“The Orville”‘s sophomore season opener “Ja’loja” is the kind of fully character-driven story that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” rarely (if ever) had the courage to do without some kind of ‘space McGuffin’ B-story handy. With no particular mission or ticking clock to drive this episode, we spend this opening hour of season 2 really getting to know these characters, and the result is a delightful mixer. This episode could’ve been titled “Cupid’s Dagger, Part 2” and it would’ve been just as fitting, since this episode allows the crew of the Orville to let their hair down, relax, and be passengers on a space-borne variation of “The Love Boat.”
**** PLANET-SIZED SPOILERS!!! ****
Bortus (Peter Macon), the stoic Moclan second officer of the ship, has to return to his home planet (ala Spock in Star Trek TOS’ “Amok Time”) for his annual urination ceremony called “the ja’loja”; the great release. Since Moclans urinate only once a year, it’s sort of a personal purging ceremony that a Moclan’s closest friends and family observe with him (there is only one gender on Moclus…male). Yes, it’s an episode predicated entirely on an taking a big pee, and writer/star Seth MacFarlane gives every kind of urine joke maximum…er, relief.
Since Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) has nothing better to do, he informs his senior staff that they’re changing course to take Bortus back to his home planet to make wee-wee. Naturally, the piss jokes come raining down from the ship’s two biggest cutups; helmsman Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) and chief engineer John LeMarr (J. Lee). So ends the briefing…
Turns out Ed is having a tough time sussing his feelings for first officer and ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), especially when he learns she is currently dating the genial ‘evolved’ ship’s educator, Cassius (Chris Johnson), who is a truly nice guy. A jealous-as-hell Ed takes a shuttlecraft to spy on Kelly & Cassius during their dinner together, through her cabin windows (not cool on so many levels…).
While this stalking of his ex is served up with a laugh (he hits the shuttle’s cloaking device when he’s caught), it’s also a bit disturbing to have a captain acting on such bad behavior. However, lack of impulse control from an authority figure is much less surprising these days, especially given the current standard of ‘leadership’ here in the United States (having a president getting into petty Twitter wars with porn stars and indicted ex-lawyers is lowering the bar for future starship captains too, I’m sure). In short, Ed’s a real mess; he can’t get over his feelings for Kelly, and a solution isn’t easily forthcoming…especially since she’s apparently moved on with Cassius.
Ship’s physician and single mother (by choice) Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) is having trouble with her oldest son Marcus (BJ Tanner), when he begins to hang around a troublesome classmate (this plot thread reminded me a little bit of Jake Sisko and Nog on “Deep Space Nine”). The ship’s android crewman Isaac (Mark Jackson), who previously bonded with the boys in last season’s “Into the Fold”, offers to assist Claire with her son’s troubles.
After Isaac proves invaluable during an out-of-control parent-teacher conference, a grateful Claire asks the android to be her date to Bortus’ ja’loja ceremony.
The Orville also takes on a new crewman, a dark matter specialist named Lt. Janel Gillis (Michaela McManus, who previously guested under heavy makeup in S1’s “Krill”). Gordon is immediately smitten with the new lieutenant, and asks his buddy and fellow jokester John for advice.
John proceeds to train Gordon with various pickup scenarios with holographic women in the Simulator. Just when Gordon thinks he has the confidence to try, he finds he is simply unable to ask Janel out.
In yet another subplot, Bortus attempts to play matchmaker for unlucky-in-love security chief Lt. Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) by setting her up with insecure, bulbous-headed alien Dann (Mike Henry). It doesn’t end well, but it provides nice insight into both characters, and their bad first date scenario is not terribly exaggerated (surprisingly). The awkwardness, the discomfort, and even the bathroom excuse are quite relatable, despite the fact that it’s all taking place between two non-human aliens aboard a 25th century starship.
The ship arrives at Moclus, and the crew gather around to watch Bortus urinate off of a cliff in a hilarious sendup of the overly-talky (and somewhat pompous) Klingon ceremonies that used to embellish “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Back aboard the Orville for the after-party in the ship’s lounge, we see Bortus and his mate Klyden (Chad L. Coleman) and their grown ‘baby’ boy Topa (Blesson Yates), who was only born last season (“About a Girl”) but appears to be about 7-8 years old now. The child’s rapid aging is never explained, nor does it really have to be. Nice that they avoided the need for unnecessary exposition, when the obvious answer would most likely be “that’s how Moclan children age, yada, yada, yada...” This is the sort of sci-fi shorthand that we’re seeing more of as the series progresses, and it’s very welcome.
In the final scene, we see a miserable Ed drinking away his sorrows at the bar…until Lt. Janel Gillis asks to join him.
Let it flow.
It’s probably no surprise that series’ creator Seth MacFarlane both wrote and directed this season kickoff, and it’s very fitting since the episode allows nice opportunities to let the characters really breathe. There is no freakish space storm, no breakdown of the holographic simulator, no emergency alien distress call, etc. MacFarlane simply chooses to just let these characters be. That is one of the wisest decisions for a Star Trek-inspired series, as it’s something that we fans often really want and seldom get… character stories without the need for an artificial ticking clock.
One of my biggest issues with the earliest episodes of “The Orville” was the sometimes jarring mix of juvenile humor and science fiction, but MacFarlane clearly listens to audience feedback. The series’ immediate evolution showed that MacFarlane is capable of changing course and integrating the humor more naturally into the fabric of the story… making it come from the characters rather than from jokes tacked on like ill-placed buttons. If season 2’s opener is any indication, MacFarlane’s really got a handle on the format now.
The Ed/Kelly situation is perhaps the episode’s only real misstep, with Ed’s ‘drive-by’ of Kelly’s date feeling downright creepy, but to reiterate an earlier point, what is inappropriate behavior for a leader these days? Even a series based in the 25th century will unavoidably reflect some unseemly aspects of the era in which it’s created, I suppose.
Zipping it up.
While some may (legitimately) argue that the episode lacked action, I prefer a story that simply lets us enjoy the characters as people with real quirks and issues, and not just as action figures in a play set. Letting emotions and situations arise organically without some kind of space anomaly or alien spores in a Trek-like series is something we haven’t seen much of since “Deep Space Nine” went off the air almost 20 years ago. Nice to see it make a comeback, and without the need to be too dark or ‘edgy’ about it, either It really does ‘take the piss out of it’, so to speak. “Star Trek: Discovery” could learn a lesson or two from its rapidly usurping cousin “Orville.”
“Ja’loja” is the space-opera equivalent of an episode of “Seinfeld”; a story about an alien crewman holding a big party for his shipmates to watch him pee… and it works. That it works as well as it does is ample proof that Seth MacFarlane has one hell of a deft touch for space-‘dramedy’ now, and that bodes well for the remainder of the season to come.