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)