When Star Trek: Enterprise ended its run in 2005, many of us accepted that this was the death knell for new attempts at boldly going and retreated back into our trusty DVD collections of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the remastered versions of the original series. Then, four years later, J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise. Now, eight years and two more films later, Star Trek is returning to the small screen as part of CBS’s lineup for its streaming service with Star Trek: Discovery, yet another prequel. Fox has also jumped onto the space drama bandwagon with The Orville, a dramedy helmed by Seth MacFarlane that appears to serve both as an affectionate parody of Star Trek in the great tradition of Galaxy Quest and as a drama in its own right.
Unimatrix 47 aims to follow each of these series, looking at whether the series really live up to their august forebears. I certainly hope y’all enjoy the the ride. I’ll try and update roughly once a week, but nothing is guaranteed.
That said, we’re two episodes into The Orville’s freshman season, so let’s play catch up. From all of the promotional material that was released prior to the Orville’s premiere, the show looked to be an attempt to recreate Galaxy Quest’s unique balance between parody and good storytelling with MacFarlane’s signature penis jokes, and the pilot showed evidence of that attempt. Unfortunately, a great deal of the humor fell flat. From Captain Mercer’s (MacFarlane) awkwardness discussing his frequent nocturnal urination to the bizarrely wooden bickering with his ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), the gags in pilot “Old Wounds” never quite hit their mark. In fact, Palicki and MacFarlane exhibit nearly no chemistry that would make their previous relationship believable. The pilot also keeps rehashing the fact that the cause of the divorce that sent Mercer into a self-destructive spiral stemmed from Grayson’s infidelity, expecting the audience to side with Mercer. While Grayson accepts her culpability, she points out that she was not alone in causing the downfall of her marriage, but the show very clearly treats her concerns as being of lesser importance than her act of betrayal. MacFarlane apparently believes that this dynamic is a fertile ground for comedy, and it might have been in someone else’s hands. There’s also the somewhat uncomfortable reality that MacFarlane is nearly a decade older than Palicki, and while we don’t know if there’s an age difference between Mercer and Grayson, this feels a bit like wish fulfillment, particularly as MacFarlane has Mercer observe that Grayson was always better at solving his problems than he was. In fact, the show’s existence seems to be an exercise in indulgence. Mercer comments that “Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to serve on an exploratory vessel”, and this line is perhaps the best delivery we get out of MacFarlane possibly because it’s true. Apparently, his two episode stint on Enterprise wasn’t enough.
Despite the lackluster performance by the leads, The Orville’s supporting cast has a great deal to offer. Peter Macon’s amazing ability to infuse nearly every line with a truly epic amount of side-eye as Bortus steals the thunder in nearly every scene. Penny Johnson Jerald, a Deep Space Nine alumna, is hilariously sarcastic, and the relationship between Malloy and LaMarr is certainly believable in the context of a military organization as is LaMarr’s request to have soda on the bridge.
In terms of design, The Orville is beautiful. The ship’s quantum drive reminds me strongly of the NSEA Protector, and the bright, clean lines of the bridge bring to mind a more functional version of the Enterprise-D’s. They use practical sets, even for the oddly shaped shuttles, and the show is better for it. The Krill are clearly meant to be Klingons, and while the decision to turn them white is a bit problematic, they still manage to look sleek and good on screen. The action set-pieces, while not particularly inspired, worked well in the context of the pilot.
Generally, pilots tend to be weaker, so I went into the second episode “Command Performance” with higher hopes, especially as Voyager alumnus Robert Duncan McNeill is the director. However, all of the same problems from the episode were present. The Orville still struggles to be a comedy while maintaining certain aspects of a drama. Again, the Mercer/Grayson divorce is meant to be a comedic driver, this time literally exhibited in a zoo as a source of entertainment, just in case you, the viewer, were confused. The B story is better, featuring Halston Sage’s Alara Kitan taking command for the first time and generally struggling with sitting in the big chair, but it does seem to require more buy-in from the audience than the show has earned thus far, particularly with respect to placing any faith in Mercer’s willingness or capability to rescue members of his own crew. Sage’s performance as Kitan wrestling with not only the responsibilities of command but also with the crew’s ageism is solid, but the moments she wastes grabbing tequila shots while on duty and vomiting in fear again seem to fall flat as far as comedy goes.
Sure, Kitan manages the save the day (I feel that’s not really a spoiler as MacFarlane has promised us a remedy for dystopian sci-fi with The Orville), and we get to laugh a bit at ourselves with the send-up of reality TV. We also get to see that there could be real character development on the show, which I appreciate. I just need The Orville to decide what it wants to be and go for it. I agree that we need to see more depictions of positive futures, in which humanity gets it together and reaches the stars through collective effort. That’s why I’ve been a lifelong Star Trek fan. I can even concede that portraying an image of regular people, doing their jobs in space, and still managing to be a force for good has its merit. I’m just not persuaded that the Orville has quite grasped how to do that with its tone-deaf treatment of the failed relationship between the leads and bland attempts at puerile humor.
After the teaser at the end of “Command Performance”, I’m particularly concerned that MacFarlane and Brannon Braga are going to attempt to address the issue of gender in next week’s episode “About a Girl”, but on the upside, Star Trek: Discovery debuts on the 24th with a special, two-hour pilot. I expect to have a great deal to cover in next week’s post.