Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Enterprising Venture: Seth McFarlane's The Orville

(from left) Scott Grimes, Mark Jackson, J. Lee, Seth MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki in The Orville.

This review contains very minor spoilers for the first two episodes of Fox's The Orville.

Cards on the table: until I watched the second episode of The Orville, this review was looking like it was going to be a rant. Last week's premiere episode of Seth McFarlane's much-ballyhooed piss-take on the Star Trek franchise was a frustrating disappointment. Too mild to be a send-up and not original enough to fly on its own steam, the first hour of The Orville presaged a series with no idea what it was. It seemed more rip-off than either satire or homage – and I left feeling that the network was using the "spoof" label as window dressing for brazen creative laziness. But then I tuned into this Sunday's second episode and, with my expectations now suitably re-adjusted, I had a genuine blast. What a difference a week makes.

Set four hundred years in the future, The Orville takes place in an unapologetically Star Trek-inspired universe. Seth McFarlane plays Ed Mercer, a Planetary Union officer still stinging from a recent divorce whose career gets a much-needed boost with an offer to command The Orville, a mid-level exploratory starship. The Orville is an unglamorous assignment but one the struggling Mercer is happy to take on. He brings along his buddy Gordon (American Dad!'s Scott Grimes), a crack helmsman with a history of recklessness, but soon finds himself saddled with his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson, as first officer. It's been only a year since he caught Kelly (played by Friday Night Lights's Adrianne Palicki) in bed with a blue-skinned alien, so her appointment throws a domestic monkey wrench into his first command.

Though the set-up seems ripe for broad comedy and over-the-top situations, viewers expecting a live-action Futurama will have to wait. With little hint of the juvenile and scatological flavour that McFarlane has made a career of with Family Guy and American Dad!, The Orville's humour is restrained and character-based, tender and without a hint of the mean-spirited. With Fox's build-up, and Mr. McFarlane's reputation, viewers cannot be faulted for expecting something else entirely, but from the first strain of Bruce Broughton's more-Star-Trek-than-Star-Trek theme music it is clear that the spoof train has left the building.

There is no denying that, from its first shot of 25th-century Manhattan, The Orville looks great. The CGI and set design add up to a convincing recreation of the Trek universe in numerous overt and covert ways that only an intellectual property lawyer couldn't love. Turn the sound off and there is nothing in the first two episodes of The Orville that would be out of place in a new Star Trek series, albeit not an especially ambitious one: from the colour-coded uniforms, the soundtrack and the editing (the series pitch-perfectly replicates the familiar act-break rhythms of The Next Generation and Voyager), to the reassuring beeps of the sliding doors and the design of The Orville itself ,which with its graceful nacelles and bright, white hallways – would be at home in any Starfleet shipyard. In a parody, getting these elements right would be essential, but in a dramatic series (even an intentionally light one), these same features can come off as, at best, uninspired . . . and at worst, larcenous – which is why I left the first hour with the unsettling feeling that McFarlane wanted to have his cake and steal it too. 

Star Trek is an institution and, as such, deserving of both parody and homage. And McFarlane, and everyone involved in The Orville, clearly loves it. On its own terms, however, The Orville needed to do more than insert anachronistic pop culture references and wry asides for the show to work. However, except for Mercer and Grayson, it isn't until the second episode that the bridge crew become more than caricatures. The 3-minute scene which introduces the audience to the predictably diverse ensemble of characters – the too-young Security Chief (Halston Sage), the robot Science Officer (Mark Jackson), the doctor (Deep Space Nine's Penny Johnson Jerald), and straight-faced-but-totally-not-a-Klingon Lt. Commander Boltus (Peter Macon) whose background is reduced to his membership in a single-sexed alien species – was a flat and uninspired mixture of exposition and one-liners.

Chad L. Coleman and Peter Macon in The Orville.

But that lingering ambivalence made how much I enjoyed this week's second episode all the more surprising and, indeed, delightful. In a single hour of television, the series righted itself precisely on the terms it had faltered – making me care about the characters, while generating a sincere smile on my face throughout. (The episode also introduces The Wire's Chad L. Coleman, hidden under a ton of prosthetics make-up, as Klyden, Bortus's same-sex spouse. The character of Klyden himself, as a non-crew, on-board house husband, is ripe with story – and comedy – potential.) With a plot that was itself an unapologetic spin on the unaired original Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," the second episode succeeded in simultaneously deepening the natural chemistry between Mercer and Grayson while giving weight and depth to almost every member of the bridge crew. Jerald in particular brings emotional gravitas to her role as Dr. Finn, the crew's – and cast's – most seasoned deep-space veteran, personifying The Orville's internal Trek conscience, which in this instance ironically helped edge the show significantly out the shadow of its source material.

The Orville has stepped firmly – if not yet altogether boldly – into a long tradition of loving Trek parody. On those terms, at the show's best and worst, I was regularly called back to the long history of comedic forays about and within the Star Trek universe, both on screen and in print. Some of the best of these include John Scalzi's meta-novel Redshirts (2012), Peter David's long-running Star Trek: New Frontier novels (to which, between the ass-kicking literal Ex-O and the creatively sexed bridge officer, McFarlane may owe a royalty cheque), and – deserving of a 30th-anniversary shout-out – John M. Ford's 1987 Klingon comic opera, How Much for Just the Planet? One top of all that is the gold standard of meta-Trekdom, Galaxy Quest, which demonstrated, almost twenty years ago, that satire and heart are not mutually exclusive.

I do regret that The Orville (taking a cue from NBC's Powerless) is not more explicitly, rather than merely coyly, set in the Trek universe – though McFarlane's series clearly comes with the tacit blessing of all but Paramount's lawyers. With Voyager cast member and director Robert Duncan McNeill behind the camera for the second episode, Brannon Braga (whose Trek bona fides are too long to list here) directing the next episode and on board as series executive producer, and TNG's own Jonathan Frakes and James L. Conway – both of whom have worked on every modern Trek series – directing future episodes, the credits for The Orville already read like a Trek Who's Who.

As studio-funded fan fiction goes, The Orville has more heart and respect for its source material than the J.J. Abrams-helmed Trek-reboot films with their millennial-aged cast and visually impressive but ultimately hollow action sequences. Its humour is not going to generate the head-shaking guffaws of Family Guy, but if McFarlane can keep up the confidence demonstrated by  the second episode and not revert to the confusion of its awkward and uneven pilot, The Orville has the potential to become the sleeper delight of the new season.

I'm certainly going to stay tuned and see what happens.

The third episode of The Orville airs tomorrow night on Fox (in the U.S.) and on CityTV (in Canada).

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment