaac is perfectly influenced by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data, asking all the inappropriate questions and having equally deadpan delivery with others. There even an attempt to bring depth of character to Norm MacDonald’s green alien blob Yaphit, though he might seem a little too forced when it comes to The Orville‘s cruder brand of comedy.
And finally there is Halston Sage’s security officer Lt. Alara Kitan, an alien woman that looks too young but has super strength and an equally strong conviction to go with it. Some of the best motality explorations surround her and the episode Firestorm where she explored her guilt over the death of another officer, was the strongest instalments in the first season.
Things came to a head with season finale Mad Idolatry, a story that didn’t serve as a cliffhanger ending (in fact the thirteenth episode planned was moved to the beginning of season two), but acted as a nice coda to the central relationship of Ed and Kelly. Their attempts to reignite their relationship were sweet and touching; was it obvious that his decision to cover for her mistakes with an admiral would make her realise a romantic rekindling would create conflict? Absolutely, but it was well explored and heartfelt and I liked how the season left them as friends and colleagues, ready for more.
And that’s how I felt too, ready for more stories; The Orville already has a special place in my heart – a mix of nostalgic Star Trek with it its own brand of humour – and I look forward to the continuing adventures of the starship and its crew in season two.