"Command Performance" improves upon the Orville pilot while also doubling down on several of its problems. It's an improvement in that the tonal clash, while still present, is less frequently obvious. It also jettisons the mindless action and cartoon villainy that caused the last act of "Old Wounds" to completely fall apart. And it features an A/B-story structure that proves the supporting characters on this show will eventually get their due.
On the other hand, one of the biggest problems remains and is not likely to go away anytime soon: This show is such a blatant rip-off of the Rick Berman Trek era that it's distracting and counterproductive. It's one thing to pay homage, but when you claim to be in a different universe (wink, wink) and then proceed to make everything such a Trek clone — from the music to the story beats to the jargon to the photography and shot selection — the whole thing just comes off feeling like a weak pretender, no matter how expertly produced.
We now have an opening title sequence that, while not quite shot-for-shot plagiarism of the Voyager titles, comes close enough. The in-show music by John Debney is cued up right where we expect it, just like in the days of Dennis McCarthy and Jay Chattaway — though Debney has a little more leeway for bombast here. The director of photography is Marvin V. Rush, who worked on all the Berman productions and shoots this exactly like those shows. And Robert Duncan McNeill, who directed the episode, undoubtedly brought his many years of Voyager with him. Unless The Orville's intended identity is simply "Rehashed Berman Trek featuring occasional MacFarlane one-liners," then this is a series with a serious identity problem. You want a 1990s retread — okay, sure. But I think they owe us more than an HD update of what is already available by the hundreds of hours on Netflix.
Anyway, I'd better move on (and I promise not to belabor this point for weeks on end). In the absence of something different or inspired, we here have something that's serviceable. Mercer and Grayson — in keeping with the tenor of the show, let's just call them Ed and Kelly and be on a first-name basis with everyone — are lured into an illusory trap and vanish to an unknown place. This leaves the very inexperienced Alara in command of the ship against her will. (Bortus is expecting a child and is on leave in his quarters to sit on his egg; the cold open features Ed awkwardly fumbling through tepid egg jokes while Bortus plays the straight man.) The bulk of the show is about the trials and errors of being a 23-year-old with zero command experience who is suddenly in charge of a starship and must now find the missing captain and first officer.
I could theoretically be on board for this plot, familiar as it is, if it weren't so hopelessly cheesy and ham-handed. While there's a certain goofy charm to watching this show earnestly go through the story beats of The Kid's First Command, the way it's executed is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. At various points Alara vomits out of panic (not on the bridge, thankfully), literally runs away to take counsel from the sage Dr. Finn (who gives her a maternal, no-BS pep talk), takes shots of tequila, and displays moments of faux overconfidence to try to gain the crew's respect. Par for course, I suppose. Halston Sage (Ha! Sage!) provides a green performance for her character's green command, which I guess is okay.
An admiral played by Ron Canada (who's like the perfect obligatory casting choice for this character) orders Alara to return to Earth rather than pursue a lead in the investigation after she tracks Ed and Kelly's whereabouts to the world of the Calivon, with whom the Planetary Union strictly forbids contact. So Alara must choose to either disobey orders and follow the clues, or abandon her shipmates.
It would seem Malloy's part in all this is to be the asshole who will back you if he agrees with you, but will piss in your coffee if he doesn't. The big turning-point scene where Alara goes to whatever they call this show's version of Ten-Forward and Malloy tells her simply, "YOU SUCK," doesn't speak much to his professionalism or empathy in helping a rookie through a tough decision. This is also lacking what could've been some solid dialogue in the Trek tradition. The scene then lays it on really thick by pulling a sudden 180 and having Alara stand up and announce her decision to disobey the admiral's orders ("If they don't like it they can bite me!"), at which point the entire room erupts into cheers. The whiplash of this scene and the way it's so hokey and overplayed doesn't feel earned. It also doesn't help us understand the rules of the universe we're in, because there's no sense of whether the admiral's order is coming from a genuine place of danger or from bureaucratic wrong-headedness that can and should be dismissed; it's just a plot device. (For that matter, Alara being in command in the first place suggests we shouldn't take the Union fleet seriously as a space-faring organization but rather bring a "just go with this silliness" mentality to the whole series.)
I'll also say the glib, contemporary dialogue ("You suck," "Bite me," "White guy can go to Compton as long as the black guy says it's cool," etc.) is shoehorned into the script so unnaturally (other times everyone just talks like they're in a Star Trek episode) that it often pulls me right out of the show. For the most part this was better here than the pilot because it was toned down somewhat, but there are still moments where this is odd and random and doesn't work.
The B-plot in which Ed and Kelly find themselves trapped in a replica of their old apartment and engage in exes-will-be-exes reminiscence and bickering (some of which is fine, some of which is too cliche) showcases this show's considerable visual appeal; the FX shots of the futuristic New York skyline through the window are particularly striking. Something this series definitely has going for it is the handsome production, which makes this an inviting world to spend time in, all other conceptual problems notwithstanding. These scenes also showcase Adrianne Palicki acting circles around Seth MacFarlane, though we kind of figured that was inevitable. The revelation that they are actually the human exhibit in a Calivon zoo is a sci-fi standby (with shades of The Twilight Zone and Trek's original pilot, "The Cage"), sure, but the reveal lands well enough within the confines of this story's modest ambitions and works far better than the mishmash of leftovers in "Old Wounds." The stakes feel more real here than in the pilot, and the plot feels more invested in itself, so this is definitely a step in the right direction.
The solution to the plot — which hinges on reality television, of all things — is actually an example of what The Orville brings to the table, which is jokey current-day references that can be used as unexpected twists within the plot's 25th-century setting. It's suitably amusing and clever and at least indicates a specific point of view within well-trodden material. But this series still has a ways to go if it's going to emerge from the shadow of the Trek template that it has so shamelessly molded itself from.