I’ve been kind of fascinated by the extreme gulf between critical and audience reaction to The Orville, the new Sci-Fi adventure comedy that premièred on Sunday. Rotten Tomatoes currently says the show’s scored 22% positive in critical reviews but the audience score is 90%. It’s not just on Rotten Tomatoes I see this divide—nearly every online review I’ve read is negative, some downright vitriolic, while in the comments section I see mostly people puzzled and somewhat taken aback by all the negative reviews. The general consensus among the comments I’ve looked at seems to be that while the pilot episode is flawed the show’s not bad at all and has a lot of potential. This is basically my feeling after having watched it.
At Comic Con this year, I was already hearing a lot of jabs at Orville on panels, more than one person calling it a rip-off of Galaxy Quest, which it certainly isn’t. The film Galaxy Quest is a spoof centred on the actors on a Star Trek style show while Orville is clearly not a parody at all but an earnest attempt to create a space opera with heavy homages to Star Trek but with a more comedic tone. This might have been close to the Galaxy Quest series that has been in development for a long time but at best I’d say it’s two shows in the same genre. If you’re angry at Orville for being too much like Galaxy Quest you might as well swear off Deep Space Nine for being too much like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica for being too much like Space Battleship Yamato.
The pilot of the Orville is directed by Jon Favreau and shots of the ship in dock and leaving it are nicely done, clearly loving homages to shots of the Enterprise leaving dock in the first two Star Trek films and I really, really love the idea of wanting to create that sense of awe at the sight of a starship again. Seth MacFarlane in the lead role as Captain Mercer and Scott Grimes as helmsman Gordon Malloy in the approaching shuttle craft have comedic dialogue about drinking too much the night before; it’s silly but it functions within the reality of the show. I found this moment, like many others in the episode, not laugh out loud funny but amusing and in its way it enhances the coolness of the space stuff by the contrast.
One of the things that makes the show different from Star Trek and many other space operas is that the Orville and its crew are by no means top of the line. It’s not the flagship, it’s not an awesome prototype, it’s just a nice ship. The helmsman and the navigator, John LaMarr (J. Lee), take the usual buddy dynamic seen between LeForge and Data or O’Brian and Bashir and dial it to something more low brow, though Malloy is supposed to be a great pilot and one of the surprisingly effective parts of the climax is that his “Hugging the Donkey” manoeuvre is actually pretty cool and you can see how it might be genuinely effective and difficult to pull off. These two guys might just be exceptionally regular but I also like the idea of there being some real assholes among the crew—which was sort of Alexander Siddig’s initial idea for playing Bashir; you can see he’s intentionally playing unlikeable in the DS9 pilot. Even Jayne on Firefly ended up having a heart, though. It would be nice to see one of these shows sustain a real jerk but I don’t think MacFarlane intends to go that route.
I think one of the reasons critics hate him so much is the ironic humour on Family Guy has gone so stale. I kind of suspect MacFarlane’s sick of it too. What I took away from watching Ted is similar to what I picked up on from Orville—MacFarlane, at heart, has a real, sincere love for the old formulas in sitcoms and dramas. So there’s nothing really ironic about him throwing Ed and his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), together as captain and first officer. He wants a chemistry like the leads on Cheers or Who’s the Boss much as he wants to invoke the milieu of Star Trek—not to roast it but to truly keep this kind of storytelling alive. I’m never been a fan of sitcoms like that but I find something endearing about MacFarlane’s sincerity, especially since he gets so much shit for it.
That said, I would like Kelly to be developed more. Her motivations in the pilot are entirely based on Ed and I would like to hear more about her motivations that have nothing to do with him. Why did she join the fleet? Did she also dream about being an officer on a ship since she was a kid? The show has several Star Trek directors slated to direct episodes, including Jonathan Frakes, I hope it brings in some Star Trek writers, too.
I do like MacFarlane in the lead. There is something Shatnerian in his unabashed hamminess though he doesn’t project authority as much as Shatner does. But I can see as much potential in that being a distinction for the show as a drawback. Time will tell.
Twitter Sonnet #1033
A cup emerged between the lily pads.
A draught impressed in steaming rooms at night.
The other side survived on higher rads.
The blue of sea contained the vessel tight.
Too many veg’tables are on the moon.
A secret book confirmed a fever dream.
In smi’ling Play-Doh men you’ll find the boon.
The fitting shapes of blocks aren’t all they seem.
In transit apes are caught inside the wall.
Prepared in sight the pudding fell to plague.
The walking voice proceeded down the hall.
The agent’s shining limbs are somewhat vague.
The dice replaced a drink within the cup.
The birds of fortune turning home to sup.