Seth McFarlane’s sci-fi comedy is having a solid sophomore season.
With eight episodes aired, season two of The Orville is off to a strong start. It continues to blend equal parts science fiction and social philosophy, though its proportion of outrageous gags has declined markedly in favor of subtler comedic elements. Despite a few lingering areas for improvement, Seth McFarlane’s love letter to Star Trek is really starting to gain momentum.
Warning: Some serious spoilers for The Orville Seasons 1 and 2 below!
After two relatively strong episodes focusing on Peter Macon’s outstanding alien character Bortus, Season 2 stumbled a bit with the surprise departure of security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) in episode three. Though it seems unintentional, Sage’s departure is eerily reminiscent of Denise Crosby’s early exit from her role as chief of security in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That parallel is itself similar to John Lamarr (J. Lee) transitioning from navigator to chief engineer (in season one) almost exactly the same way Geordi did on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fortunately, such one-to-one references are rare and usually not too meta, though occasionally they do veer too far in that direction — e.g. when a fanatical, warlike alien race embeds a mole on the Orville under the assumed identity of “Lieutenant Tyler”. That’s such an on-the-nose poke at Discovery you wonder if it could somehow have been a coincidence.
Judging by how she was quickly replaced with another super strong woman (Jessica Szohr) from the same planet, Sage’s sudden departure likely came too late in production to entirely avoid the holes her character’s absence would leave in planned arcs. To explain why the new chief is so similar to the old one, McFarlane clumsily has Adrianne Palicki’s Kelly explain that the captain liked Alara so much he insisted on hiring another Xelayan to replace her. That might plaster over a plot hole but it’s pretty disturbing HR policy if you think of being a native of a particular planet as a metaphor for belonging to a certain race, gender or religion, as the show so often does.
And therein lies a hint at one of the Orville’s nagging difficulties in recapturing the forward-thinking magic of the best Trek shows. While its main narratives nails the same optimism for the future – perfect equality, no war, no poverty, etc. – some throwaway beats still skew lazily toward outmoded tropes and stereotypes. In Alara’s last episode “Home”, for example, while the fight at the center of the climax focuses on a strong woman reclaiming her power, right next to that fight are Alara’s mother and sister, trembling helplessly until a man rescues them.
Such issues occur relatively infrequently, however. On the whole, Season 2 provides further evidence of the show’s growth from a good-natured spoof to an exciting, thought-provoking drama with occasional jokes to lighten the mood. As the writers’ room and cast become more comfortable with the crew dynamic, The Orville has an opportunity to develop into something uniquely appealing in today’s dark television landscape.
Of course, The Orville still has a long way to go if it wants to stand among the pantheon of the best science fiction TV shows. It has to learn to resist the urge to play to the lowest common denominator and not be afraid to rework an idea if the logic isn’t up to snuff. For example, the episode “All the World Is Birthday Cake” begins as a classic first contact scenario with a terrific twist: the peaceful, intellectually evolved planet is, in fact, prone to eugenics based on astrological signs. Kelly and Bortus just so happen to have celebrated birthdays recently enough to fall within the most disfavored sign, prompting their arrest. It’s a classic Trek setup with all the potential in the world for the enlightened crew to either cut through a primitive culture’s ignorance or risk the moral implications of resorting to the use of superior force.
But all that potential is wasted when no one bothers to explain to the world’s leaders hey, here’s how space works: if you travel even a few light years away from your planet — like say, as far away as where Kelly and Bortus were born — the constellations you think are so important cease to exist. That seems like something the Next Gen or original series crews would at least try. Worse, the conclusion involves neither illuminating the folly of arbitrary discrimination nor the moral quandary of violating the show’s equivalent of the Prime Directive. Instead, they make a fake star that somehow magically erases thousands of years of intense global prejudice. Plus Kelly and Bortus leave the planet without so much as a reprimand after murdering like 20 prison guards.
But if episodes like “All the World Is Birthday Cake” and “Home” are low points, The Orville has produced just as many solid offerings this year. “Primal Urges”‘ depiction of the continued fallout between Bortus and Kylden (Chad L. Coleman) continues to demonstrate the show’s willingness to mine challenging topics and stick with them over the course of many episodes. The same is true of Claire’s relationship with the robot Isaac in “A Happy Refrain”. The idea of a human falling for an android has of course been seen before, notably in the TNG episode “In Theory”. Though Isaac’s costume makes the coupling more comical, it’s also a better reminder of the true measure of the gap such a relationship would have to bridge. The episode may strain credulity and elicit some unintended laughs, but it’s an admirable effort that may even surpass the TNG version in terms of thoughtfulness and maturity.
One thing that’s been missing from Orville’s homage to Trek is the signature two-parter special event the older shows did so well. The Orville finally got its own two-parter with the recently completed “Identity”. To say this was the show’s best work so far is an understatement. It combines exquisite dialogue, great acting, ridiculously high stakes and the biggest space battle the show has attempted by a wide margin.
The results are pretty startling. Isaac’s heel turn is played perfectly and his ultimate redemption feels well earned. I was expecting him to reveal he’d been secretly on the Orville’s side all along but the writers didn’t take that shortcut. Instead, he gradually and naturally arrives at a decision in a way that’s filled with pathos, yet consistent with his emotionlessness. And the climax…whoa! For a show whose CG visuals can be downright cartoonish — those shuttles need a serious redesign — this battle was jaw-dropping.
Though we haven’t heard if the show will get a third season, if “Identity” is any indication, the future of The Orville is bright. While the narratives may yet lack some of the philosophical punch of the best Trek, the writers’ willingness to stretch boundaries could lead to some fantastic new frontiers. The Orville remains funny enough to be light fare, but its sneakily becoming a show that demands to be taken seriously.
How are you liking season two of The Orville so far? Let us know in the comments!
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