Super Stupid SF

I think I’ve reached the breaking point with The Orville. Watching episode five of the new season, I found myself yelling at the TV for the fifth time, because the writing seems so stupid and the characters seem so lame. I’m angry that a show with so much potential is so infuriating and dumb. I had to turn the episode off and start this post.

When the second season started, I re-watched the entire first season as an appetizer, and my conclusion was that there were many more good episodes than bad. There’s really only one I found a stinker (and couldn’t watch all of), but overall it was positive. I was looking forward to the second season.

Sadly, I’ve really hated all five episodes so far. I’m really torn about watching the show anymore.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the show. I’m not generally a Seth MacFarlane fan, because his form of comedy is pretty squarely in the Idiot Clown category — a form of storytelling I’ve never found attractive.

[Honestly, the love of idiotic comedy and repugnant heroes are two things that trigger my misanthropy. I just can’t identify with a species that finds those attractive.]

The stinker for me in the first season was episode three, About A Girl (written by MacFarlane), in which Bortus’ egg hatches, but the child is female, which is a Bad Thing on Moclus, the male couple’s home world.

The episode turns on whether they should perform surgery on the infant to make it male, a standard practice on Moclus, but (obviously) a horror to everyone on the ship.

§

Where I turned the episode off was the trial held on Moclus to decide the issue: Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) for the defense.

Problem #1: I think Palicki cannot act. She has zero gravitas as a Commander or a lawyer. I tried to watch it twice and couldn’t get through it.

It’s getting to be like fingernails on a blackboard with any scene she’s in. (Seth MacFarlane seems pretty bad, too.)

Funny story about Palicki: When I first started watching The Orville, she seemed very familiar, and at first I thought she was the gal from That 70s Show, Laura Prepon.

There is a vague resemblance, perhaps, but the funny thing is, I never thought Prepon could act, and I wonder if that’s why I mistook Palicki. (Later I realized she was Bobbi Morse on Agents of SHIELD. That’s why she was familiar.)

It’s possible the problem is actually the writing. I’ve seen a few observers say the females on the show aren’t well-written. I think that’s quite possible, and it’s something I’ve noticed, too.

Problem #2: The courtroom dialog was excruciating. The case was very poorly argued. It was painful to watch.

It was infuriating to me because the idea was well-motivated, but was designed and executed so badly, that I couldn’t watch the episode.

(I find this happens when a character or plot point is supposed to be very smart, but the writing isn’t up to that level. SF writers often struggle to make an advanced alien race come off as smarter than human. It kinda has to be done with indirection.)

Bottom line, maybe, is that people who’ve made a career of dick jokes may not be capable of stepping up to write substantive stories.

Problem #3: Moclus is a member of the Union, so their practices should be well-known. This issue would have been resolved long ago.

What’s more, the concept is a bit incoherent, forced into the idea they wanted. Generally speaking, the aliens tend more to be gags than well thought-out constructs (just consider Lt. Yaphit).

§

If I had to sum up my problem with the show briefly, it would be thus:

It’s Mr. Dick Joke trying to be Star Trek; infantile high school kids passing notes in class while playing spaceship.

I think MacFarlane is a serious fan. I believe he means well. I don’t know if his infantile brand of humor is something he believes deeply in or something he feels will sell (apparently it does).

One thing that keeps me watching the show (up to now, anyway) is that it’s positive, optimistic science fiction. Especially in the current social environment, I crave that.

Unfortunately, right now, most shows that excel in the science, character, plot, and theme of science fiction trade in darker, grimmer stories. They can be excellent SF, but sometimes I miss the Roddenberry Rose Glasses.

I find it nicer to dream of what we could be, than to wallow in what we are.

§

Anyway, I come here not to praise The Orville but to bury it.

I can begin with the second season premiere, Bortus Takes a Pee. Yes, the season literally begins with a MacFarlane pee joke. God damn it.

One of the first things I noticed was the high school relationship dynamics going on. Grayson is dating the ship’s teacher, so there’s this juvenile nonsense involving the triangle.

It’s not just that none of them act like trained professionals. It’s that none of them act like adults. (Or even the intelligent high school student.)

In the premiere the ship’s doctor acts like an idiot (writing!) — the way the son thing was handled was stupid. Adults would have made short work of the situation.

§

In Episode #2, Bortus Has a Porn Addiction and Uploads a Virus, there’s more high school relationship hi-jinks.

For the most part, so far the show has focused on childish personal behaviors (and will continue to do so). The science fiction part here involves rescuing some people from their expanding star.

And it was pretty bad SF. The kind that doesn’t stand up, at all, to plot analysis. It can only be accepted uncritically, if one can manage to choke it down.

(Why don’t people object to the incoherency is what I wish I understood.)

§

Episode #3 deals with the ship’s security officer, Alara, who is from a high-gravity world, so she has super strength.

Which is another sore point with me. The nature of her strength is hugely inconsistent, for one thing. Here, again, the design of an alien is more based on gags than reality.

I get the joke that Alara is small and petite, but I wish how it was all handled showed more cluefulness about the realities (Trek, after all, claims to exist in the real world).

The episode features a trip to her home world, and it’s nothing at all like a high gravity world or species would actually be. Everything is perfectly normal, except for the actors sometimes “reacting” to the heavy gravity.

This episode demonstrated how the show tries to straddle slapstick comedy and a SF drama. One moment it’s hi-jinks and slapstick, then it pivots suddenly to a story about a home invader guest star forcing at gunpoint the guest star father (of Alara) to stick his hand in a pot of boiling sauce.

Cute casting though: the invader guest star was John Billingsley, the doctor from ST:ENT, and the guest star father was Robert Picardo, the doctor from ST:VOY. I have to commend the show for some great guest stars.

§

Episode #4 is essentially Enemy Mine with the twist that Captain Mercer’s enemy is the ship’s crew member he’s been “dating” (as they say). It’s the Krill woman he met when he killed all her shipmates. She’s out for revenge.

(Apparently her disguise is impenetrable, yet penetrable, if you know what I mean, wink, wink.)

((The captain dating a crew member? Hello? And why all this juvenile relationship BS? Can we please, even if it’s stupid, get to the actual science fictioning? That’s what I’m here for.))

At least this episode had science fiction in it. But, as always, so many objections to plot points. These stories can’t stand up to any analysis at all.

§

Which brings us to episode #5 last tonight. Which I could only stand twenty minutes of before I had to bail.

And yet I have a whole page of notes. Stupid stuff that pissed me off.

§

¶ It’s a first contact episode. The Orville receives an “old-fashioned microwave” message from a planet. The message (which they can read just fine) is: “Is there anybody out there?”

Because, yes, that’s the message you’d spend a jillion dollars sending into space (as opposed to).

And in that universal language everyone can read.

The handling of alien language, let alone aliens, is one of the show’s monster fails. Crew members and various aliens speak perfect English except for those special words that pop up when the writers want to rewarm a stale joke.

¶ Alara’s new replacement, another petite female who looks nothing like someone from a high-G world. This one has more grit than the timid Alara.

¶ Captain Mercer is the least captainy captain ever. Commander Grayson is the least commandery commander ever. Neither can act; neither has any gravitas. Zero chemistry. It’s so painful to watch them.

¶ The big high school dance… oops, sorry, I mean Grayson shares a birthday with Bortus, and she’s all nervous about asking if he wants to join her party, so it can be a big thing, with people and stuff, but Bortus says no.

¶ Apparently the Orville was only a few light years away, because that’s all the time the message was in flight. They were awfully close to not have noticed a large civilization!

¶ Another problem with the show is that the “Union” (the Federation) is stupid. Various aliens work onboard starships, yet everyone seems utterly ignorant about them. Questions pop up that should be common knowledge.

The stunning constant ignorance of the characters combined with their juvenile outlook and behavior makes it hard for me to care about, or even like, any of them. These people are jokes!

¶ Okay, so first contact with a new species, and as they walk towards them Mercer suggests to Grayson they adopt fake names. For fun. Grayson is onboard with the idea, but Mercer chickens out at the last moment.

Consider the implication of deceiving the people you meet in first contact.

I don’t know if the show meant to imply those two fucking goddam idiot children have no business in space at all, let alone in command of a starship, but that is definitely the message sent.

My head kinda exploded at that point, and yet I hung in there. That’s not what forced me to stop watching. (It came close, though.)

¶ We learn that wealth in the Union is based on reputation, which raises so many questions I don’t even know where to begin on that one.

¶ The last straw was the “problem” with the planet. Never mind that, as first contact stories go, this was beyond awful, beyond stupid, beyond beyond, just fucking beyond any shred of sense.

(Never mind them walking into an OR without scrubbing. Or even wearing masks, because these people are playing at putting on a science fiction show.)

The “problem” with the planet is that, despite all their science and technology, they apparently still believe deeply in  astrology.

So fervently, so passionately, that when they find out Grayson and Bortus have a birthday today and, gasp, are therefore “Giliacs,” they immediately haul off their invited alien guests to a concentration camp for the rest of their days.

(As opposed to simply booting them off the planet.)

¶ Apparently the tests performed on the others before releasing them could determine the month of their birth. Pretty good for an alien species!

I understand the point MacFarlane (who wrote it) is trying to make. It’s being made in a way I find mind-blowingly stupid.

So stupid it makes me disappointed, frustrated, and really angry.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

19 responses to “Super Stupid SF

  • mwlange

    I wonder if the problem is the show’s comparisons to Star Trek. The original ads for the show were of a spoof of the venerable franchise, and not an actual science fiction successor. Then I saw later critiques hailing it as better than what’s been put out in the franchise. Could people have expected too much?

    I agree that there’s a severe lack of positive science fiction on television – even in online television networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Some of that could be older tropes not aging well. It could also be ready access to the old shows. Newer series have to compete directly with the older ones. Those are some intimidating shoes to fill.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I think that’s part of the show’s problem: it can’t quite decide what it is. Several times, especially this season, it’s veered from goofy into serious in way that gave me a bit of whiplash. Slapstick tends to exist in a unreal convoluted world designed to support the gag whereas Trek-like SF exists in a more realistic world. Switching worlds like that isn’t good storytelling to me.

      The ethos of storytelling seems to have shifted to a kind of post-modern cynicism. All our technology and science, but the daily lives of most seem to become worse. So many remember how it “used to be better.” It’s not too surprising people start telling dark tales when it looks like this is how it is.

      I do think we’ve lost our sense of optimism, perhaps even our sense of joy. A future that once seemed bright now seems, at best, questionable.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Wyrd, you’re making me feel increasingly better about never getting into this show. You also did a good job articulating what about it bothered me but that I couldn’t bring to the surface, its juvenile nature.

    What’s interesting is how many people ask me if I’ve ever watched it. It’s getting pretty good ratings. (Far better than The Expanse which, IMO is a far better show.) Sometimes I think media sci-fi is a hopeless cause.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Season one is fairly watchable if you ever run out of better things to watch, but I don’t think you’re missing anything, especially if you’re not a MacFarlane fan. Such a pity; there is so much potential there.

      I’ve noticed several glowing reviews of the second season so far. Many of them explicitly pushing back at the more critical reviews. It’s the same Armageddon versus Deep Impact battle that the latter lost despite being a far superior film.

      I quite agree about media SF (even mainstream SF in general). This Anno Stella Bella era puts so much emphasis on the visuals and effects, and that’s what people seem to want. I’ve seen comments to the effect that all some seek is “noise and movement” on the screen. As a lover of stories, I find that appalling. Go watch a fireworks show, then.

      I’ve been noticing a general breakdown in the quality of storytelling. Many stories seem to consist of a series of troupes, each designed to evoke a feeling, but the plot, let alone theme, is often badly muddled. I watched a small auteur SF film the other night, 2036 Origin Unknown.

      It’s the sort of SF film made for people like us, but I didn’t think it was very well directed or written. Neat idea buried in the mess, but the mess was a bit much for me to recommend it. Interesting effort though, and I’m glad people keep trying to make films like this. (Just wish more of them were good.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The visual capabilities of modern movies is a mixed bag. It does lead to fairly mindless joy rides, but it also allows movie makers to show things that Stanley Kubrick could only dream of. I remember reading about how Kubrick badly wanted to show the aliens in 2001 A Space Odyssey, but ultimately decided not to because the technology of the day couldn’t do it justice. I suspect today we would see them, albeit with some of the haunting mystery drained away.

        I’ve been seeing the Origin Unknown movie advertised on Netflix, and keep meaning to check it out. The feel I get from you is that it has unrealized potential. I’ll probably still watch it, just to see.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve always believed that what you don’t show and only imply is far more interesting, terrifying, smarter, whatever, than you can ever actually show. Come to think of it, it connects with the next thought…

        Which is that I’ve thought a lot about CGI over the years. (Been meaning to do a post about this.)

        (Who can say, but it’s possible there’s an alternate reality where I ended up at Pixar or similar. I was a film major, and after I got out of college I applied to places doing the then early technology of CGI and computer-driven photography. I was a CS minor, and it seemed like a good way to break into Hollywood. Unfortunately I was very shy in those days and didn’t push as hard as I should have. Looking back, it would have been an awesome fit. Point is, I’ve been interested in 3D rendering a long time, and have watched it grow.)

        I agree it can be used just for empty eye-candy, which is like a fast food burger, okay once in a while, but I love that it can show us anything we can conceive.

        (I keep waiting for Hollywood to do the math: All those great old SF stories. The ability of CGI in the hands of artists. That SF is mainstream. The conclusion seems obvious; I don’t know why we don’t see more good SF movies. It’s stuff I think would be hugely popular. There are thousands of great stories waiting to be tapped. Like Arrival, for instance.)

        One possible downside (depending on one’s view) is how CGI (and movies, in general) “collapse” our imagination down to specific imagery. I read LotR and The Hobbit in high school and imagined it all, but now Bilbo Baggins is forever Martin Freeman. Frodo is forever Elijah Wood.

        Our visual media has gone from woodcuttings to photo-realistic CGI of anything we can imagine, which is great, but I wonder what’s lost from our imagination. We become fed images and aren’t inspired to dream them.

        I also wonder if such photo-realistic fantasy plays any role in disconnecting people who are saturated in it from reality. Many of the weirder news items seem to indicate people who are seriously out of touch with physical reality.

        Seems like technology is always a two-edged sword.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Got to rambling. Meant to say, I’m changing my mind. I would recommend 2036 for a serious SF fan, such as yourself. It’s worth seeing, if for no other reason, than to see the attempt. You might even like it.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “One possible downside (depending on one’s view) is how CGI (and movies, in general) “collapse” our imagination down to specific imagery.”

        That’s an excellent point. The example that most occurs to me is the balrog in Fellowship of the Rings. Many aspects of Tolkien’s description of it can be interpreted either literally or metaphorically. In particular, there’s always been a long running debate about whether the balrog had wings. The movie actually does a good job of making that suitably ambiguous, but it still locks in a particular interpretation of many other details.

        Of course, when it works well, the images of a large team of production designers who obsess over the details, constantly bouncing them off each other and pushing each other, are often far more vivid than what I can come with on my own in my head. The problem is that, in most cases, the sensationalist version that wows the audience will win out over a perhaps more nuanced one.

        Thanks. I’ll definitely check out 2036. Maybe this weekend!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The balrog is a good example. (LotR, in general, is a good example. The book was so familiar to so many.)

        I do think they did a generally outstanding job on LotR. So much of what they did matched what was in my head pretty closely. I can’t say I had any complaints about LotR. (That other trilogy, though…) Like you, I’ve been enthralled by some of the visuals designers have created.

        Speaking of which, Annihilation, which I just watched last night (and highly recommend). The set up gives the film license for very cool visualization, plus I thought it was a very good SF story. It’s also kinda cool that it centers on a five-member team who investigate, and all five are women. My only complaint is all the long significant pauses people constantly do at each other. I find that so annoying. Use your words!

        “The problem is that, in most cases, the sensationalist version that wows the audience will win out over a perhaps more nuanced one.”

        Very true, very sad. That’s exactly what happened with Armageddon and Deep Impact, although the sensationalism was as much in the story as the CGI. Nuance just isn’t most people’s thing, I guess.

        I’ll be interested to hear your reaction to 2036!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I saw Annihilation and enjoyed it. I found it much better than the books. I actually avoided seeing it for a long time due to my experience with the books, but was pleasantly surprised that someone in the production realized the story straight from the books wouldn’t work. It’s too bad it wasn’t financially successful.

        I’ll let you know on 2036. If I like it, I might do a post. (If not, I’ll at least stop by this thread and let you know.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve wondered if its lack of success has anything to do with the all-woman cast. SF seems to have a problem with that. (The remake of Ghostbusters is one good example.)

        Hard to tell sometimes if the problem was the publicity, the audience, or the movie (or the cast or the timing or…).

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It seems like there was a stink when it came out, that maybe the studio, or distributor, or somebody concluded that the movie wasn’t good, and decided not to distribute it widely. At the time, still aggravated about the books, have to admit I had a feeling of schadenfreude. Later when I finally saw it, I felt bad for the people involved; it was a quality production and they were robbed.

        No idea if the female cast was the issue.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Okay, that’s sort of ringing a bell. I do remember it was talked about (and not in a good way), but didn’t remember how. I try to avoid that sort of thing as much as possible. I didn’t realize the team was five women until I watched it (never knew there were books), and from your account, it sounds like a publicity fail.

        That said, I’m not sure it was very mainstream (although I may not be much of a judge). It sure appealed to me as a long-time SF fan, but I can see it testing poorly with regular audiences (to their loss).

        (Maybe would have tested better with snappier dialog. 🙂 🙂 )

        Something similar seems to be going on with the new movie, Serenity (which, to me, is always the Firefly movie, but whatever). Don’t know if you know the twist yet, but it’s been getting pretty bad reviews. Some say it could be worth seeing as a fail, but no one I’ve read has embraced it.

        I read today the actors are pissed because the studio has dropped it’s “P&A” program (Promotion and Advertising?). The studio is treating it like a bomb, which so far it has been at the box, but some feel properly promoted and understood, it has legs.

        I do know the twist and I’m… meh, I guess. I really dislike McConaughey, which biases my opinion. A lot.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Since I don’t care about spoilers, I just looked up the twist for Serenity. It sounds like one I’d enjoy. Although the various versions of that twist are probably getting a bit overused now, at least for science fiction fans. But I’ll probably watch the movie when it becomes available on streaming.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s how I’ve been for a long time with (getting to be) most movies. I am (or was) paying for HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and Starz anyway, so I just wait and watch them for “free” when they come around. That was part of the reason for having those: movies.

        But that’s so different now.

        I just called Comcast this morning to cancel my cable, so now I’ll wait around for most movies on Netflix or Hulu or Prime. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m still paying for all those things, despite more often watching movies on the online stuff. I need to make changes myself.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The new mode, I’m told, is no contracts, so pick up and drop providers to suit your needs at the time.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I saw 2036 Origin Unknown. Yeah. Interesting idea. But the execution was…off. The production values, including special effects and soundtrack, seemed pretty good. Katee Sackhoff did her best in acting. That said, I don’t know if it was the script, editing, or direction, but it felt like a confusing self indulgent mess. I can see why you were torn with it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! I’m glad it wasn’t just me.

      I agree the acting was good. It’s the directing and/or the script that left a lot to be desired. (Which sucks when it looks like it had potential.)

      Cases like this are interesting critically (to me, anyway; maybe I’m blind to something). I wonder if the director told the story he wanted, and I’m just not getting it; or is the storytelling as poor as it comes off to me? Is it my taste, or objectively bad?

      It appears you confirm its objective issues. (And/or we have the same taste.)

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