“What else can I do? I’m going home.”
There’s a changing of the guard on board the USS Orville, as a member of the crew takes an extended – perhaps permanent – leave of absence, in what proves to be a rather underwhelming departure, and a bit of a damp squib of an episode overall.
It’s the first time we’ve seen one of the regular cast leave The Orville, and it’s rather surprising that it’s happened not only so early in the show’s run, but also just three episodes into Season 2. It all seems as though it’s done with indecent haste, more out of necessity than for any dramatic impetus, and therefore ends up feeling rather empty and hollow. It’s not as rushed or pointless a demise as that of Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but feels almost as unsatisfying. Actually, Tasha Yar’s probably a good parallel, as the crew member leaving the USS Orville is that ship’s Chief of Security too, Alara Kitan (Halston Sage).
It could be said that, at a cursory glance, Alara appears to be an underdeveloped character, as her main defining traits are physical strength, insecurity, and being unlucky in love. However, she seems to have actually been relatively well served compared to some of the others, when you come to try and describe their main attributes or features. Lt. Cmndr. LaMarr? Funny and clever. Lt. Gordon Malloy? Funny and goofy. Dr. Claire Finn? Angry, and has kids. Commander Kelly Grayson? Ed’s ex. And so on. All things considered, Alara’s been comparatively well served, as she also got a standout episode in Season 1, ‘Firestorm’, where we got to meet her family, who play an important role here.
Alara hails from the planet Xeleya, which has a much higher gravity than Earth, so it means she has much greater physical strength than those around her. However, in a classic contrived sci-fi MacGuffin, it turns out that the longer a Xeleyan spends away from home, the weaker they get, as their bodies eventually start adapting and normalising to a lower gravity. Worst case scenario, they can never return home, so anyone suffering from the condition has to return to Xeleya for an indeterminate length of time (presumably long enough to sort out any contract wrangles, or go away and film other projects besides The Orville). Voila, a convenient way of being able to write out one of your characters.
Perhaps one of the nearest equivalents to this story is TNG‘s ‘Family’, where a crew member (in that instance, Captain Picard) goes home to recuperate, and also try to rebuild bridges with estranged family. It isn’t an original idea, but it can feel new and fresh depending on how it’s played. Sadly, in this case, it rather lacks some oomph, despite having the added benefit of having Alana’s parents played by two screen veterans: Molly Hagan and Robert Picardo (best known for his role in Star Trek: Voyager as the holographic doctor). The performances are all fine, so it very much seems that the issue lies squarely with the writing. It’s doubly surprising as Cherry Chevapravatdumrong also wrote ‘Firestorm’, so the marked contrast in quality between the two is quite startling.
The return to Xeleya itself is a thing of beauty, and a joy to behold: the shuttle flight through the city to Alara’s home is gorgeous, and really raises the bar when it comes to photorealistic CGI effects on a TV budget – each week, they really seem to be upping their game significantly. Similarly, the visuals when the Kitans fly out to their beach house are equally impressive. One thing you can’t fault this episode – or The Orville as a whole, in fact – is the look of it, as every last cent seems to count. Sadly, the flashy visuals can only do so much in papering over the cracks when it comes to a deficient script, and in an episode which manages to pack in so much incident, it’s still somehow incredibly dull. The whole isn’t all that great, and its constituent parts are rather mismatched.
When The Orville decides to actually play it straight, foregoing many opportunities for obvious or cheap laughs, you’d hope it means that there’s a strong enough story to justify backgrounding the comedy. In most of the cases where they’ve done this to date, it’s worked very well, but on this occasion it feels as though a few jokes would have made a big difference, and really helped elevate things. Oddly, the few attempts at humour they try fall flat, many of which relate to Alara’s interim replacement Security Chief (played by a criminally wasted Patrick Warburton, buried beneath unwieldy, cumbersome prosthetics, all for a joke which seems painfully stretched out). The whole thing feels like a hastily-written addition to the run, and comes across as unfinished, with need of another pass by the writer or the script editor.
The central theme throughout ‘Home’ is reconciliation and second chances, as Alara tries to face up to spending time with her parents, both of whom strongly disapproved of her signing up to serve on a Union starship, and failed to give her the support and encouragement that she needed as a child. Apparently, all it takes to start healing two decades of hurt is a near-death experience, as the Kitans all find themselves held at gunpoint inside their beach home by Cambis Borrin (John Billingsley of Star Trek: Enterprise) and his wife (Kerry O’Malley). The pair have come to seek revenge on Ildis (Picardo), who they blame for causing their son to commit suicide, after Ildis discredited the paper their son had written about the supposed dangers of using a particular vaccine. Yes, The Orville launches into the issue of anti-vaxxers.
It’s a pity that the topic seems so casually thrown into the ring, and discarded just as quickly, as there’s potential for this to have formed the core of a strong episode. Sadly, it’s only used as the motivation for revenge, rather than a whole ethical and moral debate, and is a massively wasted opportunity as a result. Granted, there’s a certain frisson to seeing two Trek alumni from different series sharing the screen, but the novelty isn’t enough to sustain the momentum alone, and really needs more. It’s also a boring cliche to see Alara – who had spent most of the episode confined to a space wheelchair in a weakened state – suddenly regain enough strength just in time to spring into action and save the day. There are a number of possible ways in which they could’ve resolved the story, but it sadly went down the path of least resistance, and just feels too pat and neat a way of wrapping things up.
Another curious choice is having Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and Lt. Cmndr. LaMarr (J. Lee) devise a way for Alara to receive gravity treatment on the Orville so she can remain onboard the ship, only to then have Alara simply decide to stay on Xeleya, so that she can try rebuilding her relationship with her family after they saw a different side to her during the hostage situation. In a way, it would have been better if they hadn’t come up with a solution, as having Alara just walk away seems to somehow diminish the character by making that choice; they should have instead left her with no option but to stay behind, although if the production team knows Halston Sage isn’t returning at all, maybe they figured it would give them more of a valid reason to remain behind even after she’s reacclimatised. But as a personal preference, it just feels that they should have taken the choice out of Alara’s hands altogether, or – even better – had her go out in a blaze of glory, sacrificing herself to save her family.
It’s certainly unusual for The Orville to go overboard with the sentimentality, but the sequence where Alara gets a send off by her shipmates tips over the edge into mawkish cheese, and sits uncomfortably with the tone of the series. However, it’s nice to see the episode end on a touching throwback to a running joke – Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) always used to ask Alara to “open this jar of pickles for me” when faced with a door he couldn’t open, by using her superior strength. As such, it’s a fitting moment which almost redeems the episode from its overdose on schmaltz when Ed finds that Alara’s left him a parting gift – a jar of pickles. It’s a perfect metaphor for ‘Home’ – difficult to get into, and the contents aren’t really to everyone’s personal taste, leaving a rather sour taste in the mouth.
Bon voyage, Alara Kitan. We hardly knew ye.
The Orville: Season 2 is airing on FOX in the UK.