Monday, August 13, 2018

"The Orville," Season 1

I've been spending a decent amount of time lately thinking about what does and does not count as Star Trek.  If your knee-jerk reaction to reading that sentence was either of the following
  • "Oh, you poor bastard..."
  • "Get a life!"

know that I do not hold that reaction against you.  But hey, I'm built that way.  So I'm inclined to lean into it.  Anyways, this has been on my mind ever since the end of the disappointing first season of Star Trek: Discovery, which is a mere husk of what it could/should be as a Star Trek series.  
Just now, somewhere, somebody stopped what they're doing and looked around them, eyes squinted, muscles tensed; they sense that somebody, somewhere is attempting to be a Star Trek gatekeeper.  How dare that unknown cretin -- we're referring to me, not them, in case my prose has gone off the rails -- try to tell other people how to live their lives, how to enjoy their Star Trek?!?
Well, risk is my business.
And anyways, I ain't keepin' no motherfucking gates.  Settle the hell down.  For one thing, that's not really possible; the worst I could do is try to be a gatekeeper, and not only would I have merely minimal odds of succeeding, I'd also have minimal interest in mounting the sort of campaign that would required to get even to that level.  That's ... work.  This is a hobby; I take it seriously, but that's all it is.
No, no; y'all go right on ahead through those gates if you see fit to do so.  I might be standing here offering pamphlets, but you are by no means obliged to take one.  You go on!  Have fun.
For those of you who have chosen to linger a bit and hear the specifics of my harangue, I think it's kind of important to have at least some kind of a definition of what Star Trek is.  Can that definition shift and change over time?  Of course it can; in fact, I'd say it's probably vital that it do so.  But it seems to me that some boundaries ought not be crossed.

This is not peculiar to Star Trek; for example, you can change the rules of a sport over time if the need to do so arises.  However, if you don't hew to a certain base level of tradition, I think you risk destroying the thing you are changing.  If one began changing the rules of baseball, and eventually the sport was being played without bats and only using one's feet, then I have to ask: could you call that baseball any longer?  I'd say not.  That wouldn't invalidate whatever it was as a sport; but at some point it ceased to be baseball, and calling it baseball seems wrong.  (I say that from the vantage point of someone who was present at the beginning of the process; it is not lost on me that those present only at the end will perhaps view things differently.  I would counterargue that they are not fully informed.  There I go gatekeeping again!  You bet I do.)

Maybe that process upsets a few baseball fans along the way; they cry foul and complain that their beloved sport is being befouled.  Are they gatekeepers, too?  Pathetic gatekeepers who are more focused on maintaining calcified tradition than they are in letting others join in their sport?
Star Trek is not baseball, of course.  It's an imperfect analogy, and anyways, Discovery is by no means as extreme an example as the one I just gave.  It's probably closer to the designated-hitter controversy (which I'm guessing still rages in some pockets of baseball fandom).
Where am I going with all this?
I'll tell you where:
OF COURSE this isn't Star Trek!  In no way does this count as Star Trek.  But it counts as an homage to Star Trek; and it may be of interest to people who are interested by Star Trek; and it was worked on by numerous people who worked on Star Trek; and (I'd argue) it has more of Star Trek's soul in it than Discovery does.
Let's resort to another sports analogy.  There's a game.  It's played with wooden (or sometimes metal) sticks.  One player throws a ball at another -- let's call them a "swinger" (they swing the sticks at the ball) -- who attempts to hit it.  If they do, other players have to then catch the ball.  The swinger, meanwhile, is running around a geometrically-shaped field, touching a series of spots -- let's call them "stops" -- that have to be touched in a specific order.  The player who catches the ball has to throw it to another player at one of these stops, and if they get it to them before the swinger reaches them, then the swinger is disqualified and sent back to the sidelines.  It's called stopstick, or something like that, lest somebody associated with baseball sue them. Many of the stopstick players are in the baseball Hall of Fame, too, by the way.
The Orville is a bit like that.  I can't say how much, because I've not seen any of it yet.  (This post is gonna be one of those write-it-as-I-go type of deals.)  But I know that its creator, Seth MacFarlane, is a lifelong Star Trek fan.  So much so that he peppered numerous Trek allusions and jokes into his own shows (such as Family Guy); had a small role on Enterprise; was interviewed on several of the Next Generation Blu-rays; and lobbied (I'm not sure how seriously) to be able to produce a Trek series of his own.  He brought numerous behind-the-scenes people associated with Trek onto The Orville, and has been open about the fact that the series is deeply inspired by Trek.
So no, it's 100% NOT Trek.
But is that a meaningful distinction?  Especially in an era where actual Star Trek seems to be running away from certain aspects of the foregoing shows in the franchise?
Interesting questions.  Join me as I attempt to answer them for myself.  There will be all-inclusive spoilers for each of the episodes, so consider yourself warned.
"Old Wounds"
(season 1, episode 1)
airdate:  September 10, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  Jon Favreau

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):  25th-century Union command officer Ed Mercer divorces his wife, Kelly Grayson, after catching her cheating on him.  A year later, he accepts a position as captain of the U.S.S. Orville, a mid-level research vessel, and learns to his dismay that his ex-wife has been assigned as his First Officer.  During the Orville's first mission, the hostile alien Krill captain attempts to steal a device that accelerates time, which has both beneficial and dangerous applications.  Mercer and Grayson rig the device to destroy itself and the Krill vessel.

The assumption I made about this series when I first heard of it went something like this: "Oh, this is a vanity project, the sort of thing you do when you've built up enough clout with your home network to convince them to more or less back you in any type of play.  Hey, good for MacFarlane!  I'd probably want to do the same sort of thing."

I can easily see how I might have felt differently.  I don't consider myself a fan of MacFarlane's work.  I've always found Family Guy to be aggravating; I actually watched the first few episodes when they premiered a gajillion years ago, and I got some laughs out of them but found that the concept didn't travel far for me.  So I quit the show, and have been perplexed by its resurgence ever since.  I saw Ted and thought it was just a live-action Family Guy episode; my mind was not changed by it at all.  I've always found MacFarlane himself to be an affable, charismatic guy, however; I enjoyed him when he hosted the Oscars, and have always liked him in the interviews I've seen him do.
So in other words, while there was nothing in MacFarlane's work that predisposed me to want to climb onboard the train that is The Orville, there was also no ill-will on my part toward him.  If I found MacFarlane to be an actively unlikable person, AND disliked his work, then you would have a hard time convincing me to check this show out.  My stance on that would have been, "Fuck this guy!  Who does he think he is, ripping off Star Trek just because Fox will let him do it and CBS is too chickenshit to sue them for it?!?"
All of which means that if that is how YOU feel about it, trust me: I totally get it.
But as things stand, I'm inclined to be magnanimous.  Even if I end up not liking the show, I don't mind MacFarlane having taken a crack at it.
Based on the first episode, the jury in my head is still out.  I didn't love it, but I did like it enough to feel okay about pressing on to the next episode.  Let's run down the list of characters:
Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane):  I mean, it's a vanity project, so of course MacFarlane is going to be playing the captain.  Wouldn't you?  Mercer is a career officer not in the Federation, but in the Union.  He's been wanting to captain a ship his whole life, and finally gets one: it's not much of a ship, really, but it's his.  Good thing, too; he's had a rough go of it for the past year or so, ever since finding his wife in bed with a blue alien.  I suspect your enjoyment of this episode may turn on whether you can stomach MacFarlane in this role.  Like I said, I find him to be an affable presence, so I thought he was more or less fine here.  His passion for the project comes through, and makes it possible to see Ed's passion for his career; he's not actually all that good at it, but doggone it, he wants it and he tries.
Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianna Palicki):  The first officer of the Orville, she also used to be Ed's wife.  Yep, the one who cheated on him.  The big plot twist at the end of the episode is that it was her influence that got Ed the captaincy, and she purposefully got herself assigned as his XO.  This is presumably because she feels bad about how their marriage ended, and wants a chance to put it to rights.  I'm curious to see where this goes in future episodes.  I could see there being some actual stories come out of it; or it may simply be a bunch of ridiculous comedy.  Speaking of ridiculous comedy, there's a scene -- equally funny and cringe-worthy -- here where Ed and Kelly try to buy time for the ship by engaging the captain of a ship attacking them in conversation about which one of them is right regarding the breakup of their relationship.  I've liked Palicki since Friday Night Lights, so her being on the show does nothing to dissuade me from watching it.
Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes):  Gordon is a friend of Ed's who is also the best pilot in the Union.  But he's kind of a fuckup, too, prone to drinking in the morning while piloting a shuttlecraft, and to drawing penises on spaceships, etc.  Here's where much of the MacFarlane-type humor seems destined to come from.  Grimes is fine in that capacity, I guess, but the early results indicate that this will not be a favorite character for Where No Blog Has Gone Before. 
Lt. Cmdr. Bortus (Peter Macon):  The ship's second officeer, he's an alien who comes from a race with only a single gender; everyone is male.  This leads Ed to make a joke about how nobody in their race has to have conversation about leaving the toilet seat up.  If that sounds lame, it kind of is, but the episode makes it work by making it clear that it's lame in-universe, too.  Ed thinks it's funny, but nobody else does; again, he's not really that good at what he's doing.  Bortus informs Ed that his people only urinate once a year, which deeply impresses the captain, who says he gets up two or three times a night.  "That is unfortunate for you," replies Bortus, deeply unimpressed.  I laughed at this.  Bortus is being used the way Trek will occasionally use its alien characters: to serve to illustrate how weird humans can be.  I don't see a problem with applying that to MacFarlane's type of humor.  Maybe it'll get old quick, but I thought it was funny here, at least as it involved Bortus.
Lt. John LaMarr (J. Lee):   If Gordon is Chekov, then John is Sulu.  He's pretty funny, I guess; his primary concern upon meeting his new captain is to make sure it's still cool to have sodas on the bridge.  If there's a flaw with the show, it's that the humor is entirely 21st-century based, despite the show being set in the 25th century.  I'm tentatively okay with this; in theory, it could serve as a sort of way of being able to dissect modern-day humor (and maybe even non-humorous modern-day concerns).  We'll see; I'm not sold on this aspect of the series, but it's not the deal-breaker for me I feared it might be.
Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage):  The ship's security officer, she's from a planet with higher gravity, which means she has superpowers, more or less.  Sure, why not?  She's a girly looking girl with goofy forehead makeup, which means she's more or less B'Elanna Torres with John Carter-like superpowers.  Sure, why not?
Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald):  Jerald played Kasidy Yates on Deep Space Nine, so here's one of the major Trek vets to be affiliated with the series.  She doesn't get a lot to do in this first episode, but Jerald is a good actor, so again, her being here is a good thing.
Issac (Mark Jackson):  Isaac is a robot from another world who is on the ship as a sort of outreach program with that race.  Ed says that this race is incredibly racist against biological lifeforms; but there's not much evidence of that in this episode.
Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber):  This is the guy who gets Ed his job, apparently at Kelly's behest.  You'll get no complaints from me about Victor Garber being on a show.
The plot of the episode is about a time-manipulation device which the Orville has to keep out of the wrong hands.  Whatever.  It's really just a vehicle for establishing the characters.  As that, it's passable.  The effects are decent; the costumes and sets are evocative of TNG-era Trek without being blatant ripoffs; everything kind of screams TREK without crossing the line into pure lawyer bait.
Perhaps the most Trekian element of all is the score by Hollywood vet Bruce Broughton.  Broughton did some stuff that any child of the eighties has heard: to name a few, The Ice Pirates, Silverado, Young Sherlock Holmes, Harry and the Hendersons, The Monster Squad, and Michael Jackson's Moonwalker.  His score here is excellent, and evokes the tone of Trek music (especially the movies) effortlessly.  If I was prone to believe such things and not knowledgeable enough to know otherwise, you could have played this music for me and told me it was a rejected score to The Voyage Home.
So all in all, it's a decent episode.  I had fun watching it; I wouldn't necessarily say it's good, but I had fun.
Bryant's rating:  ** 1/2 / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  no
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  no

"Command Performance"
(season 1, episode 2)
airdate:   September 17, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by :  Robert Duncan McNeill

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):  The technologically advanced Calivon imprison Mercer and Grayson in a replica of their former home as a zoo exhibit.  Alara is left in command of the Orville, as Bortus has laid an egg and must incubate it.  Alara is unsure of herself, but gains confidence with the help of Claire's mentorship.  Mercer and Grayson wonder if they could have made their relationship work, but finally conclude that they were never compatible for a long-term romantic relationship, despite their strong camaraderie.  Admiral Tucker orders Alara to return to Earth instead of approaching the powerful Calivon; Alara violates these orders and rescues Mercer and Grayson, along with an alien child, by trading an archive of Earth's reality television for them.  Mercer presents Alara with a medal of honor and believes he and Grayson can prevent her from being punished for insubordination.  A female offspring hatches from Bortus' egg, stunning him and Klyden, as Moclan females are extremely rare.

Just so you know, it's been months since I watched the first episode of the series.  I've had too many other things on my plate, so it's been more of a no-time-to-get-'er-done type of thing and less a fuck-this-shit type of thing.

And hey, whaddaya know?  I dug this second episode!  It's not, like, awesome or anything; I'm not sitting here flipping out about it or nothin' like that.  But I enjoyed it top to bottom; a few of the jokes fell flat for me, but the hit-to-miss ratio was weighted in favor of "hit."  (Hey, what's the opposite of "fell flat"?  Not "fell round," surely.  Equally surely: not "stood flat."  Hmm.  This needs to be solved.)

Things I liked:

  • Ed trying to explain to Bortus who/what Kermit The Frog is, and why he'd look to him as a leader.
  • The chemistry between MacFarlane and Palicki.
  • Bortus and his egg.  What a weird subplot.  But (A) it's sweet and (B) it's the kind of thing that 100% would be done on a Trek series.  Can't YOU imagine a scenario in which male Klingons reproduce by egg and Worf was all self-conscious about it around Riker and Geordi?  I sure can.  I mean, I'm glad that didn't happen; but I can imagine it, and Michael Dorn would've killed it.
  • Alara's comedic nervousness when the shit hits the fan.  She takes a shot and then pukes, and Halston Sage is very funny in these scenes.  But this part of the plot works well enough that I was able to take it more or less seriously, as well; again, I can imagine a more straightforward version of this episode happening on Voyager with Harry Kim, or even Tom Paris.  Would have made a great Chekov episode on TOS, as well.
  • Claire makes for a good mentor to Alara.  I mean, you've got Penny Johnson Jerald, so you USE the fact that you've got her, right?  Right.
  • Isaac the robot.  ...  Wait, I just got that.  The goddamn robot is named Isaac because of Isaac Asimov.  Jesus, what a dunce I am.  I also just got -- well, in this case, not "just" (it was while watching the episode) -- the fact that the ship is named the Orville after Orville Wright, not Orville Redenbacher.  That was a thing I actually thought for a while.  Truly, I'm a moron.  Ay yi yi.  Anyways, Isaac is pretty cool here.
  • Holland Taylor and Jeffrey Tambor show up for a bit as Ed's parents.  (They're actually just holographic recreations of his parents pulled from his own mind, but close enough.)  They're both funny, and while it's true that the humor on the show makes it a product of its time, I'm starting to wonder if that might actually be a good thing.  I'd been assuming it was a bad thing; but maybe not.  We'll see, but I laughed a good bit during this episode and didn't feel like it ruined what they were otherwise trying to accomplish, so that's not too bad.
  • The alien zoo thing.  A true sci-fi-television trope, and why not?  It's totally fair game for The Orville to play with those tropes, to bounce up against them and see what happens.  Here, the punchline is pretty great; so it struck me, at least -- your mileage may vary.  It seems like it's just an easy joke: these aliens want a zoo exhibit, so we give them reality television, which is kind of like a zoo.  Har-dee-har-har.  But what's the joke suggesting?  That it's genuinely loathsome that reality television of this kind is something our culture is currently feeding itself on a routine basis; not only are we behaving like animals, we are happy to be doing so.  I can imagine a TOS episode in which Kirk has to talk an alien society out of being like that; he'd be able to do it with a rousing speech and some dropkicks (not necessarily in that order).
  • This episode was directed by Tom Paris himself!  And he's good; the tone bounces all over the place, but it mostly felt like a single and consistent piece, and that is hugely helped by the direction.  Nice -- and not at all surprising -- to see MacFarlane bring a Trek vet onboard in this capacity.  I'm gonna go out on a limb and speculate that it won't be the last time that happens.

Things I disliked:

  • The fact that I barely remembered any of the characters' names even right after somebody said them.  This is a thing that happens with new shows sometimes, though; I'll pick 'em up.
  • I kept hearing "Calivon" as "Caliban," and kind of got attached to that name.

Otherwise, this one gets a thumbs-up from me.

Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

"About a Girl"
(season 1, episode 3)
airdate:  September 21, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  Brannon Braga

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):  When Doctor Finn refuses Bortus and Klyden's request to have their daughter undergo sex reassignment surgery, which is standard practice for Moclans on the very rare occasions when a female is born, the parents petition Mercer to order the procedure.  Mercer refuses, as he (and the rest of the crew) object to performing such a procedure on a healthy infant, so Bortus and Klyden arrange to have the procedure performed on a Moclan vessel.  Gordon and John change Bortus' mind by showing him Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but Klyden still wants to proceed, revealing that he was born female.  
The case is arbitrated on the Moclan planet, Moclus, where Grayson represents Bortus; she casts doubt on the idea of male superiority by demonstrating that Alara is physically strong and Gordon is stupid.  Mercer locates a female Moclan of advanced years, Heveena, who testifies that she lived a happy and fulfilling life in seclusion, and reveals that under the pseudonym "Gondus Elden," she has become an esteemed novelist on Moclus.  But Klyden and the tribunal are unconvinced, and the baby undergoes the surgery.  Despite their disagreement, Bortus and Klyden are committed to one another and to giving their son, Topa, a good life.

Alright, well, that's two in a row I dug.  And I dug it quite a bit for most of the episode; some aspects of the climax fall (very) flat for me, but it's not too bad.

Things I liked:

  • I mean ... this is just a Star Trek episode, dude.  Sure, there's some 21st-century comedy thrown in there, but that's sugar to help the medicine go down.  Everything else is Berman-era Trek, in concept, execution, and impact; just not in legal fact.
  • Peter Macon is pretty great as Bortus in this one.  He's convincing when he's gung-ho for having the procedure performed; he's convincing when he changes his mind, too.
  • A plot point hinges on two Earthmen bringing beer to an alien and getting him to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  I mean, look, you'd never get that on an episode of any Star Trek (except maybe Voyager), and I guess that could cause some Trekkies a bit of agitation.  But I'm starting to be rather fond of the way MacFarlane's penchant for making pop-culture references in his work is playing out on The Orville.  These are not shallow "ha-ha isn't Flash Gordon lame but awesome" references; these are left-field in that way, but with a bit of oomph to them.  Because hey, it's a silly old cartoon, but Rudolph really DOES contain a strong message about accepting one's own faults (and the faults of others).  Plus, it's just funny to think about a quasi-Klingon watching it and being moved to a pivotal life decision.
  • I enjoyed the idea that Gordon was put on the witness stand to serve as an example of how males can, in fact, be intellectually inferior.  Pressed to name the capitol of the former United States of America, he guesses, "Nabisco?"  You, sir, have earned a LOL.  Also pretty funny: he and John and Ed have gone on a holodeck* (* NOTE: not actually called a holodeck but so what, it's a frigging holodeck no matter how many times you call it a "simulator") program early in the episode, and they're on a Wild West adventure.  Gordon has programmed a new bit, and the stereotypical bandido bad guy challenges everyone to a dance-off.  Out of nowhere, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" begins playing.  That's funny in its own right, and hey, in retrospect, I see what you did there, episode.
  • Alara, with her ridiculous alien forehead and ears, puts on a boxing uniform and beats the snot out of Bortus.  That was pretty cool.
  • Chad L. Coleman -- Cutty from The Wire!  Tyreese from The Walking Dead!  Fred Johnson from The Expanse! -- plays Bortus's mate, Klyden.  He's unsurprisingly strong playing a nuanced role.  I like the fact that the episode doesn't go for the easy out by having him change his mind in the end.  No, they go through with it as ordered, and Bortus seems determined not to let this setback split up his family.  That's pretty cool.
  • Good score by Joel McNeely, who I always think of as the guy who wrote the score to a Star Wars tie-in book, Shadows of the Empire (and a pretty decent score it is, too).  So is his work on this episode.  I forgot to look at that credit for "Command Performance," but I'm guessing McNeely scored the whole season; that's how tv mostly works these days.
  • Norm Macdonald does the voice of the alien blob character (Yaphit -- thanks, Wikipedia!).  He's pretty funny, if you like Macdonald, which I do.
  • Directed by Brannon Braga!  Well, that's a pretty damn substantial Trek veteran, right there; so while The Orville continues to demonstrably NOT be actually a Star Trek series, the evidence also continues to mount on the side of "yeah but so what?"

Things I disliked:

  • Let's face it: what are the odds that the only extant Moclan female would turn out to be the world's most famous writer?  That's a pretty convenient plot point.  Her reveal scene in the courtroom is well played, but it's also quite artificial.  This is perhaps a bit less galling on The Orville than it would be on, say, Deep Space Nine; the premise itself has a certain amount of artificiality baked into it.  Still, I'm putting it on the list of cons.
  • I don't love the design of the Orville itself, and I don't like the design of the shuttlecraft at all.  This is a minor gripe.  I don't like any of the shuttlecraft on real Treks, either, and that doesn't keep me from loving those shows.

Bryant's rating:  **** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

"If the Stars Should Appear"
(season 1, episode 4)
airdate:  September 28, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  James L. Conway

Why does Hulu's versions of these episodes have a city-specific Fox logo?  That's weird.

Yep.  Liam Neesons!

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   The Orville encounters an immense, 2000-year-old derelict ship drifting into a star.  Mercer, Grayson, Kitan, Finn, and Isaac enter, discovering an artificial biosphere and a civilization of 3 million who worship an entity called Dorahl, and do not know they are on a ship.  Grayson is held prisoner by their theocratic dictator Hamelac, who imposes a death penalty on "Reformers" who believe anything exists beyond the known world.  While Bortus takes the Orville to save a colony ship from a Krill attack, Grayson's crewmates rescue her and lead a group of Reformers to the alien ship's bridge.  An ancient recording from Captain Jahavus Dorahl (played by Liam Neeson) reveals that it was a generation ship disabled by an ion storm.  Isaac initiates repairs and opens the hull's window, enabling the populace to see stars for the first time, moving even Hamelac.  Mercer makes arrangements for the Union to train the people to operate their ship.  Meanwhile, Klyden is frustrated that Bortus' duties leave him little time for family.

Alright, well, look: I don't know if I've just been hungry for this type of sci-fi or what, but I think I'm a little in love with this show.  The past three episodes have shown me that Seth MacFarlane 100% has the right stuff and should have been given an opportunity to make an actual Star Trek series.  In some other, better universe, instead of hiring (and then firing) overwrought auteur Bryan Fuller, CBS hired MacFarlane, who would have been doing this kind of story on a weekly basis, only straight-faced.

One thing I can't help but think of regarding this episode: my friend Trey, who passed away this summer after stepping into the ring with lymphoma and suffering a TKO, was a fan of The Orville and tried to persuade me to give it a chance.  We had tentative plans to do that very thing at some point, and now, of course, that's an impossibility.  On one of the last occasions where we spent substantial time together, he made a big pitch to me about how The Orville was actually just pure sci-fi television in the classic mold, with an occasional dick joke thrown in to keep Family Guy / American Dad viewers mollified.  He described this episode to me, and I allowed as to how it really did sound like my cup of tea.

Ol' Trey was right about that sort of thing more often than not; we'd have discrepancies in opinion on occasion, but his batting average was strong.  You're missed, pardner; sure is a shame we didn't get to watch any of these together.

Moving on, I'm going to take yet another opportunity -- not the first, and damn sure not the last -- to fling turds at the first season of Star Trek: Discovery specifically and CBS's current handling of Trek generally.  Say what you want to say about The Orville; it may not work for you, especially if you dislike MacFarlane as an actor and/or as a writer.  Regardless, I think you'd be hard-pressed to objectively look at Discovery and The Orville and say the former is truer to the spirit and soul of Star Trek than the latter is.  There are things about Discovery that I like, but from its bogus approach to continuity with the previous shows to its compromised ethical ideals to its insistence on valuing serialized storytelling over a more traditional anthology approach, it's pretty clear that the people making it feel Star Trek is dead as a concept.  "Star Trek" is a thing of the past; this show wants to be buzzy Twitter-bait that also takes advantage of established (and saleable) IP.  That's seemingly all Discovery has on its mind, and -- at least so far -- it shows.

MacFarlane, on the other hand, is clearly doing everything he can do to show that the various qualities which made the '90s-era Treks vibrant and alive still work.  You may or may not agree with me that he is correct about that, or that his own efforts have been successful.  But compared to what currently passes for "real" Star Trek?  The Orville, through the four episodes I've seen, is like that U2 song: it's even better than the real thing.

A few words about this specific episode are in order:

Things I liked:

  • I'm a sucker for any scenario in which the starship of a series finds another ship or other structure that is off-the-charts big.  You almost cannot fail with me if you go that route.  And this one is pretty cool; the effects are great, on both the exterior and the interior of the ship.
  • Joel McNeely's score gives some very obvious echoes of Jerry Goldsmith's score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Appropriate.  There's also some strongly Williamsesque space battle music during the scene where the Orville fights the Krill ship.
  • Adrianna Palicki does very well during the scene where Kelly is being tortured for information.  She's seen all those movies where some tough guy has the snot walloped out of him and only gives out one-liners in return, and she does a very credible job of it.
  • The director is James L. Conway, who directed a whopping eighteen episodes of Berman-era Trek, including "Frame of Mind," "The Way of the Warrior," "The 37's," and "In a Mirror, Darkly."  So yeah, there's that.

Things I'm on the fence about:

  • Call me crazy, but isn't it irresponsible for Ed to have decided to open the "sunroof" and show the people on this ship the night-time sky for the first time?  For this conservative and repressed a society, wouldn't it lead to riots, suicides, and whatnot?  Seems awfully cavalier of him to just decide that for these folks.  That said, would Captain James T. Kirk have done the same thing?  I'm guessing probably so. 

Things I disliked:

  • Some of the humor fell flat in this one.  For example, the random gag in which Captain Mercer is awkward in elevators and can't help but make pointless small talk.   I could have lived without that.

Bryant's rating:  **** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

(season 1, episode 5)
airdate:  October 5, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  Jonathan Frakes

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):  The Orville saves Captain Pria Lavesque from her imperiled mining ship.  The beautiful Pria charms Mercer and others of the crew, eventually sleeping with Mercer, his first romance since Grayson.  Grayson is suspicious of Pria, whose supposed employer doesn't check out, and enlists Kitan to investigate; they find a mysterious device in her quarters, but Mercer reprimands them.  Pria saves the Orville from a "dark matter storm," but later hijacks the ship, using the device.  She is a time-traveling 29th-century artifact dealer; history records the storm destroyed the Orville, which she transports to the future via a wormhole for her client, a collector.  Isaac transfers his consciousness to the ship's computer and reclaims control, enabling Malloy to return the Orville to its own time.  Mercer orders the wormhole's destruction, despite Pria's admonition that it will retroactively erase their meeting and Mercer's emotional growth; Pria vanishes.  
Meanwhile, Malloy decorates Isaac like a Mr. Potato Head and encourages him to retaliate with his own practical joke, a concept unfamiliar to Isaac.  Isaac anesthetizes Malloy and amputates his leg, forcing Dr. Finn to regenerate it; Malloy and the crew are outraged, but Malloy later admits that it was a great prank.

Another winner.  This is not only the funniest episode of the series so far, it's arguably the episode in which the humor feels the least shoehorned.  That bit where Gordon -- who is steadily growing on me -- finds out Isaac has amputated his leg as a practical joke is terrific.  You could never get away with having Data do that to somebody on TNG, but wouldn't you kind of like it if they'd tried?

The summary above fails to mention that Pria is played by Charlize Theron, who brings a real sense of class to the production.  So does director Jonathan Frakes.  Jonathan Frakes!  He gets best-so-far performances out of both MacFarlane and Palicki, who are pretty great here.  Same goes for Scott Grimes as Gordon; he's great in the scene where he apologizes to Isaac (who he thinks may be dead) and admits that the leg-amputation thing really was an all-time-great practical joke.

This may also have been the best-looking episode of the series so far; there are some really lovely effects, both of the dark-matter storm and of the wormhole.

Not much to complain about with this one; not for me, at least.

Oh, by the way, the music this episode was composed by John Debney; so looks like there'll be more than one composer.  Fine by me; his stuff here is good.

Bryant's rating:  **** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

(season 1, episode 6) 
airdate:  October 12, 2017
written by:  David A. Goodman
directed by:  Jon Cassar

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   After recovering a Krill shuttle intact, Mercer and Malloy are ordered to pose as Krill soldiers in order to board one of their vessels and get a copy of the Ankhana, a sacred religious text.  They are forced to change priorities when they learn that the Krill plan to detonate a powerful bomb over a remote Union colony.  Rather than destroy the bomb, and therefore the ship, they exploit the Krill's natural weakness to sunlight to eliminate all the crew members, with the exception of a classroom full of children and their teacher Teleya, who warns Mercer that his actions will only reinforce the Krill's hatred for the Union.

This one is a step down from the past few episodes, in my opinion, but not much of one.  The Krill seemed kind of lame to me in "Old Wounds," but here, they come off as merciless and frightening adversaries.  A little like the Klingons, yeah; a little like the Dominion, yeah.  Do I mind this?  Nope.  I have no issues with The Orville being -- and remaining -- conversant with Star Trek.

Speaking of which, things get interesting here when Ed and Gordon are aboard the Krill ship.  There is some ridiculous -- and pretty funny -- comedy during these scenes, but there's also quite a bit to chew on dramatically.  At first, it seems as if the Krill are indeed the implacable foes we've been thinking, but then, when our characters attend a Krill religious service, and meet a Krill woman who is grieving for her recently-killed brother, we think things are taking a turn toward understanding that these are just people.  Which is a very Trek-like approach, so it's what we expect.

But then the priest pulls out a severed human head, puts it in a ritual container, and begins stabbing it while making incantations.  Now, you might think based on the fact that this is The Orville that this is played for comedy.  And there is some afterward (via Gordon, of course, who is gold in this episode); but in the moment, this stuff is what it is intended to be: shocking and horrifying.

At this point, the question became this in my mind: if one is a morally and ethically advanced human, how would one retain those ideals in the face of an adversary who did not share those ideals?  This episode doesn't have an answer to that question, but it comes down very strongly on the side of insisting that even lacking an answer, it's hella important to try.

So, have no doubts: this is weighty stuff, even with all the comedy thrown in there.

And the comedy is on fucking point this episode, in my opinion.  There's a great gag at the beginning where the crew discovers Bortus can basically eat anything; so they keep feeding him weird shit, like napkins and cactuses.  Even better: a scene where Ed and Gordon remember they have to pick out Krill names and realize they have no idea how to do it, so they just spot gibberish-sounding "alien" names at each other for a little while.  One of them: Haagen Dazs.  This pays off later when they find out the name of the Krill god: Avis.  Gordon gets some great mileage out of making car-rental jokes, which reaches its apex in an otherwise very serious -- and touching -- scene in which a Krill child is asking these two supposed slayers of humans where the humans come from.  Ed says humans come from Earth.  The kid asks why humans don't believe in Avis, to which Gordon replies, "They have their own god, Hertz."

Ladies and gentlemen, The Orville, which I officially love.

This episode was written by David A. Goodman, who wrote four episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise and also the Futurama episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before."  This, then, is the first episode not to be written by MacFarlane; I don't think it shows, and I mean that as a compliment to both Goodman AND MacFarlane.

The direction is courtesy Jon Cassar, who is probably best known for the 70 -- 70!!! -- episodes of 24 he directed (including one which won him an Emmy).

Bryant's rating:  **** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes -- and at this point, I'm guessing there's not going to be an episode for which I answer that with "no," but we'll see

Speaking of which ... hey, here's a question:

Should I watch the first season of Discovery again and do one of these blogs for it?  I mean, who knows, maybe I'll like it more the second time.  Maybe I'll like it less.

I may defer that decision until such time as I decide for sure whether I'm going to subscribe to CBS All Access for the second season.  I said I wasn't going to after the first season wrapped, but lately I've been thinking I might renege on that decision.  But I don't know; I just don't know.

Anybody got an opinion on these issues?

"Majority Rule"
(season 1, episode 7)
airdate:  October 26, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  Tucker Gates

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):  An undercover team led by Grayson lands on Sargas 4, an Earth-like planet with a culture similar to that of 21st-century human civilization, to locate two missing anthropologists.  There, LaMarr is arrested after a video of him dancing with a beloved statue receives more than a million "down" votes, and must convince the public to pardon him or be subjected to "treatment" for his actions.  Alara and Claire locate one of the missing, but find him in an irreversible lobotomized state.  With LaMarr facing a final vote to determine his guilt, Mercer brings one of the planet's inhabitants, Lysella, aboard the Orville after she witnesses Alara's true appearance, and she explains about the "Master Feed", which Isaac is able to hack and upload doctored images of John, narrowly swinging the vote in his favor by generating sympathy for John, such as uploading images of John as a fat child or videos of him as a soldier reuniting with his dog.  Now free, John and the others return to the ship and depart.  The next day, Lysella decides against taking part in a public vote, contemplating the advice the Orville crew gave her about the difference between opinion and knowledge.

Another winner.  This one is like a combination of Star Trek and Black Mirror, specifically the episode "Nosedive."  This isn't quite THAT good -- that's a great episode of television, "Nosedive" -- but it's plenty fine.

Side-note: I've not been paying super-close attention to these plot summaries I've found on Wikipedia.  Do they all suck as much as this one?  It says John is filmed "dancing with" a statue; in fact, he more or less dry-humps it.  Also, who write this thing?  Who doesn't know you spell it "downvotes," one word, not two?

The episode is a good showcase for J. Lee, who is funnier than ever before but is also given a few dramatic beats to play.  Everyone else is good, too, particularly MacFarlane, who  is almost entirely playing his role straight this time.  I was halfway convinced the episode was going to end with him doing a very credible Kirk speech of some sort on the planet's surface; and it might be a flaw of the episode that that very thing ends up not happening.

Still, I enjoyed this, and give it a thumbs up for doing a TOS-season-two-style parallel-worlds episode.  It also does the thing where members of the ship's crew have to dress in native attire to blend in, including making an alien go to the surface and wear something goofy on their head to cover their weirdo alien ears.

Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

"Into the Fold"
(season 1, episode 8)
airdate:  November 2, 2017
written by:  Brannon Braga & Andre Bormanis
directed by:  Brannon Braga

Guest appearance by the great Brian Thompson.

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   While traveling to a recreational planet in a shuttle, Isaac, Finn, and her sons Marcus and Ty fall into a spatial fold, and crash on a planet a thousand light-years away from their original location, devastated by famine and disease, and populated by cannibals.  Finn is separated from the other three when the shuttle breaks in half while she is in the back carrying out repairs, and is captured by a survivalist named Drogen.  While she works to escape, Isaac, who is unfamiliar with the care of human children, is forced to protect her sons while he tries to fix the shuttle's communication systems in order to send a distress signal.  Ty becomes ill with the planet's indigenous disease.  After Finn kills Drogen and reunites with the others, Isaac and Marcus hold off a large attack by the cannibals long enough for the Orville to rescue them.  After Finn cures Ty's infection, Isaac tells her that, for all the faults he sees in the children, he still thinks of them fondly.
Guys, let's talk about Isaac.  At first, I thought Isaac kind of sucked a little bit; but by episode two or three, I'd changed my mind about that, and in the course of this episode I realized I actually kind of love Isaac.  I'm more charmed by the design with each passing episode, and Mark Jackson's work -- both vocally and otherwise -- is beginning to impress me.

In theory, Isaac is kind of just a less-humanoid version of Data from The Next Generation.  However, there are some key differences: he's from an alien world that has sent him to live among humans as a way of evaluating the species; he's even more literal than Data and less capable of intuiting human behavior; and, obviously, he's only got a blank face and two glowing eyes.  The conceit with Data on TNG was -- arguably; you might not agree with this, I suppose -- that he was a robot who wanted to be human, and basically WAS human in all but a biological sense.  Whether that was intentional or not, I cannot say; but they'd do an episode about how Data made himself a daughter but couldn't love her because he didn't have emotions, except clearly he loved her like crazy, so what did it matter that he didn't have emotions in a technical sense?  Didn't.  That's what made Data great.

Every now and then, they'd lean into the notion that he was actually a robot.  Or an android, I suppose.  So, like, Data'd get a girlfriend to see what that was like, and he'd reveal that he'd written a subroutine to deal with her and that while it was running he was also running a bunch of other programs that were focused on other things; and she'd get all mad about it and break up with him.  (That only happened once; I'm saying stuff like that, dig?)  In these relatively rare episodes, Data was a truly alien creature.  That, too, was what made Data great; and while that ought to seem like a contradiction, somehow, it wasn't.

Isaac seems designed primarily to reflect the alien side of the Data-esque equation.  Whether that will stay true, I do not know, but what makes Isaac work so well is that he is pretty consistently bewildered by -- and (in a low-grade way that also speaks to his central learn-about-this-race mission) aggravated by -- humans.  So in this episode, when one of Claire's sons is screaming in pain because his knee has been dislocated, it's really kind of rad for Isaac to look at the kid, say, "You are damaged; I must fix you," and then just pop ol' dude's knee back into place without asking.  It's what an alien robot would do, right?

Anyways, Jackson's vocal delivery seemed to me in the early episodes to be a bit flat and uninteresting, but I think it seemed that way because I was judging him by the Brent Spiner standard.  That was an erroneous comparison on my part; in fact, Jackson seems to be more in the mode of Douglas Rain (who voiced HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey).  But with a difference: Isaac does seem to be capable of learning to alter his programming to take the quirks of humanity into account.

Elsewhere, the episode proves to be a great showcase for Penny Johnson Jerald.  Hey, was I failing to pay sufficient attention or was this the first time we heard about Claire having two kids onboard?  It's fine by me either way.  Via this plot point, we get a bit of writing that helps distinguish The Orville from any Trek series in that its humans are just SO fucking human.  So Claire and her kids are on a shuttle going on vacation, and it gets sucked into a spatial fold and they crash-land on a planet populated by dangerous natives with a deadly disease.  Name me a Trek series that couldn't have happened on; you can easily write a version of that on any of them.

But on this Orville version of the story, the accident happens because the two kids are being kids, fucking around with a video game and arguing over it; one of them gets mad and flings the game at precisely the wrong moment, hitting the shuttle control panel with it and causing the shuttle to be pulled into the fold.  Which sounds silly when I type it out like that, and might conceivably strike you as silly when you watch the episode.  It didn't strike me that way, because the point the episode was making was that even in the future, kids are still going to be assholes who argue with each other on a trip.  That can be a messy thing at times, and The Orville is cool with not trying to suppress that idea.  And it does so without sacrificing the Roddenberrian ethical ideals the series has gleefully stolen: at a key climactic point, Claire, handing one of her sons a weapon to fight off some attackers, tells him to keep it on stun only.  "They may not care about life, but we do," she says.  It's a touching moment.

Less touching, but decidedly funnier: as the Orville tries to locate its missing shuttle, they find the spatial rift, and Gordon looks at it on the viewscreen and says that in his academy days, they used to call rifts like that "glory holes."  Ed, visibly annoyed and embarrassed by his pilot's tactlessness, clarifies that only Gordon called them that.  A bit later, Bortus deadpans that the ship is entering the glory hole.  This stuff shouldn't be funny, but it got a big laugh out of me.

Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

"Cupid's Dagger"
(season 1, episode 9)
airdate:  November 9, 2017
written by:  Jamie Babbitt
directed by:   Liz Heldens

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   The Orville is dispatched to mediate talks between two alien species, the Navarians and the Bruidians, who have been at a centuries-old stalemate over which race lays proper claim over the planet Lapovius.  Also assigned to the matter is Darulio (Rob Lowe), the Retepsian whose affair with Grayson a year prior ended her marriage to Mercer, to scan an ancient artifact from the planet for DNA to reveal which species was the original inhabitant.  Unbeknownst to the crew, Darulio secretes a sex pheromone as part of his mating cycle, which affects the crew resulting in trysts between Darulio and Grayson, Darulio and Mercer, and Finn and Yaphit.  This incapacitates the affected officers, resulting in the Navarian and Bruidian delegates canceling the mediation, and a full-scale battle in orbit around the planet.  
The crisis is resolved when Darulio and Alara expose the ambassadors to a modified version of the pheromone, resulting in a temporary infatuation that prompts a ceasefire.  DNA test results from the artifact reveal that the planet's inhabitants were common ancestors to both species, legitimizing a mutual claim to the planet.  When Grayson asks Darulio if he was in heat a year ago, he only answers "maybe".

I'm kind of relieved to say that I ... didn't love this episode.  If that seems like an odd reaction, let me clarify: I've been enjoying this show so much after the first episode that I have been a little worried I'd somehow forgotten how to be grumpy about a show.  I didn't really think that, mind you; it was just one of those things where I found myself reacting to this series in a strongly (and unexpectedly) positive manner and then thought, hey, is this for real?!?  Am I actually really into this show?

So not being super into this episode kind of makes me feel better about episodes 2-8.  Weird, but true.

This is not to say that I didn't like "Cupid's Dagger."  It's okay; the main plot is ridiculous and inconsequential, but this episode is all about the performances.  Seth MacFarlane is great in this one, acting all flirty and shook by blue-skinned Rob Lowe.  Adrianne Palicki is similarly great, and Penny Johnson Jerald gets some good stuff, too; that lady is sexy when she sets her mind to it.  I'm less persuaded by Lowe himself, but I guess he does a fine enough job.

The opening scene earned the episode a half-star bump in my rating.  Kelly is singing "Any Way You Want It" by Journey in mess-hall karaoke; Palicki is not a half bad vocalist.  Okay, fine; that's fine.  But then Bortus steps up to the mic and "My Heart Will Go On" begins playing, and I had to pause Hulu for a few seconds while I stopped laughing.  This is all stuff that, if you'd told me about it back before I watched the series, I'd have rolled my eyes at you and probably said something like, "Anyways, about how Discovery sucks..."

But here, watching it, doggone if I wasn't just as charmed by it as could be.  And then later Yaphit plays a Ramones song to Claire on guitar.  What the fuck IS this show?!?

Real damn entertaining, that's what.

And while this is not its finest hour, it's got the same quality that I always loved about The Next Generation: even the bum episodes have good stuff in them.

Bryant's rating:  *** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  on the fence about that
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?: no

Wait, what?  "No"?!?  I wasn't expecting that!  But I think it's the right answer.  Speaking of which, my stance toward Discovery itself is continuing to soften, if only in theory.  I've reached a place where I'm kind of feeling guilty about how often I badmouth that show.  What's happened to me?  Has the optimism of The Orville worn me down somehow?  Have I been persuaded by a few podcasts I've heard recently?  Am I sheepish about being lumped in with some of the REAL dickholes who complain about Discovery (you know the ones)?

All of that, maybe; maybe none of it.  Maybe it's just this one photo that has kind of done it:

That's Wilson Cruz -- Dr. Culber from Discovery -- freaking the fuck out over being in the same room with two guys I hope I don't need to identify.  I've always liked Wilson Cruz, going all the way back to My So-Called Life; he was one of the things I most enjoyed about the first season of Discovery.  The show's treatment of his character was also one of things I disliked about it the most, but maybe the second season is going to fix that.

And maybe that's where I am at with that show right now.  Yeah, sure, the fact that they are apparently bringing Spock onto the show in some capacity fills me with dread; I'm not happy about that at all, and the entire concept/setting of the series still vexes me in a major way.  But maybe -- MAYBE -- the show's second season could still be good.  And if it is, then maybe the series as a whole could still be good.  I suspect I'm always going to think of it as a compromised thing that is in many ways inferior to the shows that came before it; but (A) maybe not and (B) that need not imply it is a bad show or that I can't enjoy it.

Time will tell.

(season 1, episode 10)
airdate:  November 16, 2017
written by:  Cherry Chevapravatdumrong
directed by:  Brannon Braga

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   When Lt. Payne is trapped beneath debris during a plasma storm, Alara's pyrophobia causes her to hesitate, and after he dies, she blames herself.  Mercer declines her resignation and suggests she discover the cause of her pyrophobia.  She learns from her parents (Robert Picardo and Molly Hagan) that, as an infant, her mother fell asleep cradling her when a fire broke out in the kitchen.  Alara's cries woke her up just in time to save them both.  
Soon, the Orville encounters strange phenomena, including a scary clown, a giant spider that eats Malloy, and murderous versions of Finn and Isaac.  It is revealed that Alara is in the holographic simulator, in a program she ordered Isaac to create to simulate any other potential fears she may have, and having Finn erase her short-term memory of having made the request to ensure an authentic reaction to the program.  She completes the program, after which Mercer threatens to court martial her for invoking Directive 38 (allowing the Chief of Security to override the captain's clearance) so that no one could abort the simulation early, but decides to let Alara off easy, saying he was impressed by her ability to overcome every obstacle.

Once the big plot twist happened in this one, I was glad that I had gone into the episode knowing nothing about it.  Because the thing is, this is the sort of show where in theory, the episode could have suddenly turned into a let's-hunt-the-killer-clown-onboard-the-ship type of episode.  It's not out of the realm of possibility.

Anyways, I guess I've spoiled that for some of you now.  Sorry about that!  But, after all, you were warned.

The episode was written by Family Guy writer/producer Cherry Chevapravatdumrong (who is also known as "Cherry Cheva," but won't be around here unless billed that way).  It's a sort of jamabalaya of various things you've seen on Berman-era Trek episodes, a quality which may have been boosted by the direction of Trek hall-of-famer Brannon Braga.  There's one shot -- of the doors to Kelly's quarters opening onto an empty void -- that is obviously an homage to the TNG episode where Picard has the same thing happen to him in a turbolift.  Then, when the ship seems to be empty, that's quite reminiscent of "Remember Me," a strong Beverly-centric episode.

And all that was fine as can be with me.  I never mind when an episode of Trek itself is Trek jamabalaya; so I certainly don't mind when an inspired-by-Trek series does one of these.  In the end, it even turned out to be a pretty great holodeck -- oops, pardon me, "simulator" -- episode.  Fucking Brannon Braga, man; still squeezing tasty juice out of that old-ass orange.  Bless his heart!  I'd let that guy go back to writing Trek any day of the week; he didn't write this one, but it feels like his work nevertheless.

A few things I want to point out:

  • The acting is great in this one across the board.  I give the MVP honors this time to Halston Sage, who remains kind of a girly-girl in this role, but in the same sort of way Sarah Michelle Gellar was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: excellently, but also defiantly.  Because really, so what that she's a girly girl?  Does that prevent her from being awesome and kicking ass when ass needs kicking?  Not even vaguely.  She's been pretty great the entire season, and this might be her best episode.
  • Also, she's hot as blazes.

  • You know who else is hot and great?  Penny Johnson Jerald.  In the nightmare scene where Evil Claire is in the brig, she's pinging some really weird sections in my brain, boy.
  • The direction by Brannon Braga is excellent.  The early stuff with the clown is perfectly pitched: ridiculous enough to make you think initially it is just weird comedy, but scary enough that it actually works as a bit of horror.  From there, almost all of the scares work, and the staging overall is very strong.  
  • Braga gets a big assist from whoever lit the episode.  This sucker is gorgeous from beginning to end; I mean, it's damn-near-rivals-TOS beautiful.  [UPDATE: IMDb informs me that the cinematographer on this and most of the first season was Marvin V. Rush.  Ever heard of him?  Well, it turns out he was the director of photography on 78 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, 45 episodes of Deep Space Nine, 150 episode of Voyager, and 93 episode of Enterprise.  So ... yeah.  I feel moronic for not knowing a Trek hall-of-famer was lighting this show.  What else have I missed?!?]
  • Braga gets another big assist from composer John Debney, who does terrific work in this one.
  • Also great: the visual effects.  A huge spider comes running down the corridor at one point; it's brightly lit and looks fantastic, and gnarly and gross.  Not as gross as the wall of tarantulas, which made me legit shudder.
  • Oh!  Almost forgot: Robert Picardo shows up briefly playing Alara's father.  It's not much of a role, to be honest, but I'm always happy to see Robert Picardo.
Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

"New Dimensions"

(season 1, episode 11)

airdate:  November 30, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  Kelly Cronin

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   With Lt. Newton leaving the Orville, Mercer must find a new Chief Engineer.  Although Yaphit is next in line for the position, Cmdr. Grayson discovers that LaMarr has been hiding intellectual gifts, stemming from wanting to be better accepted as a child growing up in his community.  Grayson convinces Mercer to assign LaMarr to lead an engineering team assignment, in order to evaluate him as a candidate, but when Mercer learns that Grayson similarly pushed for Admiral Halsey to consider him for the Orville's captaincy, he becomes wracked with doubt and resentment, despite Grayson's insistence that he was granted his position on merit and Halsey's confirmation that Mercer's performance on the ship has borne this out.   
Meanwhile, the Orville encounters a thief with a cache of plasma rifles stolen from the Krill, who is killed when he passes into a region of two-dimensional space.  To elude the thief's Krill pursuers, the Orville takes refuge in that region. When the protective quantum bubble around the ship begins to fail, LaMarr, initially daunted by being placed in a leadership position, rises to the occasion, and works with Yaphit to help the ship escape the realm, for which LaMarr is made Chief Engineer and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

I'm just going to assume this is more or less exactly what happened to Geordi LaForge between seasons one and two of The Next Generation.  Which is a weird and reductive thing to think, but you can't stop me, so nah-nah-nah-nah-boo-boo.

This is a very good episode that benefits from good performances from all quarters.  By this point, I'd argue that they've developed every single character sufficiently that any one of them can handle being the lead of a given episode.  That may even be true of Yaphit, a green blob of goo with the voice of Norm Macdonald.  Let me repeat that: a green blob of good with the voice of Norm Macdonald.  And yes, I know you already know that; I'm just emphasizing it, because Yaphit is a green blob of goo with the voice of Norm Macdonald.  That's a terrible idea.  Terrible!  But by God, it works pretty well, and in this episode, it even works as drama rather than purely as comedy.  As drama!

The visual design of the two-dimensional universe is awesome.  It's simple, but it's colorful and eye-catching and not particularly like anything I've ever seen on one of these space shows before.  That counts for a lot, and the episode gets great mileage out of it.

I was also struck by a moment that comes toward the climax of the episode.  John and Isaac are helping prep the shuttle for towing the Orville, and one of the engineering team members makes a rude comment about Yaphit behind his, uh, back.  John overheard it and gives the crewman a good blessing out over it, insisting that since he (John) is the team leader, if it's anyone's fault, it's his own; that being the case, maybe everyone will stop thinking he's a leader, when he clearly isn't.

Cut to Isaac, who looks up at John meaningfully.  You expect him to make a comment of some sort: this is what Isaac has been doing all season, and so of course, he's going to do it here.  Instead, he simply looks at John for a beat, and then goes about his business.

This is a really powerful moment.  That's a ridiculous and surprising thing to think about an episode of The Orville, or so I might have thought at some earlier point.  Not anymore; by episode 11, this series is earning some real moments.  And this one is just fantastic.  You sense that something essential has been communicated to Isaac; the fact that he does not comment on it, but merely reacts to it, is top-notch stuff.

I like all the stuff between Ed and Kelly, too.  I think he's got a legitimate reason to feel ambushed in those moments, and I think Kelly has a legitimate reason to feel as if what she did was justified.  The moment when he kisses her on the cheek in apology is really sweet; old MacFarlane, boy, he's surprising me with this show.

Bryant's rating:  **** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes

"Mad Idolatry"
(season 1, episode 12)
airdate:  December 7, 2017
written by:  Seth MacFarlane
directed by:  Brannon Braga

Plot summary (via Wikipedia):   Grayson leads a shuttle team that crashes on a suddenly appearing planet with a Bronze Age society.  After leaving, the crew discovers that the planet phases in to our universe for a short time every 11 days as 700 years passes on the planet.  They discover that their first visit has resulted in a religion that worships Kelly Grayson and has grown into a theocracy resembling Earth's middle ages.  Admiral Ozawa reprimands Mercer for omitting mention of the contamination, and orders no further contact with the planet.  Mercer and Grayson defy this order by returning to the planet to inform the society's religious leader, of the truth, but a subordinate assassinates him.  As a result, by the time the planet next appears, its society is comparable to early 21st century Earth, with religious bickering and strife. 
Resolving to end the suffering, Isaac stays on the planet when it phases out, spending 700 years with them.  When the planet emerges again, it has progressed to interstellar space travel, and two of its representatives return Isaac to the Orville where they inform the crew that despite the tumultuous effect of his arrival on the planet, its society developed away from worshiping Cmdr. Grayson naturally and suggested that when they progress millennia ahead, they may study the Union.

This episode is Trek-like enough that you can sense Gene Roddenberry smiling down on it from humanist-nonexistence-space or whatever.  Specifically, it's ... well, let's be charitable and call it an homage to the Voyager episode "Blink of an Eye" (an all-time classic Trek episodes of any series).  There are many key differences between this and that, and even if I found out MacFarlane had consciously decided to riff on it, I'd be fine with that; the differences lead to interesting places.
That plot summary above does the episode no justice, by the way.  This is really a pretty terrific episode; I think it's maybe the best of the season.  The only thing that causes me to qualify that assertion is that some of the humor falls flat, and need not have been present at all.  I guess maybe MacFarlane feels the need to play to his base on occasion, but some of what he does here feels very unnatural and shoehorned, and it weighs the episode down a bit.

Take that out of consideration, and this is almost certainly the best episode of this first season.  It's essentially a Prime Directive episode, exploring what might happen if such a directive were accidentally violated and then made exponentially worse by an attempt to correct that accident.  And the initial results of that are pretty goddamn horrific.  There's a scene where Kelly and Ed and some of the others are passing through a town square, and they see...

Well, I guess I've got to set this up correctly, don't I?  When Kelly first goes to the planet, a little girl who is part of the planet's Bronze Age level society sees her and runs away, terrified.  The girl trips and falls down, cutting her forehead open on a rock.  Kelly, who feels guilty about scaring her, heals the cut with a dermal regenerator.  A religion apparently develops from this, and the name Kelly is used to both inspire and frighten people.  So what they see in the town square 700 years later is three guys accused of a crime who are placed on a sort of gallows; their arms are cut open, and it is pronounced that if they are innocent, Kelly will heal them.  Otherwise, they are left to die.  In Kelly's name.  Bear in mind, nobody knows Kelly is standing there; this is not being enacted for her benefit, this is just standard operating procedure.

Anyways, the episode ends on a very optimistic note, with the crew finding out that the religious strife eventually got solved on its own; it is, these people theorize, a natural part of societal evolution.  It bore the name Kelly, but it would have happened with or without her name and influence.  The implication being that we, here in the real world, might stand a chance of someday moving past our own strife(s).

It's a little on the nose, I guess, but by golly, that's what Star Trek is sometimes, and MacFarlane is doing it at a pretty good level in this episode.  It was directed by Brannon Braga, who knows all about that level.

A few other notes:

  • I was initially worried that the subplot -- not mentioned in that plot summary despite being the framework of the entire episode -- about Ed and Kelly considering getting back together might make for a bum episode that might end the season on a down note.  I need not have worried; all of that is handled quite nicely, and comes to a natural and surprisingly reflective resolution.
  • I mentioned some of the humor not working for me.  True.  but some of it does work for me, too.  Ed is walking around visiting various crewmembers after hours just trying to keep himself from being bored, and he ends up going to hang out with Bortus and Klyden.  He plays a Moclan game with them that is essentially hot potato with a egg-looking thing that you toss from one person to the next in rapid succession.  The three of them do that for a few seconds, and Ed, obviously bemused by the whole thing, stops and holds the egg or whatever and starts asking what the point of the game is.  A dagger erupts from the egg and stabs him through the hand.  Bortus and Klyden cheer; Ed has won!  That shit made me laugh pretty hard.  This show's humor doesn't always land with me, but when it does land, more often than not it lands hard.
  • The score is by Joel McNeely, and it is exceptional.  I demand soundtrack releases for these episodes!
  • I legit got a bit choked up (A) when Isaac volunteered to remain on the planet for 700 years to try to help fix things and then again (B) when you see the advanced and prosperous society he has been a part of among them.

And I guess that's about all I have to say about that episode.  Good way to end a season; and (as would have been entirely unsurprising for a Fox sci-fi schow) is the series had only gotten a single season, it wouldn't have made a bad series finale, either.

But I'm glad that's not the case.  I look forward to season two!

Bryant's rating:  **** / *****
Is it good Star Trek?:  yes
Is it better Star Trek than Discovery?:  yes
Worst To Best of season one:

"Old Wounds"  (** 1/2)
"Cupid's Dagger"  (***)
"Command Performance"  (*** 1/2)
"Firestorm"  (*** 1/2)
"Into the Fold"  (*** 1/2)
"Majority Rule"  (*** 1/2)
"New Dimensions"  (****)
"Krill"  (****)
"About a Girl"  (****)
"If the Stars Should Appear"  (****)
"Pria"  (****)
"Mad Idolatry"  (****)

To wrap things up, I guess I'll sum up something that ought to be obvious by now: I was fairly knocked out by this first season.  One or two episodes got close to not working for me, but I'd rate an even half of the episodes as being excellent; pretty good batting average, that.

We began this post with a question: is this more Star Trek than Discovery is?  Strictly speaking, it absolutely is not.

Beyond that, does it matter?  What The Orville clearly IS is a series made by people who love and adore both science fiction and Star Trek.  They decided to make a series that was as close to being both as they could make it without treading into legally-actionable territory.  And it turns out that they can get pretty dang close.

So while it 100% certifiably is NOT Star Trek, I find it hard to imagine many Star Trek fans who would not at least hypothetically approve of what these folks on The Orville are doing.  The humor might alienate some; the presence of MacFarlane might alienate others; but the intent itself seems quite sound.

That's more than I can say for Discovery's first season.  That series strikes me as having been an act of IP farming that abandoned many of the core tenets that had informed every Trek series that came before it.  It's a Star Trek show made by and for people who feel like Star Trek doesn't actually work anymore.

The Orville, on the other hand, is a show made by people who think Star Trek -- or something very similar to but legally distinct from it -- not only can still work, but does still work; must still work, perhaps.  I think they make the argument persuasively; your mileage may vary, of course, but that's my assessment, and I feel a bit electrified by it.

I'll close by saying that I'm not a baseball fan.  Never have been, never will be.

But if I was, I'd hope that it'd stay more or less the same as time goes by.  Gotta use bats, folks; gotta keep a pitcher on the mound, flinging that ball at a catcher in such a way as to hopefully keep the batter from knocking the ball into the field.  And the batter has got to always try to best to do just that ... and sometimes, succeed.  If the game isn't going to be that, what the fuck is the point of calling it baseball?

In that scenario, y'all go right ahead and go see a "baseball" game.  I'll be at the stopstick range, seeing people do the thing I love with a wink in their eye.  We're all calling it something else, but we all know what's up.

See you for season two, I hope!


  1. Hey Bryant, excellent post as usual! I'm pretty sure I commented on a previous post about enjoying The Orville so I'm glad you enjoyed it as well. Your description of how you progresses through the show paralleled mine in many ways. I had a friend, a fellow Star Trek fan, who praised The Orville and encouraged me to watch it. This friend is probably the most rabid Star Trek fan I know so I really should have given his opinion more weight. But the concept of the show turned me off somehow. It just seemed like it couldn't possibly have enough substance to be enjoyable for a whole season's worth of stories. Boy, I'm glad I was wrong! It's amazing how strong our initial pre-conceived notions can hold us back. It makes we wonder what other pre-conceived notions I am clinging to that I should re-evaluate.

    1. D'oh, that last post and this are coming at you from Rundlesten BTW. I'm posting on a new machine and apparently haven't setup my account properly yet.

    2. "It makes we wonder what other pre-conceived notions I am clinging to that I should re-evaluate." -- Always a good question to ask!

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it despite your initial reservations. We're in the same boat on that.

  2. "Call me crazy, but isn't it irresponsible for Ed to have decided to open the "sunroof" and show the people on this ship the night-time sky for the first time? For this conservative and repressed a society, wouldn't it lead to riots, suicides, and whatnot? Seems awfully cavalier of him to just decide that for these folks. That said, would Captain James T. Kirk have done the same thing? I'm guessing probably so. "

    Okay, damn it. I need to give this a shot.

    Really like the sound of "Mad Idolatry."

    1. I am very happy that I finally gave it a shot. I'd had numerous friends tell me I was nuts for not watching it, and turns out, they were right.

      There's no guarantee it'd work for you, of course. Or for anyone else, particularly anyone who is put off my MacFarlane. He's likely a genuine stumbling block for a lot of folks.

      That said, I can imagine this turning some people around on him.

      I'm very curious to see what the second season will be like.

    2. I was really annoyed by the stupid humor and overly-broad Trek strokes of the two I saw (the pilot and "Krill," which really didn't land with me and struck me as a rather dumb take on religion) and the characters seemed kind of boring to me/ or randomly-generated-TNG-cosplay.

      But what can I say, your enthusiasm is catchy.

      If I hate it, though, I apologize in advance because I likely won't hold back; this is the sort of topic I kind of NEED to go into depth on.

      But hopefully I will not.

      I will ask before starting, though, because I don't want to just have a new thing to hate: if "Krill" struck me as dumb, do I stand a chance with the others?

    3. About 50/50, I'd say. I thought that episode was funny (and relatively compelling), so it's entirely possible that you watch any of the ones I really liked and think, "What is this fool smoking?"

      If so, by all means feel no obligation to hold back!