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Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Orville: Season 1 Review

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm taking a break from reviewing episodes to review an entire season! I'm doing this earlier than expected because Fox went and stole an episode then carried it off to season 2, so it turned out to be a 12 episode run instead of the promised 13. I'm fairly sure the missing episodes counts as being part of next season though and it's not going to be a really late season 1 finale; either way it's missed its chance of being included here.

I'm calling this a season review, but as there's only one season so far I'll probably end up talking more about what I think of The Orville is as a series. Fortunately I've been doing that in my individual episode reviews along the way, so I should be able to get away with just copy and pasting a few paragraphs over and rephrasing them a bit. No one's going to notice.

This may contain SPOILERS for everything in season one from Old Wounds to Mad Idolatry, but I won't go crazy and start spoiling Star Trek: Discovery as well. Even though I want to, because c'mon the two series are crying out for a proper comparison. It's like Deep Space Nine vs. Babylon 5 all over again right now, except more so.

I was cautiously optimistic about The Orville from the start, even way back when all I knew about it was that Mockingbird from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be starring on some kind of comedy series made by Star Trek fan Seth MacFarlane, set on a spaceship with a goofy name. I didn't know if it was going to be like Red Dwarf, Galaxy Quest, or a full-on spoof like Spaceballs, but it had my interest at 'spaceship'.

Then it turned out to basically be MacFarlane's own Star Trek: The Next Generation fan series! And like all Trek fan films he's given himself the lead role of the daring and heroic captain who gets all the girls (and one blue guy).

The Orville 1-02: Thus Travels the Bold... not really
I feel like I should be defending the series from people calling it a shameless Trek rip-off by pointing out all the countless other series set on a spaceship... but no it really obviously does want to be Star Trek. But unlike other fan films (including the one he apparently did himself as a teenager), The Orville has replicated the spirit of Star Trek without being an exaggerated imitation of it. It presents pretty much the same hopeful utopian Star Trek future, but they've changed all the names and made different looking spaceships... which turns out to be a pretty crucial step in not getting sued by CBS and Paramount. Next Gen ended 23 years ago though and its successors went in their own directions, so they've left the door wide open for someone else to come in and give it a try, and MacFarlane has put enough of a spin on the formula here to make it his own. The crew's much more laid-back and relatable, it's set up more like a sit-com, and it's got no shame about being juvenile or throwing out pop culture references to get a laugh. Next Gen had a lot of comedy too (and DS9 had the laid-back characters), but Trek has generally tried to be more timeless and its crews always take their jobs painfully seriously; Data would be stopped short of innocently reciting a dirty limerick on the Enterprise bridge, but you'd never catch him watching Seinfeld on the viewscreen. The Orville hasn't really made fun of its setting or genre though and it hasn't gone into full Legends of Tomorrow farce either; the universe is played straight, it's only the characters who are ridiculous. It's not being camp or satirical, it's just not embarrassed to be a 90s-style genre TV show about a crew having weekly adventures and dealing with clich├ęd moral dilemmas. Meanwhile, the creators of the new Star Trek series decided they'd rather go in the exact other direction...

The biggest sci-fi question I've had going through my head this year wasn't 'Are they going to finally reveal if Deckard's a replicant?' or 'Is Luke Skywalker going to go to the dark side?' or even 'Who's the next Doctor going to be?' it was 'Which one's going be the trash fire, The Orville or Discovery?' The Orville was the underdog from the start (and Voyager/Enterprise producer Brannon Braga being on board didn't fill me with optimism), but Discovery did a great job at chipping away at my enthusiasm with its production drama, the ugly CGI on the teaser trailer, the leaked photo of the new Klingons, the rumours about mushrooms, and so on. In the end Discovery was delayed so much that both series aired at almost exactly the same time, which has unfortunately made comparisons between the two series inevitable. Wait, that's not unfortunate, that's great! It's like we're witnessing one show split into its light and dark sides by a transporter accident, revealing the duality of Trek, or something. I hope they always run side by side like this, and that they're eventually cancelled together so that the two halves of their souls may finally be joined once more in whatever spin-off comes next.

Putting the two children of Trek side by side makes it easier to tell what kind of series The Orville's been this season, and what it hasn't been. Discovery's been a very grim, gritty, introspective and claustrophobic series, all about people dealing with trauma and being pushed to choose expediency over morality. The Orville, on the other hand, has been all about boldly going and getting into various sci-fi scenarios taking place in pretty sci-fi scenery. Sometimes they did a bit of social commentary, sometimes they dealt with a moral dilemma, sometimes there was a wibbly wobbly thing in space that caused them problems and one time Alara just needed to beat up a supernatural clown to get her confidence back. Also Discovery likes its mysteries, with its ambiguous captain and hints that there's more going on than what we're seeing, but The Orville's more of an anthology so for the most part it lives firmly in the present. The characters have occasionally remembered what happened last week, so it hasn't gone full Next Gen, but season 1 wasn't really building to anything and we weren't waiting for them to get to the firework factory the whole time. The series is trying to match a style of storytelling people were getting sick of in the 90s, with series like Voyager forbidden to embrace the serialisation they were crying out for, but we've got all the consequences and continuity we could want on television these days and The Orville doesn't need them. I'm very happy with it telling a separate stand-alone short story each week and I'm considering the fact that it doesn't quite fit with modern TV to be a feature, not a bug.

Plus, like Next Gen, it presents a bright, cosy, happy, hopeful world and good likeable people you want to spend time with. Sure they occasionally pull horrific pranks, but they've got the sci-fi super-medicine to fix that and they all care about each other. Which is good, because their fun banter made up for the fact that a lot of the jokes fell flat for me this season and the ones that worked were rarely laugh out loud funny. On the other hand, Discovery's an interesting ship and I love the shiny bridge, but I would not want to live there. The atmosphere's kind of miserable and oppressive, and they never go anywhere cool.

Speaking of miserable things I wouldn't enjoy, here's a brief list of the things I didn't like about The Orville's first season:


The Orville did have a few ongoing threads running through the season and I personally wasn't keen on any of them. It didn't do anything for Alara's depth as a person when every conversation with her seemed to come back to her off-screen boyfriend issues, the scenes about Bortus and Klyden's strained marriage seemed to be there for no other reason than to remind us that Klyden and the baby still exist, and Yaphet continually bothering Claire, despite the fact she made it absolutely obvious that she wasn't interested, just made me hate the guy. In fact, she totally should've reported him halfway through the season.

But if season 1's about anything overall, it's the relationship between Ed and his ex-wife XO Kelly. The first scene of the season is Ed walking away after catching her cheating on him, the last scene is Kelly walking away after he starts breaking rules for her. And between those two scenes, they've been dealing with the pain they caused each other and repairing their friendship... and Ed's been an unlikeable unprofessional jerk who kept taking mean shots at her. I generally like it when ongoing plots are weaved into stand-alone stories, but throughout the season episodes would be building up some momentum and getting interesting, then suddenly this would jump back out and trip the story up. I appreciate the writers treating the characters as actual people instead of punchlines, but next year I want to see more of Kelly the first officer and Kelly the away team leader rather than Kelly the woman who has to keep apologising for sleeping with someone else during a failing marriage.

The other thing that stands out to me as a flaw (because it's kind of hard to miss) is the ship's interior. I love that they built a giant two-story set with spiral staircases and that they had the nerve to go for the brightly lit beige 'hotel in space' Next Gen look instead of something more impressive to modern audiences, but it makes the series look more like a cheap Trek spoof instead of an expensive Trek pastiche. This works great for episodes like Cupid's Dagger that go full comedy, but I hope they can find a way to tweak the ship a little for a season 2. Maybe they could try sticking strips of black tape all over everything, that always worked for Star Trek.

Also I still hate the brown fabric-looking wall at the back of the bridge and the way the corridor juts out under the ceiling. They need to get that fixed or else I'll going to complain about it some more to someone at some point. But enough whining, here are some things I liked about this season:


Some people think the series needs to drop the jokes, some people think it needs to be less serious, but personally I like the weird mix of sit-com humour and legit 90's sci-fi stories The Orville had going on this season. Not that 90s sci-fi series didn't have jokes, only a fool who hasn't seen DS9's Trials and Tribble-ations, SG-1's Window of Opportunity, Farscape's Cracker's Don't Matter, or pretty much any episode of anything would claim such a thing, but The Orville's trying to be funny almost all the time and hasn't been adverse to going low-brow. For the first few episodes the humour wasn't working for me and the jokes were just spoiling my fun space show, but they figured it out in the end, and on occasion they absolutely nailed it. Like with Gordon and Isaac's pranks, or Bortus doing karaoke, or Bortus eating a cactus, or Bortus opening his mouth in general.

They've got a really solid cast here and they all found their characters very quickly. I was worried they'd all be incompetent and unprofessional, but they're just eccentric or childish. They're not even unexceptional, as the captain was top of his class, the pilot is the best in the fleet, the security chief can bend steel with her hands, the chief engineer is a genius, the doctor's basically a Star Trek character and the science officer is better than everyone at everything. The humour came out of who they are rather than how they did their jobs.

Though I also like how the season had no problem putting the comedy on pause when appropriate. Some scenes in episodes like Majority Rule and Into the Fold were played entirely straight, because none of the funny characters were in them, and it worked for those stories. Plus whenever there was a space scene it switched straight to soundtrack-assisted awe and wonder so hard I thought that the shamelessly dramatic music was supposed to be the joke at first.

But nope, the series has a sincere enthusiasm for the majesty of the cosmos that rivals anything since 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and it's been taking the Farscape approach to its visual effects shots, with them generally looking like a work of art. I think Discovery's first season may have the edge when it comes to CGI, but it's got so many filters on it's hard to tell. Plus The Orville's gone old school with some shots, as the VFX crew followed Red Dwarf's lead and went back to filming a physical miniature!

The soundtrack was a highlight even when I wasn't enjoying yet another one of 2017's most dramatic shuttle launching scenes, but that's not a huge surprise considering that the showrunner is the guy who once hired one of Next Gen's best composers for Family Guy... the composer who was fired from Trek for making his music "too noticeable" when the franchise transitioned to using offensively bland 'sonic wallpaper'. Not that Ron Jones ended up doing any music for The Orville this year, but the season still sounds like early Next Gen at its best, while generally avoiding that cringeworthy twinkly synthy saccharine sound that infected it at its worst. They've really gotten a lot of use out of that 75-piece orchestra.

I also appreciated it when there was a proper science fiction story underneath all the jokes, VFX and music. Though the comedy actually helps there in a way, as anyone who's seen Futurama or Rick and Morty knows that you're allowed to play with wilder sci-fi concepts when viewers are expecting the ridiculous (not that it's stopped the comparatively sombre Discovery and its bloody mushrooms). Plus the humour didn't stop stories from being tragic or thought-provoking or heart-warming on occasion. I think the season was at its best when it dealt with social issues with a sci-fi twist in episodes like About a Girl and Majority Rule... but it was also at its best when it about Alara rebuilding her confidence by facing an invasion of fear monsters, so I guess I want them to keep remixing those old Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes next season and keep doing everything else they've been doing as well. Except for the Ed and Kelly relationship obviously.


Has The Orville managed to live up to its premise so far? Well the crew have been to a generation ship, an alternate dimension and the future, they've dealt with the topics of gender, religion, social media, religion, consent and religion, and they've blown shit up, brought together warring factions and hunted down a rogue clown, so by my reckoning it's done alright. It's definitely done better than Deep Space Nine and Voyager did coming out of the gate at making use of the concepts and characters set up in the pilot episode. Already it's got the sci-fi adventure of classic Star Trek, the style of Next Gen, the character continuity of DS9, the opening titles of Voyager, a couple of writers from Enterprise and like Discovery it's enough removed from 90s Trek to have a fresh start without the baggage.

But did The Orville's first season live up to its potential? Not really; there's definite room for improvement here in all departments (especially the one in charge of the furniture for the mess hall), and I couldn't say it comes close to Next Gen at its peak. But it does stomp all over Next Gen at its worst, and I'd rate it better than the first seasons of DS9, Voyager and Babylon 5 as well. I'd probably rate it higher than the first seasons of a bunch of other series as well if I could remember them, as sci-fi shows like this typically took a few years to figure themselves out.

While I'm rating things above other things, here have my controversial and shocking season 1 episode rankings:

12.Old Wounds - I found The Orville's pilot to be likeable enough but it's not a great episode of television. It takes too long for the plot to kick in and you can almost hear the gearbox grinding every time it shifts back and forth from comedy mode.
11.Pria - This one's got some nice effects and an interesting premise but I found it kind of dull. Though on the other hand it does have the amazing practical joke subplot.
10.New Dimensions - Same as Pria. Nice effects, interesting premise, Isaac and Gordon have another great scene, but I wasn't all that engaged by it.
9.Mad Idolatry - I loved the crew trying to figure out how to fix an alien civilization after accidentally starting a major religion, and Ed getting caught mimicking the admiral like a child was one of the few times I've laughed out loud at the series, but that Ed and Kelly B-plot dragged this down for me too.
8.Into the Fold - The Orville strayed a bit too far into 90s Star Trek here, to the point where the episode lost some of its charm and the B-plot lost the comedy entirely. But it turns out that a robot being blunt and insulting to annoying kids never gets old.
7.If the Stars Should Appear - The Orville doing a proper Original Series Star Trek planet mission for the first time (but on a spaceship). Not the best version of what it is, but the comedy and drama were mixing much better by this point.
6.Command Performance - Maybe I've rated this one too high because it was the first story to air after the dodgy pilot and at the time I was just happy the episode was sort of working, but the episode sort of works! That Ed and Kelly B-plot though.
5.Majority Rule - The Orville bringing the social commentary. If there's one episode this season that stuck in my brain and got me thinking afterwards, it's this one. (If there's two, the other would be Mad Idolatry.)
4.Krill - I was cringing too hard at Gordon undercover to put this in the top three, but this is a really solid episode with a fantastic teaser (Bortus eating everything) and a surprisingly bleak ending.
3.About a Girl - This was the point where I realised that The Orville was actually taking this sci-fi thing seriously. Ask me tomorrow and I might change my mind and put this at #1, but right now it's #3.
2.Firestorm - I'm possibly ranking this too high, but I was so relieved that the explanation for everyone's fears coming to life made sense on every level that I want to give it bonus points. Plus it's a really good episode.
1.Cupid's Dagger - Hey, the episode that everyone else hates got the top spot! I wasn't sure that the comedy outweighed my issues with Darulio being let off the hook for drugging Ed and Kelly and then sleeping with them, but then I remembered Bortus doing karaoke at the start and realised this can't not be my favourite.

I've been a Star Trek fan for a long while now so I've been conditioned to expect every episode of everything to be a roll of the dice, but The Orville's yet to really disappoint me. It's bored me on occasion (Pria, New Dimensions) and that pilot was a bit crap at times, but none of these episodes have been outright terrible. Though I've got one last question to answer before I'm done with this review: which is worse, The Orville or Star Trek: Discovery? 

I'd put them neck and neck at this point, is my boring reply. I've noticed a lot of other Trek fans coming down strongly on one side or the other though and I think that's pretty awesome, as it means the two different groups are apparently both getting what they want. And both series have been renewed so I get two Star Trek shows to watch next year. As it should be.

That's it for The Orville from me I'm afraid as I probably won't be covering season 2 (I've got enough to write about). But next on Sci-fi Adventures I'm watching Doctor Who's 2016 Christmas special The Return of Doctor Mysterio.

Leave a comment if you feel like it!


  1. I'm glad you've come away with a pretty positive feeling about The Orville. I may even have to try watching it myself.

    1. Yeah you should definitely give it a shot. Worst thing that can happen is you end up being miserable for an hour or more and then lose all faith in my ability to critically assess entertainment.

  2. just leaving this comment to say that i really enjoy your style of writing. witty, yet not cynical. it's always a delight. but sadly you neglect DS9 a lot. those long in-depth reviews of an episode are a TREAT.
    a reader

    1. Thanks for your insightful top quality feedback.

      Don't worry, the long in-depth reviews aren't going anywhere. Well, not permanently anyway. I'm finished with The Orville now and in a couple of months I'll be done with Discovery too, so I should have more time for DS9 then.

      To be honest I prefer the long reviews to the short ones too, as I'd rather nitpick dumb things in context than share my overall opinions in a way that simultaneously explains the plot of a 25 year old episode most people likely haven't seen in a while. They take a bit longer to write though.

  3. Just dropping a line to say thank you for your reviews (and the super adventures ones too)! Long or short, I've enjoyed them all. I gave Babylon 5 another go thanks to your reviews and once I pushed through season 1 was hooked! So thanks again, and look forward to what you do in 2018.

    1. That's cool. I've got no way of knowing if people prefer the long or quick reviews unless they tell me, so it's nice to know they're both working for you. Also congrats on enduring all of B5 season 1. It's depressing how many people quit the series after just a couple of episodes... or after seeing a season 1 cast photo.