Friday, November 17, 2017

The Orville--"Firestorm"

     The Orville was renewed for a second season. But with the good news comes some disappointing news. The twelfth episode of the first season is being delayed until next season. There is no official word on why the change will take place, but speculation is the episode hints at the will they/won't they get back together dynamic between Mercer and Grayson. It might have been fine for a one season wonder to feature so an episode, but not one that will go on for at least two seasons. It feels like a weak explanation, but maybe we will find out more details later. The bottom line is there are only two episodes left until—i assume--fall 2018.
    Actually, I have some other disappointing news to deliver. “Firestorm” is highly moody and entertaining for all but the final five minutes. It was dark and scary enough to be a Halloween episode. With a better ending, the episode might contend for my favorite. Alas, even a cameo by the great Robert Picardo could not save the episode from a script that fizzled out at the last act.
     When the ship enters a plasma storm, engineering is severely damaged. Alara is sent down to use her super strength to light debris off a trapped crew member. But when a fire breaks out, Alara freezes in fear. The crewman dies because of her momentary hesitation. Fire turns out to be a phobia of hers from the time she was nearly trapped in one as an infant. She does not have much time to beat herself up over the issue as the crew begin battling their typical fears come to life—killer clowns, giant spiders, bottomless pits, and surgery. Is there, as the crew suspects, an alien life form on board terrorizing them?
     No, that would have been pretty cool. Maybe an alien psychological parasite living off fear or something along those lines. But no. it is actually simulation Alara runs to test her reaction to common phobias. She is never in any real danger beyond the health risks extreme fear might cause. So there are no consequences. The episode might as well have been a dream.
       The cop out is a shame because the episode is great outside of it. The clown is terrifying even for someone like me who is not bothered by them. Giant tarantulas are creatures I would wet my pants to see chasing me, so top marks for that fear being well presented. But then, the whole thing deflates. I would much rather see Alara match wits and defeat an alien who has incapacitated the crew. Then again, 'Firestorm” is the second episode so far in which Alara faced crippling doubts about her command abilities only to triumph in the end. Twice in nine episodes? Perhaps in such a short period of time, another aspect of her character could have been explored instead?
     “Firestorm” is the first episode of The Orville I am awarding a mediocre rating. As I said above, but for a better plot twist, the episode might have been my favorite. But I am disappointing by the ending. It is the first episode to not be written by Seth McFarlane. Hopefully, the lackluster results are not a sign only he is good at writing for the show.
     Rating: ** (out of 5)

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Orville--"Cupid's Dagger"

   With so many episodes immersed in darn elements it was inevitable The Orville would delve into excessive, screwball comedy. I cannot say I was looking forward to it, but I wound up laughing out loud more than I have in any previous episode. Much of it had to be with guest star Rob Lowe reprising his brief role as Darulio, the alien with whom Garyson cheated on mercer. Yes, that was Lowe in the first episode.
     Darulio arrives as the only archeologist who can determine the DNA on an ancient artifact discovered on a disputed planet. Two alien races lay claim. The DNA could identify which race has original rights to it. Darulio's presence would cause enough problems between Mercer and Grayson as is, but to make matters worse, he is secretly in heat. So Mercer and Grayson compete for Darulio's affection like two lovesick teenagers. Meanwhile, Yafit and Finn, who are also affected by Darulio, hook up.
     The two alien races lose patience with the neglect they suffer while the captain and first officer compete for Darulio. They eventually decide to forgo any results of the DNA test and just fight it out with their fleets. To make things right, Darulio uses his pheromones to compel the leaders of both factions fall in love. As the pheromones wear off in a few days, the solution is temporary. But when the DNA test reveals a common ancestor, they must share the planet. Their resolution wound up more peacefully than Yafit and Finn. She did not take the truth of the situation well while still under the influence.
     The resolution was predictable from the moment the pheromone was revealed to be the cause of the infatuation outbreak, but that is okay. The main focus of “Cupid's Dagger” was on the comedy. The episode delivered on laughs. I say that as someone who does not care much for this sort of over the top humor/ Character based comedy is better than situational based, but whatever works at the time. Speaking of character based, Yafit earns some character development. He went from obnoxious comic relief to a sympathetic character. He genuinely does carry a torch for Finn..
     So I enjoyed an episode I had not expected to like based on the previews. Maybe that meant 'Cupid's Dagger' cleared a low bar, but I do not think so. It was a solid outing. Because it was a solid outing, it soothed some fears the show might be feat or famine with me enjoying the science fiction heavy stories while feeling disappointed by the more sitcom styled stories. Maybe not.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Orville--"Into the Fold"

     Good news, Orvillians! The announcement came today The Orville was renewed for a second season. I am not certain of all the details, but I assume the renewal means a full, 22-24 episode season. At least I am hopeful for that many. While some episodes were weaker than others, there has yet to be one I would call bad. Tonight's is no exception. I rank up there with the best for its successful mix of tension, violence, and heart. Now there is a heck of a trifecta.
     “Into the Fold” introduces us to Finn's two young sons, Todd and Marcus. While the Orville is in dry dock for repairs, Finn plays to take them on vacation to an amusement park planet. Malloy bows out unexpectedly of acting as their shuttle pilot, but Isaac fills in. He looks forward to studying human familial relationships. He is in for a bumpy ride. The kids are unruly brats for one, and they contribute to the shuttle crashing after it is drawn through a spatial fold.
     The shuttle is broken in half before the crash. Finn happens to be in the back at the time, so she is separated from the other three. She is also kidnapped and dragged back to an apartment by an alien named Drogen. He holds her captive even after learning she needs to find her children. This is bad for everyone, because there are cannibals out there.
     Finn's captivity and eventual escape are intense plot elements, but the emphasis—not to mention best parts—are Isaac's interaction with Todd and Marcus. While he does not understand humans or think much of them, he adapts quickly to keeping the kids safe and calm while working to send out a distress signal. Their bonding comes with some sweet moments, such as when Isaac learns holding a small child's hand helps him not to be afraid.
     The alien resorted to cannibalism when a biological agent infected their water supply. Naturally, the youngest of Finn's sons becomes infected in order to add a ticking clock to the plot. It was necessary for the sake of drama, but it does feel tacked on at the last minute. Frankly, our heroes falling under siege by the cannibals before the Orville rescues them probably would have been nail biting enough.
     While “Into the Fold” features some cute moments between Isaac and the kids, those are contrasted with a considerable amount of violence. Finn kills Drogen in order to escape, first by stabbing him and then shooting him with his own gun when she cannot over power him even with his knife wound. Some fans are already debating the morality of killing a man who believed he was helping her, but I say it was self-defense. He was holding her prisoner against her will and was not going to let her go. Finn even cuts herself with the knife in a ruse to initiate her escape. The shoot out in the end involved dozens of cannibals swarming the downed shuttle like zombies.
     Contrast the violence yet again with the humor. In the 25th century, Barry Manilow is considered a musical genius. Isaac settles a dispute over a hand held video game between Todd and Marcus by throwing it up in the air and shooting it. He casually refers to the older one as 'the less intelligent” without offense intended. The comic relief comes at just the right intervals in what is otherwise a dark episode.
     The episode is dark, but good. The episodes focusing on a couple characters at a time rather than the entire crew solving a problem are turning out great. From the previews, I was expecting a Finn-centric episode, but it turned out to be Isaac-centric instead. I have no problem with that. Nor, surprisingly, a problem with children playing such prominent roles. Child actors can make or break a story's execution, but these two did a fine job. As did everyone else.
      Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Orville--"Majority Rule"

     There was no new episode of The Orville last week. I definitely missed my fix. The ratings are holding steady with impressive numbers for a rookie series. It looks like I am not the only one who digs the show. Tonight's episode is further example of why I like it so much. It was thought provoking while not being preachy, with a solid mix of funny and creepy.
     The ship is sent to a planet roughly equivalent to 21st century Earth to search for an undercover anthropological team with whom the Union lost contact a month prior. A four man team goes searching on the planet. LaMarr, while teasing Alara, simulates dry humping a statue and is filmed in the act. The video is uploaded and receives so many down votes, LaMarr is arrested and forced to go on a televised apology tour. If he cannot convince enough his apology is sincere, he will be essentially lobotomized by the removal of bad impulses.
     The plot is a satire of online sites like Facebook and Reddit as well as the growing impression opinion is equal to facts. LaMarr is saved from the lobotomy when Isaac floods the [planet’s version of the internet with rumors LaMarr is the sole support for his 90 year old grandmother, fake photos of him as a cute kid, and a fictitious video of him as a soldier coming home and greeted excitedly by his dog. These are all examples of things that would score a high number of likes on social media. Yet none of it has any bearing on the facts surrounding LaMarr's crime—in as much as it is a crime. Opinion makes fact irrelevant.
     Also note Isaac is a bot spreading fake information on social media in order to influence a vote to go the way our heroes desire.
     “Majority Rule” is a good mix of comedy and horror. It is incredibly difficult to show a character dry humping a statue in one scene, then revealing the horrific effects of a lobotomy on one of the anthropologists our heroes were sent to rescue a few minutes later. (They obliviously fell a foul of popular opinion as well. One was killed trying to escape lobotomy.) The plot is pure Trek at its best in a way we have not seen since the best seasons of TNG. They even threw in Gene Roddenberry's absurd notion every planet will develop along the same lines as Earth but it was made a plausible matter of probabilities.
     Some fans and critics noted the similarities between “Majority Rule” and an episode of the anthology series Black Mirror. I have never seen the show, so I cannot say it taints my views on the episode. If someone familiar with the episode in question thinks 'Majority Rule” is a rip off or homage, they may do so. I cannot offer an argument as to how the two episodes compare. I have heard good things about Black mirror, though. Maybe I will check it out in the near future.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Orville--"Krill"

     “Krill” is a glimpse into the archenemy alien race established in the premiere episode. The krill are religious zealots that believe their aggressive actions towards other races are moral because other races are inferior species with no souls. Upon the establishment of the Krill as violent religious fundamentalists, I was expecting a brutal critique of Christianity and or Islam. Seth McFarlane has been tough on both religions in his other shows. He may still go that route, but I am happy to say the subject was dealt with in a thought-provoking, but not preachy manner.
     The Orville responds to a distress call from a colony under attack by the Krill. The krill ship is cleverly destroyed even though it outgunned the Orville. A Krill shuttle is captured, and the Union orders Mercer and Malloy to use it to go undercover as Krill to copy the Krill bible, the Anhkana. The mission's purpose is to study the religious text with the hope of finding common ground between Krill and humans.
     Mercer and Malloy use holographic technology to appear as Krill. If there is a weak point to the episode, it is the comedic banter in which the two engage in order to pass themselves off. The names Chris and Devon, the 20th century pop culture jokes, and the awkwardness in general threaten to take me out of the main plot. Considering how dark the plot becomes as the episode goes on, I guess McFarlane that laying on goofy humor would balance out the mood. But he went overboard.
     The dark plot elements involve the realization the Krill are about to destroy a human colony of 100,000 people with a mega bomb. Obviously, the mission changes to destroy the bomb. But Mercer discovers the Krill have children on board, he cannot bring himself to destroy the ship. Appreciate his quandary. Mercer just now realizes he has killed who knows how many children on the Krill ships he has destroyed. The kids are not his enemy. But then again, there are probably tens of thousands of human children on the targeted colony.
     Mercer and Malloy surmise since the krill live on a planet of perpetual night, they would be vulnerable to UV rays. They plan to corral the kids into their classroom, destroy its lights, and then blow the other lights to full power. It works. The kids are spared, but all the adults save the teacher are burnt to a crisp like vampires in the son. The mission of peace turns sour as Mercer arranges for the kids' safe return to Krill. He is reminded by the teacher that if the kids were not his enemy before, they are now.
     “Krill" is an interesting episode that establishes some series lore. It was both action oriented and thought-provoking with a surprisingly evenhanded take on religious zealotry. But there were many dark elements, such as a severed human hand stabbed during a religious ceremony and the burning death of the Krill adult crew. A lot of really dumb humor attempted to lighten the mood, but probably went too far considering the moral mercer is grappling with is the mass murder of children versus saving his own people. Heady stuff that needs comic relief, but not sitcom level silliness.   
Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Orville--"Pria"

     The Orville takes its first shot at a time travel episode. It is such a standard concept in science fiction, it is ripe for parody, but difficult to make origin. With a guest star as hot as Charlize Theron, there was a concern she might have been intended as a distraction from plot holes. But I am now thrilled to tell you that is not the case.
     The Orville receives a distress call from Pria, the pilot of a ship being dragged into a collapsing star. When she comes safely on board, Mercer grows infatuated with her. Greyson is suspicious, either because they know nothing about Pria or jealous because Mercer is fond of her. He is not thrilled with her suspicions, especially after Pria miraculously saves them from a dark matter storm.
     Of course, Greyson is right to be suspicious. Pria is actually a criminal from the 29th century who returns to the past, steals unique items, and sells them in the 29th century as antiques. The crew was supposed to die in the dark matter storm. She plans to take them into the future to sell the ship. Mercer manages to take over the device she is using to control the ship through Isaac and escapes into their own time. Once back, Mercer orders the time portal destroyed, causing Pria to fade away.
     In the side story, Malloy teaches Isaac about practical jokes by secretly placing Mr. Potato Head parts on the robot's head. Isaac gets him back by amputating Malloy's left leg while he sleeps. Malloy is angry over Isaac going way too far in retaliation, but eventually decides it was the coolest practical joke he has ever seen. Isaac learns about humor in a far more brutal way then data ever did. It is an amusing segment, especially the visual of Isaac as Mr. Potato Head.
     The high point of “Pria” is the exploration of Mercer's trust issues because of Greyson cheating on him when they were married. He lets his guard down to let Pria in, but she is manipulating him. We feel sympathy for his hurtful anger in the end. The best part is how it is left up to the audience to decide how much of Greyson's actions uncovering the truth about Pria were motivated by duty to the ship and how much were lingering affection for her ex-husband. Considering she beat the living snot out of Pria, the latter seems likelier.
     The special effects are fantastic. “Pria” is the most visually stunning episode so far. From the collapsing star to the dark matter storm and the time portal, it is all epic. The intensive special effects, which promote a larger than life feel, contrasted well with the personal drama which caught the lion's share of attention.
     “Pria” is another solid outing for The Orville. The series is still young, but has yet to air a weak episode in spite of what most of the critics are saying. I can only assume they are expecting something edgy and controversial rather than the fun adventure and good humor the show delivers instead. Whatever the critics' hang ups are, I am enjoying the series.
      Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Orville--"If the Stars Should Appear"

     There are two takeaways from “If the Stars Should Appear.” One, The Orville gets better with every episode so far. Two, there is no Prime Directive in The Orville's universe. The takeaways are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If there is one thing I learned from reviewing the bulk of Trek's television offerings, the convoluted, often contradictory, philosophy involving the Prime Directive was a major headache with which to deal.
     The crew encounters a ship the size of New York City that has been adrift for 2,000 years. Within six months, the ship will collide with a star, so Mercer leads a landing party to see if there is anyone on board. It turns out to be a generational ship that appears to be a natural environment. The people do not believe they are on a ship save for some blasphemous skeptics who doubt the existence of the god Dural. A dictator named Hamelac maintains his power making painting the skeptics as heretics. He captures and tortures Greyson with the suspicion she is from space and might destroy his good thing.
     The landing party rescues Grayson. Even though Hamelac knows he is on a ship, he refuses to believe it is on a doomed course. The landing party decides to save the ship anyway because of the large population. Isaac can not only easily repair it, he finds a message from Dural—the original captain of the ship. Mercer decides to open the “sun roof” in order to prove to the entire population they are really floating in space. Oh, and Dural? He is played by Liam Neeson. It is totally cool he lent his particular set of skills for the cameo.
     The scripts are taking a lot of risks balancing humor and drama. I enjoy the sarcastic, risque tone. As with last week, the jokes do not detract from the serious subject matter. But for me, the humor and drama were easier to balance with last week's gender issue. But a significant part of “If the Stars Should Appear” was a gruesome torture session for Greyson. Maybe I am becoming squeamish in my old age, but the sequence felt uncomfortably out of place. McFarlane stated earlier this week he wants to emulate MASH with humor interwoven with serious topics. An ambitious goal, and one I hope involves more cerebral issues and less grotesque violence.
     Now I am about to contradict myself a tad.. I am thrilled there is no prime directive in The Orville's universe. If there is one thing I am weary of in Trek, it is the contradictory application of the rule of non-interference. Certainly, every captain violated the prime directive numerous times, but just as often there was a heady debate over the implications of obeying or violating it which would make your head spin. Particularly in the later shows, whichever the course of action chosen had horrific results. I like how The Orville deals with issues without being preachy.
     I could make plot element comparisons to various Trek and Red Dwarf episodes, but The Orville puts a unique enough spin on its plot elements I think it is an unfair criticism to compare the show to its influences. I enjoyed “If the Stars Should Appear.” It was a solid mix of action and comedy. We have not seen a lot of action since the premiere, so it is good to see it is going to be a regular part of the series. Greyson's torture sticks out more than it should for its brutality, but that is my only complaint.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Orville--"About a Girl"

   The third episode of a new series should be the mark in which one can guess the direction of quality for the series. “About a Girl” struck the best balance between comedy and science fiction drama thus far. Hopefully, it is an indication of what to expect from the rest of the series. The Orville should not meet Firefly's early fate!
     What impressed me most was the even-handed discussion of gender identity. It is not an issue I much want to discuss. The idea of self-identifying as whichever gender one chooses or creating a non-binary gender for oneself is a cultural fad that will leave lasting psychological scars on those involved. Thankfully, the issue of gender identity was neither frivolous, nor preached on as though there was only one answer to the issue at hand.
    The issue at hand is Bortus and Klyden's new daughter. The two are from an all male species. A girl is only born once every 75 years. When it happens, being female is considered a birth defect that must be corrected by surgery. The doctor refuses to do so on ethical grounds. Mercer refuses to order her to do so also on ethical grounds. The moral debate rages between humans believing gender -re-assignment is not the same as repairing a cleft palate, but to an alien species, it might. What are the implications of forcing our ethical norms on an alien culture?
    Comparative cultural morality is a heady subject. Fortunately, it is broken up by a lot of comic relief. There is plenty of side humor. Mercer saying her knows how fragile he is because there are anti-bullying laws named after him. Mercer mocking the idea gender is an illness by speculating calling in sick to work because she has boobs today. But the best humor still revolves around the core issue. The crew tries to convince Bortus his daughter's gender can be a blessing. He is finally convinced by watching Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. It is not as dumb as it sounds.
   In fact, the story has a lot of heart. Bortus goes to court to prevent Klyden from going through with the gender reassignment. Even though a hidden female hermit appears to testify and reveals she is the author of some of her people's literary works, Bortus loses the case. His daughter becomes male through surgery. The end is not a surprise realistically. A culture that has held disdain for females for countless generations is not going to be swayed in this instance. But for television, it is a punch to the gut. It is an unhappy ending, and one that demonstrates why calling The Orville a Trek parody is unfair. In Trek, Federation morality always wins out. Because perfect humans know better than those filthy aliens.
     While I am squeamish about making a moral judgment on the issue presented, I enjoyed watching it all play out. The Orville is a high quality show. The critics are savaging it as Family Guy in Space, but they are completely missing the point. The Orville does not nihilistic ally send up societal issues for laughs. Nor is it a Trek clone. It is definitely its own series, and I hope it catches on.
     Rating: **** (out of 5)

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Orville--"Command Performance"

     I enjoyed the premiere episode of The Orville last week. It had potential even though some of the humor was cliché and a bit stale. The second installment would be the real test of whether the show would have any legs. I am pleased to say I liked “Command Performance” even more than the first episode. A key point of interest is the development of an ensemble cast. The series is not merely a vanity project for Seth McFarlane.
     The Orville answers a distress signal from a ship under attack by the Krill. The ship winds up being a holographic projection designed to capture Mercer and Grayson. Bortus is incapacitated because he has laid an egg—yes, an egg—so young Alara is left in command for the first time. Given the title of the episode, you should be able to guess her trial by fire is the main focus. Her first command decision leads to the ship suffering heavy damage. Her second decision to follow admiral's orders and abandon the captain and XO result in the crew hating her. Alara is finally celebrated which she opts to violate orders because saving their lives is more important than preserving her career.
     Mercer and Grayson are captured and placed in a zoo by the Calivan, a race who view all others races with inferior technology as little more than animals. The admiral ordered the two abandoned rather than risk conflict with the Calivan. Mercer and Grayson living in the zoo exhibit, which is identical to their old apartment, reminds them how badly they got on each others' nerves when they were married. It is humorous because they were just beginning to wonder if their marriage could have worked out if the two had worked on it more diligently.
     It is unclear whether there is supposed to be a moral lesson in the zoo plot. Every alien shown imprisoned is far more sentient than an Earth animal, so there is not a true comparison. Nevertheless, it is revealed humans no longer maintain zoos for moral reasons. Then again, when mercer and Grayson freed to be replaced by streaming television reality shows, only an alien child is freed with them. Oh, well. One cannot change a whole society overnight. It was always safe to say The Orville would not be an idealistic show.
     As I said above, I liked “Command Performance” even more than I liked the generally good first episode. If there is any problem, it is the stale, predictable humor. But it appears to be mostly with Mercer. The humor from the other characters is great. I especially like the deadpan deliveries of Brotus and Isaac. Since “Command Performance” indicates other cast members besides McFarlane will get to shine, the show has potential. I am still not entirely sold, but I still want to see what comes next. So the episode did its job.
     Rating: *** (out of 5)

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Orville--"Old Wounds"

     Star Trek is ripe for parody, as Galaxy Quest demonstrated eighteen years ago. But that was just a single movie. Can that kind of material be sustained for the duration of a television series. If anyone can guide a series into the ranks of science fiction comedy like Red Dwarf and Futurama, it is Seth McFarlane. For now, the only thing to judge potential is the pilot episode of The Orville.
     McFarlane stars as Ed Mercer, a fleet officer who life and career hit a dead end when he catches his wife cheating with an alien. After a year of boozing it up, he gets one last shot—command of The Orville. It is an unimpressive ship, and mercer is only given command because of an officer shortage, but he takes it. Unfortunately, his first officer winds up being his ex-wife. Fortunately, she winds up saving the day when the evil krill try to steal a device which can accelerate time a hundred years. As it turns out, she pulled strings for mercer to get his command.
     The Orville features a lot of McFarlane's sarcastic humor in the midst of some nifty special effects and make up work. The action scenes are surprising intense. I was expecting a straight comedy, but the series appears to be more of an action show with comedic elements. I am game for that. Guardians of the galaxy showed that could work. I already sense the heavy reliance on science fiction tropes, particularly Star Trek, are going to weigh the series down. I note a number of Trek alumni are slated to work on upcoming episodes both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. The Orville must establish its own identity if it is to last.
     I liked “Old Wounds.” It did a good job of introducing the main characters and generally irreverent tone of the series. I may be grading on a curve here since it has been a long time since I have enjoyed an outer space adventure show unlike the more cerebral Doctor Who, but I am looking forward to more action in future episodes. There were a couple of laugh out loud moments, too, but there was an awful lot of standard McFarlane humor which has long since lost its edginess. I am going to give The Orvillea few episodes to see what develops. The opening episode is flawed, but shows potential.
      Rating: *** (out of 5)