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Monday, 11 September 2017

The Orville 1-01: Old Wounds (Quick Review)

Episode:1|Writer:Seth MacFarlane|Air Date:10-Sep-2017

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I've got a surprise mini-review of The Orville's brand new pilot episode for you!

The Orville is a live action sci-fi comedy drama series by Family Guy and American Dad creator Seth MacFarlane, starring himself as the captain of the U.S.S. Orville, a starship on a mission to boldly go and discover some new worlds and civilizations and stuff. I've read a lot of reviews by folks who've already seen the first three episodes and they weren't exactly kind to the series, but I'm still a little optimistic. I've often thought that it's a shame that talented Star Trek fans always go to so much trouble to replicate the classic series exactly with their fan films, when they could go for 'close enough', drop the name, and make some money for their hard work, and now it seems MacFarlane's done exactly that! Plus he got Iron Man/Zathura director Jon Favreau to direct the pilot, which seems like a smart idea.

Alright, this is going to be a super-rushed next-day quick review with no recap, few screencaps and no second draft, but there will still be a few mild SPOILERS scattered around. I won't spoil the whole plot for you this time though, or the jokes (the trailer beat me to it).

I'll get the most important criticism out of the way right at the start: I don't like the spaceship much. The front bit is fine, but then it gets all bendy and weird. It's almost like it's getting sucked into itself in that middle section. But they've pulled a Red Dwarf and made an actual physical filming model for the ship, which earns it some points. Not because motion control filming is necessarily better than CGI these days, but because it's harder and the producers did it anyway. Because they give a damn.

I was thinking of writing a paragraph to describe the setting, but there's no point. You can just check a Star Trek wiki and do a find/replace to change 'Federation' to 'Planetary Union' and 'warp drive' to 'quantum drive', and you'll get the gist of it. They even throw out the same "Shields down to 66% captain!" lines during combat, except here they say "Deflectors at two-thirds power."

The series is so Star Trek: The Next Generation at times that it feels like the characters have been composited into a virtual set tour taken from those Interactive Technical Manual CDs they used to make. The sets are all suitably beige, but they've tried to match the overly bright lighting too and it's made all the characters look like they were filmed in front of a green screen. It's got the feel of a well-made spoof where they've taken the production design seriously, a bit like Spaceballs or Galaxy Quest, or a higher budget Red Dwarf or Hyperdrive, and it's got the crew to match. They've got some serious actors in the cast but they're all playing sitcom characters here.

Which is why it's weird that the episode takes itself so damn seriously.

It's clear that this is a story written by someone who's seen all of the Star Trek pilot episodes, but it's also got a surprising amount of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in there too, with its orchestral soundtrack and its slow dramatic shots of the hero ship.

Except instead of Captain Kirk flying into a beautifully realised utopian future San Francisco to meet with Starfleet Command, it starts with Captain Mercer flying into a beautifully realised utopian future New York just in time to catch his wife banging an alien he calls 'Papa Smurf', who then sprays blue gunk from his head in his shock. This gunk is later revealed to be... difficult to clean from white lampshades. The series is allowed to go dirtier in its comedy than Trek but it doesn't push it too far.

Though imagine if the Motion Picture had its heroic Jerry Goldsmith theme tune playing through it constantly, and then imagine if the theme was replaced by a non-copyright infringing knock-off version, and then you'll have an idea of why the soundtrack started to drive me nuts by the halfway point of the episode. It feels like the theme never ever stops. Even though the episode's over it still hasn't stopped, it's still looping in my head. Plus the music is so sincerely heroic the whole time that it makes the series feel like a parody even when it's trying to play it straight, and it does try to play it straight more than you'd expect.

The first half of the episode is all about Mercer getting his ship, flying over in a shuttlepod with his old buddy, and meeting the crew, and it sure takes it time about it. I've read reviews that say that all the jokes were in the trailer and they were pretty much right, though they were taken out of context to make the captain seem inept and the helmsman come off like he's drunk. They're not really a wisecracking crew of misfits, they're just kind of average flawed people in an exceptional job.

But then the plot kicks in for the second half of the episode and Mercer gets to take part in a proper Star Trek adventure with laser gun shoot outs and a space battle... which he mostly sees as a series of opportunities to be an unprofessional jerk to his ex-wife, who's now his executive offer. He really works hard to burn off any sympathy he's earned up to that point in his one-sided bitching. Their failed relationship is where the episode title Old Wounds comes from, though there's also a device that makes things get old, and this ends up wounding people, so there's a cunning double meaning there. Probably accidental.

I don't want to sound overwhelmingly negative about the series though as there are things I thought were good. I liked the uniforms for instance, and the alien makeup, and the Worf character, and the surprise DC/Marvel crossover at the end where Mockingbird's actress gets a scene with Firestorm.

Plus I like how they never mention why the ship's called the Orville, but Mercer has a model of one of the Wright Brothers' famous planes on his desk.

I've heard people complain about Seth MacFarlane's performance as Captain Mercer, but to be honest I ended up liking him too. I'm more bothered by his performance as a writer here. The concept of a science fiction comedy-drama series isn't a mind-blowingly original one, as I'm struggling to think of a series that doesn't have jokes. Even Battlestar Galactica had a comedy episode! But instead having serious characters in comedic situations, Orville has comedy characters in serious situations, undercut by a sit-com joke thrown in at the end of the scene. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that more often than not the joke didn't work for me.

Also, these two up front really need some better material, because right now their joke seems to be that they want to wear shorts and drink soda on the bridge. It'd be fine if they came off a bit more natural in their performance and dialogue, but right now they're more like sit-com characters with nothing funny to do. And the robot doesn't even have a joke, aside from his costume.

But the worst, most unforgivable part of the episode is how the bridge's roof continues over the top of the corridor for a bit. My brain don't like that geometry one bit. Also it must be a bastard to clean up there.

The second worst thing about it is the marketing, as it was made to look like Galaxy Quest by the writers of Family Guy and Futurama, and it just isn't. It's more like Next Gen, except with dumb jokes, unnatural characters, and an uneven tone that kills the drama and comes off like unintended parody,... so basically season 1 Next Gen then.

Is the episode good? In my opinion... no. Would I keep watching? Hell yeah. Star Trek series generally take two seasons to click, and this could be pretty decent in a couple of years, once they've figured out what they're doing with it and the characters are firmly established. Assuming Fox hasn't cancelled it by then, which they will have.

The Orville may return with Command Performance. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I still need to get around to Babylon 5's The Coming of Shadows.


  1. I was going to say something about how I like Star Trek but that it's a universe in which comedy doesn't exist, but then I remembered every episode of TNG with Worf in a main role.

    1. I've been revisiting early Next Gen episodes through podcasts and they had all kinds of jokes! Like Data with his fingers stuck in a Chinese finger trap, or Data falling over drunk, or Data getting too much into Sherlock Holmes while the diplomats on board are murdering and eating each other. I wouldn't go as far as saying that comedy existed in those first couple of seasons, but it wasn't due to a lack of trying.

      They got better at it in later seasons though. Plus original Trek had Trouble with Tribbles and A Piece of the Action, DS9 had Little Green Men and Take Me Out to the Holosuite, Voyager had any scene with Robert Picardo in, and Enterprise had its theme tune.