“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
That quote from Thomas Jefferson gives us not only the title of the latest episode, but also the central theme – the constant struggle to maintain freedom, and the many sacrifices it can require in return.
Following last week’s resolution of an epic two-parter, any episode coming straight after that would run the risk of seeming like a bit of an anti-climax. The Orville‘s done a great job this season of handling stories of all different sizes, from grand space battles, to small personal tales, so they’ve managed to provide a great deal of balance. This week, they’ve picked up a thread that was left dangling, when the Krill had sided with the Planetary Union to fight off the Kaylon assault, and used that as the core of this latest instalment.
When we rejoin the crew, over a month has passed since the Battle Of Earth, and Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) is picked by Admiral Perry (Ted Danson) to help lay the groundwork for making the current ceasefire with the Krill a more permanent arrangement. Due to all his previous experience with the Krill, Ed is asked to meet a Krill delegation and sign a Lak’vai pact, which is a prelude to formal negotiations, indicating that both parties are coming to the table in good faith.
This is a big deal, similar to when in Star Trek the Federation managed to achieve peace with the Klingon Empire, following the journey started by the signing of the Khitomer Accords back in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; in fact, that film is the closest parallel to what we see here, not only in terms of showing the very start of a long road to peace, but also the leap of faith necessary to start the whole process, and the effect this has on those for whom the conflict has taken a huge toll.
Having systematically worked their way around most of the bridge crew, this time round it’s Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes)’s turn to have a story focused on him. As the Orville approaches a rendezvous with a Krill vessel, they see that a Krill shuttle is under attack from the mothership, so after getting a distress call, they allow the shuttle to make an emergency landing on board. It turns out the shuttle is piloted by a badly injured human, accompanied by a young woman, and Gordon recognises the pilot as being Orrin Channing (Mackenzie Astin), an old friend of his.
Orrin and Gordon had served together, having known each other since school, and Orrin had even saved Gordon’s life, but ended up being taken – along with his family – into a Krill prison camp, where he’s spent the last 20 years. Orrin tells the Orville crew that he managed to escape with his daughter about a month ago, having stolen a shuttle and been on the run ever since. The Krill, however, have a different story, saying that Orrin broke the ceasefire, and has been responsible for destroying three Krill vessels; if the Union wants to sign the Lak’vai pact, they will have to hand Orrin back over.
During the course of the episode, it turns out that the woman travelling with Orrin isn’t his daughter, but an Envall, which is a species whose blood explodes when it comes into contact with nitrogen; Orrin has been extracting her blood and using it to destroy Krill ships, by putting the blood into containers which he’s fired through the shuttle’s torpedo launchers. Gordon finds himself torn between loyalty to his old friend, his duty as a Union officer, his current friendship with Ed, and his own mixed feelings about the Lak’vai pact.
There’s a powerful and compelling story to be told about the psychological effects of being a POW and trying to adjust back to a normal life after so long, especially when the world has moved on in your absence. This, however, unfortunately isn’t it. There’s a number of things about this episode which don’t sit comfortably or feel quite right, and sadly mar what could have been another strong entry in this current series. Coming hot on the heels of an adventure which was truly paradigm shifting, this just feels all too pedestrian and misdirected a tale, given that it should have kept the momentum from what’s gone immediately before.
Ideally, Orrin should have come across as a sympathetic character, making it all the more difficult for Gordon to question his loyalties, particularly if Orrin was able to make a compelling argument for Gordon to jump ship with him and try to prevent the peace from happening. Sadly, Orrin actually comes across as being a shouty dick. It’s hard to say whether this is the fault of the writing or the performance, but it’s most likely some combination of the two. He doesn’t come over as being a good guy who’s chosen the wrong path, after being locked up and tortured for the last two decades; that would have at least made for some dramatic tension, as we’d find ourselves not sure who to cheer for.
Sadly, Orrin instead seems like a fanatic, and it’s hard to generate any empathy for him or what he’s been through. Okay, you would rightly expect someone to change over 20 years in that sort of predicament, but the whole tone seems wrong – there’s no sense of real warmth between him and Gordon, and the friendship fails to come across as believable. It takes more than a badly staged photo with unconvincing wigs supposedly showing us them over two decades ago to convince us there’s anything deep or meaningful between the two of them in the friendship they have. Gordon seems to have less development in an episode that’s supposedly all about him than he’s had in other episodes this year, and there’s something very wrong about that.
Another really strange creative decision comes with the choice of the actress they picked to play Leyna, the woman Orrin passes off as his daughter. You’d expect him not to want to draw any suspicion to her, so that she can simply blend into the background, and be relatively incognito; however, the actress in question (Aily Kei) has an incredibly distinctive appearance, suggesting an otherworldliness, making her immediately a focus of the audience’s attention, as it’s clear there’s something more going on here, even before we are supposed to have any inking that things are amiss. Her performance is very off-kilter too, and it all just ends up spoiling what should have been a shock reveal, as we’ve already had a trail of far too many breadcrumbs by that point.
The humour also seems oddly misplaced, which is somewhat uncharacteristic of The Orville. In any other context, the sequence where Ed orders the Chief of Security, Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr), to stall the Krill delegation who’ve boarded the Orville before he meets them would be an amusing and welcome diversion; here, however, it seems like a uniquely odd and dangerous choice. Having the Krill humiliated by needing to provide urine samples as part of a phony security procedure is bad enough, but when we get the implication she’s giving them a full cavity search, it just goes too far. They’re not known for being tolerant of humans, so treating the Krill in an inflammatory manner like this seems unwise and plain wrong in terms of the high-stakes nature of what is happening at the time.
The resolution of the story also feels too pat and easily wrapped up. After having spent the majority of the episode issuing threats that there will be no peace unless Orrin is handed over, the Krill just seem to accept that he was killed while Gordon tried to stop him taking their ship out in a Kamikaze suicide mission with one of the Orville’s own shuttles. No discussions or ramifications: they just sign the Lak’vai pact. It seems like a strange omission, as there must have been potential here for some further drama or tension, but no, it all just gets glossed over without even a mention of how they managed to explain this to the Krill without jeopardising the entire peace process.
Weirdly, there isn’t even a strong – or any at all, it seems – emotional reaction from Gordon when he realises that Orrin has irrevocably changed, and is intent upon sacrificing himself, or after he dies. For a friendship which stretched back around three decades, you’d expect a little note that just a few words about how the man Orrin once was had died years ago in the Krill prison camp. That’s it? No tears? No attempt to try and reconcile the man that Orrin was with what he’d become? And Gordon doesn’t even try to save Orrin by, for example, stunning him and ejecting the Envall blood into space. Nope, happy to just let him die. You’d think Gordon would fight harder. If it doesn’t seem to matter that much to him, then how are we supposed to be emotionally invested in what’s happening?
It’s just a very odd misfire from a series which has been overachieving of late, so the fact that it’s a rather average episode is even more apparent when surrounded by such outstanding material. It’s almost reminiscent of some of the more preachy bits of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only nowhere near as accomplished. This sadly feels like a squandered opportunity to make us take a look at how one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter or martyr, and ends up failing to satisfy on any level.
The Orville airs weekly on FOX UK. It will return mid-April.