To boldly go into… comedy
Review: The Orville
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Penny Johnson Jerald, Scott Grimes
It really wasn’t surprising that Seth MacFarlane, the creator and voice actor of such series as Family Guy and American Dad, might tackle a sci-fi comedy modeled on Star Trek with his latest ‘comedy’ The Orville.
You only have to cast your mind back to the many parody episodes of Trek and even Star Wars on Family Guy to recognise that MacFarlane knows how to crack a joke. But perhaps it’s how and where the joke is deployed that makes all the difference.
MacFarlane stars as the depressed Captain Ed Mercer who is reluctantly given the captaincy of the not so top of the line exploratory spaceship the Orville. When his ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson (Palicki) is assigned to his crew, that may or may not set the Orville on shaky ground.
The show, like Trek before it, wants to tackle some real world issues in its initial season of 12 episodes, but early on it’s the tone that doesn’t sit right that almost derails the series.
The show tackles everything from gender politics, to the nature of democracy (a pointed look at Trump’s politics) to religious dogma and bigotry, and in this way follows a great tradition pioneered by previous Trek incarnations.
What often doesn’t work is the ill-placed workplace humour like a one-note work place practical joke in one episode and literally responding with fart noises at the wonders of space travel (Episode four, if you’re wondering).
Along those lines, the concept of Yaphet (a sentient blob crew member voiced by Norm MacDonald) might have felt like a one-off joke in the pilot, and his dogged pursuit of Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) has at times bordered on harassment – something that seems quite out of place at the moment on network television. Since its shaky start though, the writers have found some fun things to do with the concept of a gelatinous crew member.
There are some stand-out episodes in the first season like “If the Stars Should Appear” (episode four) which has a fascinating premise, as the Orville crew encounter a mysterious ship containing an isolated civilization which is 2000 years old and prompts discussion about belief (and more than passing reference to biblical history) and episode eight “Into the Fold”, the very simple often told sci-fi premise of being stranded on a hostile planet, which is totally sold by the acting skills of Penny Johnson Jerald who plays Dr Finn.
Although there are some fresh ideas, there are some that feel like riffs on Black Mirror like episode seven “Majority Rule” which depicts a society governed by popularity with up-voting and down-voting and “Cupid’s Dagger” — which has a compelling moral, but the idea itself has been done in much better episodes of Black Mirror.
For lovers of sci-fi, the set design and special effects are of cinema quality which are especially striking for a network TV budget. The alien and creature design however is very similar to the bumpy foreheads of many Star Trek episodes.
Given MacFarlane’s foray into live action films, it is no surprise that there are many high-profile appearances from Rob Lowe, Charlize Theron, and Liam Neeson (a neat in-joke given he has played God in the guise of Aslan in the Narnia films), and guest stars have included the welcome and familiar appearances of Chad L. Coleman (from The Wire), Kelly Hu, Brian Thompson, Robert Picardo, and more.
Trailers for both seasons sell the show as Guardians of the Galaxy via Galaxy Quest, and there’s clearly interest in telling engaging stories in the classic “Trek” tradition, using the future as a metaphor for our present. It’s when The Orville figures out how to do that in its own tone of voice, and balance the high school humour with its serious subject matter, its potential will be fully realised.
The Orville and its crew will boldly go into a second season of 14 episodes airing in the US in December and shortly after that in 2019 on SBS free to air and streaming On Demand, so here’s hoping the show can engage with its audience mission to boldly go where no comedy has gone before.
Season One of The Orville is currently streaming on SBS On Demand