The Identity Part 1 is extraordinary science fiction.
The first seven episodes of Season 2 of The Orville found themselves wallowing in the lethargy of relationship issues with characters that were undeveloped, or not developed at all. With Star Trek: The Next Generation, fans of the original series were able to get up to speed quickly on name, rank and serial number, even though there were so many new faces that were unknown to us. On the contrary, the Orville has difficulty making names and personalities stick. I still can’t tell you the identity of the red-headed guy and even creator Seth Macfarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer took me many episodes to figure out what he was about and who he really is.
Why? That’s easy. This is a television series relying more on the Star Trek parody film Galaxy Quest than it is of Star Trek itself. And with forced humor that is seemingly based on attitudes found in The Next Generation more than Captain Kirk’s Enterprise, it makes the interactions and dialogue even harder to process. Just not as hard and boring as Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5, televised science fiction that was too contrived to be as exciting as anything from the original Star Trek’s innovation.
Identity Part 1 starts with the robot, Isaac, collapsing. So let’s get to Isaac – the science officer from the planet Kaylon played by British actor Mark Jackson. He is, essentially, Data from Trek’s Next Generation, but given how compelling he is in this I Robot reboot – and the short story collection entitled I Robot was written, of course, by Isaac Asimov, we see MacFarlane just having fun pulling from Independence Day, Lost In Space, all familiar science fiction themes thrown into a melting pot.
Despite the obvious quasi-plagiarism, from the look of the inside of the Orville to the scattered bones of the Kaylon people (see Terminator 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.) the music and the special effects all converge to make this the best Orville episode (and it’s a two-parter) that this critic has yet to see.
It’s a wise move as the show was going nowhere with on-ship extraterrestrial romance. Yuck. Once upon a time, homosexual characters in film and on television were either sinister, tragic victims, generalized and comedic, maligned or all of the above. The homosexual aliens here are not sexy, Klingon-like and stiff (a relationship break-up means the new boyfriend has to eat the tooth of the previous boyfriend…) and the result is a boring attempt at being inclusive which bogs down the show. But as Robot vs Robot – a concept that will thrill science fiction fans if done right, this Orville gets it and keeps your attention.
You can go all the way back to Eando Binder’s original I Robot (E and O Binder, two brothers, Earl and Otto Binder, their I Robot first published in 1939, see this excellent article to get up to speed on the early Robot works: https://www.jamierubin.net/2011/03/09/i-robot-i-robot-i-robot-and-i-robot/ ) and drift into the aforementioned Terminator and even The Matrix, but the Orville isn’t out to make science fiction history. Just to get good ratings and entertain. After a tedious group of episodes for the hopeful Season 2, they have finally broken through.
So you have robot Isaac, obviously named after Isaac Asimov (Eando would have been so much more hip, so much more cool!,) the Orville itself named after one of the Wright Brothers (and it’s about as smart as calling it The Edsel, as in, not smart at all!,) and Seth MacFarlane seems to be having fun with his “Family Guy in Outer Space,” if you will, just taking liberally from stuff you’ve seen before and now – with this Identity episode- going where no science fiction television series has gone before: going back to the “feel” of the original Star Trek, as a kind of confection for Trekkers and Trekkies bored with what Paramount is issuing.
It seems that halfway into putting Season 2 in front of the cameras, they got religion. Orville’s “The Union” vs the Federation from Star Trek, is a plain old rip and hardly ingenious. A crisp name like the Enterprise vs a comedic moniker such as The Orville, well, it’s a left of center formula that needs to just stay in this realm of robots and dark intrigue to have a chance of keeping this critic coming back for more.
Part II is a mere three days away. I watched Part 1 twice in a row “on demand” as I only caught a portion of it on its original airdate, and – yes – it finally did get my attention. For what makes Iron Man of the movies extra special? The same thing that gave Lost in Space its irresistibility – the robot!
I Robot meets The Terminator meets the Borg, As sinister as the Borg, but only scary in their vast numbers and their mission to kill.
If MacFarlane wants the Orville to work, he’s going to have to keep going down the path of darkness, drama and interesting sci-fi. Identity Part I is a good step in the right direction.
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com, Gatehouse Media, Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, and a variety of other media outlets. Joe also produces and hosts Visual Radio, a seventeen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed Jodie Foster, director/screenwriter David Koepp, Michael Moore, John Cena, comics/actors Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, musicians Mark Farner and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad, Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, political commentator Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.