Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which premiered Sunday evening on Fox, tries to follow in the footsteps of Star Trek and, for the most part, it succeeds. While the promotional material has focused on the show’s humor, the Trek-esque elements at the heart of The Orville are well crafted, even if they aren’t ground breaking. The pilot episode, “Old Wounds,” spends most of its time introducing its characters, with a serviceable sci-fi plot in the back half.
Commander Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) is a rising star in the Planetary Union’s exploratory fleet – his career is on the same trajectory as Starfleet’s William Riker and James T. Kirk. When he catches his wife, Kelly Grayson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Adrianne Palicki), in bed with an alien, his resolve is shaken and his professionalism suffers. A year later, when Mercer is offered his first command, he’s informed he’s “nobody’s first choice.” The newly-minted Captain Mercer is determined to turn things around.
The Orville’s senior staff is pulled from a broad range of sci-fi tropes. Stoic second officer Bortis (Peter Macon) is a humorless professional in the vein of Worf and Stargate SG-1’s Teal’c. Security officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) is a young, wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant with strength ten times that of a human. Mercer’s best friend, helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) is a hot-shot pilot who was pulled from duty after his showiness caused an accident. Navigator John LaMarr (J Lee) is equally talented, but much more laid back. Chief medical officer Dr. Claire Finn (DS9’s Penny Johnson Jerald) is the voice of wisdom and experience. Science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson) is a cybernetic life-form who finds biological species both inferior and confusing. To its credit, the show doesn’t waste time explaining these classic sci-fi archetypes to the audience. It expects us to recognize their inspirations and moves quickly into building their relationships.
Mercer doesn’t have a first officer when the Orville leaves Earth for a supply run; they’ll be rendezvousing en route. The reason for this is clear – Mercer’s second-in-command is his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson, who petitioned to take the role. There’s understandable friction between the two, and Grayson promises to leave as soon as a suitable replacement becomes available. With its key characters in place, the Orville continues on its mission.
What follows is a story that would have fit in well on any Star Trek series. Upon arrival, the crew of the Orville learns that the planet’s research station has developed a technobabble based device which creates a bubble that speeds up the flow of time. The Planetary Union sees endless possibilities, but the Krill, a war-like rival species, see it as a weapon. The Krill attack and get their hands on the device. The quick-thinking Orville crew, armed with only a hot glue gun and more technobabble, manage to save the day.
As an individual episode, “Old Wounds” is as strong as most Trek pilots. It’s simple plot is a strength, as it focuses on establishing its characters and on showing us that the show’s universe is, essentially, a note-for-note homage to Star Trek’s Federation. The science fiction elements of the show are well crafted, and you can clearly see the influence of executive producer Brannon Braga. The Orville is a comedy, but it’s grounded. For the most part, its humor comes from its characters and doesn’t feel forced.
Since it’s a sci-fi series on Fox, I’m concerned about the future of The Orville. Seth MacFarlane fans who come in expecting the laugh-a-minute pace of Family Guy might be disappointed. Likewise, some Star Trek fans will be put-off by some of the off-color humor. The upcoming episodes of the series are solid science fiction stories, and if the show is able to find its audience, it shows quite a bit of potential. It will be interesting to see how it compares to CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery, premiering later this month. As Discovery looks to be embracing a darker tone, the shows might complement each other nicely.
GEEK Grade: B
Check out the promo for next week’s episode:
The second episode of The Orville airs Sunday, September 17 at 8:00 Eastern/5:00 Pacific (or immediately following football) on Fox. Regular episodes air Thursdays at 9 PM ET/PT starting September 21.