One of the recurring traits of Star Trek is the notion of first contact with a different species – heck, they even named one of the movies after it. It usually ends up tending to go awry in one way or another; sometimes, the new culture is corrupted and becomes something like mobsters or Nazis, whereas in others it leads to war. Whichever way you slice it, Starfleet isn’t always the most accomplished when it comes to extending the hand of friendship to different species. It’s therefore with a due sense of foreboding that the crew of The Orville comes across a message from an unexplored system, asking if anyone is out there. Knowing that it’s their first ‘first contact’ only adds to the feeling that this isn’t going to end well.
In another wonderful coincidence after last week’s overlap between the shows, this episode ended up having been transmitted in the UK just a single day before Star Trek: Discovery had their very own experience of a first contact with a new alien, showing just how in sync these two programmes are. It’s also a very nice touch that in a story about new encounters, we get to meet the USS Orville’s replacement for the former Chief of Security, Alara Kitan; taking her post is fellow Xeleyan Talla Kayali (Jessica Szohr). With Talla describing herself as being “rough round the edges”, she comes across as such a breath of fresh air – feisty, ballsy, with a no-nonsense attitude, Talla adds a brand new dynamic to the series, and she easily distinguishes herself from the rather more timid – but still equally capable – Alara. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the rest of the season with Talla in place.
Our other first contact, however, doesn’t go quite so smoothly. Having travelled to Regor 2, the Orville crew inadvertently falls foul of a belief system the planet’s inhabitants have which is based around astrology, after revealing that both First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) and Second Officer Bortus (Peter Macon) both have birthdays coming within a few days – it turns out that makes the two of them ‘Giliac’, a star sign which is seen as meaning that anyone born under it is violent and dangerous. This then sparks a diplomatic incident, as Kelly and Bortus are detained and sent to a prison camp for Giliacs, who are all locked away from the rest of society, apparently for its own security. It’s certainly a credible enough premise – heck, Wesley Crusher once got sentenced to death for just falling over a fence in Star Trek: The Next Generation, for crying out loud, so the notion is more than plausible.
The denizens of Regor 2 are embodied by their First Prefect, in a marvellous turn by veteran actor John Rubinstein – he’s one of those actors whose name wouldn’t ring any bells, but you’ll know him on sight, and he brings a great gravitas to the part, which is especially important when things take a turn for the worse, following Kelly and Bortus’ imprisonment, and Regor 2 feeling that reaching out into the cosmos was actually a huge mistake. It’s no great surprise to find Rubinstein has been in Star Trek three times, with appearances in Voyager and Enterprise, but viewers of genre TV may know him from playing Wolfram & Hart lawyer Linwood Murrow in the third season of Angel, so we know he’s got impressive credentials, as well as range.
In the best traditions of sci-fi, it seems this episode of The Orville is also doing social commentary here, as the tearing apart of families and putting them into detention camps is more than faintly reminiscent of what’s going on with immigrants within Trump’s America at the moment. We have to be grateful that it isn’t a point which is hammered home, but the parallels are there to be seen if you want to look hard enough. It’s also rather interesting to see The Orville shares yet another trait with Star Trek, when discussions turn to the Planetary Union’s currency structure. Yes, that’s right, folks – both The Orville and Star Trek are completely money-free, Socialist utopias. Suck it, America.
There’s nothing better than a good moral dilemma in a sci-fi show, and this one has played out on many occasions in various Star Trek series – what to do to rescue a member (or, as here, members) of crew, once diplomatic options seem to fail. We have a discussion about the morality of going in all guns blazing, something that again seems contrary to current American policy, as such conversations rarely seem to take place before military intervention is tabled. The Planetary Union’s position on the matter is neatly encapsulated in a lovely cameo by Ted Danson as Admiral Perry, who categorically tells Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) that under no circumstances will anyone be permitted to go in and take them by force. Danson is currently distinguishing himself in The Good Place, which is one of the finest shows on TV right now, so it’s great to see him unexpectedly turning up here.
After all of the failed attempts to get the First Prefect to reconsider – along with a failed attempt by Kelly and Bortus to break out of the prison camp by force – it’s almost a letdown when the Orville’s crew comes up with the solution: faking the return of a long-lost star, in order to fool the people of Regor 2 to change their view of Giliacs. After studying the history of the planet, it turns out a star in Giliac died some 3,000+ years ago, leading to a myth that people born under the sign of Giliac are murderous and wicked. Although it’s internally consistent, as well as a creative solution to the problem, it still feels as if the issue could have been solved just by sitting down and talking. Then again, this isn’t Star Trek, and the story takes place over five weeks, so perhaps we can just let them have this one and do it their way. There’s some pontificating at the end of the episode as to the ethics of fooling an entire planet to change part of their belief system with a fake star, but it just ends up almost being shrugged off with a feeling of ‘oh, maybe they won’t care by the time they’re advanced enough to find out’. It’s a way of rationalising their action, but it all still sits a little uncomfortably.
It must be reassuring for Trek alumni to know that The Orville is there to give them a shot at employment – we’ve had Robert Picardo and John Billingsley both turn up in ‘Home’, Jonathan Frakes had directed an episode back in Season 1, and Robert Duncan McNeill (better known as Tom Paris in Voyager) returned this week for his second stint behind the camera. It looks as though former Trek locations are also getting a new lease of life, with the main location doubling for the Regorian government building having also been used as Starfleet headquarters. Hey, it’s a small universe. One of the unsung heroes of The Orville is composer John Debney, who certainly knows how to give good score: the flight down to Regor 2 is full-on James Horner brass, bringing to mind both Star Trek II and Battle Beyond The Stars, whereas later on it dips more into Jerry Goldsmith’s The Motion Picture. It isn’t a bad thing by any means, as they’re all great scores to emulate, but Debney also manages to give it enough of his own spin for a full cinematic-style orchestral experience.
A friend of mine commented last week on Facebook that The Orville has no right to be as good as it is. I’d be hard pushed to find a better sentiment than that. What started out as a not-so-thinly veiled rip on Star Trek with added schoolboy humour has now ended up becoming an engaging series in its own right, and hits the spot far more often than not. Anyone who’s not yet given the show a chance should really change their minds pronto, as they are missing out on genuine appointment television.