With the two-part episode Identity, The Orville has matured into serious science fiction
The Star Trek homage series The Orville is the Rodney Dangerfield of science fiction shows: it doesn’t get much respect, especially from genre fans. Whether that’s because of the tonally awkward blend of comedy and drama, the incorporation of 21st century pop culture references, or an active distaste for creator Seth MacFarlane, the reference-spouting creator of Family Guy, just mentioning The Orville around more stoic science fiction aficionados will likely earn you an instant sigh and an eye-roll.
For true MacFarlane haters, that mindset may never go away. But with the recent two-part episode “Identity,” the series turned a corner that might finally sway some of the more indifferent audiences onto Team Orville. The episode might surprise viewers who gave up on the show after the first few episodes. It got dark.
Like, “Best of Both Worlds” dark.
Star Trek: The Next Generation fans will understand what a bold statement that is. The two-part “Best of Both Worlds” — 1990’s season 3 finale and season 4 kickoff — left fans horror-struck, as the Enterprise faced off against the monstrous alien Borg, and lost Captain Picard to assimilation.
With “Best of Both Worlds,” Star Trek: The Next Generation finally vaulted past being just another special effects-laden space series, and it proved its mettle as a tense character drama. While the two “Identity” episodes may not propel The Orville forward to quite that degree, they deliver enough surprise, mystery, horror, and action over the course of two hours — complete with a nail-biting cliffhanger in the middle — to confirm that when The Orville dials down the goofy comedy, it can hold its own with any of the more traditional science fiction properties out there.
Kicking off with the incapacitation of the artificial life-form Isaac (Mark Jackson), who serves as the starship Orville’s science and engineering officer, “Identity” takes the Orville to Isaac’s home planet, Kaylon-1, which has yet to join the Planetary Union. While there, the crew stumbles upon a ghastly aspect of the planet’s history. When they confront the Kaylons about the disconcerting revelation, all hell breaks loose, and it’s immediately evident that no one on the Orville will ever look at Isaac the same way again.
Even with its new, grimmer bent, The Orville still isn’t a nonstop source of sophisticated drama. And it’s never likely to be. When the show joined Fox’s prime-time lineup in September 2017, it came across as something a gifted 12-year-old Star Trek fan would pen if assigned to create a space show. The creative concepts were slightly ahead of the curve for mainstream TV fare — when was the last time you saw a live-action series in which one of the characters was a gelatinous blob? — but the sense of humor was set at exactly Family Guy’s maturity level, particularly with the jokey character of Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes). (In the pilot episode, an admiral played by guest star Victor Garber asked about Lt. Malloy. “Didn’t he once draw a penis on the main viewing screen of outpost T85?” The answer, of course, is a resounding “yes.”)
The amalgam of attempted intelligent science fiction and middle school body part humor was jarring — based on the reviews, it might have actually caused some critics physical pain — and even those who came into the series with an open mind and an appreciation of both highbrow and lowbrow entertainment wondered just how long the series could successfully pull off its balancing act.
Fortunately, while Seth MacFarlane enjoys a good fart gag — actually, make that a googol’s worth of fart gags — he also truly loves Star Trek. And he knows what makes that franchise work: the distinctive characters, the bonds between them, and the increasing development of those bonds throughout their voyage. He understands that alternating between testing and tightening those bonds is ultimately more important than putting his own jokey spin on every aspect of his show’s science fiction.
As early as its third episode, The Orville’s creators were offering allegorical, politically relevant plotlines. In “About a Girl,” alien Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) and his significant other, Klyden (Chad Coleman), put ship’s doctor Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) in a morally awkward position when they ask her to perform sex reassignment surgery on their daughter. The procedure is standard practice for the Moclan people, but after Dr. Finn confirms that it’s based in a belief that females are inferior, she refuses to have anything to do with harming a physically healthy child. The episode is heavy-handed, but between the general premise and a not-entirely-happy ending, it was immediately held up as an example of the series MacFarlane was really trying to make, as opposed to the too-simple elevator pitch dismissive critics used to describe the show: “Sci-fi from the creator of Family Guy.”
The episode also wasn’t an immediate course-correction for The Orville. The series has had to work through other growing pains beyond simply finding a balance between its sensibilities. The two leads — MacFarlane and Adrianne Palicki — play the Orville’s Captain Ed Mercer and his first officer / ex-wife Commander Kelly Grayson, and the series tends to play the “will they, won’t they” card about whether they’ll get back together. The parallels between Isaac and Lt. Commander Data of Star Trek’s flagship Enterprise are often a little too on the nose, while the writers never seemed to know what they wanted to do with the character of Lt. Alara (Halston), beyond piling on unrelated bits of backstory that consistently failed to make her stand out.
As these characters floundered in season 1, however, Dr. Finn got a solid spotlight episode with “Into the Fold,” which let her shine as a doctor, a mother, and an officer after a crash-landing on a planet crawling with cannibals. And just before season 1 wrapped up, Lt. John LaMarr got his shot as the focus of the episode “New Dimensions” where he was promoted to lieutenant commander and chief engineer and, more importantly, had his backstory fleshed out to reveal his genius-level intelligence and history of being shunned and bullied.
As the season ended, The Orville still had its problems, but in spite of the flailing moments during the course of its first dozen episodes, there was also a sense that the series was finding its footing and shifting its focus toward deepening the characterization. And the series confirmed its shifting intentions with the season 2 premiere “Ja’loja,” which offered up little action but instead provided storylines for every single main character. Individually, none of these stories qualify as game-changers — Lt. LaMarr helps Lt. Malloy step up his game in order to ask out a crew member! Isaac helps one of Dr. Finn’s sons with a bully problem! — but viewed as a whole, they set a new tone.
The Orville also started to have fewer overt jokes and more conversations. In “All the World is Birthday Cake,” the crew has to scheme its way out of a tough spot, which leads to a discussion about the moral implications of their actions. In “Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes,” the series revisits a plot point from a season 1 episode to reveal the ramifications of one of Captain Mercer’s defensive action. And while the decision in “A Perfect Refrain” to have Dr. Finn develop romantic feelings for Isaac sounds like a terrible idea in print, Jerald’s acting skills make a relationship between a human and a near-faceless artificial life-form seem credible.
Then there’s “Identity,” and its parallels with “Best of Both Worlds,” starting with the way they share a startling cliffhanger that leaves the fate of not only a primary character, but an entire planet worrisomely uncertain. With its two-parter, The Orville uses all of its characters and past developments to tremendous effect — even the least substantive character on the show, the gelatinous-blob crew member Lt. Yaphit. When the series started, there seemed to be very little reason for his existence beyond getting laughs out of having a ball of goo talk with Norm Macdonald’s voice. In “Identity,” Yaphit doesn’t just serve a purpose, he plays a significant role with actual dramatic moments.
The Orville still isn’t a perfect science fiction series. It’s toned down the dodgier side of its humor, but it still has its sporadic 21st century pop culture references. Given its creator and star, it’s hard to imagine that ever going away. But it has reached a turning point in its evolution, a stage where MacFarlane seems ready to embrace the more adult side of his story and make something significant out of it. “Identity” is a game-changer. For people who saw the potential in The Orville enough to consider tuning in but didn’t like what they saw, it’s a perfect time to come back aboard.