The Orville Works as both Sci-fi and Comedy

Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi comedy “The Orville” has been described as either an homage or a spoof of Star Trek. However he insists it’s really its own show and although it draws heavily on Star Trek genre it should be considered on its own merits. Having seen the opening episode I think all of the above is true. It is part spoof, part parody, part homage and a legitimate sci-fi adventure in and of itself.

If we set aside the issues of Star Trek connections and just judge it on its own merits as a sci-fi adventure and a comedy I think after one episode I have to say it works on both levels. It really is a decent sci-fi adventure show with a reasonably credible sci-fi plot. It also made me laugh really hard several times even if it is at times over-the-top silly.

MacFarlane plays Capt. Ed Mercer who in the opening of the show finds his wife in bed with a blue skinned alien. We fast-forward one year to find him down on his luck and depressed over the failure of his marriage. However Adm. Halsey played by guest star Victor Garber tells him he’s being given command of a mid-level exploratory shape called the Orville. Apparently there are 3000 ships in the fleet and they are little shorthanded for captains so despite the fact that he’s been a basic screwup over the past year they are giving him a shot at redemption despite his recent troubles.

Unfortunately his dream assignment turns into a nightmare when he finds out that his first officer is going to be his ex-wife Kelly Grayson played by Adrianne Palicki.

His best friend Gordon Malloy played by ER veteran Scott Grimes is going to be his new helmsman who is supposedly the proverbial “best pilot in a galaxy” but is also a ne’er-do-well alcoholic. We are also introduced into a variety of other alien crewmembers such as his petite female security chief Alara Kitan played by Halston Sage whose size hides the fact that she grew up on a planet with much heavier gravity and so exhibits superhuman strength. We also have a Worf-like character named Bortus played by Peter Macon who you might recognize as Dominique’s police officer father from Shameless.

One surprise bit of casting is Penny Johnson Jerald as the ship’s medical officer Dr. Claire Finn. You will remember her as Capt. Gates from the detective/romance show Castle. It’s a little bit hard to imagine her in a comedy but the character she’s playing seems to be very straightlaced so it might work after all. She does however have some genre credit because she played Kasidy Yates on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

As a sci-fi show the opening plot was actually not too bad. Their first mission is a resupply mission the scientific colony but when they arrive they find out that they aren’t really there to resupply but are to guard a new piece of technology that can speed up time. While it has peaceful uses such as making crops grow quicker it can also be used as a weapon by making your enemy age 100 years in a few seconds. The alien enemy race the Krill are after technology. There is an outer space battle and a ground attack that provides lots of action.

The show also works as a comedy mostly by humanizing the crew in ways that traditional Star Trek type shows do not. For example 2 crewmembers meet in a hallway and one of them asks “Do you have a minute we can talk?” And the other replies “I only have a minute… I’m on my way to pee.” It calls to mind the strange fact that after decades worth of Star Trek we’ve never had anyone talk about taking a leak. In another scene the navigator asked the captain if it’s okay for to keep a drink and his console. The captain agrees as long as he keeps his under the desk and doesn’t spill it on anything. Later in the middle of a tense moment we see the navigator sucking on a Slurpie.

The humor isn’t really so much jokes or funny situations as it is breaking your expectations of what a space adventure is like. In another scene the captain needs to stall the attacking alien while they try to repair the ship and so he engages in a debate with his ex-wife/first officer over there marital problems and they asked the alien commander’s advice. It’s all pretty silly but for some reason it works.

Despite what I’ve said about this not being a Star Trek spoof there are plenty of Star Trek influences everywhere. The design of the bridge echoes features of Star Trek: The Next Generation as does the orchestral soundtrack. On the other hand it breaks some Star Trek conventions such as one-shot that shows an extremely long hallway that had to be done with some sort of optical effects. Traditional Star Trek and other sci-fi spaceship based adventures rely on short corridors or curved corridors to minimize the size of the set. So in some ways is not so much what is similar to Star Trek that makes this show interesting. It’s the ways in which it is different. But you have to be a fan of the original to see and appreciate the differences.

They have ordered 13 episodes and I don’t know if there options to extend it to a full season if it’s a hit or if it’s intended from the beginning to be a limited series. Time will tell whether or not the silliness gets to be too silly and whether or not the hard-core sci-fi aspects continue to hold up episode after episode. For now I’m giving it a rating of “I really like it”. I recommend you check it out for yourself. It might provide an alternative to the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery which will only be available through the streaming subscription service CBS All Access. The first episode of The Orville is available on demand. Episode 2 is next Sunday and then it moved to its regular timeslot on Thursday nights beginning September 21.

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