****PLANET SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
“Identity part 1”, the title of this week’s cliffhanger episode of “The Orville,” has a double meaning. While it primarily refers to the Kaylon android science officer Isaac’s cybernetic race, it also hints at something deeper…the identity of the series itself. After “Identity Part 1”, the amiable, lighthearted sci-fi ‘dramedy’ “Orville” that we’ve known to date may have been permanently altered.
Android science officer (and sole ambassador to his planet) Isaac (Mark Jackson), is babysitting. With Claire (Penny Johnson Jerald) working late in sickbay, Isaac is playing a game with her two sons, young Ty (Kai Wener) and Marcus (BJ Tanner), which he always wins, of course, because he’s an infallible machine (and wants everyone to know it). Claire returns, and the two decide to make ‘the announcement’ to the boys that she and Isaac are a couple now. The kids are nonplussed, having already known, like the rest of the ship apparently. Suddenly, mid-sentence and without warning, Isaac collapses.
In sickbay, Claire does her best, but she and engineer LaMarr (J Lee) are limited by their scant knowledge of Kaylon androids. Claire is deeply upset, but able to keep her professional medical veneer. She and her sons tenderly offer the dormant android well wishes and love… feelings it can never reciprocate, even if reactivated.
Upon consulting with Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) about Isaac’s condition, Captain Ed Mercer (writer/producer/star Seth MacFarlane) decides to take the ship to Isaac’s deeply secretive homeworld of Kaylon 1, a metropolitan planet populated by sentient machines.
No Planetary Union starship has ever visited this world before, as the Kaylons are both deeply secretive and (as Ed noted in the pilot) “legendarily racist.” The Kaylons believe they are superior to all biological life forms.
With some trepidation, the Orville is granted permission to land at specific coordinates. Upon their descent, the crew observe a beautiful urban cityscape beneath the cloud cover.
After docking, the officers take Isaac on a gurney and enter the city itself. There, they see Kaylons feeding data into massive wall projections and other wonders…but not a single chair in sight.
Turns out, there is no mystery to Isaac’s condition. He was deliberately deactivated by his people, as his mission to gather data on the Planetary Union was deemed finished.
Upon temporary reactivation, Isaac is then guided to the ship’s mess hall by Security Chief Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr) to observe ‘departure protocols’; in other words, a going away party.
These are the lightest moments of the episode, as Helmsman Gordon (Scott Grimes) sings a song for his departing shipmate, Bortus (Peter Macon) gripes about not getting a corner piece of cake, and Ty draws the android a picture of what he hopes will be their happy family someday.
The android is unfazed by the outpouring of affection, and breaks Ty’s heart by coldly ignoring the boy’s affection towards him. Ty runs off to the simulator room, where Claire finds him up a holographic tree. She talks him down and tells him he’ll be late for school.
Instead of heading to class, Ty leaves the Orville and enters the city with his drawing in hand, looking for Isaac. He accidentally finds himself in a subterranean access point, which takes him below the surface and face-to-face with the horrifying truth about the Kaylons…
Aboard the ship, Claire realizes Ty’s not onboard and worriedly consults with Ed, who orders Bortus and Talla to accompany Flynn to Ty’s bio-signs, which are located beneath the surface of the city. The landing party finds Ty, and learns the secret of Kaylon 1. Beneath the city are the stacked bones of billions of dead humanoid biological beings…evidence of a systemic, massive holocaust of the planet’s former biological masters; the original builders of the android Kaylons…repaid in kind by their technological offspring.
The Kaylons are not merely prejudiced against biological life forms; they have committed mass genocide against their own creators in order to prevent biologicals from interfering in their development ever again. They also seek to expand their reach into the galaxy, as their own world is no longer sufficient to contain their massive amounts of data.
It gets worse.
Apparently, Isaac’s seemingly innocent ‘reports’ to his people were actually intel gathering on the ship and its defenses. Using the command codes Isaac shared with them, Kaylon boarding parties invade the Orville, killing (yes, killing) many crew members and taking the rest hostage, including the senior officers. They pilot the ship off of their own world and set a course for the Union headquarters… on Earth.
I’m still processing whether I enjoyed last night’s episode or am thoroughly saddened by it. While it certainly shook the hell out of the show’s status quo, it also (for better or worse) changes the course of the series forever. The relative innocence the series has enjoyed has been abruptly jettisoned. Once lovable Data-like android Isaac has willfully collaborated with an enemy (his people) who have committed mass genocide and intend on doing so to many more species throughout the galaxy. The Kaylons aren’t just sentient machines learning about us curious biologics. They are more like Battlestar Galactica’s homicidal Cylons. Similar names, in fact. Both the Kaylons and Cylons have red eyes (all but Isaac, of course…his eyes were no doubt made baby-blue to relax his shipmates’ reservations).
Kaylon-1 is “Terminator 2″‘s post-war Earth, if Skynet had won, and the machine victors were given a few millennia to tidy things up…
While it may be a bit early to call, I’m guessing the whole Claire/Isaac relationship experiment has been much tossed into a microwave and set to ‘explode.’ I can’t see her ever again choosing to love a being who has endangered her sons, her shipmates and perhaps her entire society. The gelatinous Yaphit isn’t looking so bad anymore, is he?
There is also commentary to be gleaned not just on the dangers of artificial intelligence (the late Stephen Hawking would’ve had a field day with this episode), but also of advanced, progressive societies that are built upon the blood and bones of the less fortunate.
When you see the gleaming towers of New York City (future Planetary Union HQ, incidentally) you don’t see the piles of murdered native tribes (or bloody wars fought for resources) upon which rests the foundations of such a ‘civilization.’ Perhaps the horror we experience with the actions of the Kaylons in “Identity Part 1” is the shock of seeing our own reflections in a fictional mirror. Such insights into our own world are one of the unique gifts of the science fiction format.
Summing it up.
This once lovable dramedy series has taken a hard and sudden sharp right into darkness. I still very much enjoy this series, and am emotionally invested in it (of course), but after last night? My expectations are different now. In only its second year, it has, without warning, graduated from playful frat-boy into traumatized soldier. “The Orville” has completely and irrevocably shed its innocence.
I salute writers Brannon Braga (“Star Trek: Voyager” “COSMOS”) and Andre Bormanis (“Deep Space Nine”) for taking such a huge gamble with the series. Here’s only hoping they can eventually recover some of the joie de vivre that has differentiated this series it from so many (too many) other dystopian series of late.
While I’m hoping it can recover its lightness, and perhaps even crack a silly joke or two, “Identity Part 1” is a bold turning point for the series. I am eagerly and nervously awaiting “Identity Part 2”.
To Be Continued…