(Adrianne Palicki) Image: FOX

It’s really difficult to avoid viewing every episode of The Orville against Star Trek: The Next Generation (as an aside, why not celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary premiere by checking out Zack Handlen’s excellent series reviews). They’re not identical, of course, but it’s obvious how much The Orville cherishes TNG, and what few differences exist don’t really work in The Orville’s favor. TNG was not a subtle show. It was never coy about its principles and rarely ambiguous with its message. It would happily stop all action dead in its tracks so Captain Picard could patiently expound in his warm patrician way on the virtue of some humanistic ideal or another. But even at its clumsiest, TNG is absolutely sophisticated compared to how The Orville handles its Big Questions. While the show is surprisingly sincere and well-intentioned, it’s almost naïve in addressing them, and no amount of dick jokes in the universe (of which The Orville seems intent on discovering the total number of) obscures that. The Orville is Duplo to TNG’s Lego. It’s brighter, simpler, and definitely covered in more saliva.

Image: FOX

“If The Star Should Appear” starts out promisingly with the crew discovering a city-sized and millennia-old star craft adrift in space. The Orville understands a good premise, and there are few simpler than the basic truism that gigantic spaceships are really cool. The ship sensors don’t detect any life signs, so the crew pilots a craft over to investigate. They discover most of the ship’s center is a massive ecosystem designed as a pastoral valley bathed in perpetual daylight. The artificiality of the environment is only hinted by the satisfying visual of the faint, ever-present bands of artificial lighting radiating outward across the sky.

The crew splits up to explore and it’s here The Orville seems to remember that the Captain and XO’s former marriage was intended to be a thematic lynch pin to the series, and chooses this episode to awkwardly wedge that back into the forefront of the show. As the crew scouts the ship, out of nowhere, Isaac decides his report to his home planet requires a detailed understanding of why Ed and Kelly divorced. Over on the other side of the valley, Alara and Kelly chat about Alara’s unsuccessful dating life. Unlike TNG, The Orville’s earth hasn’t evolved beyond our present day prejudices, and men are put off by Alara’s superior strength. The conversation clumsily circles around to Kelly’s reasons for cheating on Ed. Cut to the bridge where Maloy and LaMarr are chatting about how tough it would be to work with an ex. It’s a concentrated dose of relationship that isn’t brought up for the rest of the episode. It must all be leading toward some sort of arc for the two leads, at least hopefully so, because as it is, the show treats it like an extraneous little storyline polyp just poking off the side to be idly fiddled with before getting back to the central conflict.

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Ed, Isaac, and Dr. Finn are the first to discover the native population when they come across a secluded cabin. A failed attempt to peacefully introduce themselves to the family living in the home results in Ed being nearly shot. After subduing the husband, the crew learns from the wife that most citizens are living in a fearful state of religious obedience. Not so the son (Max Burkholder); a plucky young lad unafraid to buck tradition. He takes the crew to meet the Outsiders, who suspect that there may be something outside of the valley. On the other side of the biosphere, Alara and Kelly get into an altercation with a couple of goons. Alara is shot and Kelly taken to The City. Its here we meet Hamelac (Robert Knepper), the dictator who wields faith as a weapon to keep the population subservient. We see the extent of his control when he incites the crowd to murder a man for heresy. The remaining crew stage a rescue and grill Hamelac on the source of the colony’s faith and mysterious god figure.

Image: FOX

As is always the case with gods in science fiction, there’s a logical reason behind all the superstitious goings-on. In this case it’s Liam Neeson as the ship’s captain, appearing as the second high-profile, view screen-based cameo this season. When the outsiders lead the crew to a locked portal that leads to the ship’s bridge they discover an ancient video log. Captain Neeson reveals the vessel was only meant to sustain life for three generations, but an unexpected ion storm shorted the ships engines, setting the ship adrift. Indefinitely self-sustainable, the captain hoped everyone aboard would thrive until someday it would be discovered. Which it was, much to the chagrin of all the space fascists on board who had a good thing going with the torturing and the ignorance.

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Ed celebrates this welcome return to enlightenment by making the terrible decision to open the colony ship’s retractable roof and reveal the cosmos to a population that only knows the sunlight, effectively turning off the sky to a clan of space hermits who’ve been living in religious ignorance for millennia. They sure as hell wouldn’t look up at the yawning black void murdering the life-giving day with a sort of gentle, milk-soft bemusement. They’d be screaming in tongues, wearing each other’s heads for hats and offering their entrails up to the sky in desperate hopes of appeasing the god who has condemned them to nothingness. The Planetary Union must not have any sort of prime directive.

After last week’s faint promise of a tighter, more incisive show, The Orville has slipped back into a genial lack of ambition. Some of the gags were funny, some were pretty bad (Kelly riffing on Friends to her torturers was more painful than the serum she was injected with) and the not using religion to keep the dust-bowl era inhabitants of your star ship under your fascist control message is pretty standard science fiction fare. I honestly don’t know if I can envision a path this show can take to ever becoming great, but with just a little bit of work, it can definitely be a solid, enjoyable hour of television.

Stray Observations:

  • After spending so much time establishing the strength of Bortus and Klyburn’s relationship in the previous episode, this week’s cold open unravels some of that by showing the two arguing how Bortus works too much and doesn’t leave enough time for Klyburn and the baby. Klyburn dealing with his depression by eating rocky road ice cream and watching The Sound of Music was cute, but I worry about those two.
  • As minor of a moment as it was, I’m glad it was LaMarr who took control of the Orville’s weapons and landed the killing blow on the Krill ship. He hasn’t had a whole lot to do this season except act as a sounding board for Maloy.
  • The endearing eagerness and sincerity with which Seth MacFarlane stood up and exclaimed “My God!” at the reveal of the massive colony ship makes me think he’s been practicing that reaction for the better part of 30 years.
  • Ed’s inability to properly credit the Emerson poem Dr. Finn recited at the end of the episode reminds me of the Ben Stiller Show skit, B- Time Traveler.

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