“Cliches become cliched precisely because they’re valid enough to bear endless repetition.”
The trouble with epic two part stories in sci-fi series is that the conclusion rarely lives up to the opening instalment. Take Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s ‘The Best Of Both Worlds’: in Part 1, what we thought TNG was ended being shaken up in dramatic fashion, and it looked like we might lose its leading man (pending new contract negotiations). The USS Enterprise crew faced an implacable, unstoppable foe unlike anything we’d seen before.
And then we got to Part 2, where Data just sent all the Borg to sleep. For anyone who didn’t know what an anti-climax was, this was an unwelcome initiation.
And herein lies the problem with setting up The Orville‘s first ever two-part story: the resolution can’t possibly live up to all the expectation. Can it? Well, it’s pretty much bucked the trend, and proved any doubters wrong. This season, we’ve seen The Orville consistently outperform not only its competitors, but also itself week on week, and reinvented itself from a bit of lighthearted fun into compelling and dramatic viewing. They’ve done all they can to confound our every preconceived notion about what we think we know the show is, and raise the bar with almost all the episodes to date.
Upending the equilibrium was the sudden and unexpected betrayal of Isaac (Mark Jackson), who’d become such an integral part of the ship’s crew, becoming a father figure to Ty (Kai Wener) and Marcus Finn (BJ Tanner), and romantic partner of their mother – and ship’s doctor – Claire (Penny Johnson Jerald). The show’s writers did a sterling job in pulling the rug out from underneath us, and in the most shocking manner too. Imagine if Spock had been a sleeper agent for the Vulcans – who were secretly a bunch of giant bastards – during the original run of Star Trek: that’s just how much of a big deal this shift was.
Finding out Isaac’s people were a race of genocidal robots twisted that knife after it had already been stuck deep into us. This is game-changing stuff, and no mistake. It sets The Orville apart from nearest rival Star Trek: Discovery, because that show ultimately has to fit itself into established continuity, so no matter what they do, you know that certain characters – like Spock, or Captain Pike – will always be safe, as we know just how their stories end; any drama is tenpered by the knowledge that it’s having to fight with one of its hands permanently tied behind its back. Not so The Orville: having a clean slate ahead of it means that all bets are off. No one and nothing is safe, and anything can happen.
The stakes are certainly high here, as we find the crew at the mercy of the Kaylon, and it seems the only action they can take is to decide just which part of the shuttle hangar they’re being held in will be the ‘pee corner’ (nicely drawing attention to the fact that, in other shows, no-one ever seems to use the bathroom). The comedy is present, but muted, as we know what series peril they’re in, given that a fleet of Kaylon warships is heading to Earth with the intention of eradicating all life, and the Orville is being used as a cover story by the Kaylon in order to ensure they get safe passage there.
We assume that everything’s going to turn out alright, but we don’t know for certain that’s going to be the case. We guess that Isaac will turn his back on the Kaylon, but again we’re not sure it’s going to happen, as his loyalties would seem to have totally shifted. We’ve already lost one member of the crew earlier this year, so it seems that anyone could actually end up leaving the show, and no-one’s longevity is assured. It certainly looks as though the crew are up against it, and in the pre-titles sequence alone, the Chief of Security, Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr) ends up being shot by one of the Kaylon, requiring her to be rushed to the Sickbay. Showing the vulnerability of everyone so early in the episode really is a smart way of setting your stall out early on, and establishing the mood. No easy or convenient get-outs here.
A plan is concocted to try and contact the Krill – the sworn enemies of the Planetary Union – to ask for their help, as biological life across the entire galaxy is at risk of being totally exterminated. Helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and the ship’s second-in-command Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) manage to escape in a shuttle and are pursued into Krill space, where they meet a Captain Dalak (Nick Chinlind), who’s all ready to torture the pair of them until the Kaylon ship turns up, hot on their heels. This sets in motion the groundwork for a paradigm-shifting moment later on in the episode, where we get to see relations between the two races start to thaw for the first time, thanks to the shared threat of their common enemy.
The core of this episode is a redemption arc for Issac, and the trajectory for this is laid out early on, when we’re reminded that he was constructed after the period when the Kaylon were enslaved by their creators, so although they’ve shared the memories of their race’s experience, he wasn’t personally there to go through it at the time, which seems to set him apart from the rest of the Kaylon, and can be seen in how Kaylon Primary (Graham Hamilton) treats him. We get a sign of what’s to come when he tries to stop a crewman being killed in retaliation for Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) trying to slip a coded message into a communication with another Union ship, which the Kaylon picked up on.
Kaylon Primary has a point: all of Isaac’s arguments appear rather flimsy, so you get the impression that he still has some vestigial loyalty to the crew, despite his having allied himself with the Kaylon. However, the real test comes when he’s instructed to personally terminate Ty, who’d helped to send a transmission to Earth, warning them about the Kaylon threat, so that they could mobilise their forces. It’s literally a ‘do or die’ moment, as Isaac is warned he’ll be deactivated if he fails to comply. Given his recent role in Ty’s life, you know he’s going to be torn by this instruction, even though it does look briefly like he may actually go ahead and do it, in order to prove his loyalty.
As such, it’s a triumphant moment when he rebels, ripping the head off of Kaylon Primary, and shooting the other Kaylon in the room, before telling Ty he’d never let anyone harm him. When this happens, it feels like an earned moment, justified by the careful character work all the writers have put in this season, and comes across as totally organic. What’s even more bold is Isaac’s decision to sacrifice himself by sending an electromagnetic pulse across the whole ship, which will disable all of the Kaylon aboard the Orville, including himself. Mark Jackson does a great job in communicating with every non-verbal gesture, as given the fact he’s hampered by an expressionless mask, he’s managed to make Isaac a fully rounded character, and does so much with his economy of movement alone.
The payoff here is the huge, climactic battle which takes place over Earth, with the massed forces of the Planetary Union all assembled to try and stop the Kaylon onslaught. When TNG did something similar with the Battle of Wolf 359 in ‘The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 2’, it felt like kind of a cheat, as by the time that the Enterprise arrived, the fight was already over, and the Borg were on their way to Earth. Here, there’s no cheaping out or pulling any punches, as we get to see the whole thing unfolding in real time, in a five-minute visual spectacle. It’s still so hard to believe this is just a TV show, as the VFX are easily of a Hollywood movie standard, and you can tell they’ve pulled out all the stops to give you the most bang for their bucks.
READ MORE: Captain Marvel – Review
In a year which has regularly seen The Orville confounding our expectations, it happens again here, as unlike Star Trek, there’s no indication that this will be a sure victory, and at one point Ed is even about to give a self-destruct command, in order to try and take out as many Kaylon as possible; they aren’t going to be the saviours of the fleet, and it appears that there’s no other alternative for Ed but to sacrifice the ship. The day is only saved at the last minute when a Krill battle fleet – headed by Captain Dalak – turns up, and the Kaylon are overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers. We’d usually expect to see the bad guys thoroughly destroyed in other franchise shows, but here they turn tail, and a significant number flee back to Kaylon 1, meaning they’ll be a lingering threat in future seasons.
It looks as though human-Krill relations could be on a new path now, as they may need to form a strategic alliance against the Kaylon threat; this would definitely add a new dynamic to The Orville, and comes as an unexpected shift, showing how much the show can surprise us. For example, this sort of grand, ambitious story is the sort of thing you’d expect to see for a season finale; it’s therefore a typically ballsy move by The Orville to put this a few episodes before the end of this run, contrary to what we’ve gotten used to getting from other shows. In the same vein, it’s also surprising when some of the crew vocally and strongly object to reactivating Isaac when the opportunity arises, showing there may be conflict in the future, after he shattered their trust in him. Poignantly, it’s not even clear if he and Claire can rebuild their relationship, but the episode does push a message of forgiveness, so perhaps there’s still hope.
For the most part, ‘Identity, Part 2’ pushes back against the standard sci-fi cliches which we’ve come to expect; even where it doesn’t, it still manages to make these tropes feel new. As summed up best by Claire’s speech, there’s some validity to cliches, so even though it does its best to tread a new path, The Orville manages to respect what’s gone before. How a show can keep hitting new heights consistently is a wonderfully mystifying thing, but long may it continue.
The Orville airs weekly on Sky in the UK.