“I wanted more than anything to have your respect, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me.”
This second season of The Orville really has become something of a lap of honour for the cast and crew, as they’ve totally hit their stride in a way that the first year just couldn’t quite manage to muster. Despite a bit of a shaky start, everything seems to now be hitting the right notes consistently on all fronts, from a run of powerfully written episodes, to strong and believable performances, excellent characterisation, outstanding production values… the list just goes on.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do a review of The Orville without letting it be just a load of superlatives. The last four episodes have managed to raise the bar week on week, to the extent that it’s hard to see how they can up the ante with each new story, yet they’ve still managed to do so. Where the show has excelled is in its attention this year on the crew, focusing on building up layered personalities for pretty much everyone, and showing how well the dynamic between them works, to the point where they’re now as endearing and memorable as any of the Star Trek ensembles we’ve seen over the decades.
The blossoming romance between ship’s Doctor Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and artificial being Isaac (Mark Jackson) has been a true highpoint, and resulted in some genuine emotional moments, along with a real tenderness. With the pair of them deciding to formally announce their relationship to Claire’s sons, things look to be going from strength to strength for them. It therefore comes as a real shock when Isaac suddenly shuts down, and no-one seems able to revive him, leaving Claire distraught at the prospect of losing him and what they have together.
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This acts as a springboard for exploring and expanding the show’s background and mythology, as this crisis becomes a mercy mission and a race to Isaac’s home planet, Kaylon 1. So far, Isaac’s been our only insight into the Kaylon race, given that they’re a very secretive species who have resisted any efforts to get them to join the Planetary Union. In an attempt to foster good relations, the Kaylon had Isaac join the USS Orville as an emissary, as a way of observing different species under the pretext of using his feedback to decide if they would sign up as a member of the Union.
The various plot strands which have been carefully threaded throughout the season come together here in a way which will act as a watershed moment for the show and change things forever. Being the first two-parter The Orville has done means things must be pretty serious, and this is reflected in the fact that the comedy takes a definite backseat, with the drama very much front and centre. It’s a testament to how well the makers have finely tuned the balance between the two elements in the last few weeks, as it doesn’t come as a shock to the system or feel unnatural that pretty much the entire episode is played straight. That’s not to say there’s not any lighter moments, but when they happen, they feel completely organic, and don’t take you out of the moment, or distract from what’s happening at the time.
For example, when Isaac is reactivated by the Kaylon and announces he’s leaving the Orville as his mission is over, what is set up as a very bittersweet occasion ends up being beautifully tempered by Isaac’s farewell speech to the crew being taken wholesale from Sally Field’s famous “you really like me” gushing Oscars acceptance moment. Similarly, the Kaylon informing Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) that they know about Isaac having Mr Potato Head pieces stuck to his head as part of a practical joke, as well as Bortus’ (Peter Macon) insistence on having a corner piece of Isaac’s leaving cake, and Ed’s enquiry about whether or not there are any chairs anywhere on Kaylon 1 – all of these moments are written and executed to perfection.
However, the overall lack of a more jovial or lighthearted tone signifies that we’re in the sort of territory where The Orville so far has only dabbled or tentatively dipped its toe. A major indicator of the difference in tone comes with the landing on Kaylon 1 – the sweep through the metallic spires is wonderfully realised, but the landscape is appropriately very cold and mechanical in its architecture; this carries over into the clinical and functional interiors, with dozens of Kaylon working at strange and mysterious walls of light as they process and assimilate data. It’s a planet unlike anything the series has shown us so far, and demonstrates not only the creativity they have on tap, but also that every last cent is being shown on screen, which is still visually leagues ahead of most of its competitors.
Although virtually identical to Isaac, the main difference between him and the rest of the Kaylon is rather unsettling – Isaac’s eyes have always been a bright, clear blue, whereas the eyes of the Kaylon are bright red. On a blank and otherwise expressionless mask, it’s incredible just how much of an impact such a subtle contrast can have, and rings all sorts of alarm bells before we even know why. The Kaylon have been painted so far as being a rather detached, aloof species, content simply to be left alone and just observe; this has been reinforced by the portrayal of Isaac as being an innocent abroad, forever misunderstanding human and alien customs and behaviours.
However, when we find out the reality of their intentions, and what this means for Isaac’s integrity, it comes as a massive gut punch – both to the viewers and the crew – when his apparent betrayal becomes all too clear. The makers have been playing a long game, and lulling us all into a false sense of security, in order to pull the rug out from underneath us for maximum impact. It’s particularly harrowing for poor Claire, when she rounds on Isaac for his deception, particularly as the two of them had only just become a couple; it’s a true indication of just how emotionally invested we are in these characters now that it hurts so much when this happens. The actual horror of the true situation also amplifies this, as we realise just how much jeopardy the crew are actually in.
The most obvious parallel with ‘Identity’ is Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘The Best of Both Worlds’, a truly iconic two-parter which forever altered people’s perception of that show, and just what it was capable of. The biomechanical race the Borg were the big bad in that tale, and posed a threat unlike any other; for them, their objective was to simply assimilate you and make you into what they are. The Kaylon, however, are purely mechanical and – whilst similarly unemotional and driven by logic – their goal is to simply eliminate all organic life as part of their aim of expending to other worlds in order to perpetuate their species. The discovery of massive underground caverns which contain the bones of billions of people – the creators of the Kaylon – is genuinely shocking and unexpected, as you would never think of Isaac as coming from a race capable of genocide.
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The similarities to The Next Generation are strengthened by the episode having been written by two old hands from the Star Trek pantheon – Brannon Braga and André Bormanis. Just as the Borg ramped up the threat level in that show, the stakes have never been higher in The Orville, and as the ship is boarded and rapidly taken over by the Kaylon, you get a true sense of what an implacable, lethal foe they truly are. Things have never seemed more hopeless for the crew, with the end of the episode leaving them at the mercy of the Kaylon, who have taken control of the Orville and set course for Earth, with the sole intention of destroying humanity. That’s the way to do a cliffhanger which is guaranteed to get your audience tuning in the following week to find out just what happens next.
In much the same way that a student can surpass their master, what started out as a part-parody, part-homage has ended up not only becoming a worthy series in its own right, but in many ways managed to overtake the show that it was inspired by. The wait until ‘Identity, Part 2’ is almost unbearable, and surely that can be no finer testament to the sheer quality and drawing power of The Orville. Genuinely unmissable television.