It’s been over a year since the first-season finale of The Orville, and while the sci-fi comedy doesn’t require a lot of backstory to enjoy, we still thought it’d be worth whipping together a primer so you can hit the ground running (and catch onto any inside jokes) ahead of Sunday’s season two premiere.
What it’s about
Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), The Orville follows the adventures of a 25th century Planetary Union exploratory vessel crew—which includes humans, aliens, and a robot—as they answer distress calls, stumble upon deep-space anomalies, interact with (but do their best not to influence) strange alien civilizations, and try to keep the peace in deep space. At the same time, The Orville is a workplace comedy, as the various officers deal with interpersonal relations and job stress, and indulge their fondnesses for booze, junk food, 20th-century popular culture, and elaborate practical jokes. So it’s kind of like a reverent homage to Star Trek mixed with a little Twilight Zone—but also with karaoke, dance-offs, and Seinfeld references.
Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane): The series premiere saw Ed joining the Orville as his first command—a promotion that was somewhat delayed after a messy divorce hit pause on his career ambitions for a bit (more on that below). He’s a fair leader who’s fiercely loyal to his crew, even going against Planetary Union orders on occasion to protect them, but he’s also kind of an awkward goofball who happens to be a big Kermit the Frog fan.
Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki): The Orville’s first officer is also Ed’s ex-wife—a theme that shaped a lot of the drama in season one, since they split up after she cheated on him with an alluring, blue-skinned alien named Darulio (played by Rob Lowe). We subsequently learn that Kelly’s affair came after she felt neglected by the workaholic Ed, and that her attraction to Darulio was in large part due to an irresistible sex pheromone his species emits on occasion. (In the season one episode “Cupid’s Dagger,” even Ed proves powerless against Darulio’s charms.) She’s also the reason Ed got tapped for the Orville command, since she secretly went to bat for him after feeling responsible for his professional backsliding. (When Ed found out, he was furious.) That’s a lot of baggage, but it doesn’t take away from Kelly’s ability to be kick-arse at her job.
Lieutenant Gordon Molloy (Scott Grimes): The Orville’s talented helmsman also happens to be Ed’s best friend—lucky for him, since nobody else wanted him on their crew after he damaged another vessel trying to impress a girl. He’s not the sharpest mind on the crew, but he is very fond of crude humour, the ship’s virtual reality simulator, wearing shorts on duty (or at least trying to), and practical jokes. The episode where he reacts to (temporarily) losing his leg as part of an elaborate prank made me laugh harder than any other single Orville moment to date.
Lieutenant Commander John LaMarr (J. Lee): John started the season as the Orville’s navigator; at first, his main concern is that he gets to keep drinking soda while he’s on duty. As season one progressed, though, we saw him nearly get lobotomized after some ill-advised dirty dancing on a planet governed by a futuristic system of social-media “likes” and “dislikes”—and then (after some nudging from Kelly and Ed to use the smarts he’d been purposefully downplaying) getting promoted to chief engineer after saving The Orville from two-dimensional destruction. He also haaaates clowns.
Lieutenant Alara Kitan (Halston Sage): Though she’s visibly younger than any of the other senior officers, and appears quite petite, Alara’s Xelayan heritage means that she’s incredibly strong. Basically, she has superpowers, but also excellent judgment, which makes her the ideal person to be the Orville’s security chief. Because she is so inexperienced—and because her parents belittle her career choice—Alara sometimes suffers from intense self-doubt. The Orville’s creepiest episode so far, “Firestorm,” takes place within a simulation that ultimately proves Alara’s ability to withstand an array of terrifying situations (including, sorry John, a scary clown). She’s also close pals with Kelly, and her distinctive alien features mean that any time the Orville crew infiltrates a humanoid planet, she has to wear a hat and find a reason to cover her nose.
Lieutenant Commander Bortus (Peter Macon): The Orville’s second officer hails from the planet of Moclus, where the native population is almost entirely male. This causes major consternation when Bortus and his mate, Klyden, hatch a female infant from their egg; season one episode “About a Girl” questioned whether they should have the child surgically transformed into a male so that it can better conform with their culture. (Though the parents disagree over whether or not to do it, a Moclan judge eventually orders Bortus to allow the procedure, and everyone pretty much accepts it after that.) When it comes to his job, Bortus is very serious and capable, which makes his quirks even more hilarious. For instance, he has an iron stomach and can eat nearly anything (a cactus, a glass, a giant wad of wasabi), and he claims to be an incredible singer, though it’s a running joke that we’ve yet to hear him croon a note on the show.
Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald): Johnson Jerald’s casting as the Orville’s chief medical officer strengthens its Star Trek cred, since she was previously a cast member on Deep Space Nine. Claire is a no-nonsense single mum of two rambunctious boys, and she’s also kind of a mother figure to everyone else—especially Alara, who often looks to her for guidance. She’s usually removed from the ship’s sillier hijinks, though she does get to play a psycho in “Firestorm,” and eventually has a bizarre romantic interlude when she hooks up with gelatinous crew member Yaphit in the “Cupid’s Dagger” episode. It’s…something.
Isaac (Mark Jackson): The Orville’s science and engineering officer is a highly intelligent artificial life form who, for all intents and purposes, resembles a robot with glowing eyes. He’s from Kaylon-1, a “legendarily racist” (per Ed) society that views all biological life as totally inferior. In addition to his official duties, Isaac’s main purpose is studying the crew and hoping to learn more about them, specifically the humans. His inability to comprehend humour (be it sarcasm, sitcom references, or pranks) is a ongoing gag, though he’s definitely improving with Gordon’s help; he also proves to be a hilariously matter-of-fact babysitter—spinner of the least-comforting bedtime stories ever—when he’s briefly stranded on a wild planet with Penny’s sons.
Others of note:
The Krill, The Orville’s very Klingon-esque main villains; a race of bloodthirsty alien warriors who hate the Planetary Union and especially hate humans. In season one, Ed and Gordon go undercover using holographic masks to try and recover a copy of the Krill’s most sacred text, in the hopes of learning anything that can be used against them. While on the mission, they learn that the Krill cannot be exposed to bright light (Gordon: “They’re space vampires!”) and also that their top god is named Avis, which leads to all manner of rental-car jokes.
Bortus’ mate, Klyden, played by Chad L. Coleman (The Expanse, The Walking Dead); their relationship undergoes a rough patch as they adjust to being parents, during which Bortus starts working too much and Klyden becomes obsessed with eating ice cream and watching The Sound of Music.
Yaphit, voiced by Norm Macdonald; he works in engineering and is the Orville’s only gelatinous crew member. (He basically looks like a giant blob of Jell-O with a mouth.) He has a huge crush on Claire, though she’s not interested in him until Derulio’s pheromone makes her temporarily change her mind. Then, at one point, Bortus accidentally eats a piece of Yaphit’s goo (thanks to a prank pulled by Gordon and John), and Yaphit has to shape himself into a tentacle and go into Bortus’ digestive tract to retrieve it. You won’t see that on Star Trek.
Dann, played by Mike Henry, is a random alien crew member who’s either always on the elevator being maddeningly cheerful when Ed needs to have a serious conversation with someone, or trying to ingratiate himself with Gordon and John in the ship’s mess hall. He also loves pancakes.
Where things stand…and why you should watch
The nature of The Orville means that each episode is kind of a stand-alone space adventure, so you can pretty much dive in at any point and have a good time. But one big character arc in season one that’s worth noting is that Ed and Kelly came awfully close to reconciling. In the finale, she ended up taking a step back when she realised rekindling their romance would jeopardize their professional relationship—and could affect Ed’s decision-making abilities when it comes to what’s best for the Orville. That doesn’t mean the tension between the two is gonna go away in season two, though; check out Fox’s description for the season two premiere, “Ja’loja”:
In Season Two, Ed (MacFarlane) and Kelly’s (Adrianne Palicki) relationship will take a new turn, while the ship’s crew will meet never-before-seen aliens, face old adversaries the Krill, make first contact with a new civilisation and revisit the planet Moclus.
Fox has released a few promos since that first trailer it shared at San Diego Comic-Con back in July, but none of them reveal too much. The longest clip is this “sneak peek” offering some studiously non-specific glimpses of what’s to come:
Wait, was that Dann and Alara…on a date?
Aside from The Orville’s endearing blend of sci-fi (which it takes rather seriously, especially when it comes to things like production design and special effects) and humour (the writing on the big themes isn’t always perfect, but the asides, jokes, and throwaway moments between the characters are often completely perfect), viewers can also look forward to some top-notch guest stars. Aside from Lowe’s turn as the seductive Derulio, season one’s biggest names were probably Victor Garber (who recurs as Ed’s boss), as well as Liam Neeson (who popped up in a recorded message as a noble colony-ship captain) and Charlize Theron, who appeared to be having the time of her life playing a devious (and distractingly good-looking) time-traveller.
The Orville returns Sunday, December 30 to Fox; after that, the show moves to its new time period, with season two’s second episode airing Thursday, January 3.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.