“We are, without a doubt, the weirdest ship in the fleet.”
Boy meets girl. Boy just happens to be an artificial life form. Boy and girl crash onto the surface of an alien planet with girl’s children. Boy and girl (and kids) make it out alive. Boy teaches girl’s youngest son how to play the piano. Girl gets interested in boy. Boy wears holographic simulation of human form. Boy and girl get it on. Boy acts like jerk. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back again. Yes, it’s that old, old story.
Each week, I say to myself I won’t go and look for parallels between The Orville and Star Trek, because that way clearly lies sadness (in the ‘anorak’ sense, obvs). However, with the two series running concurrently, and touching upon many of the same themes and areas, it’s inevitable there’s going to be some commonality, so it would be almost remiss not to mention it where it’s important. One of the major advantages of The Orville is that it’s got a clean slate when it comes to storytelling, and is unencumbered with the baggage of 50+ years of continuity, meaning it’s able to play fast and loose when doing world building. It also means regular viewers are rewarded by the makers having more room to lay down story threads which are freed from being tied to a huge story arc, unlike what Discovery seems to be doing.
One thread that’s been hanging since the first season is the relationship which has been blossoming between ship’s doctor Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and the Science and Engineering Officer (and artificial being) Isaac (Mark Jackson). For viewers who’ve been with the show since Day 1, it’s long been teased the two would, at some point, get together. Right back as far as ‘Into The Fold’, the show’s makers have been working to build a believable bond between Claire and Isaac, and what better way to have gotten the ball rolling by stranding them on a hostile planet on the other side of a spatial anomaly in that episode. Since then, they’ve given Isaac a legitimate reason to spend more time in Claire’s life, by having him become the piano teacher to her youngest son Ty (Kai Wener), as well as a sort of father figure to both her boys. You could see the sparks getting ready to fly (and not just because Isaac is a robot).
It’s therefore gratifying to see the payoff, as Claire starts to find herself increasingly drawn to Isaac, who manages to do little endearing things without knowing, like noticing she’s changed her hair, or giving her a banana as he’s observed Claire gets cranky when she’s hungry. He’s Douglas Adams’ ‘Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With’, other than not having the Genuine People Personality they possess (which, bearing in mind the most famous example just happens to be a paranoid depressive, is perhaps a lucky escape). There’s a lot of fun to be had when sci-fi shows start to explore the ‘what is this emotion that you humans call ‘love’?’ territory, so there’s a great deal of mileage to be had with Isaac and Claire, both of whom are among the most endearing characters on the show; as a result, you can really find yourself genuinely rooting for the pair of them to make it work.
Where are the parallels with Star Trek, you may ask? Well, troubled romantic attachments are something of a feature in Star Trek: Discovery just at the moment, with cross-species love featuring between Michael Burnham and surgically-altered Klingon deep cover agent Ash Tyler. The Orville, however, benefits from having a lightness of touch in that area which sadly is absent from the rather more earnest and intense Discovery; I’d also find it hard to believe many people want Tyler and Burnham’s relationship to work out in the same way you would for Isaac and Claire. Another, more obvious, parallel is The Next Generation‘s Data, who got to knock boots with a shipmate himself, and Isaac turns out to be as ‘fully functional’ as him (if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink).
Seth MacFarlane seems to share the same genuine affection for both characters, and this comes across here in his script for the episode, as he’s not afraid to push the two of them to the forefront, and sideline his own role as Captain Ed Mercer purely to benefit the story; he’s certainly not at all precious about needing to be the star, and instead does the right thing by pulling the focus from him onto Claire and Isaac. As MacFarlane also directed the episode, he’s one of those overaccomplishing polymath types you love to hate (but are secretly cheering on). Given MacFarlane’s ongoing involvement with Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, as well as his side projects like the series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, plus his movies and his albums, you have to wonder if he’s a gestalt made of identical clones, or if he just doesn’t sleep.
MacFarlane seems to be something of an old romantic at heart, something which seems in rather sharp contrast to what you might expect, given his penchant for crude, lewd humour in all his animated shows. It’s therefore a rather delightfully surprising revelation to see that he knows not only how to tell a love story, but also how to tell it well. There’s real sentiment and warmth here, and I genuinely welled up when Isaac and Claire went on a date – it was a lovely, thoughtful touch to have Isaac project a holographic illusion so that he’d look human for Claire, particularly as we actually get to see Mark Jackson in the flesh, and not hidden behind Isaac’s expressionless mask. Even given a more recognisable form, Jackson still manages to stay true to Isaac’s character, playing these scenes with a deadpan look which perfectly mirrors the feeling of blankness you get from the mask.
Alas, Isaac sees this as an opportunity to learn more about the human condition, and goes into the fledgling relationship as if it’s an experiment. The rather cold and clinical approach still manages to catch Claire off guard, as Isaac dispassionately terminates things by telling her that he’s acquired all the data that he needs. You find yourself almost yelling at the screen for him to see the error of his ways, and get back with Claire, as the two of them are good for each other. Thankfully, Seth MacFarlane knows that too, and he gives them a big, emotional reconciliation at the end of the episode, after Isaac starts to realise that – in his own distinct way – he’s started to develop an attachment to Claire despite being only a machine. It’s a proper old-fashioned romance (at least I guess it is, if you happen to consider a human and a robot interfacing in a way that’s sure to invalidate his warranty as ‘old-fashioned’, one supposes).
MacFarlane comes over as a man out of time in many ways, as you can maybe tell from his release of several albums with covers of big band and swing standards. He also loves his classic movies, with The King And I featuring in ‘Nothing Left On Earth Excepting Fishes’ (as well as giving the episode its title), and here we get to see Singin’ In The Rain featuring heavily throughout this week’s tale (while again having a song’s lyric used at the name of the story). And that’s no bad thing, even though it seems some people would have you think nostalgia’s not what it used to be. MacFarlane manages to use a form of shorthand to tell us exactly how the two feel about each other by evoking the age of classic movie musicals. He’s rather a canny chap, this MacFarlane fella – he’ll go far, mark my words.
Even with Isaac and Claire’s story taking centre stage, MacFarlane still manages to give us a rather fun side story, with Bortus (Peter Macon) growing a full Tom Selleck bushy moustache, after encouragement from Helmsman Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes). After last week’s heavy – but still rewarding and dramatically satisfying – tale, this frothy, entertaining story comes at just the right moment, and shows that The Orville is on a roll, managing to get the tone and pacing across the series as a whole pretty much spot-on. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how they’ll manage to raise the bar even higher, but I’ve got absolutely no doubt that they will.