Dec 09, 2017

What The Orville did right, to become one of 2017’s better sci-fi series

It isn’t Seth MacFarlane setting Family Guy in space, but something better. A spoof or a parody it’s not. And if you haven’t seen it, here’s a discovery you may come to enjoy. Here’s why.

BYGautham Shenoy

When the first descriptions of The Orville came out, it sounded like a goofball spoof of Star Trek in the vein of Galaxy Quest, or something approaching Family Guy in space at the very least. The trailer only helped to perpetuate this perception. Compounding this was that fact that it was to be helmed by a man known for more for his you-either-love-it-or-hate-it brand of humour of Family Guy and Ted – Seth MacFarlane. But with Season 1 of The Orville having ended, it can now be said that these perceptions were just that. The reality turned out to be something else altogether, a discovery one can quite come to enjoy with each passing episode. Little wonder The Orville became one of the first shows this season to get renewed for another run next year.
Set 400 years in the future – in a time of post-scarcity, of matter synthesisers, and when knowledge and smarts is a determinant of status – The Orville follows the voyages of the mid-sized exploratory starship Orville, led by the down-on-his-luck Captain Ed Mercer (played by Seth MacFarlane), with his motley crew of not quite-the-finest that the Planetary Union has to offer. Mercer’s ex-wife who’s now his First Officer (played by Adrianne Palicki); a Chief Medical Officer who’s a single mother with two brats; a member of an artificial, non-biological race that considers all biological lifeforms as inferior as the Science Officer (Mark Jackson); the resident goofball, an inveterate prankster who’s the chief helmsman (Scott Grimes); his partner-in-crime, the navigator (J. Lee); a formal and humourless Second Officer who belongs to a race of single-gender species (Peter Macon); a super strong xelayan but the young and inexperienced, 23-year-old Chief of Security (Halston Sage) and a gelatinous green blob.

Inside the Orville’s bridge: The senior officers of U.S.S. Orville

You may not often hear MacFarlane’s name spoken of in the same breath as Carl Sagan, but then it was his financial investment that made the follow-up to 1980’s Cosmos, 2014’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, possible. Seth MacFarlane may not come across as obviously geeky or as a sci-fi fan, but anyone who’s followed Family Guy knows he is one.
MacFarlane has spoken on many occasions how he misses the optimism and the hopeful side of science fiction (as do many of us). How he’s tired of being told everything is going to be grim and dystopian (as are many of us). Faced with questions like this, The Orville was his answer. It is the void left by Star Trek – especially The Original Series & The Next Generation – that The Orville seeks to occupy. And it’s apparent from the very first episode of The Orville, as MacFarlane quite nicely channels his inner Trekkie, to deliver a nice homage to classic Star Trek while keeping it contemporary in terms of its cultural reference points and the issues that it tackles.
The Orville is a comedy that doesn’t want to be flat-out funny, and a drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Walking this fine balance – while taking advantage of the endless potential that a science fiction setting offers to hold a mirror to our current society – The Orville offers light-hearted viewing in classic episodic fashion. Every episode with a beginning, a main story, a middle, a sub-plot and a conclusive end. No cliff-hangers that force you to watch the next episode, only to disappoint you. No being gritty for the sake of being dark, no flawed heroes struggling dramatically with inner demons, just a bunch of normal people in space trying to make the best of a given situation; giving the viewer just enough food for thought without being burdensome. What it also doesn’t have is a lot of action scenes and explosions to distract you from the fact that the story is flimsy and the tension, drama and action are just there to fill up the run time. The Orville’s TV budget – or maybe the lack of it – which probably doesn’t allow for a lot of CGI or explosions, means that the story – and writing – has to do the heavy lifting, and the chemistry between the crew, the plotting, dialogues and moral debates taking the place of visual spectacles. And that’s a good thing.
The chief characters aboard The Orville

There are also little touches that make it worth a watch when you spot them. A scale-model Kitty Hawk on the Captain’s desk. A fictional transuranic element called Dysonium, which is a nod to the physicist Freeman Dyson. A reference to the classic 1884 novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott in an episode when the three-dimensional Orville and its occupants take refuge in a 2-Dimensional anomaly (Flatland’s a metaphor for inequality, Ed Mercer notes). The technobabble is glorious. Sample this, when Capt. Ed Mercer describes how his ship is powered by a “Dysonium Quantum Drive” capable of speeds in “excess of 10 lightyears per hour”. But if you are expecting a lot of Red Shirts, you’d be disappointed in that one aspect.
The Orville doesn’t get predictable, with each episode offering up something new, tackling different issues that are relevant today, fleshing out the personalities of the crew – both human and alien, and their times in greater detail as it goes on. In the fourth episode, for instance, I was Taken: By Surprise to see Liam Neeson in a well-played cameo in an interesting sci-fi take on religious fundamentalism and with climate change denial the metaphor. One of the other episodes, for instance, does quite a good satirical take-down of trial by (social) media. Another – starring Charlize Theron – is a nice time travel story. Or an episode where the Captain and his ex-wife First Officer find themselves as creatures on display in an intergalactic zoo run by a more technologically advanced alien race. Take any of the later episodes – third onwards – for a test-drive, because that is when the writing and the characters find their feet firmly, with the first two not being bad at all, just a bit uneven, though recommended because that’s where it sets the foundation for all the adventures to come. And unlike a typical season for a US series with 24 episodes, The Orville’s first season is just 12 episodes long, so even if you don’t quite warm up to it, you can’t accuse it of overstaying its welcome.
Ever since it began airing The Orville has divided opinion. At the time of writing this, The Orville holds a score of 36 from the critics indicating ‘generally unfavourable’ reviews, but the User Score is at 8.2 which means, ‘Universal Acclaim’. Could the audience and critics disagree more? The situation is no different over at Rotten Tomatoes. While the Critics’ Tomatometer is at 21% implying ‘rotten’, the Average Audience Score shows a tub of fresh popcorn with a high score of 93%.
So if you are the kind of viewer who would watch a movie or a show despite the critics rating it very highly (or low), and/or who’d like a dose of light-hearted enjoyable sci-fi entertainment, a space adventure with a garnish of nostalgia and sprinkled with banter, take The Orville out for a spin. And do let us have your opinion by leaving a comment below or tweeting your thoughts to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD.
On that note, I sign off for now and hope to see you here next weekend for another edition of New Worlds Weekly, as we hurtle towards the end of 2017.
Live Long and Prosper!

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.