The Orville #1: Open Wounds

"There is no pizza party! I repeat: There is no pizza party!"
IN THIS ONE... Captain Ed Mercer is given the Orville to command, but bristles at his ex-wife being assigned as his XO. Plus, the Krill learn the meaning of Arbor Day.

REVIEW:
Some months ago, I threatened to start on reviews of The Orville, which seemed only right given that I've reviewed all of Star Trek, and Seth MacFarlane's tribute to The Next Generation gave me the proper feels. I've gotten some encouragement, but I know some will not have wanted to invest in this show, probably because they don't like MacFarlane's brand of humor. And while it will take a few episodes to find the right balance. I'm here to say The Orville (named after the Wright Brother, not the Popcorn King, stop your worrying) does lean more heavily into the kind of space adventure and moral fable embraced by TOS and TNG than it does the dumb jokes. These characters become as real as any on your favorite Trek show, and in look, sound and science fiction plots, is most definitely a throwback to the TNG era specifically.

The main difference is the way the characters are written as ordinary 21st-Centurians, which is not that far from TOS' 1960s guys and dolls, mind. Roddenberry "evolved" humanity in TNG in such a way as to distance it from 1980s America, its callbacks to the past often achored in older culture - everyone's interest in classical music, for example, or holodeck simulations of turn-of-the-Century fiction. In The Orville, the culture is informed by today, so characters' hobbies and references are recognizably those of today (I notice Mercer has a much smaller Kermit on his desk than he will later have), and most importantly, their everyday concerns and reactions are grounded in a shlubby "take the air out of the balloon" reality. Crewmen are rather more informal than in TNG (and make jokes more readily), several have a drinking problem (including the Captain), and they might be concerned with overtime and being allowed to have snacks on the bridge and learning everybody's names and going to the bathroom. In the pilot, directed by Jon Favreau, this leads to more dumb jokes than necessary - I like the party pizza gag, but it gets silly, for example - but I think you need to go a little too far to know where you have to reign yourself in. At the heart of the story, and of the series, is the very human reaction of Mercer finding his wife Kelly cheating on him with a blue Rob Lowe (which should have told me right then and there he would return), making his life spin out of control. It's a sitcom premise, one that makes Mercer act like a real child (more than anything else, this is what might have turned off some audiences), though the pair make a good comedy double act, showing their innate chemistry in the anti-banana ray scene, for example. The use of the word "bitch" by Mercer's best friend Gordon Malloy is also ugly, but it's very human and "unevolved". OBVIOUSLY, the Captain and his new XO are going to fight, promise to transfer off, then come together again because they really do work well together. That's just how TV works. But I can promise they'll milk a lot of story from this inciting event and it won't come off so crassly in the future. And for all the "ordinary Joes and Janes" of it all, the characters are still the best at what they do, and the action-adventure stuff stands up.

Aside from that paradigm shift, in which the the comedy is based though you could say it's also corrective of TNG's approach, The Orville is Next Gen with the numbers filed off. The Union, not Federation, is based in New York, not San Francisco. It has ships with quantum drives, not warp drives, and the engines are loops, not nacelles (the shuttles look a dainty though, like massagers). The big enemy out there is the Krill, whose green ships recall the Romulans. I will chronicle the links to Trek in each episode in a section called Where Someone Has Gone Before, but generally, the bright, flatly-lit sets evoke Trek without copying it (I especially like the spiral staircase that leads to the bridge as a design detail), and the sweeping orchestral score, make-up effects, and flawless effects give the show a legitimacy that heightens it behind the level of a simple spoof. The colorful uniforms do look a little cartoonish to me, but no more so than Trek's before they went all gray and black. At the end there, Favreau forgets himself and gives us filmic close-ups on Ed and Kelly - very nice but atypical of the show - but it's the pilot and they're still looking for the show's grammar.

In terms of crew, we're so focused on the commanding couple that most characters get a a cursory introduction, but nothing is wasted and a lot of what is said hints at the stories to come (I get the feeling writers went back to the pilot often to mine it for ideas). So we have Bortus, the obvious Worf stand-in, so serious it becomes deadpan comedy, whose people are evidently Klingons in this world, but have only one gender and pee only annually. You'd think the latter would fall under the category of "dumb jokes", but no, it becomes part of a story (though Pon Farr, it ain't, but the exploration of gender through the Moclan people is a big part of the series). We have Isaac, who is Data if Data were racist, a being from a world of xenophobic machines sent to study the Union so it might one day join. There's Alara, a super-strong Xelayan (the joke is she's tiny), fast-tracked to Chief of Security because Xelayans don't often join the service (again, something that returns as a story point). Everyone remembers Mercer's "open this jar of pickles for me" moment with her punching a door down in the trailer. Destined to become my favorite character is Dr. Claire Finn played by Penny Johnson Jerald (yeah! Cassidy Yates!) - love the green streak in her hair to accessorize with her uniform, and it's suggested she's both a psychologist and the doctor. The aforementioned Malloy is a manchild like Mercer, but a damn good pilot thanks to better effects than TNG could achieve. He makes fast friends with the underwritten navigator John Lamarr, who's very similar, but there are hints of his being a lot smarter than his low ambitions care to reveal (this one's on a slow burn). We get just one quick moment with snot alien Yaphit, voiced by Norm MacDonald, but it's interesting to note the ship has many more aliens than any Star Trek show has ever used, many of them ridiculous-seeming by human standards (the big-headed alien in the Epsilon lab is too good a make-up effect not to return on a recurring crew member, watch for it). Lamarr perhaps excepted at this point, all these characters have obvious potential and we haven't even scratched the surface yet. The mom and dad of the show will not hijack every story, and care will be given to each of the principals (in a way TNG can't claim to have done). Still, I do like Commander Kelly Grayson quite a lot, looking to make amends for her disastrous mistake, though also needing Mercer to take ownership of the part he played in events. Adrianne Palicki is funny and effective, but also cuts a badass figure the way she shoots that blaster. MacFarlane as Mercer is one of the weakest actors here, in a way - I've never found him particularly expressive - and he's given himself all the dumbest jokes and the infantile behavior. Even in the captain's best moments, he feels deflated (as with everyone criticizing his "death pun" at the end). If he ever finds out he only got the commission because Kelly called in a favor with the admiralty, it's only going to mine his confidence even more. (Spoiler: He will.)

This is all about introductions, and the plot is consequently a little weak. A science lab has found a way to manipulate a quantum field so make time speed up - which could be used to make crops grow quickly, or as a terrifying weapon. They've called the Orville to protect them from the Krill who might want the technology, but they've already been infiltrated. Bit of a fight with the Krill, on the planet, and in space. The Krill ships look cool from the side, not so much from the front, and we don't find out much about them except that they're the Union's big enemy. One of them hides inside the crew's shuttle, but is incapacitated when Mercer stops the craft and sends him flying - because seat belts. Meanwhile, the show doesn't waste any time damaging the Orville and blasting one of its quantum engines away - we have the technology! - but it doesn't stop Malloy from flying circles around the much bigger ship, and aligning the Orville's bay doors with the out-of-control shuttle, proving his usefulness and the show's ability to create exciting sequences. The crew's final ploy involves more play with Trek tropes by having the Krill commander not stand in the middle of his viewscreen, and creates a very weird image by making a redwood seed grow 100 years in a matter of seconds thanks to the quantum ray. You've never seen a redwood destroy an alien ship from the inside, I'm guessing, anywhere else. If I call this thin, it's because it doesn't really have any kind of Trekkish message, nor does it tie into the title thematically or otherwise, but it IS fun.

WHERE SOMEONE HAS GONE BEFORE: In addition to the premise and Penny Johnson's inclusion in the cast... Well, Trek writer and producer Brannon Braga is a producer on this, so we can expect time travel and alternate reality stuff eventually (and perhaps an appearance by his wife Jeri Ryan?). Brian George (Dr. Aronov) played Julian Bashir's father on DS9. The plot, involving grain and beaming a Trojan Horse over to the enemy ship has its roots (ha!) in The Trouble with Tribbles. The Union has holodeck technology, and Malloy's fight with an Ogre evokes Worf's combat programs. Strong Admiral Forrest (Enterprise) vibes from Victor Garber's Admiral Halsey, also maintaining a close relationship with our captain, though it's Dr. Aronov who has a pet beagle like Archer's (and yes, my eye also went to it, licking itself in the background). Crashing a shuttle into a shuttle bay comes from Star Trek V, but the reveal of the Orville in the ship yards is right out of Star Trek IV.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The Orville is still in search of its exact tone, so it feels more like a sitcom in space than a true TNG pastiche, but we're almost there. The characters are efficiently introduced and give or take a couple of dumb jokes, Old Wounds does work as a space opera/comedy hybrid. His love of the material he's emulating means MacFarlane's worst tendencies as a writer are kept mostly in check.

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