So, ‘Seth Trek: The Next Iteration’, or – as it’s more commonly known – Season Two of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville. In case you haven’t seen the show, it’s essentially Star Trek with dick jokes. Actually, that’s probably selling it short – the first season started out like that, but by the end of its run, it had actually managed to tell some very dramatic stories, and wrestled with the sorts of moral issues and dilemmas you’d generally find tackled in one of the many, many Star Trek series we’ve seen over the years.
It’s therefore a bit of a curious reset of sorts to see the season opener stepping back to its more scatological roots, and feature a plot where the Second Officer, Bortus (Peter Macon), has to return to his home planet in order to pee. What’s even more surprising, however, is that Seth MacFarlane (who wrote and directed the episode) doesn’t then make more mileage out of this, as – aside from a couple of jokes early in the episode – it’s used as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the crew, and a focus on different kinds of interpersonal relationships. It’s deeper than you might expect from MacFarlane, given his track record with use of crude humour in shows such as Family Guy, as well as his Ted movies and A Million Ways To Die In The West, so it’s nice to be wrong-footed.
Lt. Commander Bortus is a Moclan, which is a race which only urinates once a year. However, when they do, they return to their home world, as the Ja’loja (or ‘Great Release’) is treated as a huge ceremonial occasion with great symbolism, as family and loved ones are invited to watch, with the act of peeing seen as being seen as a cleansing or purification of the soul for the coming year. You can tell MacFarlane knows his Trek as it’s a clear spin on 1967’s ‘Amok Time’, where the Vulcans only go into heat once every seven years and Spock returns home in order to mate. Trust The Orville, then, to use a different biological function, while also drawing attention to the fact that no-one in Star Trek ever goes to the bathroom.
As part of the ritual involves attendees of the ceremony bringing a mate, it focuses the episode very much on the statuses of the crew, starting with the rather fraught and complicated situation between the ship’s Captain, Ed Mercer (MacFarlane), and his First Officer, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), who were divorced before Ed took command of the Orville. The first season saw them very much in an ‘on-again, off-again’ situation, where Ed realised that he still loved Kelly, but she’d tried her best to move on. When Ed tries to express his continued feelings for her here, Kelly announces she’s actually dating someone, and she’s intending to invite him to the Ja’loja.
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Although a capable Captain, Ed still falls into the ‘lovable loser’ category when it comes to romantic attachments, so when he finds out about this, he doesn’t handle the situation as well as Kelly would hope, taking the step of using a shuttle craft to spy upon Kelly and her boyfriend when they’re having date night in her quarters, just to find out who her mysterious beau actually is. It turns out to be the Orville’s teacher, Cassius (Chris Johnson), who ends up being featured in more than one of the episode’s plot strands, as there’s trouble afoot for young Marcus Finn (BJ Tanner) – eldest son of the ship’s Doctor, Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) – who’s getting in with the wrong crowd in class.
Most Star Trek shows tend to feature one character who’s there mainly as a way of shedding light upon just what it means to be human, whether by contrasting with them, making observations about them, or trying to emulate them – Spock, Data, Seven Of Nine, etc. In The Orville, their equivalent is Isaac (Mark Jackson), the ship’s science and engineering officer, who happens to be an artificial alien lifeform that took up the post in order to study human behaviour. Season One showed us the forming of a bond between Isaac and the Finns (in ‘Into The Fold’), after their shuttle craft crashed on a planet and they had to work together to survive. Isaac started to become a pseudo-father figure to the Finn boys, and it’s a nice piece of character development that it’s carried on here.
As well as teaching Doctor Finn’s youngest son Ty (Kai Wener) the piano, Isaac also becomes embroiled in helping deal with Marcus’ rebellious streak, after he starts hanging around with a troublesome classmate, James Duncan (Jake Brennan). Things get somewhat more serious after James hacks a food replicator to produce a bottle of vodka, which he and Marcus get caught drinking, and James’ rather priggish and sanctimonious parents put all the blame on Marcus, claiming that he’s led their son astray. Claire starts to doubt herself, feeling that she’s failing as a single mother, but Isaac manages to step into the breach and save the day, when he finds evidence during a meeting headed by teacher Cassius of James’ meddling with his report card by hacking into the ship’s computer using his parents’ access facilities. Never has pomposity been so delightfully pricked.
Having families on a ship brings to mind Star Trek: The Next Generation, but thankfully Marcus is more DS9‘s Jake Sisko than TNG‘s Wesley Crusher, Boy Genius. Having the whole teen rebellion and drinking alcohol could have been a bit twee and ‘In a very special episode of…’-esque, but thankfully we get some deft character beats and use of humour to diffuse that risk. No-one does indignant and righteous anger like Johnson Jerold, who blazes with great effect here. Mark Jackson also does a good job of managing to make Isaac one of the most endearing characters on the show, even though he has the handicap of having to do all the hard work just through voice and body language (as the character has only a blank, expressionless mask for a face), and certainly adds a further dimension to the role here, as he starts to take on more parental responsibility without realising.
Some other crew members are faring no better than Ed with their love lives, as the helmsman, Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), is trying to pluck up enough courage to ask the new Dark Matter Cartographer Janel Tyler (Michaela McManus) to be his partner for Bortus’ Ja’loja ceremony. The Orville’s chief of security, Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), is also dateless, and Bortus ends up trying to matchmake for her. Both storylines are fun diversions, but it does feel at times the thread with Gordon and Janel doesn’t really go anywhere, and seems as though they’re just trying to give Gordon something to do. It’s also an odd and abrupt conclusion when he chickens out of asking her along, but at the party after the Ja’loja ceremony, Janel ends up seemingly making a move on Ed by taking a seat next to him at the ship’s bar, after barely exchanging more than a few words throughout the whole episode, with not a hint of any attraction between them. If this is to be a continuing storyline, it’s a rather forced way of setting it up, almost literally at the last second.
MacFarlane uses the musical motif of ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca during the episode, from a record on an old style gramophone at the start; to being a piece Isaac performs for Claire after the piano lesson; and again at the very end, where an alien pianist (he’s not called Sam – I checked) plays it again at the reception for Bortus. In a touch of sentimentalism, MacFarlane has Ed step into the role of Bogart in Casablanca – in the same way he talked Bergman into getting onto that plane, Ed tells Cassius to go for Kelly after they have a falling out, and how to win her heart when Cassius says he loves her, so even though you can tell it’s killing him, Ed chooses to be the bigger man, and actually grows as a character in doing so.
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It’s a more low-key opener than perhaps was expected, and a ‘bottle’ episode does perhaps seem to be a strange choice at first glance; perhaps the idea here was to reacquaint ourselves with all the crew after a break, and set up some arcs for the year to come. However, sometimes you just need some dick jokes, and a few more scattered liberally here and there by MacFarlane would have gone a long way to kicking things up a notch.