Review: The Orville (season 1)

As a lifelong Trekkie (who has been profoundly disappointed by Star Trek: Discovery) I’ve been really curious to see what The Orville was all about. I’ve heard a lot of folk talking very positively about this show, even claiming it fills a Star Trek void in a way the most recent Star Treks fail to do.

High praise indeed. My curiosity was piqued. And so, late for the party as usual, I watched the trailer for season one before deciding to buy the DVD.

I won’t lie to you. I bought it with a certain trepidation. The trailer made it look a bit too spoofy for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good spoof, but it’s been twenty years and I’m still in remission from Galaxy Quest. Had it not been for the great reviews I found online, I probably wouldn’t have taken this gamble.

Lucky for me, I did. Season one was brilliant. Yes, it is a comedy spoof in some ways, with subtle-as-a-phaser-on-kill references to all your favourite Star Trek tropes, but it also retains something of the drama and depths that made Star Trek great.

So, that’s enough about how it compares with Star Trek. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

This series begins with Captain Mercer being grudgingly offered the captaincy of a starship after a year of wallowing in a pit of despair after he caught his wife, Cmdr. Kelly Grayson, in bed with a blue alien. He’s thrilled to be in the captain’s seat again– until he discovers his ex-wife is his first officer. The ensuing story arc concerning their working relationship is predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. The other characters are also reasonably well developed, largely playing on your favourite Star Trek tropes (an artificial lifeform who doesn’t understand humour, a burly alien with a grim countenance and so on and so forth) but distinctive enough in their own right.

The first episode or two seemed a little heavier on the immature spoof humour than the rest. Off-beat gags about how frequently aliens need to urinate, whether or not the navigator was allowed to bring drinks onto the bridge and how badly framed the Krill commander appeared on the view screen while he threatened to destroy the Orville jarred slightly, however as the show wore on it began to develop a much more even balance of humour, drama and suspense, seasoning each story with humour rather than depending on it to carry the narrative.

Critics have largely slammed this show’s mixture of drama and comedy, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit the pattern for your typical spoof or a sci-fi drama, but instead mashes them together in a way which is, perhaps, a little unusual. But this show isn’t your typical spoof. It’s a homage to Star Trek by someone who clearly loves the show and wants to do it justice; as such there are episodes which tickle you, others which have you on the edge of your seat and others make you stop and think. I don’t think it’s a flaw. In fact, I liked that about this show. It made it stand out among other tedious spoofs and depressingly grim actual Star Trek shows like Discovery. “Majority Rule” for instance (easily my favourite episode of the season) brings together a well measured dose of humour and a plot the audience could really care about. There was something at stake. Lt. LaMarr was in real danger and we cared about his plight while also bemoaning his hilariously cringe-inducing attempts to save himself. I think this episode even has something to say about real life and the negative impact of social media on the modern world. It’s everything a meaty but light-hearted TV comedy drama should be.

I will say this against the first season: some of the stories have slightly disappointing endings. I don’t want to get too detailed and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it so I’ll just give one example of what I’m talking about. Be warned, there is a big stinking spoiler coming up in this next paragraph. Ready? Here it comes:

In the episode “If the Stars Should Appear”, the Orville crew discover a massive ship with an artificial biosphere inside: grass, trees, cities and farms. The people living there have never seen a night sky because the ship’s roof constantly displays a day sky. They do not realise they are on a ship and, apart from a small and fiercely persecuted group of heretics called Reformers, they all revere a deity called Dorahl. Social tension is at boiling point between the Reformers and the established theocracy. Then in the final moments of the episode, the Orville crew find a way to open the ship’s ‘sunroof’, thus allowing the inhabitants to see a night sky and proving the Reformers right. Good night. The end. Mission accomplished. All social tensions resolved, truth wins over ignorance and…

Yeah. This is a dissatisfying ending, no denying it. It was too easy. You can’t just flick a switch and resolve centuries of false belief, social tension and theocratic dictatorship. Remember, these guys have never even seen stars. What do you think would happen in real life if the sky was suddenly replaced with something bizarre, like brickwork or something. Rioting, surely. Certainly not a quick fix to the main conflict that’s blighting society. Not only was it hard to believe, but it’s also one step away from deus ex machina, which is unforgivable even in a comedy. And there are a few episodes which end like that.

I do have one more complaint about this series. Sometimes, especially on the more serious episodes, key issues will be left hanging and are never referred to again. For instance, it is strongly implied at the beginning of one episode that Bortus and Klyden are having marital difficulties, as Bortus leaves for work in a huff while Klyden whines that he feels neglected. Given that in a previous episode they had recently been to court over whether or not their newborn should be given gender reassignment surgery (being female is considered a birth defect on their world), I naturally imagined that this was going to be an on-going part of the story arc but… it wasn’t. It was never referred to again and that was pretty much it.

All in all, a very enjoyable show. There’s probably a lot of good reasons why the critics can find fault with it at a technical level but if you just take it for what it is — a bit of Star Trek inspired fun — it’s a thoroughly enjoyable show. I loved every minute of it and I will certainly be purchasing season 2.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]