THE ORVILLE (Fox and City, 9:00PM Thursdays)
Set in a decidedly Star Trek-like future, Seth MacFarlane’s new television series is named for the fictional mid-level exploratory space ship he commands as Ed Mercer in this ostensibly sci-fi/comedy series airing on Fox Thursday evenings (City carries the show, too). MacFarlane is an unabashed Trekkie, and it shows! The Orville is essentially Star Trek: The Next Generation in all but name—the show’s Planetary Union, for example, thinly mimics the United Federation of Planets.
Mercer is a once-promising officer who walked in on his wife cheating on him with an alien one day, and whose subsequent, bitter divorce has set him on a downward spiral resulting in reprimands for lax performance of his duties and drunkenness on the job. Nevertheless, he is assigned the captaincy of the Orville, if only because the Union finds itself short of available personnel to man its sizeable fleet of vessels. And because, behind closed doors, his ex-wife prevailed upon the admiralty to give him command of his own ship, a plot point which, presumably, will see further development in an episode to come. In the pilot meanwhile, Mercer discovers, to his dismay, that the first officer assigned to him is none other than his ex-wife!
And so, hilarity ensues. Problem is, it doesn’t.
While there are moments, The Orville’s humour is only mildly impudent, and seems forced at times, nothing like the ribald, cutting mockery of societal values extant in MacFarlane’s animated hits Family Guy and American Dad. The Orville’s pre-premiere publicity led many, myself included, to believe that we could expect a rowdy spoof of Star Trek, a cheeky, MacFarlanesque Galaxy Quest, if you will. But lengthy stretches of the show’s first few episodes play out like a TNG story, with scarcely a funny exchange or one-liner to be heard, let alone any kind of droll send-up of Trek.
The third episode, in which Moclan crewmember Bortus hatches a child, then wishes the female baby surgically altered so as to become a male, as is the norm on his home planet, could easily be mistaken for a typical moralizing episode of Next Generation. His human crewmates oppose Bortus’ decision and the whole affair ends up in court, with Mercer arguing against Moclan cultural practises and pitching for a more enlightened, human approach to the situation. Very Next Gen!
The Orville, then, vacillates between TNG-like science fiction drama and Star Trek or sci-fi spoof, and as such, doesn’t satisfactorily deliver on either. It’s a little too tonally irreverent to work as drama, and not at all funny enough to be effective as parody. And yet, the ratings have been pretty good to date, so the show’s incongruous mix of styles may well be working for audiences, if not for me.—Keith Braithwaite
STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (CBS All Access Streaming Service, 8:30PM Sundays and Space, 9:00PM Sundays)
Star Trek: Discovery finally premiered, after some delay, on September 24. In Canada, the show is available on Space.
This latest Star Trek iteration promises a return to the spirit of the original 1960s series. I do hope that it fulfills that promise, as the many Trek sequels over the years, in my view, so rarely have.
Kirk and his crew were on a mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” and for the most part, they did just that. Too many of the sequels failed to satisfyingly manage the same, relying instead on retreads of TOS scripts, repeatedly focusing on the familiar Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, and other of the now well-known Star Trek alien races, or presenting viewers with a soap opera in space as writers dabbled in the mundane relationships of crewmembers and generally, life aboard ship. It seems to me the original series kept that kind of stuff to a minimum.
Admittedly, my childhood memories may well be contaminated by nostalgia for a thrilling sci-fi adventure show that weekly took me to strange alien worlds to discover novel, sometimes dangerous lifeforms and come to better understand them, frequently working out ways in which to co-exist with them. That, to me, is the spirit of the original series.
Discovery kicked off on Space with two episodes in a row, establishing the principal character of Michael Burnham, played by actress Sonequa Martin-Green, recently of The Walking Dead. We learn that the orphaned Burnham was raised on Vulcan by Spock’s parents, and had imparted to her by Sarek Vulcan philosophy. She is the first human to have graduated from the Vulcan Learning Center and later, the Vulcan Science Academy. We join her as first officer aboard the starship Shenzhou, commanded by Michelle Yeoh’s Captain Philippa Georgiou.
The action is set about a decade prior to the events of the original series, against the backdrop of a Federation that has had little contact with what it believes to be a collapsing Klingon Empire. While investigating a damaged satellite at the edge of Federation space, the Shenzhou encounters a band of outlier Klingons led by T’Kumva, who, in accordance with an ancient Klingon prophecy, intends to unite the 24 great Klingon houses as the revered Kahless once had, and rebuild the Empire. Burnham clashes with her captain as to an appropriate course of action, convinced the Klingons are unlikely to respond well to any overtures of peace from the Federation. Certain she is right, she defies Georgiou’s orders and attempts to act on her convictions, quickly finding herself relieved of duty and imprisoned in the ship’s brig as an interstellar war is sparked.
She will ultimately come to be regarded, infamously, as Starfleet’s first convicted mutineer. Later, while in transit to a Federation penal colony, her stricken shuttle will be rescued by the U.S.S. Discovery and in short order, she’ll be recruited as a crew member by Jason Isaacs’ driven, rule-bending Captain Gabriel Lorca, who seems to have an agenda of his own. Lorca recognizes in Burnham the boldness he considers essential to winning this incipient war with the Klingons.
The series features plenty of action right from the get-go! Pacing is taut, the characters interesting and well written, and the acting solid. The show looks good, as well, Klingon redesign aside, although maybe a little too good for a series that’s supposed to be unfolding a decade prior to TOS. I suppose producers didn’t want their show to appear as if it was made on a limited budget in the mid-1960s! Fair enough. Still, you’d think they could come up with sets and costumes that look a bit less TNG and more classic Trek. The colour palette is what stands out to me, in particular, as wrong; too monochromatic when compared to the vivid aesthetic of TOS. Shouldn’t the motif of these two series be similar in that they take place in roughly the same era? It was fairly pointed out to me recently that Star Trek: Enterprise, also set prior to the original Star Trek, managed to better evoke the visual flavour of TOS while at the same time updating things for a modern television audience.
But set and costume design are mere quibbles on my part, which I’ll gladly set aside if the series proves an exciting ride!
Based on the first few episodes, then, Discovery shows a lot of promise. But I do have one big concern.
Earlier Treks have extensively mined the Klingon vein already—been there, done that, we all bought the T-shirt. I fear that Discovery’s developing story arc involving the Klingon-Federation war and related intrigues might come to dominate proceedings, perhaps at the expense of exploring strange new worlds every week. I want to see episodes akin to The Devil in the Dark, Obsession, Arena, The Immunity Syndrome, and The Corbomite Maneuver, not so much Affliction and Divergence, Sins of the Father, Reunion, the two-parter Redemption, and The Sword of Kahless. My sincere hope is for topnotch, clever SF stories centered on the ramifications of, and challenges faced by first contact with, and ensuing investigation of new life and new civilizations, in the promised spirit of the original series.—Keith Braithwaite