Review of Seth Macfarlane's The Orville on Fox Television
Anyone who knew me as a child knows that Star Trek was far and away my favorite television show. Growing up in Pittsburgh the worst punishment my parents could inflict on me was not letting me watch the new episode of Star Trek on Friday night.
Clever lad that I was, I was able to catch a grainy version on Saturday from the NBC affiliate in Steubenville that pre-empted it on Friday nights with studio wrestling. As a teenager I ran home from school daily to watch it on afternoon syndication before not doing my homework.
The Starship Enterprise felt like my home and its crew, my family. My living room made the perfect bridge of the ship when I played Star Trek with my friends Dan Reading and Neal Feldman. The front window was the view screen, the coffee table was the navigation console, the corner desk, replete with a slide viewer, was perfect as Mr. Spock's science station. I barked orders as Captain Kirk from my dad's easy chair.
I broke a stained glass lampshade while trying to move it out of harms way before the Klingons attacked, and I fouled up the controls of the washing machine in the basement while pretending it was the transporter room. Dan, Neal and I spent hours imaginatively transforming old toys like wooden blocks into communicators and phasers.
If I had gone on to build a tremendous amount of clout in Hollywood as a successful writer/creator/producer/director, I would likely be tempted to fulfill my fantasy of playing Star Trek with my friends for fun and profit. I am not anywhere near that position but, thankfully, Family Guy creator Seth Macfarlane is, and he has done it with great aplomb.
Macfarlane is known for irreverent, rapid fire comedy with the Family Guy cartoon and its empire of spin-offs as well as the Ted movies, and there is a comedic element to The Orville, but the funny moments are incidental and derived from the characters behaving like real people rather than stoic space-borne adventurers.
Macfarlane stars as Captain Ed Mercer whose career as an officer in the Planetary Union is in free fall after his divorce, until he is unexpectedly granted command of a small exploratory starship called the Orville. The only catch? His First Officer is his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicky) who cheated on him with a fin-headed blue alien named Derulio (Rob Lowe).
The crew is filled out by a couple of talented pilots who never outgrew their fraternity days, a pretty, petite alien woman possessed of the strength of a hundred humans ("Alara, can you open this jar of pickles for me?" is a recurring line whenever a hatch door is stuck), an aloof alien android, a pragmatic doctor who is a single mother of two brats, and Bortus, a Klingon-ish alien who comes from an all male planet that reproduces by laying eggs.
On the surface, the show's plot lines appear to be an edgier updating of the original Star Trek (although that show was often pretty edgy for the 60's) with characters that are relatable to today's viewer. A recurring background character named Dann, a bulbous-headed alien engineer, is easily recognizable as that annoying wannabe office hipster who always seems to be at the water-cooler when you're thirsty, asking you personal questions and responding with "Sweetness!"
ut there is more going on here. Much more. Macfarlane clearly recognized the veiled efforts at social commentary that were snuck past the censors by Star Trek creator/producer Gene Roddenberry and has made a priority of developing that theme in The Orville.
A season one episode concerned a planet that had no judicial system. The inhabitants were judged solely by their actions being captured on video by strangers and uploaded to the world wide web for judgement. Offenders go on media tours to repair their images before they receive ten million "down-votes" and a lobotomy.
The most compelling episodes of the show concern the relationship between Third Officer Bortus (Peter Macon) and his husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman). The alien couple have a child after Bortus lays and hatches an egg, but in an extremely rare occurrence, the child is a female. When Bortus awards the honor of performing the ceremonial procedure of "correcting" the child's gender to Doctor Finn (Penny Johnson-Gerald) she is appalled and refuses.
The second season of The Orville (airing now on Fox) features an episode that upped the ante considerably. It entwined the daring rescue of survivors from a dying planet with the subject of pornography addiction. Bortus becomes distant from Klyden and their newly minted son, preferring sexual fantasy scenarios in the ships simulation room to going home. Bortus's obsessive quest for more intense titillation leads him to acquire a black market software program containing a virus that nearly destroys the ship and its crew.
The Orville has been slagged by a number of critics who began with a bias against Macfarlane and clearly had the show on in the background while they were on Twitter. This show is brilliantly written, cast and acted, and it sports the best special effects you will see on any science fiction show. It is a joy to watch.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.