Much is made of Seth MacFarlane’s love of Star Trek and the fact that he created The Orville as a show that would return to a message of hope for a peaceful future filled with benevolent human expansion in this age of dark, pessimistic space dramas. But whereas the pilot episode of The Orville begins with a welcome sense of nostalgia and a swelling soundtrack meant to evoke the majesty of grand ships exploring space, the characters and storylines never quite move beyond the comfort of the familiar. And although the humor and more relatable dialogue adds an interesting and unexpected flavor to the scenes, only some of the punchlines land, and the characters that deliver them lack sufficient personality.
That’s not to say that The Orville isn’t fun – it is! A particularly enjoyable scene centers around Captain Mercer (MacFarlane), visiting a very holodeck-like room to recruit his friend, a ne’er-do-well named Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) to be the Orville’s helmsman, while he’s in the midst of a duel with an ogre in simulated samurai village. The fact that the characters like Malloy and even Mercer himself are flawed and not necessarily the military’s finest adds a more modern flavor (despite its futuristic setting) to the ship’s new crew.
Likewise, when the new captain meets with his senior officers, the interaction is uncharacteristically casual for a show of this nature. For example, Captain Mercer is asked by his navigator John LaMarr (J. Lee) if they can have sodas on the bridge as the ship’s previous captain used to allow. This gives The Orville more of an office comedy feel rather than a space drama adhering to a rigid military command structure.
Not all of the characters ring true, however. Aside from the super-strong chief of security, Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), whose youth and eagerness are a refreshingly unexpected contrast to her brawn, many of the crew members are enigmatically bland. A robot science officer is said to be “incredibly racist” because he considers organic lifeforms to be inferior, but not much comes of this obvious set-up. Instead, he’s the typical observer of human behavior a la Spock and Data of Star Trek with an occasional off-color quip.
It’s almost as if The Orville expects the audience to fill in the narrative deficiencies with their own expectations and perceptions of what a show like this should consist of. The color-coded uniforms, the planetary away teams, the warp engines… it’s all familiar and comfortable but glossed over with a subtext that seems to say, “See these Krill attacking the science station? They’re like Klingons or Romulans; you get the idea.” As a result, the more adventurous parts of the opening episode surrounding the battle for a powerful device that can be used for good or evil come across as a glitzy imitation with witty one-liners that only zing half the time.
Then there’s the central conflict that drives the emotional core of the opening episodes: Captain Mercer’s cheating ex is now his XO. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights, Agents of SHIELD) is a wonderful addition to the cast as Commander Kelly Grayson, but her reputation as a “total bitch” (Lt. Malloy’s words) seems woefully undeserved, whether she was unfaithful or not. Clearly the healing process between the captain and his first officer will be part of the group dynamic, but the premise harms the likability of some of the characters.
The story of the pilot episode is interesting enough: the Orville’s first mission, a supply run to a research outpost, leads to a run-in with the warlike Krill over powerful technology developed by the station scientists. The creative pay-off at the end of the story arc is both humorous and innovative, and the relationship building between the captain and his XO is definitely developing. In fact, a twist ending dealing with how the two came to be assigned together is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the premiere.
So the question is whether or not The Orville is a welcome homage or a derivative knock-off, a humorous romp or a stilted parody. Parts of the pilot shine with promise and others go over like a lead balloon, but given time to develop, the show could find its voice. The nostalgic notes for those longing for a return to the promising future of Star Trek ring true, especially for those not willing to pony up for Star Trek: Discovery, and fans of Seth MacFarlane in particular will not be disappointed.
The Orville was a topic of discussion on the September 2017 Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: