Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #1 – The Orville

Posted: September 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Three episodes are in on The Orville, the other starship show dropping this fall. And I’ve already run the full gamut of Love It, Hate It and all the stops in between. When it comes to shows with starships that either go “boldly where no one has gone before” or shows with starships where the crew “aims to misbehave,” I’m a big SUCKER (needs more than All Caps for emphasis, don’t you think? Flashing neon letters? Right, moving on). The Love It response is likely all about “Dude, starship” and a few other discussion items. The Hate It response…well that’s the point of reviews isn’t it? 

My exposure to series lead/creator Seth McFarlane has been limited to the occasional channel surf across Family Guy episodes and him reprising Peter Griffin’s voice as the eponymous Ted. And I’m not fully in on Mr. McFarlane as an on-camera force in the center chair. I’m willing to give Ed Mercer the whole season to settle in because…SUCKER (we’ve established this…).

Mostly, the Hate It part of how I view this show and Mr. McFarlane’s portrayal of Captain Ed Mercer are all inseparably linked in the amorphous spaces where how the staff writes the show influences how an actor takes those words off the page at the table read, then later on set and vice versa. Is it because the show can’t decide to let Seth McFarlane loose giving the the show the full Family Guy treatment? Or should the show just give us the straight up Star Trek: The Next Generation vibe that the three extant episodes clearly show us the creators intend to land on?

All I know is that Mr. McFarlane seems as caught between Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest and a pleasant, enjoyable Picard-lite character as is the writing arc for the show. And I’m pretty sure I need I need a few more episodes to decide if I think Mr. McFarlane even belongs in the center chair doing a live action role where he might take a lot of social media heat should he bring either Peter or Stewie Griffin’s voices to this clambake. No fake Boston accents as crutches in Orville-land, please.

So while we’re chewing on whether we like Mr. McFarlane as Ed Mercer, a hapless captain still recovering from a messy divorce who is given a ship he’s otherwise earned, let’s nail the writing on the head. Inconsistent tone becomes the word of the day over these three episodes: “Old Wounds,” “Command Performance” and “About a Girl.”

Wounds establishes the world and the dreaded Krill (naming your Big Bad aliens after whale food? Okay…suspension of disbelief) with an assault on a research station with a time travel McGuffin. The captain bickers with his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who is now the XO. The good guys win when they give the McGuffin to the Krill with a sequoia seed glued on. The device creates a field where time moves forward allowing plants to grow quickly. Two thousand internal years later the giant tree expands too far to be contained by the Krill battleship hull. Establishes the odd and off-kilter vibe.

Command Performance proved to be the most infuriating episode to date. Largely because in the style of Next Gen Trek doesn’t mean rehash an old original episode as an excuse for Ed Mercer and Commander Grayson to bicker dredging up the implosion of the marriage as exhibits in an alien zoo. It’s not like I don’t know how to click through to “The Cage” or the recut version “The Menagerie” on Netflix.

However, somebody on this shows understands the value of the B-plot in an episode. Mercer and Grayson are plucked away from the ship when decoyed by holographic representations of the captain’s parents leaving the security officer, LT. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) in command due to the Second Officer LCMDR Bortus (Peter Macon) needing time to incubate the egg he just laid. The young Xeylayan female, a high gravity super-strong species, has the expected crisis that Sulu, Chekhov and every other youngster has that seems union-mandated the first time in the center chair – “do I belong here in the chair?”

It all works out when she grows a set to defy orders, fly to the restricted alien planet with super advanced technology and trade for the captain and XO giving these asshole zookeeping aliens access to the video footage to every crap-wagon reality show currently in the Fox Network’s archives. The aliens simply put up TV screens to let guests watch the Kardashians and various Real Housewife iterations, which give the same bitchy human interactions as watching Ed Mercer and Kelly Grayson refight their divorce. Certain other “exhibits” are freed. Oh, and Commander Bortus hatches a girl…

Which leads us to About a Girl. The Moclans (Bortus’ race) are single gendered and, if the Second Officer is any indication, have dour personalities that fall in the amorphous spaces between Drax the Destroyer and LT. Worf. The funny version of this show that hasn’t fully appeared yet needs a straight man. The straight up morality play version of the show that has also yet to fully appear needs an honorable character to ask direct questions and still be a different kind of straight man. And his offspring is a girl…

Custom among the Moclans says to spare the rare females born among them the shame, bullying, derision, scorn and slight regard of being female in a nearly exclusively male society. They give out sex changes at birth. Ethical conflict and a courtroom hearing ensue.

Most of the humans and other species on the USS Orville fall into the No Procedure Camp. Bortus begins in the Pro Camp, but falls into the No Camp after watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (does Fox own that classic?). This causes conflict with Bortus’ mate, Klyden (Chad Coleman) who remains Pro throughout. Klyden reveals that he was female and given the procedure at birth.

I both hated and liked About a Girl. Yes, there isn’t a writer watching from the peanut gallery that wouldn’t see the trope of toss in a second gender into a single gender society as both catnip and a metaphorical red flag to a bull. No one resists this low hanging fruit and some of my favorite Next Generation episodes were courtroom stories. So I liked it, right? Maybe, if the show hired someone good to act as story editor.

About a Girl is the third episode. The two previous episodes didn’t really let us into Bortus and Klyden’s reality or even hint at Moclan culture hoping that a trial episode will give us this knowledge in a slam-fist manner. The best parallel to Trek is the OG episode “Amok Time” that told us about the violence lurking underneath Vulcan logic culture, a story told long after Trekkies had adopted Spock as a good guy a.k.a. not until the middle of the second season. A better story editor on The Orville writing staff pushes this episode at least until Episode Fourteen.

But, even then I would really like to see a better courtroom sequence in this hypothetical episode that drops later in the season. Commander Grayson advocates for the No Procedure side and her defense relies on putting the Helmsman, LT. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), on the stand to show that a man can be comically stupid outside his area of expertise. Then she puts Alara Kitan on the stand to demonstrate that women could be powerful.

Trek-style courtroom epsiodes usually require the surprise witness to drop somewhere after the third commercial break. In this case, Captain Mercer finds a Moclan female, a woman who wasn’t sex changed and lives in seclusion up on a hill and who is the planet’s most revered writer. Her testimony proves useless and the force of the Way Things Have Always Been leads to a ruling in favor of a sex change procedure.

What I didn’t get was a whole lot of back and forth between the various advocates arguing the case. The sequence fell flat as if no one actually went back to the old courtroom episodes to see how they were constructed. Thus, I didn’t really care that the hearing ruled against the new Moclan boy.

So what is to like about The Orville, enough to justify that I will give the show enough time to find itself? Mostly right now, I’m just grooving on characters that Gene Roddenberry would never have let past the gate during The Next Generation era because they’re weird to the point of just being barely acceptable on a professionally run starship. And they can be douches to each other under the surface. Most writers ascribe to the theory that if you have the characters you’ll eventually have the show.

True, I did mention above that Mr. McFarlane as Captain Mercer is the roughest fit for me in my liking of this show. Part of that is as much about the show being in a weird in-between state between Star Trek homage played for laughs and said homage played straight for the cool Science Fiction vibe and exploration of the Human Condition as we find it in 2017. I’m giving Ed Mercer a lot of rope to win me over because…SUCKER for starship shows.

Luckily, the other half of the ongoing couple’s argument happening daily on the USS Orville’s bridge has stepped up to take up much of the slack. So what if Commander Grayson cheated with a blue alien? When Adrianne Palicki says her bit about feeling abandoned just before the affair, I’ll listen. Good actress.

So far the minor characters are just chewing up the scenery. Watch the dudes at the front of the bridge, LT. Gordon Malloy and the Navigator, LT. John LaMarr (J. Lee). You’ve seen their repartee before and it works every time. They’re jerks bonding over being jerks and they drop in comments when the senior officers aren’t on the bridge. A dog licking its balls in the background of a viewscreen call? Yeah, they saw that first thing. Who do they remind me of? They only need felt, a balcony and a little less supervison from officers to really light it up as Staetler and Waldorf from The Muppets.

I also want to highlight what Penny Johnson Jerald is doing with the ship’s doctor, Dr. Claire Finn. The form needs a believable person as the doctor, whether she stands on her principles refusing to perform a sex change on an infant before she can choose or adroitly sidestepping the advances of Yaphit (Norm McDonald), a gelatinous crewmember with a horny and hypochondriac streak. I just enjoy the morality and gravitas she brings to the role. Hey, we’ve got the doctor character ready for the first Disease of the Season episode, we’re stylin’.

Lastly, we have Issac, a sentient robot from Kaylon-1, voiced by Mark Jackson. Other than telling us that his people view all biological lifeforms as inferiorand he wants to study humanoid lifeforms, he hasn’t been on screen long enough in any of these episodes for us to get a handle on him. We’ll see, though the minute you say sentient robot anywhere near me and I’m already warming up the oujia board to get a story consult from the late Fred Saberhagen about Berserkers…just sayin’, don’t be surprised.

Seth McFarlane has created an imperfect thing that needs to find what it does well over this first season with a certain other starship show is lurking in the wings ready to eat the plucky USS Orville for lunch. There are good actors, solid characters and design (the ships of the Union have a hand-whisk/eggbeater look to them) and someone just needs to figure out how to build on these elements by both writing to what these characters do well and making sure the episodes happen in the right order.

Leading with episode three, a slightly lackluster courtroom drama after rehashing TOS “The Cage” as an excuse for Captain Mercer and Commander Grayson to bicker is funny, sort of. Probably, I’m just the sort of writer to lead with a fistfight with the dastardly Krill (still breaking into giggles naming the local Klingon-equivalent species after whale food) in the early episodes and go for the stories about law, ethics and the interpersonal relationships of the crew a little later in the season. As I’ve said, a good story editor will right this ship. I hope they find someone.     

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