The Orville review (S01E01-S01E06)

31 October 2017

Title:The Orville
Genre:SciFi dramedy
Runtime:approx 44 min per episode

The Orville is a 2017 TV show created by Seth MacFarlane, known to most as the creator of Family Guy and American Dad. Because it is presently virtually impossible to see legally outside of the U.S., many readers may not be familiar with it, for which reason I thought I better give it a bit of an introduction.

The series is a Star Trek clone, skirting on the very border of lawsuit territory, and possibly only protecting itself from such a lawsuit by its comic nature. However, as I expand below, I don't think it would be correct to describe it as a Star Trek parody. It is more a Star Trek lookalike with a lighter tone.

The series has proved divisive between critics and the general audience. In Rotten Tomatoes (link given above), the critics rating for it continues to fall and is at this time at 18%. By contrast, the audience score continues to rise, and is at this time at 93%. (IMDb, also linked above, provides the show with a perhaps more representative middle-ground of 7.8.)

Those familiar with MacFarlane from his work on Family Guy and American Dad may be concerned that his humour does not translate well to the Star Trek world (or to live action, or isn't their cup of tea period). To these concerns I can only say: that's not the type of humour that The Orville has, and this despite the fact that MacFarlane wrote most of the episodes so far. As detailed below, the humour is, in fact, more consistent with shows like Seinfeld, and all in all the writing is top notch and does justice to the Star Trek-ish universe.

MacFarlane, it should be noted, is a well-known Star Trek fan, and this series is visibly a labour of love.

And with that in mind: here's my review of it.

We have been spoiled for good TV recently. While the film industry has been for some years now in steady decline (as the cost of CGI has apparently forced all major studios to make screenwriters redundant), TV has gained steadily in talent, in budgets, and in willingness to go where no TV shows have gone before.

But we have lost something along the way. As TV series like Star Trek: Discovery have embraced their dark, edgy and realistic side (some more successfully than others), we have lost the camp, the playful, and the corny.

There is a reason why Star Trek (the original series) managed to gather around itself a fandom intent on exploring and expanding its world, and the reason is not only -- perhaps not even primarily -- that it is a hopeful, optimistic world. I think the main reason has to do with the fact that it is, at heart, a bit "anything goes", and at times even a bit silly. Don't kill me! I say this with much love for the material. The reason that we play with this world is that it is inviting to play in, it is a playful world, it's a world you can't break because it bends so easily. Star Wars shares this trait without the optimistic outlook. Doctor Who shares it, even though it's, at core, downright Halloweenish. It is this playfulness that most TV has, as of 2017, lost, and we only have ourselves to blame: we are more serious viewers now, more discerning, with more options, and put up with nothing but the best.

Which is why the existence of a series such as The Orville is nothing short of a miracle. Flying under the radar by pretending to be a Star Trek parody, The Orville managed to bring back that slightly corny, slightly silly counterculture that was a trademark of Star Trek (the original series), updating this tone for a modern audience, without losing its spirit.

I have so far seen only the first six episodes of the series. The first five were all written by Seth MacFarlane and all directed by top directors in the biz. The common element to each of these first five is that each is progressively better than its predecessor. The writing is more mature, the characters are all settling in nicely, and the show is finding its groove... and it's a great groove and so much fun to watch.

The last of the six was not written by MacFarlane and not directed by a heavy hitter, but it, too, belongs in with the latter and better half of this half season.

I can only compare this with Star Trek: The Next Generation, which notoriously took a full season to mature before its episodes became watchable... and that's my favourite science fiction TV series of all time.

So yes, while today we probably axe whatever isn't 100% right already at the pilot episode, I'm holding my breath that The Orville will escape that doom, because at the moment it's the most fun and most engaging thing on my to-watch list... which is strange because this fun does not come at the expense of drama: the series increasingly requires the viewer to come with their brains switched firmly on, and that's a rare treat.

Let me say this more explicitly.

When I watched the show's first episode, I understood what the critics were talking about: the show was not dramatic enough to be drama, not funny enough to be a comedy, but in an attempt to be both each side was undercutting the other. I told myself I'll give the show one more chance before deciding whether to quit it for good.

The second episode was already far better. Not only was its dramatic plot more interesting (stolen though it was from the archives of The Twilight Zone), but the humour was also better placed: the USS Orville differs from the USS Enterprise in one critical way, and that is that its crew is human. Whether or not they portray alien races, the crew of the USS Enterprise behave like soldiers in a training exercise, exuding at all times a well-practised professionalism; the crew members of the USS Orville, on the other hand, (alien or not) are all flawed. They are insecure, they are jerks, they play pranks on each other, have feelings that cause them to behave unprofessionally, and make bad jokes when they are nervous. If they didn't have a job on the bridge of the Orville, they would have fit nicely into the crew of The Love Boat. The humour is influenced by Friends, it is influenced by Seinfeld, and above all it is the humour of a workplace comedy.

But as the episodes progress, the humour becomes almost nonexistent, and the series matures from a parody to a homage. Its more recent episodes are every bit the spiritual offspring of Star Trek: The Next Generation themes. The plot is of the same calibre, and occasionally The Orville allows itself to dig deeper than ST:TNG ever did -- which it can because, at the same time, it remains slightly goofy, incredibly easy to nit-pick, and therefore never to be taken at face value.

And the humour?

I'm glad you ask. There is a story about Gene Roddenberry that says his addition of teleporters to the design of the Enterprise was a solution that came out of necessity. The teleporters voided the need for long shuttle take-off and landing sequences for which he didn't have the budget, while at the same time allowing the plot to progress smoothly without this transit scene interrupting.

Well, the one main difference between the make-up of the Enterprise and that of the Orville is that the Orville has no teleporters. The fact that the show has the CGI budget for it aside, The Orville needs its shuttle rides for exactly the same reason that Star Trek needed to abolish them: whereas throughout most of the show's run-time, the tone is dramatic and all is played with a straight face, it is these shuttle scenes and other transit scenes, breaking the continuation of the dramatic plot, that now provide the only opportunity for the characters to lower their guards and show their human side, and are now virtually the only places to which the show has relegated its humour.

What the future holds for The Orville I don't know. If it wants to become a fully fledged drama, akin to ST:TNG, it will have to learn to curb its over-the-top scenarios and anything-goes premises in favour of more grounded realism. If it tries to keep its present tone, it faces a constant balancing act, which it has so far managed to do (and with episode-to-episode improvements) due to the excellent writing that juggled the tone with precise timing. But can it keep that long term?

To be clear: this is a show where, within the first six episodes, we had crew members shot, tortured, lose limbs, make impossible moral choices, and a great deal more. How any of this manages to go onscreen and remain "light" is a mystery, and it should not be taken for granted that this will succeed forever.

And yet, for now, this is the show I'm most looking forward to, week to week. Because after all, what's not to like? It's an ST:TNG plot with ST:TOS sensibilities. Resistance is futile.

Update Nov 4: It was just announced that The Orville is renewed for a second season.