Saturday, 9 October 2021

The Orville: Season 1

2419. The Planetary Union is exploring the galaxy, but it has three thousand ships and not enough experienced captains. Despite some doubts over his fitness for command, the admiralty place Captain Ed Mercer in command of the mid-size exploration and scientific cruiser Orville. Mercer's idiosyncratic crew slowly gel and turn into an effective team as they take on various threats, including being trapped in two-dimensional space and repeated confrontations with the villainous Krill.

The Orville is something of an odd show. It's a very, very earnest retread of early Star Trek: The Next Generation, getting as physically close to that show as it can without being sued into oblivion by CBS/Paramount. Concepts, characters, worldbuilding elements, technology and even individual story and character arcs feel so close to Star Trek that at times it gets a bit bemusing, and the presence of former Star Trek writers (Brannon Braga), directors (Jonathan Frakes, James L. Conway, Robert Duncan McNeill) and actors (DS9's Penny Johnson Jerald as a regular, Voyager's Robert Picardo in a recurring role) makes it clear that showrunner Seth MacFarlane is less playing homage to Star Trek then pretty much just remaking it.

This makes The Orville often feel like Star Trek: The Next Generation circa Season 2, with earnest moralising, sticky ethical conundrums and character interplay that sometimes works very well and sometimes is pretty poor. The show has to overcome several key weaknesses, including creator-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane's limited range (he is the weakest link in the cast) and the decision to front-line the show's most morally complex, issue-led episode About a Girl and then make a major hash of it. After the first three episodes, viewers would be forgiven for checking out.

However, the show then begins a long improvement drive. The fourth episode, If the Stars Should Appear, features the Orville encountering a massive generation ship and getting into the kind of interesting, high-concept based stories that TNG would have excelled at if it had the budget. Majority Rule overcomes a key weakness of the show - many of these stories or at least premises have been tackled before on 700-ish episodes of Star Trek - with an enthusiastic cast and just the right dose of humour. New Dimensions, in which the ship visits a two-dimensional universe, is a particularly good example of how the show can tackle Star Trek ideas with modern production values at a point when the actual Star Trek shows seem more interesting in tackling epic, darker storylines which the franchise is arguably not well-suited for.

The cast gels together quite nicely, Adrianne Palicki delivering on the underused potential she showed on Agents of SHIELD, and Deep Space Nine veteran Penny Johnson Jerald brings all her experience of dealing with weird aliens into play. Halston Sage is more enthusiastic than skilled as Lt. Alara Kitan, but develops into a much stronger player over the course of the first season and gets an excellent showcase episode near the end of the season. J. Lee is severely underused as Lt. LaMarr, but does get a better, more interesting role towards the end of the season (in a bemusing retread - intended or not - of what happened to La Forge on TNG). The show's MVP emerges as Isaac, the ship's alien mechanoid science officer who considers all other species inferior; Mark Jackson embodies Isaac with a terrific vocal performance and the character overcomes cliches by not wanting to become human, although he is fascinated by biological organisms' chaotic behaviour. 

The show also makes good use of MacFarlane's industry connections to deliver a very high class of guest star, with a brief appearance by Liam Neeson and proper, full-length guest roles for Charlize Theron and Rob Lowe, who all do terrific work. Rob Lowe's performance as a sexually voracious alien in truly ridiculous makeup is particularly entertaining.

The first season of The Orville (***½) never entirely overcomes its problems with tonal dissonance, non-sequitur toilet humour exploding through the wall of a dramatic scene with real stakes, and MacFarlane's somewhat clunky performance. But, after an initial burst of poor writing, it evolves into a reliably entertaining series which feels very comfortable in its role as a Next Generation cover band. It is available to watch worldwide on Disney+, and on Hulu in the United States.

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