Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) is feeling all loved up, having embarked on a relationship with the USS Orville’s new Dark Matter Cartographer, Janel Tyler (Michaela McManus). The two of them have decided to take a little shore leave together, but en route they’re attacked and captured by a Krill ship. However, all isn’t what it seems, and Ed soon finds out that the course of true love never did run smooth, as he and Janel find themselves fighting to stay alive after crashing in an escape pod onto the surface of an alien planet, with hostiles in pursuit.
Poor old Ed Mercer. He always seems to be unlucky in love, having spent a great deal of time trying to come to terms with his divorce from his second-in-command, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). Kelly’s recent embarking on a new relationship with a teacher on the Orville has made Ed finally start to move on, and the arrival of Janel back in the season premiere, ‘Ja’loja’, was perfect timing for Ed to start looking elsewhere for a romantic partner. Not that he’s had much luck previously, as the first person he slept with since splitting from Kelly just happened to be a time traveller from the future who was looking to take the Orville back the 29th Century to sell it on the black market. Hey, we’ve all been there, right?
Given the characters MacFarlane voices in Family Guy and American Dad, he does tend to do a good line in lovable losers in his live action productions, compared to the animated jerks that he plays – sheep farmer Albert Stark in A Million Ways To Die In The West is reminiscent of Ed in some ways, particularly his rather hapless love life, but also being a nice guy who’s a little too nice at times, and ends up being his Achilles’ heel. He’s certainly done a good job of making Ed endearing, so it always hurts when you see him coming off worst. That’s why it was worth a little cheer to see him being able to connect to someone besides Kelly, and give him the chance to find a little personal happiness outside his duties as Captain.
Although clearly intended to be Ed’s new beau from when she arrived on the ship, it’s still a little jarring to see him and Janel so cosy together at the start of the episode, particularly as the last time we saw them, they were just about to share a drink at Bortus’ post-Ja’loja reception. Next thing we know, they’re an item, and getting quite serious too, it seems. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just seems an odd decision that there was no sign of this – or even visibility of Janel – in between her appearances. Now, ‘Primal Urges’ was a holdover from Season 1, but in any case it was quite a heavy storyline, so it would make sense for her not to show up in that episode; similarly, ‘Home’ was very much Alara’s finale, so it was right that it should be all about her.
The troubling thing is that it would have had more of an impact if we’d seen Janel again in some capacity before now, but for some reason the producers chose not to do so. It seems doubly odd, considering the direction in which they actually take her character, as it’s revealed that she’s a Krill who has been genetically altered to look human, and not only infiltrate the Orville, but to actually be Ed’s perfect love interest. Not just any Krill, in fact, but one that he’d encountered in Season 1’s ‘Krill’ – Teleya – when he’d gone undercover on a Krill ship and he’d had to kill the entire crew to save an entire colony of farmers. With the Krill being The Orville‘s own resident baddies – the equivalent of Star Trek‘s Klingons – it’s unsurprising that they’d turn up again and have nefarious deeds underway.
It’s also a neat twist to have Ed fooled by a switcheroo of what he did (by disguising himself and going undercover), and also because it’s by someone who’s been left feeling hurt and betrayed. By making it personal and giving her the opportunity to return the ‘favour’, it makes it seem all the more cruel, and cuts Ed more deeply, knowing that this is the first person he’s been able to open up to and connect with since Kelly, only to find she’s an illusion. That’s why it seems an odd choice not to have put this episode further down the line, and given us a chance to see for ourselves just how much they’ve bonded, rather than us just being told instead. Dramatically, it feels like this would have been somewhat more rewarding, but it’s a minor quibble really, as it doesn’t spoil the eventual impact of the revelation, it just deadens it a bit.
With The Orville running concurrently with Star Trek: Discovery, it’s certainly interesting to see exactly how much of an overlap there is between the two shows, whether by accident or design. In fact, as this episode was written by two old hands from the days of The Next Generation through to Enterprise – Brannon Braga and André Bormanis – it’s inevitable that they’d end up treading on some of the same terroritory at some stage. Having a crew member turning out to be an alien who’s been altered has already been done in Discovery, with Ash Tyler ending up being revealed to be a Klingon spy; there’s also common ground in them both having romantic attachments with shipmates. However, whereas it was done in The Orville out of sheer spite to inflict maximum cruelty, in Discovery it was actually an unintended consequence of the deep cover, as Tyler was unaware he wasn’t human until his memories and personality were triggered, so a rather different take on the idea.
Another narrative similarity is that in both shows, a member of the bridge crew is part of a command training programme – in Discovery, it’s lovable Ensign Tilly, whereas in The Orville, its Helmsman Gordon Malloy’s (Scott Grimes) turn to try and go up, up, up the ziggurat, lickety-split, by asking to take the Shipmaster Qualification Test in order to try and get a command position. Both of them even end up flunking a practical exercise, with Gordon’s simulation (intentionally, no doubt) resembling the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek. Given the fact this only came a few weeks apart in the US – and by dint of timing, both episodes were shown a day apart in the UK – this has clearly been a coincidence, but happens to show us just how in sync the shows are in some ways. Hey, look, there’s apparently only seven basic story types anyway, so I’m prepared to let it slide here.
Given that The Orville decides to play with a straighter bat this week, and push comedy to the background, it’s somewhat disappointing that some of the attempts at humour they do try end up being strained or downright odd – Gordon’s reactions to a Rorschach-type psychological evaluation could have been funny if played right, but here it just falls oddly flat. Given Gordon has been used as comic relief twice now in situations where the laughs have failed to follow, it’s unclear whether the fault is with the writing or Grimes’ performance. Either way, he seems somewhat lost as a character, and has suffered greatly from being separated from Lt. John LaMarr (J. Lee), when he moved to engineering in Season 1. If you split up a double act, you run the risk of having the straight man flounder; however, neither seem to have acquitted themselves particularly well on their own, so they’ve strangely both ended up looking like the straight man out of the pairing. If things don’t turn around soon, Gordon will become more superfluous as a character in the show than he already seems, which would be an awful shame.
Overall, it’s a return to form following last week’s clunker (with Alara interestingly only being mentioned obliquely with talk of her replacement having been picked – guys, it’s only been a week, let’s not forget about her just yet). It ends on a positive note, as Ed becomes the bigger man by letting Teleya go after they’re rescued by Gordon and Bortus, and sends her back to the Krill with a message that they should talk, rather than fight. One of the threads in the episode is Ed sharing his love of 20th Century culture with Janel, from films to music, including Billy Joel; he even gives Teleya a copy of Joel’s greatest hits as she’s leaving the Orville. As well as a touching callback, it also seems like an excuse to end the episode with ‘Always A Woman’ playing, in order to underscore what’s happened between them. I guess its effectiveness depends on how much you like Billy Joel, but for this viewer, it hit me right in the feels.
A much smarter, warmer, more rounded episode than ‘Home’, it’s so good to find ‘Nothing Left On Earth Excepting Fishes’ hitting more right notes than duds. Let’s just see whether the long game is to try and get Ed and Kelly back together again, which would be a mistake as they don’t need it – they’re actually much better off boldly going their separate ways.