The Orville continues to be a sci-fi ‘dramedy’ that quietly pushes boundaries established by its antecedent, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (to which The Orville is, in many ways, a spiritual sequel).
****UNION STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS!!****
“A Happy Refrain” is another of The Orville’s character-driven ‘bottle shows’ (episodes which generally take place more or less entirely on the ship). These usually create nice opportunities to focus on character (or characters) instead of the usual plot mechanics. In this case, the mission involves observation of a binary star system (nice visual, but little more than FX-dressing on an already substantive story), with a shipboard music concert as well (once again, music and old musical references are strong recurring motifs in this series).
A comic subplot with stoic, macho alien Bortus growing a mustache provides a few chuckles too, but the centerpiece story is an atypical tale of love between a middle-aged, single mother of two boys, ship’s physician Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), and ship’s resident science officer, an emotionless android named Isaac (Mark Jackson).
The relationship between Claire and Isaac had been slowly building since the they crashed in a shuttle together (along with her two sons) in last season’s “Into The Fold”, where Isaac acted as defender/protector/mentor for Claire’s two troublesome boys. Since then, the android has tutored Claire’s youngest son Marcus in piano, and has become a valued confidante for Claire as well.
After Marcus gives a recital for the crew, Claire realizes just how deeply Isaac has worked his way into her life.
Claire, with prodding from Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) and new ship’s security chief Talla Keylani (Jessica Szohr), decides to ask the android out on a date to the ship’s gala symphony concert. Isaac accepts, reiterating that it creates an excellent opportunity for observation of human rituals… and that is all it apparently means to the machine who is physically incapable of seeing it as anything else.
After the concert, a fully-clothed Isaac takes her to a dinner for two at a recreation of Claire’s favorite restaurant in one of the ship’s holographic simulators. Claire learns Isaac has downloaded every biographical detail of Claire’s life before the date, sucking the spontaneity out of the ‘getting to know her’ part of the evening. After this initial disappointment, Claire is not sure where to go next with this ‘human-cyborg relation.’
Sensing that he’s screwed things up with his attempt at ‘dating’, Isaac seeks advice from the ship’s resident ladies’ man, chief engineer John LeMarr (J. Lee), who comes up with a brilliant idea for the android to take things to the next level with his would-be human paramour.
Claire meets Isaac at one of the ship’s simulator, per his request, where he surprises her by wrapping his outer casing in a holographic human appearance, allowing actor Mark Jackson a delightful opportunity to play Isaac without his restrictive robotic outerwear. Claire is deeply moved by seeing Isaac “in the flesh” (so to speak) and the two soon take things to an intimate level. It’s a beautiful sight indeed to see a middle aged mother of two (by choice) allowing herself to be a fully realized sexual being with a person who at least appears to be a much younger-looking man. We do not see such things in television nearly often enough, in my opinion.
As with many love stories, sex complicates things. Isaac feels he has reached the end of his ‘mission’ to observe human love relationships (which is all this entire ‘experiment’ initially meant to the emotionless robot). He tells LeMarr he wants to move on now. LeMarr advices him to do so by acting like a jerk, so that Claire will want to terminate their relationship on her terms. Claire arrives in her quarters after a shift to see Isaac, on the couch in dirty underwear, doing his best impression of a cliche s#!tty husband right out of a Martin Scorsese movie. Realizing he’s doing this deliberately to get her to break up with him, a deeply hurt and offended Claire tells him ‘mission accomplished’ and kicks his electronic ass out.
A curious thing then occurs during a mission to observe a binary star system…the emotionless, perfect android Isaac begins to make errors (!). Isaac excuses himself to perform an immediate self-diagnostic. He then engages in a heart-to-battery chat with Captain Ed Mercer (writer/producer/star & director Seth MacFarlane); this is the guy who wrote the book on heartbreak. Ed breaks down for Isaac what he’s already surmised for himself; he misses Claire… she got “under his skin” and now he wants her back.
The end of “Happy Refrain” does cute sendups of “Singin’ In The Rain” (which was referenced during the ship’s concert) and even “The Notebook” when Isaac calls upon the ship’s environmental controls to make it rain on the ship’s bridge (I half-expected a slew of short-circuits). There, in pouring rain (like every third romance movie ever made) Isaac asks a soaking wet Claire if she would take him back. Claire and Isaac embrace, the bridge crew is soaked, and ship’s helmsman Gordon Malloy gets the best line of the entire episode; “We are, without a doubt, the weirdest ship in the fleet!”
Bortus’ comic mustache subplot is mildly funny, but also feels a little bit distracting. I wear a beard and mustache myself, but I was as glad as Klyden when Bortus finally shaved it. Unsubtle sight gags are still an occasional issue with this otherwise terrific show.
In addition to seeing real-life Isaac actor Mark Jackson in human form, we also get to see comedian Norm MacDonald in the flesh as well. MacDonald does the voice of the ship’s sentient pile of slime, Yaphit. He gets a funny little moment as he uses Isaac’s holographic-outer self trick to try to rebound a despondent Claire. Yaphit has had a long-standing crush on Claire since the beginning of the show. The temporarily-human appearing amorphous blob strikes out (of course), but it’s a funny bit driven by the characters, rather than sight gags. This is another example of The Orville doing sci-fi humor right.
Nice to see that the conductor of the Orville’s symphony orchestra was none other than famed Hollywood conductor Mark Graham (Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Marvel’s Infinity Wars, etc) whose musical credits are far longer than I have room to list here.
Going where Star Trek only tepidly went before, “Happy Refrain” is a step beyond what we saw in The Next Generation’s “In Theory”, which had the android Data (Brent Spiner) ‘deleting the appropriate subroutine’ after his terminated relationship with Jenna (Michelle Scarabelli), returning everything to status quo by the end of the episode. In this sense, The Orville is truly boldly going beyond where Star Trek has gone before.
More recently, the Spike Jonez movie “Her” (2013) had a deeply moving (and much more realistic) affair between a lonely introverted divorcee (Joaquin Phoenix) entering into a love affair with his computer/phone’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson; a career-best performance where she’s never seen). “Her” shows a relationship that I could very easily see happening today (if it hasn’t already), as people becoming increasingly dependent upon (and fond of) their personal electronic devices.
My wife and I have seen many young couples out on dates lately, where each person is spending more time staring at their phone than talking to their dates. It’s a sad comment on our current age, and yet another reason I’m soooo glad that my wife and I were married well before the age of smartphones (cell phones were barely beyond bricks when my wife and I met). Love with a smartphone’s OS isn’t exactly the same as having a relationship with a genuinely sentient artificial intelligence such as Data or Isaac (it’s more like coupling with a search engine), but just where is the line drawn? Or does it really have to be?
When Lt. Keyali and Commander Kelly Grayson ask Claire about her sexual encounter with Isaac, she mentioned how perfectly anticipatory he was to her needs…yes, like a machine perhaps, but in the end, does it really matter? Claire is satisfied, and it works for her. And, as we see, Claire is able to make some kind of impression upon the android as well, even if it’s not exactly ‘love’ in the conventional sense.
Lesson gleaned is that if love works between two beings, be they human/android, older-woman/younger-man, same-gender, transgender, or any other possible combination within the broad spectrum of consensual, adult relationships, then it’s a good thing. That ‘sweetest thing’ (or even an artificial facsimile of it) comes in many different wrappers.
While the first half hour of “Happy Refrain” might feel like familiar sci-fi territory to some, the second half takes it to new places, retaining whimsy and a sense of humor. Once again, The Orville is treading unexpectedly deep waters in the starry oceans of space opera.