Seth MacFarlane's 'Star Trek' homage 'The Orville' has a mixed-up mission

“You’re nobody’s first choice for this job,” says the stern admiral of a vague intergalactic concern called the Union to Capt. Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), commander of a spacecraft named “The Orville,” which is also the title of Fox’s new quasi-comedy premiering Sunday.

And though MacFarlane’s own wish-fulfillment is clearly at work as his character says this job is something he’s dreamed of “ever since I was a kid,” it’s hard not to approach this muddled sci-fi series without sharing the misgivings of the Union admiral.

Best known for the defiantly crude animated shows “Family Guy” and “American Dad!” as well as the tonally similar “Ted,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and, most divisively, a 2013 stint hosting the Oscars, MacFarlane isn’t an obvious choice for an hourlong, series-length homage to “Star Trek,” something obviously close to his heart. That inability to balance his rapid-fire comic wheelhouse with the demands of dramatic storytelling keeps “The Orville” earthbound.

MacFarlane’s Mercer is a wise-cracking, determinedly glib variation of roughly every character he’s played — which is to say, himself. He gets to say captain-like things (“Take us out,” “engaging quantum drive”) and answers the age-old question of whether crew members have to use the bathroom in space. Actors in colorful latex masks playing aliens and the Orville’s bright, familiarly flimsy-looking interiors testify to MacFarlane’s loving eye for detail.

Among those boldly going along for the ride are Klyden (Chad L. Coleman), an analytical alien in a metal helmet who is a spiritual cross between Vulcan and android; Lt. Cmdr. Bortus (Peter Macon), a Klingon-esque crewman of few words; Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), an improbably young security officer with superhuman strength; and, oh yeah, the first officer, Capt. Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki of “Friday Night Lights”), who happens to be Mercer’s ex-wife.

How exes wind up crew-mates is a dramatic contrivance with Grayson offering her service as penance for her infidelity, which is mostly handled with the grounded sensitivity you’d expect given MacFarlane’s track record. (Though Palicki capably riffs along with him here and there, in space everyone can hear bickering couples scream — and it’s no more fun than on Earth.)

But more problematic are tonal shifts that come with filling an hour with the sort of drama that should support an orchestrally scored “Star Trek” homage while also accommodating MacFarlane’s typically skewed, bro-friendly search for laughs.

A scientist’s distant distress call is sideswiped by a dog licking its privates in the background — a gag that might have landed if MacFarlane could resist having two crewmen point it out afterward. The requisite space battle climax grinds to a halt when Mercer asks the threatening alien to center himself on the ship’s screen. They’re decent jokes if, like “Airplane!” or TBS’ “Angie Tribeca,” that was the show’s only mission. Here, the action is undercut, and if the characters don’t care about their situations, why should we?

The second episode finds a better balance by playing it more straight with an intergalactic zoo storyline, which builds to an effective closing gag. But if you’re looking for a sci-fi show, there are more reliable sources out there — like, say, “Star Trek: Discovery.” The third episode’s attempt to be topical with jokes around Bortus’ having a female child in his all-male species is awkward at best, and there’s an inescapable feeling that MacFarlane couldn’t decide if his show is a spoof or an homage. It unsuccessfully tries to straddle both lines.

This is frustrating because MacFarlane can deliver sharp comic surprises, and 1999’s “Galaxy Quest” — now in development for an Amazon series, by the way — showed that “Star Trek” can be mined into a brilliant spoof. There may be a goofy half-hour comedy buried inside MacFarlane’s tribute, but “The Orville” feels suited only for his already dedicated fans — though they also may not recognize what they discover here.

‘The Orville’

Where: Fox

When: 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sexual content and violence)

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chris.barton@latimes.com

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.

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