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Orville: Season One, The
Almost universally panned by critics after its FOX debut last September, Seth MacFarlane's The Orville (2017- ) was better received by audiences during its twelve-episode first-season run through the end of that year. This long-gestating series was seen as a dream project for the highly successful MacFarlane, a lifelong fan of Star Trek who would later appear in two episodes of Enterprise and even record an audio commentary for Next Generation fifth-season episode "Cause and Effect" on Paramount's excellent Blu-ray collection. Though some rightfully bemoaned the concept of "Family Guy in space", this potentially disastrous experiment ended up feeling more like actual Star Trek than Discovery -- which, not coincidentally, premiered on CBS All Access two weeks later. And though part of The Orville's comfortably familiar landscape is directly because of its...*ahem*...blatant homages to Star Trek, it also works on some of its own merits.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: The Orville is so closely tied to the lifeblood and atmosphere of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- a show that MacFarlane religiously watched in his college years -- that it's practically a reboot. As such, its title ship looks more like a luxury cruise liner than, say, the cramped submarine-like vessel on Enterprise, which gives it an incredibly warm and inviting atmosphere. That, combined with its unquestionably optimistic view of the future (in stark contrast with most modern sci-fi, including Discovery), makes The Orville feel like a place where you'd actually want to live and work. Its crew is a mixture of original and familiar types. New captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) and first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), recently divorced after her affair with a blue alien, display a much more personal dynamic than past "top two" combos. Given his command under the recommendation of Grayson, Mercer initially resents working alongside his ex-wife but they attempt to put their personal differences aside for the time being.
Theirs is a unique relationship, which obviously leads to a certain amount of sexual tension and sets The Orville apart from TNG in a necessary way. So too do other crew members like Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), a single mother with medical credentials that could place her on a ship much larger than the mid-size exploratory vessel; lieutenant John LaMarr (J. Lee), who conversely achieves a late-season promotion after finally showing his hidden potential; immature helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), best buddies with Mercer and a fast friend of LaMarr; and young security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), whose amazing physical strength doesn't match her petite frame by a long shot. Although these primary and supporting characters don't all make an immediate impact in the pilot episode "Old Wounds", they're granted a decent amount of character development and room to breathe as the season progresses.
Less inspired characters include Lieutenant Commander Bortus (Peter Marcon) and artificial science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson), whose appearance and dialogue are so close to Worf and Data that it's kind of insulting. Don't get me wrong: they steal a few scenes -- or in some cases, entire episodes -- and are clearly well-played by their respective actors, but ultimately feel more like stand-ins for more original characters that never materialize. In any case, they likewise get a little room to breathe as the season progresses: Bortus acquits himself well in early standout episode "About a Girl", while Isaac gets a lot of face time in the conventional but entertaining rescue-mission episode "Into the Fold".
Also much too familiar but nonetheless impressive is the fully-orchestrated music: it feels so tonally similar to the original TNG scores by Dennis McCarthy, Jay Chattaway, and Ron Jones -- not to mention Jerry Goldsmith's rousing title theme -- that it could've been lifted wholesale. (Had MacFarlane also borrowed TNG's "music bumpers", casual Trek fans might be able to shut their eyes and not even notice the difference.) But while my gut tells me to dock The Orville a few points for such blatant borrowing -- which also includes sound effects, editing, format, and at least a half-dozen other things -- this is partially why MacFarlane's show ends up feeling so comfortably familiar and enjoyable in its first season of just 12 episodes. It honestly flows much more smoothly than most official Trek shows do in their first seasons, warts and all, and as a whole kept by interest a lot more than Discovery did at times. If nothing else, I'm also a lot more interested to see where The Orville goes in its second season: if it shines and polishes a few things, it has the potential to become its own uniquely enjoyable series; still a very close cousin to TNG, obviously, but that's good company to keep.
The kindest way to re-interpret these complaints? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. MacFarlane was obviously aiming for a more light-hearted take on Star Trek-style sci-fi while retaining its ultimate optimism and wanderlust...and from that angle, The Orville is more than welcome to stick around. Sure, it'd work better if the jokes were dialed back. Yes, its over-reliance on 20th and 21st-century pop culture references gets more than a little annoying. But I'll gladly roll over those speed bumps -- which may very well be smoothed over in the upcoming second season -- since The Orville does so much else right, from its well-written and socially conscious stories to its smartly cast guest stars, inviting atmosphere, and jaw-dropping visuals that even include traditional model work. For now, Fox presents all 12 first-season episodes in one handy four-disc set...that's not available on Blu-ray, which is disappointing but not a deal-breaker.
List of Episodes
As much as I want to beat a dead horse about The Orville not having a Blu-ray option, I've got to admit that these 480p transfers look uniformly great. The show's got an outstanding atmosphere that, while usually bathed in sterile colors aboard the title ship, opens up dramatically when different locales are visited. Lush greens, rust-colored earth tones, natural cityscapes, and more can be spotted during these 12 episodes, to say nothing of the alien characters and primary-colored Union uniforms. Not to be outdone are the well-done special effects, which also blend quite seamlessly from start to finish. Black levels, contrast, and human skin tones are more than acceptable given the format's limitations, while the digitally-shot production looks crisp and clean with no excessive noise reduction or other tinkering. This is simply a great-looking show that may even exceed high-definition streaming options (depending on your equipment, of course) and, while a Blu-ray would obviously look tighter and more robust overall, I'm happy with how The Orville looks here.
The default Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are similarly fantastic, despite format limitations, and likewise support The Orville's outstanding atmosphere perfectly well. Dialogue and most effects are placed squarely up front, with surrounds usually reserved for low-frequency engine ambiance, music cues, action scenes (on land or in space), and occasional bits of background chatter in crowded areas. No apparent defects or glitches were detected along the way, and everything's obviously mixed for smaller home setups with a decent amount of dynamic range. Overall, this show rivals most big-screen productions in the audio department and I have absolutely no complaints about its presentation on disc. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles have been included during the episodes and all bonus features.
The rest of the extras include a few short Featurettes that barely add up to 20 minutes total; these self-explanatory pieces ("Inside Look", "Directed By", "The First Six Missions", "Designing the Future", "The Orville Takes Flight", "The Science of The Orville", "Crafting Aliens", and "A Better Tomorrow") feature a bit of cast/crew input and behind-the-scenes footage, but are painfully brief and could have gone into a lot more detail. That, combined with the lack of commentaries, promos, deleted scenes, etc., doesn't give this package a lot of added value...but at least the low price reflects that.
Seth MacFarlane's The Orville got off to a polarizing start upon its launch last September: it's been mostly well-received by fans despite near-universal backlash from critics, and I firmly fall into the former category. Despite its over-reliance on Trek tropes (mostly from The Next Generation) and an occasionally annoying onslaught of current pop-culture references, it remains entertaining and engaging in almost all other departments -- and if MacFarlane's smart, he'll continue to carve out a unique identity in future seasons. I had a lot of fun with this first season and, though it's not as ambitious as Star Trek: Discovery, I'm a lot more optimistic for future installments and will likely re-watch it more frequently. Fox's DVD package features fine A/V specs and lackluster extras, but my resounding complaint here is the studio's abandonment of TV-on-Blu-ray. Nonetheless, it's priced to sell and comes Highly Recommended to fans and first-timers.
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