I’ve been watching a lot of M*A*S*H lately. The half hour dramedy (vaguely considered a sitcom because it has a laugh track) often deals with the serious issues faced with the doctors and nurses of the 4077th while also delivering plenty of chuckles (and, often times, outright laughs). M*A*S*H is, by far, my absolute favorite television show after Star Trek: The Next Generation; and that is why, I think, I enjoyed the first episode of Seth McFarlane‘s new show The Orville so much.
A little over halfway through the first episode of Fox‘s new television show The Orville, and the crew of the U.S.S. Orville is in a tight situation. The away team (I don’t think they call it that, but that’s the Trek term) is being chased by “evil” aliens that want a valuable piece of technology; meanwhile, the crew on board the ship is fighting the aliens’ ship, trying to buy time for the away team to get to their shuttle and return safely to the Orville. Captain Ed Mercer (McFarlane) tries to open a door to help the away team escape, but it’s stuck. Turning to the tiny security officer, Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), he asks her if she would like to “open this pickle jar” for them. The petite woman, an alien from a high gravity planet, knocks down the door and surrounding wall with her superhuman strength. “I loosened it for you,” the captain quips before the group continues with their escape. Meanwhile, on the bridge, helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) shows off his piloting skills by performing a maneuver he calls “hugging the donkey.” The comedy and the tone of the show reminds me a lot of M*A*S*H, but set 400 years in the future and in space instead of during the Korean War. It’s this kind of humor that has sprinkled itself through The Orville, which is not a Galaxy Quest-esque spoof of Star Trek, but rather a Trek-inspired (or Trek homage) sci-fi show that mostly takes itself seriously. It’s a sci-fi adventure with characters that feel real because they act more like modern day people — like real people. The AV Club review says that “people in space speaking a slightly more casual demeanor is not a sufficiently robust conceit to sustain a show,” but I think this is part of what gives the show it’s charm and keeps it from straight up becoming a Chinese knockoff of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The look and feel of The Orville, and the Next Generation nostalgia, is no mistake. There are plenty of Star Trek alums working on the show. Two of the executive producers of the show are Brannon Braga and David A. Goodman. Brannon was a producer on both TNG and Voyager, an executive producer on Enterprise, and has writing credits for all three shows plus Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. Goodman was a consulting producer on Enterprise — and a co-executive producer on the animated sci-fi show Futurama, for which he wrote the Star Trek-homage episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before.” Other Trek alum working on the show include Trek science consultant Andre Bormanis and director of photography Marvin Rush. McFarlane even worked with different ship designers, including Ryan Church (who worked with J.J. Abrams to design the updated U.S.S. Enterprise) and Andrew Probert (designer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and TNG) before coming up with his own design. It’s impressive to note that the show is using actual ship models along with CGI, which is a very Trek thing to do. Show co-star Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays Dr. Claire Finn, is instantly recognizable to Deep Space Nine fans as Captain Sisko‘s love interest (and later wife), Kassidy Yates. As well both Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris on Voyager) and Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker on TNG) directed episodes, along with James L. Conway, who has directing credits on TNG, DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise.
With so much Star Trek inspiration behind the design and execution of the show, it is very important for the show to differentiate itself, and that’s where the tone and McFarlane’s brand of humor come in. The main origin of both chuckles and conflict for the show come from Captain Mercer’s relationship with his new first officer, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who also happens to be his ex-wife. You would never catch Picard and Dr. Crusher getting into a shouting match in the Ready Room, but The Orville features a humorous scene where Mercer and Grayson get into a shouting match in his office — which the entire bridge crew can hear through the wall. Later, while talking to the leader of the “evil” aliens I mentioned earlier, Mercer and Grayson air their dirty laundry out, asking the alien hypothetical questions about marriage and affairs — questions that, of course, reflect the actual events that led to their divorce. The comedy beats are a little rough around the edges and can be hit or miss — and some can be downright awkward and uncomfortable — but I feel as though the show is successful with its off-beat comedy more times than not.
Rounding out the senior crew of the Orville, along with Mercer and Grayson, are helmsman Gordon Malloy (who also happens to be Mercer’s best friend), Xelayan security officer Alara Kitan, navigator John LaMarr (J. Lee), Moclan (a single-gendered species) second officer Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon), Dr. Claire Finn, and Isaac (Mark Jackson), an android-type lifeform from Kaylon, a machine society that believe biological lifeforms are inferior.
Overall, I found the first episode very enjoyable. It’s hard to tell from one episode if the show will be a success, if it works as its own sci-fi show, or even if it’s a show that will continue to be enjoyable without overplaying some of its tropes, but if you have avoided watching the first episode just because of negative reviews, I encourage you to give it a try.