The Orville encounters a massive ship adrift that actually turns out to be a huge alien bio-dome — carrying passengers who think they're living on an actual world. This spaceship, whose engines have failed, is now on a collision course with a star.
If that premise sounds familiar, it is. I lifted the paragraph above directly from my review of TOS's "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" and made a few minor tweaks. This seems to be the approach MacFarlane takes with the broad ideas in "If the Stars Should Appear," which takes familiar Trekkian staples — including the world-ship and alien dictatorships acting out on ancient information that has been misinterpreted over generations — and recycles them without adding anything in terms of emotion or inspiration.
Look, I hate to beat a dead horse here. But if MacFarlane wants to bring back old stories he liked in his youth and present them as if they were new to his audience, he needs to also bring some perspective or at least conviction to the whole affair. The presentation of "If the Stars Should Appear" is so flat and stale that it wouldn't work even ignoring the bizarre tonal shifts that continue to undermine individual scenes. Maybe MacFarlane should employ a writing staff instead of trying to write every episode himself. I mean, it's not like The Orville is an auteur project. (And if he thinks it is, boy, has he miscalculated.)
First, let's start with what's good here: I will happily report that the initial discovery and boarding of the mysterious massive vessel is impressive and features that "sense of wonder" we're always looking for in sci-fi stories. What is this huge object, and why is it dead in space? The subsequent discovery of the massive bio-dome is also interesting. It's a good, visually arresting sequence, realized with gravitas.
But once we start meeting the locals, this all becomes an uninspired rehash. There's no dialogue that sets any bar higher than expository. Mercer and his crew seem like slow studies when they talk to the confused farmhouse folks about space and science and stuff; clearly these people are not privy to the things outside the dome. Given how much pop culture the Orville crew knows about (Friends, Rudolph, reality TV, etc.), you'd think they'd have recognized immediately the plight of these unwitting simple folk from 20th century sci-fi TV.
Hold on! Major brainstorm! What if Earth's entire society and the Planetary Union turns out to be modeled intentionally on Star Trek — like literally/actually within this universe! I sure hope I haven't spoiled the scene in episode 13 where Mercer walks into Admiral Halsey's office and the admiral is watching an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series on TV. The admiral then says, "We learned a lot about diplomacy from these guys." And wait; double brainstorm! The admiral pushes a button and the channel changes and Family Guy appears on the screen. Then he says, "Oops!" and pushes another button that turns it off.
But I digress. When it's not exploring character-development cul-de-sacs like listening to Isaac try to understand Mercer's divorce (scenes that are all-too-unimaginative rehashes of Data's need to get to the bottom of human beings) or Kitan talking to Grayson about her recent breakup, this show continues to cause whiplash when switching between earnestness and irreverence. A more consistent tone that blends the two would be better than scenes that are played completely poker-faced before Mercer then suddenly calls someone a "dick" out of nowhere. (Seriously, can this show go one episode without a dick joke?) Are we supposed to take Mercer seriously? The answer seems to be yes, except when we're not. While I'll admit that I laughed at the goofy routine with the apparently terrible food and the napkin ("Do you have a garbage?"), it weirdly comes amid what is supposed to be a serious conversation that offers clues into this strange society. The napkin bit ultimately ends up being the most entertaining part of the whole affair, and that really doesn't speak well for the drama. But Mercer isn't a character so much as a transparently artificial construction borne of the theoretical concept of comedy and drama merged in an unfocused script.
To compare, faring a little better with the comedy notes is Grayson, who gets kidnapped, beaten, and tortured (par for this course, I suppose), and offers up one-liners as statements of defiance. ("There's a little coffee shop on Lafayette Street in SoHo called Central Perk. My friends are there. Please, just don't hurt the monkey.") This at least makes sense in the context of the scene, rather than coming out of nowhere — as when The Orville gets into a pointless space battle, and LaMarr exclaims "BOOM, BITCH!" after blowing up an enemy ship. Is my reaction supposed to be one where I laugh and facepalm simultaneously? (On a superficial VFX note, I feel like the Orville loops around and around too fast in these firefights; it feels too cartoonish for a ship that size. The Millennium Falcon, yes. The Orville, no.)
The opening sequence with the deadpan-bickering Bortus and Klyden, on the other hand, works pretty well, because it's based in fairly honest character interaction and situational comedy rather than obligatory randomness. So the comedy on this show can work, and it sometimes can make me laugh, but it's so hit-and-miss because MacFarlane's scripts can't help but clown around every page or two, whether it's appropriate or not.
And, hey, look: There's Liam Neeson (!) as the mysterious Dural, whose secrets reveal that upon which this whole society's rules were founded and, over 2,000 years, contorted. It's not bad, it's old hat, mostly worth a shrug. If anything, The Orville proves it has enough clout to get A-list guest actors. Next week features Charlize Theron!
I don't know. I didn't hate this, but save for a couple stray standout moments, boy is it mediocre. The fact that they're not only plundering the overall premise but actual storylines of Trek is not in this series' favor as long as it continues to execute at this level of ennui.