When you're a guy with the clout of Seth MacFarlane, sometimes you just get to have your way. Sometimes that means spinning Family Guy into an animation empire. Sometimes that means you get to reboot Cosmos and have it hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. And other times, I guess, that means you get to make the most expensive and unbalanced mishmash of a fan production of Star Trek ever conceived.
Don't get me wrong: I think MacFarlane is a versatile and often funny talent. (The guy has made mountains of cash for Fox and seems like he should be making Broadway musicals, although apparently he has no desire to.) But continuing to churn out Family Guy episodes — in what looks like a life sentence — is probably not the most personally rewarding thing after so many years.
MacFarlane's affection for Trek, particularly The Next Generation, would be clear to anyone who has watched his other shows or movies. (He's sprinkled countless references into them, featured the cast members in voice and acting roles, and apparently has Patrick Stewart on speed dial for whatever MacFarlane happens to be working on.) Making his own Star Trek show was apparently the one thing he always wanted to do. Well, he didn't get to make Trek exactly, because CBS had its own thing it wanted to do (and, oh, by the way, it premieres in a couple weeks). But he has made a TNG clone called The Orville. I hope making it was everything he hoped it would be, because watching it is, well ... not.
Based on the weak and unimaginative premiere episode, "Old Wounds," I have no idea if this is something that can ever work or if time will allow MacFarlane to work out the bugs — or if the audience will stick around to find out. The Orville of the premiere is a show at a constant tonal war with itself. It's billed as a sci-fi comedy-adventure-drama and I'm sure the intent is to take all those elements and get the best of all of them. Unfortunately, the end result here borders on catastrophic — like if you put all those things into a blender and just ended up with a mass of slime, like whatever that random thing is MacFarlane's character steps on that has the voice of Norm Macdonald.
The primary motivation behind this show appears to be a burning nostalgia for TNG paired with contemporary one-liners and smart-ass dialogue in the spirit of one of MacFarlane's other enterprises (no pun intended — or maybe it was, I don't know). The problem is the smart-ass dialogue is usually in direct conflict with the sincere intentions, while the TNG homage has been ripped off wholesale to the point you wonder how CBS/Paramount doesn't have lawsuits pending. (I mean, really — where's the line?)
This isn't a "reimagining" of a well-known universe. This is a blatant carbon copy with simply the names changed. Warp drive? Ours is quantum drive. United Federation of Planets? Ours is the Planetary Union. You have Klingons? We have Krill (who look like the Jem'Hadar). We both have starships, shuttles, uniforms with insignias, corridors, bridges, captains' ready rooms, things that look like phasers and tricorders but might not be called those things, and aliens with prosthetic makeup.
But why go to the trouble of spending all this money to take a trip down memory lane if you aren't going to bother to rethink what the universe itself is or how it works? Where's the unique point of view and take on the material? It takes place 400 years in the future, just like TNG did. It makes a Great Big Deal about giving us the first shots of the ship's exterior, and gives us a swelling musical score (by Bruce Broughton) that's earnest in the extreme but emotionally lands flat because it can't help but feel like a slavish rehash. The visual effects are pretty good — although not great as CGI goes in 2017. The bright, elaborate sets and production design, like everything else, takes its cues from TNG — but this all feels overly pristine and antiseptic to the point of looking fake. These are big sets, not a lived-in starship. The uniforms I will say look terrific: Like everything else here, they're aping Trek rather than rethinking it, but the costume designers have managed to put an attractive spin on it.
The plot of "Old Wounds" — and I can't stress this enough — is perfunctory beyond words. Some of this is admittedly inherent to origin-story pilot episodes, but The Orville doesn't seem interested in working very hard. MacFarlane's character, Ed Mercer, comes home one day to find his wife (Adrianne Palicki) in bed with an alien, who proceeds to explode blue liquid all over the room. Okay, then. "One year later" we learn that he's divorced, been in a constant funk ever since, and just going through the motions of his job. Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) recounts all this to Mercer in a scene of boilerplate exposition, then awards Mercer command of the exploratory vessel USS Orville. I guess being mediocre in your career is a way to get promoted in this version of Starfleet. Subsequently, Mercer meets his crew in a scene that alternates exposition with tepid one-liners as if to say, "This is all very standard, so let's throw in some sarcasm to distract you while undermining our own serious intentions."
That happens a lot. Ironically, the jokey repartee (with occasional dick joke or cliched reference to how leaving the toilet seat up is a problem with women, amiright?) are what feel like they were borne most naturally from this show's creative vision. When Mercer talks to the bad guy over the viewscreen and the guy isn't in the middle of the frame and Mercer feels the need to point it out, the moment feels like it actually grew from something genuine about this series' sensibility — from MacFarlane's too-cool-for-school persona of ironic detachment. What feels constantly like pretending, unfortunately, is everything else, from the sci-fi to the action to the universe-building, the latter of which — to be fair — is in the embryonic stage.
One could say solid universe-building is the key to any current sci-fi series, even one with comic underpinnings. That's likely what will ultimately make or break The Orville. Unfortunately, MacFarlane's team has dug itself an early hole by essentially taking everything from Star Trek and just changing the terminology, which does not offer a promising example of creative vision. This is a flat retread cladded over with comic dialogue, and the marriage is fraught with visible seams.
MacFarlane — along with his co-producers, including Trek veterans Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis — are very clear in their nostalgic intentions. This is a retro-aesthetic series that actually puts the title of the episode in quotation marks right there on the screen, and fades to black for commercial breaks rather than cutting to black like nearly everything else begotten of this century. Look, this is TNG!, they are saying in capital red underline.
But then they provide a completely bare-boned sci-fi concept (a device that can speed up the passage of time, and, say, grow a tree from a seed instantaneously) followed by bland, prolonged shoot-em-up action ("the device" becomes a MacGuffin when the evil Krill decide they want to steal it to use as a weapon). The obligatory shootouts — between two ships as well as between people running around — became lazy standbys on Voyager and Enterprise. The Orville staff (which includes the guy who co-ran both those shows, for crissakes!) would've been wise to have learned that lesson. Meanwhile, Braga should know that speeding up time has been done plenty of times before, including most similarly in "Timescape," which he himself wrote 24 years ago. This is what they call "derivative." Granted, everything is ultimately unavoidably derivative; the trick is in finding a way to make it seem not so. One at least hopes that is a goal here.
The supporting cast of characters represent a big question mark at this point. Adrianne Palicki's abilities were well documented on Friday Night Lights, but defining her as the guilty party in the hero's failed marriage (and all the eye-rolling tropes of bickering-exes that go along with it) isn't a winning start. Still, MacFarlane manages to avoid sabotaging the character beyond repair. Scott Grimes (of ER) is reliable as the comic best-buddy persona, but having him undermine the new first officer by informing the rest of the bridge crew she's a "bitch" is a bridge too far, unless you're ready to completely sell out this show's credibility (such as it is) for glib score-settling comedy. Penny Johnson Jerald (who of course brings considerable DS9 cred) represents wise experience in the abstract but has little here to do. Halston Sage plays a young character whose alien strength makes her the resident superhero. Peter Macon has the "alien outsider" role that at this point probably most resembles Worf (he's from a single-gender species, which is reportedly going to be of noted significance in the third episode). J. Lee plays a guy who really wants to drink soda on the bridge and promises he won't spill on the console. Mark Jackson plays the robot Isaac (for Asimov?) who, as robots go, feels like he was found somewhere in a design sketch book lost in 1965. Mercer calls Isaac a "racist robot," I guess because MacFarlane always likes to mine humor from racism (see Family Guy, et al).
As for MacFarlane casting himself as the lead, let's just say the jury's out and it will all depend on what he's called upon to do as an actor. MacFarlane has his range, but it has always been a narrow one of a deadpan quipster of limited sincerity and emotional response. That's not likely going to be enough to carry a (sortuva) drama series. I guess the question is whether the show will ever call on him to do more than that and whether he can answer such a call.
Look, you can do comedy in sci-fi, absolutely. Guardians of the Galaxy is hilarious. But it also has specific characters who are well enough drawn and with personal plights such that you can care about them. There's nothing like that so far in the flat and hollow Orville. The only thing we get in "Old Wounds" is a cliche broken marriage that feels like it was recycled out of countless other TV shows and movies. Everyone else is a near-cipher, while the sci-fi and action would charitably be called unimpressive. The humor is kind of there, but certainly not making me laugh out loud. It all adds up to less than the total sum.
Maybe this will get better. Star Trek shows have a long history of taking a while to get out of the gate. But networks have a long history of impatience, and audiences even more so these days because of infinite choices. The Orville had better find a workable balance quickly or it's going to have a short mission — for me and probably everyone else.
Note: Don't expect future reviews to be nearly this detailed, unless I'm feeling especially inspired. I wanted to provide some detail for the premiere, but from here on out it's going to be much more condensed.
Next episode: Command Performance