**** UNION CRUISER-SIZED SPOILERS!! *****
In the tradition of Denise Crosby’s “Tasha Yar” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Orville saw the departure of one its own in the latest episode from Seth MacFarlane’s retro-but-fresh sci-fi dramedy Fox series. Though not quite the tragedy of TNG’s “Skin of Evil,” Orville’s “Home” still managed to produce a few tears of its own…
The episode begins, in a typically lighthearted moment, with an arm-wrestling match between super-strong yet waifish Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) and the ship’s resident android Science Officer Isaac (Mark Jackson). The match results in an unexpected broken arm for Alara, as Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) confirms that the Security Chief is losing some of her super strength; a result of her time spent in weaker Earth-gravity conditions aboard the Orville. Alara’s loss of strength presents a science-fiction analog of how current astronauts aboard the International Space Station lose bone density and muscle mass during extended missions in the microgravity of Earth orbit.
Per Finn’s recommendation, Alara is forced to return home to her mega-gravity homeworld of Xeleya; a lovely ringed planet with a high degree of culture and technology…and gravity that could crush human beings “like a grape.” Exact length of time needed for Alara to fully recover is indeterminate; she could recover in weeks, months, or even years (if ever).
Capt. Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and Lt. Malloy (Scott Grimes) take a shuttle down to Xeleya, using gravity-shielding to prevent the ship from being crushed. Dropping off Alara at her parents’ doorstep, Ed is forced to wear a bulky gravity suit outside the shuttle’s protective field just to see her off.
Alara’s father Ildis (Star Trek: Voyager veteran Robert Picardo), mother Drenala (Molly Hagan), and older sister Solana (Candice King) await her in their sunny hillside home (nice use of real-life SoCal locales). Once there, old tensions arise again, as Ildis can barely hide his condescending attitude towards his daughter’s career with the Union military. Alara is considered developmentally challenged on Xeleya, and her joining the Union fleet was seen by her parents as a somewhat lesser goal. Solana abruptly changes the topic by announcing her engagement, which immediately highlights her sister’s misfortunes in that area as well. Her family’s condescending attitude towards her ‘mental challenges’ remind Alara exactly why she left Xeleya for a military career in the first place…
As Alara slowly re-settles into life on her homeworld, a break-in at a neighbor’s home nearby piques Alara’s interests as a Security Chief. Though she is temporarily confined to a gravity hover-chair during re-acclamation to Xeleya’s gravity, she does her best to solve the crime, which turns out to be a ruse set by seemingly friendly neighbors Cambis (Star Trek: Enterprise vet John Billingsley) and his wife (Billingsley’s real-life wife Bonita Fredericy). Turns out the neighbors have a deadly personal score to settle with Alara’s dad, and things get really ugly as Alara’s family are taken hostage.
In a bit of deus ex machina plotting, a gravity-shielded shuttle from Orville conveniently arrives with Ed & Gordon aboard. In his bulky gravity suit, Ed arrives with good news; Dr. Finn & engineer LeMarr (J. Lee) have found a possible treatment aboard the ship for Alara’s condition. A hidden, nervous Cambis begins firing his weapon as a vulnerable, suited Ed is caught in the middle and shot. As his gravity suit begins to fail, Alara urges her cowardly father to man-up and save her captain before Xeleya’s gravity crushes him to death.
Rising from her hover chair, Alara stops the dastardly neighbors and saves the day as her condescending family realizes they don’t understand their daughter’s potential nearly as well as they presumed. Tears flow, reconciliations are made. Back aboard the ship, Alara is presented with Finn & LeMarr’s proposed gravity conditioning treatment, but she politely declines; she realizes that she has to return home to Xeleya and reconnect with her family.
The tears and hugs in the shuttle-bay scene that follows feel as if they’re coming from the cast as well as the characters, as Halston Sage’s “Alara Kitan” departs from the Orville.
Not to nerd-pick too much with a space fantasy show, but one of the things that irked me throughout the episode was its wildly inconsistent depiction of Xeleya’s dense gravity. There were some suggestions; the rings orbiting the planet (Xeleya apparently pulverized its innermost moon eons ago), Gordon’s tossed bottle being immediately flattened, Ed’s crushed legs, etc., but we also see thinly-trunked trees, lazily crashing waves along a beach, and numerous objects falling at Earth-G rates, which quickly dispel the illusion of hyper-gravity. Unfortunately, excessive (or micro) gravity is one of the most difficult things to cheat in filmmaking, especially on location. I suppose it’s one of those things you just have to accept for the sake of storytelling, like sound in space. So be it.
The vendetta-settling neighbors were also a bit too convenient. What if Alara hadn’t returned? Would her entire family have been killed? I realize this is only a television show, and that coincidence is often necessary for story’s sake, but this was an overly on-the-nose contrivance to illustrate Alara’s skill-set to her snobbish family. Mercer’s arrival during right the tense standoff was also a bit too well-timed. Again, it’s television, and most television stories rely on convenience…so whattyagonnado, right?
John Billingsley and his wife Bonita Fredericy played nicely creepy villains. The moment where Billingsley grinningly demands Ildis to reach into a boiling pot was especially unsettling. Having met and talked with Billingsley a few times at conventions, I can vouch that he is nothing at all like the psychotic Cambis, and it was fun to see he and his wife having such a great time as the villains of the piece.
Robert Picardo also got to show off his considerable talents as well, returning to the series (along with Molly Hagan) from last season’s cameo in “Firestorm.” Ildis’ tearful breakdown in front of his daughter (“I don’t know who you are anymore”) was beautifully performed. Kudos to the Orville production team for casting Star Trek veterans such as Picardo and Billingsley (two Star Trek ‘doctors’) in such atypical roles. It works both for the show’s dramatics as well as offering affectionate (and earned) nods to Orville’s Star Trek roots.
Patrick Warburton as (temporary?) Security Chief Lt. Tharl was wonderfully obnoxious. Speaking like a half-baked surfer dude while eating loudly on the bridge, he is the alien embodiment of that new coworker you don’t quite like, but don’t necessarily hate either. The trunk-like extra esophagus put him a bit over the top, but it works. Tharl was one of the few bits of Orvellian sophomoric humor in an otherwise straight-faced episode. From what I’ve read elsewhere, Lt. Tharl is not a permanent replacement. I’d almost say too bad if the character’s joke wasn’t played out.
Alara’s gift of the pickle jar for her captain was adorable; a sight gag incarnation of Ed’s favorite catchphrase for his former Security Chief.
The final scene in the shuttle-bay as Alara/Halston Sage says goodbye to her crew/cast broke the fourth wall in a gentle but heartfelt way. No acting required.
While perhaps not as strong an offering as last week’s “Primal Urges”, “Home” is a fine sendoff for a character that was really starting to come into her own. Yes, there are a few minor nits, but overall there is enough story (and humor) for Orville fans to sink their teeth into, while leaving plenty of room for the characters to breathe (I’m really liking the limited commercial interruptions, by the way…nice going, Fox). Whatever her reasons for departing the series, Halston Sage received (and delivered) a lovely going away present.