The Orville continues to thrive in its second season with “Deflectors”, once again taking a reused story concept from Star Trek: The Next Generation (in this case, TNG’s “The Outcast”) and reimagining it enough to be both fresh and relevant for a new age. I’m intrigued (often amazed) by the ways in which star/producer/writer/director Seth MacFarlane takes those old Star Trek tropes and uses them to enter unexplored territories.
The Orville’s Valentine’s Day pisode starts in an old 1930s-style New York street scene (complete with a young newsie yelling “Extra, extra!”), as we realize we’re in the Orville’s simulator (a holodeck by any other name). First officer Kelly Grayson (Adriane Palicki) is at an outdoor cafe with her beau, ship’s teacher Cassius (Chris Johnson). The romantic setting hits a snag and goes south rather quickly, as Kelly decides the two of them have different life goals. Over his objection, she breaks up with him. Happy Valentine’s Day, right?
The ship reaches Bortus’ home planet of Moclus for work on its defensive systems. The Moclans, as we know by now, are a brutal unisex warrior culture that frowns upon femininity (any ‘accidental’ female birth is quickly rectified to male via surgery). The Orville will receive an upgrade to its deflectors, courtesy of brilliant Moclan engineer Locar (a sympathetic Kevin Daniels), who also happens to be a former lover of the ship’s third officer, Bortus (Peter Macon).
With Orville’s new deflectors in place, initially skeptical chief engineer John LaMarr (J Lee) gives the okay to proceed. A Moclan vessel engages in war games with the Orville.
Captain Ed Mercer (writer/producer/star MacFarlane) gets a bit irked as the Moclans play a little…rough (“Didn’t you hear me say no torpedoes??”). But, to the surprise of everyone, especially LaMarr, the new deflectors easily take the punishment and reset.
After the war games, Ed learns that (ex-wife) Kelly has broken up with Cassius. Ed does his insincere best to express his disappointment…
Bortus’ current mate, Klyden (Chad Coleman) and son Topa (Blesson Yates) welcome Locar into their quarters over a tense and uneasy dinner (the episode’s metaphorical title is apt).
During his work, we see Locar stealing glimpses at the ship’s new security chief, Lt. Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr, who fits the show like a glove). In what is a taboo for his unisex species, Locar later nervously confesses to Talla that unlike most of his race, he is attracted to females. Talla is initially caught off guard by the imposing Locar’s vulnerability.
Later, Talla finds Locar to talk with him about his feelings towards her. On impulse, she takes him to the ship’s simulator (with Kelly’s old NYC program), teaching the Moclan how to slow dance. During the dance tutorial, things get romantic as Locar impulsively kisses her, but duty calls her away. As she leaves, we later see an incensed Klyden enter the chamber, calling out Locar for his ‘perversion’…
Kelly finds a giant, sentient flower in her quarters. The obnoxious being is a friend of Cassius’, and is making a case for her to try to patch things up. The mega-strength internet in Talla’s Xelayan heritage allow her to forcibly remove the giant plant without breaking a sweat…
She returns to the simulator after taking care of the situation to find no trace of Locar. Failing to locate him by ship’s sensors, she overrides the security protocols of the simulator and replays the missing moments of what happened there when she left. A deliberately obscured image apparently shot and vaporized Locar with a simulator-made weapon (safeties off, of course).
With the aid of her fellow officers and ship’s android science officer Isaac (Mark Watson), Talla and the crew try to piece together the murder scene. Cleaning up the image of the killer, LaMarr and Talla both realize it’s Klyden, who was previously seen angrily confronting Locar in the simulator.
Given Klyden’s obvious motive (jealousy) and history of violence (stabbing Bortus for a ‘divorce’ during Bortus’ porn addiction earlier this year), he is arrested. Bortus wishes to speak to Klyden alone. Klyden confesses to his mate that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he did not kill Locar. Bortus believes him, and tells him to have faith in Lt. Keyali to clear his name.
As the investigation intensifies, a biased-but-duty-bound Talla re-enlists LaMarr and Isaac’s help. LaMarr realizes that the image was scrambled, but too easily recoverable…as if the killer were trying to be IDd. Tella and John realize it’s a frame-up. Locar faked his death and framed Klyden (who already threatened him) as the killer. It’s a twist right out of classic Star Trek’s “Court Martial” when a lone Talla institutes a ship-wide search and finds a cloaked Locar hiding in one of the ship’s shuttles.
A tearful Locar is talked into surrendering to his people in order to clear Klyden. Locar is now set to face the brutality of Moclan ‘justice.’ Suicide is a heavy dishonor among Moclans, but faking his own death was preferable to Locar over facing his countrymen. His fate will be harsh, but his exceptional skills as an engineer ensure his survival, at the very least. Locar’s punishment is reminiscent of the tragic injustice suffered by real-life genius mathematician and war hero, Alan Turing.
Later, in the ship’s lounge, Talla, Isaac, LaMarr and ship’s helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) observe Kelly and Ed laughing over dinner. Talla openly wonders why two people so right for each other don’t simply get back together. As Gordon tells her, it’s complicated.
A grateful Klyden drops in on Talla to thank her for getting him off the hook, but Talla is still rightfully pissed at Klyden. Klyden’s devious spying on Locar led to his shame and punishment. Talla angrily and tearfully advises Klyden to just walk the other way when he sees her coming…
A lot to unpack here.
Orville may seem to be a “Love Boat in Space” to its detractors (a comment I’ve read a lot online), but few space series have done romance so deftly, or, as if often the case, as heartbreaking (“Nothing Left On Earth Excepting Fishes”).
Arguably, “Deflectors” drew inspiration from TNG’s season 5 offering, “The Outcast”, which saw Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) having a forbidden romance with a ‘genderless’ person named Soren (Melinda Culea). Soren’s culture viewed heterosexual attraction as taboo, much like the all-male Moclan culture in The Orville. Both saw the respective alien lovers forced to face their societal injustices. “Outcast” ended with a ‘cured’ (lobotomized) Soren (Melinda Culea), “Deflectors” sees a more ambiguous but equally brutal fate awaiting Locar (Kevin Daniels).
Both shows used an alien culture’s outrageous taboos against heterosexual attraction as obvious metaphors for the ugliness of our own world’s current homophobia. Personally, I think “Outcast” would’ve been more successful if Soren’s femininity were less obvious; it would’ve made a far braver statement if Riker’s female-inclined lover were cast with a male actor. “Deflectors” is different in that Moclan culture was firmly established early on as all-male, despite occasional ‘aberrations’ such as Topa’s being born female (S1’s “About A Girl”; a landmark of modern TV sci-fi). “Deflectors” not only makes a stronger case for LGBTQ rights, it also makes a powerful case against the dangers of Moclus’s toxic masculine culture. Talla’s angered speech to the cleared Klyden makes for a strong condemnation to those who feel the need to impose their will and beliefs upon the love lives of others.
While Klyden is freed from suspicion of murder, he will never be free of the ugliness and bigotry that Talla forever sees in his heart. It’s even more ironic since we know Klyden, like his son Topa, was also born female and immediately ‘corrected’ to male shortly after birth (“About A Girl”). Klyden’s seething condemnation of Locar plays as an analog for closeted, self-loathing gays who are violently, militantly against LGBTQ rights and empowerment (like some politicians and ministers who shall remain nameless…).
During her investigation in Locar’s apparent ‘murder’, Talla points out to Bortus that he might’ve been wrong in giving up so easily with regard to the forced gender reassignment of his ‘daughter.’ Bortus then explodes at the lieutenant. Clearly she hit a nerve; Bortus is obviously not free of his resentment towards Klyden, who took the matter of their child’s sex to the clearly biased Moclan judicial system. Bortus’ resentment towards Klyden manifested itself in a porn addiction seen earlier this year (“Primal Urges”).
While we see Locar facing the brutality of Moclan justice near the episode’s end, I wonder if this is really the last we’ll see of this character, or of his relationship with Talla.
Speaking of which…
Hail to the (Security) Chief.
Despite Moclan culture (once again) taking center stage in this story (they’re Orville’s Klingons, though arguably more interesting), “Deflectors” clearly belongs to Orville newcomer Jessica Szohr as season 2’s security chief Talla Keyali. She only came aboard a few episodes ago, but is rapidly making her presence strongly felt. “Deflectors” is her moment to shine, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Nothing against Szohr’s predecessor, Halston Sage’s Lt. Alara Katan, but the somewhat waifish, insecure Katan has been eclipsed for me by the brassier, confident and more passionate Talla. Both are raven-haired, hail from the high gravity world of Xelaya, and have their people’s mega-strength, but that’s where the similarities end. They are as different as two characters on the same show can be, and refreshingly so. Despite this episode’s focus on Talla, we never see her actually use her super-strength to solve the crime of Locar’s ‘murder.’ Instead, she uses the resources of her shipmates and her own wits. No ‘jars of pickles’ to open. Cowriter/director MacFarlane (along with writer David Goodman) is wise to avoid Xelayan strength becoming a repetitious gimmick, and for that, I’m grateful.
Wasn’t terribly fond of how easily poor Cassius (Chris Johnson) was dismissed; he was a character with potential, and I didn’t like to see him reduced to being a stalking pest who can’t seem to leave his ex alone. The fact that he’s suddenly tagged with insecurities that he’s never displayed previously feels like the writers were simply tired of him, and wanted to drop him fast. A disservice both to the actor and the character, in my opinion.
And that talking flower in Kelly’s quarters was just ridiculous. An obvious and silly distraction to get Talla out of the simulator in time to miss Locar’s exit. A tiny bit of weak plotting in an otherwise terrific episode.
Summing it up.
Once again, “The Orville” boasts another strong entry in a confident second season. We see another shipboard romance (we’ve had a lot of those in these first seven episodes), and solid character exploration. Moclan culture continues to both fascinate and enrage. The show’s humor has been toned down to feel much more organic to the stories, with only occasional, minor lapses (see: talking flower). The ensemble cast now feels like a well-oiled machine, with even newcomer Jessica Szohr quickly becoming part of the Orville family. The Orville is must-see TV for me.