The Orville offers up year’s top sci-fi and drama with original storytelling and fantastic execution

Review by C.J. Bunce

Was there ever a bigger year for science fiction on television?  It was a year that saw three live-action Star Wars and three live-action Star Trek series, another banner season of Resident Alien, promising new series The Peripheral, and first seasons of video game tie-ins Resident Evil and Halo.  But one series did what no other series did: Delivering science fiction that bested nearly all the drama genre television this year.  And it did it with some of the greatest visual effects of any sci-fi series yet.  That’s The Orville: New Horizons, which not only clocked ten perfect episodes of television, it delivered ten of the year’s best practically feature-length movies.  The series has so much to celebrate this year, each episode probably deserves its own discussion.  It’s the one series you should not skip this year, and it’s streaming now on Disney+.

The Orville: New Horizons, the rebranded third season of The Orville series, exceeded the promise of its first two seasons, which leaned toward the humor more than this season.  Leaving Fox for Hulu, it showed switching studios can work wonders for a show.  Decisions made in earlier seasons were re-thought into updated storylines, and supporting characters drove entire multi-episode arcs.  Full hour to eighty-minute episodes weren’t full of filler like most streaming series these days.  Instead Seth MacFarlane, Jon Cassar, and their team packed each episode with action, drama, humor, and stunning visuals.  These weren’t two-hour feature films, but because they were so tightly edited, they included all the punch of a theatrical movie.

TV audiences have been loving modern episodic sci-fi TV going back to Lost in Space, a tradition that began developing the genre and its tropes back to the 1940s with Captain Video.  The Orville: New Horizons wasn’t just another sci-fi mission of the week, as it made way for multiple season-long plot threads–even picking up threads from its first season viewers might have thought abandoned.  No other science fiction series has succeeded at what The Orville has done here, delivering movie-worthy special effects, both digital and practical (like the new magnificent scale ship), stunning musical scores from Kevin Kaska, John Debney, and Joel McNeely (and of course Bruce Broughton’s triumphant theme), using big creators from science fiction TV’s past like graphic artist Doug Drexler, featuring the most creative costumes and alien makeups of any franchise, and in front of the camera featuring the biggest slate of lead female badass characters with top talent bringing them to life.  All that and delivering some of the best stunt casting this year, with Bruce Boxleitner, Ted Danson, and even Dolly Parton.

This season viewers were dazzled by a new planet with a massive storm atmosphere, a Krill metropolis, a giant canyon battle, a The Guns of Navarone-inspired sprawling, hi-tech alien outpost, a rancor (?!) attack, and epic space battles.  But the massively charged, high-speed outpost sky battle may have been the best of all (or was the test run of the new Pterodon-class ship the best?).  Some of the credit goes to delays caused by the COVID pandemic, which allowed more time to build the CG elements.  Keep an eye out in future series and movies for the VFX pros that left their mark here, including FuseFX, Tommy Tran, Samantha Hernandez, John Rouse, JV Pike, Brooke Noska, and Erica Wilcox.  The Orville: New Horizons reflected a much bigger budget than before with impressive spacesuits, EVA scenes, and uniform variants, like a sharp new dress uniform, a myriad of alien world costumes, high-tech gadgets, and sleek prop weaponry.  Even the segues between scenes were sweeping and soaring–both visually, and backed by the most exciting film-score themes, themes that will evoke the best of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner.  The future look of sci-fi TV has a new level to beat.

Compare the season’s first episode “Electric Sheep” with the last, “Future Unknown,” and it’s a writers’ workshop in understanding what character arcs are all about.  Much happened this season.  A crew member commits suicide, another sacrifices her life, two crew members marry, one learns more about being human.  The crew gets a new member, Charly Burke (played by Anne Winters) a complex, tough-as-nails officer with complex abilities, as she’s able to think in four dimensions.  Burke lost someone close to her in the battle where Isaac (played by Mark Jackson) turned against the crew, and this drives many of the season’s subplots.

The most emotional story sees the crew of The Orville revisit the fate of Topa (played with skill this season by Imani Pullum), the child of Lt. Cmdr. Bortus (Peter Macon) and Klyden (Chad Coleman) developed in the first two seasons, as well as the entire relationship between the Union and the Moclans.  Lt. Cmdr. LeMarr (J. Lee) balances his brilliant engineering prowess with getting in and out of trouble all season because he lacks a filter.  Communication as topic reveals more about the human condition.  The show adds more aliens, and more aliens who speak other languages, as well as more integration of aliens and the Union.  It does all this–original stories playing with sci-fi tropes–with a very measured, dialed-back tone–less crude humor from earlier in the series, while not eliminating the fun, the hope, and a great sense of wonder.

No main characters this season took a backseat.  Seth MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer struggled with the surprise realization of having a daughter he may never see again, and the rest of the characters stepped forward with compelling stories.  Penny Johnson Jerald’s Dr. Finn took the lead several times.  Jessica Szohr’s Lt. Keyali had more to do this year, including taking command.  Viewers got the biggest gut-punch seeing Scott Grimes’ Lt. Malloy living out another timeline, only to be sucked back to reality.  And Grimes got to let loose with his singing talent–something that would have been awkward in any other sci-fi world series.  Adrianne Palicki’s Cmdr. Grayson stepped back to be the support system for many this year, but she also led several missions.

Where other science fiction series tiptoe around issues of the day, The Orville: New Horizons, even more so than its earlier incarnation, leans in–hard–digging into the nooks and crannies of tough issues.  And why not?  For its relentless pursuit of difficult issues in a compelling and eye-opening way while leveraging updates to today’s technology in every story, The Orville: New Horizons seizes the top spot in a banner year of science fiction TV options.  Amazing for a series that relied more on humor in its opening season salvos, TV audiences were more likely to laugh or tear-up at its key dramatic moments than with any other series this year.

All that and the last great yuks from the late Norm MacDonald.  Here’s hoping for more of The Orville, although a fourth season has not been greenlit yet.  If not, hopefully we’ll still see more in the near future from Jon Cassar, Tom Costantino, Stephen Lineweaver, Mairi Chisholm, and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, and those creators from sci-fi’s past who were back again swinging, like writers André Bormanis and Brannon Braga. Catch all three seasons of The Orville now streaming in Disney+.

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