*****SPOILERS AND WARNINGS FOR POSSIBLE SUICIDE TRIGGERS*****
The Orville: New Horizons.
It’s been three years since we last saw “The Orville” on Hulu. During the interim, there was (and is) the ongoing COVID pandemic, which halted production on producer/writer/star Seth MacFarlane‘s sci-fi space opera series, which was first introduced in 2017 as a lighter, more comically-minded alternative to “Star Trek,” which also returned in 2017, but in a darker, serialized format that left some fans alienated.
“The Orville,” keeping the clean lines and standalone storytelling of 1990s-style “Star Trek”, was like an unchanging old friend–looking almost exactly as you remember them from days gone by. One new element that MacFarlane introduced (at least initially) was a lot of bawdy, “Family Guy”-style humor, with much of it feeling awkwardly shoehorned into the show’s format. Fortunately, “The Orville” soon began to rely less on its comedic training wheels, as it gained more confidence in its own mythology. There were definite parameters to this show’s 25th century universe, which is similar to Star Trek-TNG, but with refreshingly different approaches to some of those old TNG-style moral dilemmas.
On hiatus during the deadly COVID pandemic (which has killed around 7 million people worldwide), the series returns with a new subtitle (“New Horizons”), a more serious mindset, and a revised main title theme, which sounds a lot less jaunty. There is also a new navigator, Ensign Charly Burke (Anne Winters); a headstrong young genius who brings a unique capacity for complex, four-dimensional thinking as well as a deep resentment of Kaylon science officer, Isaac (Mark Jackson), whose cybernetic race tried to wipe out Earth and the Union fleet in last season’s “Identity” Parts 1 and 2. Beyond these changes, the show is surprisingly familiar, given the three-year gap between seasons.
Note: I wonder if naming Ensign Burke “Charly” was a deliberate nod to the 1968 movie “Charly” (based on the novel “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes) a film about a mentally-impaired man who is accelerated to genius through experimental surgery, only to revert to his previous state by the end of the film.
The new season opens with a dedication to the late Norm Macdonald (1960-2021), who voiced gelatinous crew member “Yaphit.” Macdonald had completed his voice work on the series’ third season before his unfortunate passing last year. He is missed.
The third season opener was written by Seth MacFarlane, and co-directed by MacFarlane and John Cassar. Following the harrowing events of the Kaylon/Union battle at Earth in last season’s “Identity” two-parter, we see the Union starship Orville undergoing a massive refit and upgrade that spans a majority of the episode’s 70 minute running time. We also see a new fighter-craft, piloted by Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) welcomed into the ship’s ‘family’ as well.
Note: The title “Electric Sheep” is, of course, a direct nod to the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the 1969 novel by author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) which inspired the 1982 movie “Blade Runner.”
We meet new navigator Ensign Burke (Winters), a survivor of a ship destroyed in the Kaylon attack, who actively resents the presence of Kaylon science officer Isaac (Jackson). Her resentment is shared by many others in Orville’s crew, including Malloy, as well as traumatized teenager, Marcus Finn (B.J. Tanner), the son of ship’s doctor/psychiatrist Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Jerald Johnson). Marcus still has nightmares about Isaac and his people after the battle to save Earth.
Android Isaac decides that ship morale might be improved if he were to ‘kill’ himself, using a carefully directed power surge. Following the dead Isaac’s sparsely-attended funeral, genius ship’s engineer John LaMarr (J. Lee) finds a tricky way to restore Isaac’s consciousness using an unstable stasis field and relying upon equally genius Charly Burke’s knack for complex four-dimensional thinking.
Note: Thank goodness that Charly’s genius knack for 4-dimensional problem-solving doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s introduced early on in the story, during war games with the new fighter-craft “Pterodon.”
Marcus’ mother, Dr. Finn, also has deeply conflicted feelings about the android she once romanced before his people turned on the Planetary Union, as she unburdens herself to first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). Claire wants to forgive Isaac, but she can’t ignore the devastation his people caused, including the psychological wounds of her two sons, Marcus and Ty (Kai Wener). Marcus is angry at the android for the ongoing nightmares he’s suffered following the horrific Kaylon battle, while younger Ty simply wants his friend back.
The stasis field is compromised following a surprise attack by the Kaylons, and LaMarr needs Burke’s assistance to complete the transfer. When pressed to help LaMarr, Burke refuses, prompting Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) to relieve her from duty.
Realizing he may have directly prompted Isaac to kill himself when he told him “I wish you were dead,” a guilty Marcus meets Burke in the ship’s mess hall, and pleads with her to help restore Isaac. Against her own impulses, Burke arrives in engineering and helps LaMarr to restore Isaac. However, she makes clear to the restored android that she did so for Marcus’ sake, not his.
Ensign Charly Burke (Anne Winters) is well-established as both genius new navigator as well as a foil for both Isaac (Mark Jackson), and even Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane). Burke’s backstory is given via flashbacks of her surviving the destruction of the Union starship Quimby, as well as the loss of her best friend Amanda (Amanda Joy Erickson), during the devastating Kaylon attack on the Union Fleet in “Identity Part 2.”
Despite her talent for quantum mechanics and four-dimensional thinking, the young woman’s admittedly understandable resentment of the Kaylons will be an ongoing arc for her (and a sizable number of the crew) throughout the season. Burke’s resentment is shared by her partner on the bridge, helmsman/pilot Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Crimes) who is also the captain’s oldest and best friend. The crew’s prejudice against Isaac is left more or less unresolved, even after his restoration by story’s end. I’m curious to see where this goes…
Newcomer Anne Winters does a fair job with the material given, but the actress and her character still have significant opportunity for growth in this final season. Winters’ best scenes in the episode are between her and writer/star/co-director Seth MacFarlane, who pushes back to the headstrong character with firm, but appropriate force. Capt. Mercer is forced to straddle the line between his crew’s understandable distrust of Kaylons, as well as his own desire to see humankind rise above the sum of its prejudices. In a little over two complete seasons, MacFarlane’s Ed Mercer has come a long way in filling those captain’s boots…
Note: Ensign Burke, played by Anne Winters, seems to be The Orville’s answer to Star Trek-TNG’s “Ensign Ro”, the equally headstrong Bajoran played by Michelle Forbes, later in the series’ run. It may be too early to tell for certain, but Winters doesn’t seem to have the same gravitas as Forbes did when she first stormed into the placid Star Trek universe. We’ll see…
The central character of the story is the Kaylon android Isaac (Mark Jackson), whose lack of emotion makes him more of a walking sounding board for the feelings of the other characters, particularly the ire of Ensign Burke and Marcus Finn (B.J. Tanner), as well as the heartbreak of both Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Jerald Johnson) and her youngest son, Ty (Kai Wener), who simply misses the cybernetic being’s soothing companionship. Isaac’s suicide in the story is tragic both in its impact on the Finn family, as well as the utter lack of self-awareness with which poor Isaac carried it out. Unburdened by emotion, Isaac simply could not conceive of how his death might harm others.
Note: Skillful mimetic actor Mark Jackson exercises a precise body language–moving his hands and walking in measured ways that smoothly convey a mechanical man’s approximation of human gesturing. Much like The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal, Jackson subtle head and neck movements make his featureless mask of a face convey more than the android could ever admit to feeling.
Isaac’s loss is most keenly felt by Dr. Claire Finn. Penny Jerald Johnson brings down the house in a scene shortly after she’s just finished telling her youngest son Ty that using the ship’s simulator to conjure a holographic Isaac is not helpful for the grieving process. Once her youngest son exits, she orders the simulator to furnish her with the restaurant where she and Isaac once went on a romantic date (“A Happy Refrain”). Alone at ‘their’ table, the doctor’s shields come down, and she sobs for her late lover. Earlier in the story, Claire told Kelly that she struggles with what Isaac’s people did, and that she can’t admit to loving someone whose race could do what the Kaylons have done. It’s clear that Claire loved the emotionless Isaac enough for them both.
Note: I’m not exaggerating when I say that Penny Jerald Johnson gives the best performance of the episode.
Another solid performance from the Finn family of characters comes from actor B.J. Tanner, who plays the angry young Marcus Finn, whose nightmares of the Kaylon attack upon the Union fleet (and Isaac’s short-lived betrayal) open the episode. He is also found to be the one responsible for painting “Murderer” on the walls of Isaac’s research laboratory. Marcus clearly suffers from PTSD, and this condition is further burdened by guilt, after he telling Isaac he wished the android were dead–causing Isaac to comply. Later, upon hearing that there might have a solution to restore the inert robot’s mind, we see the once angry young man humbly beg Ensign Burke for her help. That seemingly wide chasm from hate to guilt is believably crossed by Tanner.
The closest we get to a comedic performance among the main characters comes from musician/actor J. Lee, who plays Lt. Commander John LaMarr, Chief Engineer. LaMarr is still a ‘ladies’ man’, as we see him getting horizontal with a Darkeelian (Alexis Knapp); a pale-skinned alien covered in rose-like thorns. What could’ve been a throwaway interspecies’ sex joke is deepened considerably, as LaMarr and the Darkeelian exchange cultural views on suicide, in the wake of Isaac’s death. Darkeelians view suicide as a strict matter of personal choice, whereby human LaMarr is inspired to somehow restore Isaac to life. In Engineering, we see a bathrobe-clad LaMarr asking to borrow the heavy feet of his engineer “Unk” in order to smash Isaac’s CPU and unravel its subatomic bits of surviving consciousness.
Note: What is never fully explored is whether it is morally right of LaMarr to attempt a resurrection of someone who has chosen to take their own life. LaMarr’s Darkeelian lover makes an intriguing point–with different cultures, life may not always be seen as a ‘gift’. Some may see their own birth as being pulled from a comforting void of nonexistence into the painful experience of mortality. The human perspective, of course, is to do our best to save a potential suicide from succeeding, and to worry about the aftermath later.
With the exceptions of Tactical Officer Bortus (Peter Macon), Security Chief Talla (Jessica Szohr) and arguably First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), most of “The Orville” ensemble are given terrific moments in this first episode of “The Orville: New Horizons.”
Summing It Up.
“The Orville” is back. The sets, characters and overall vibe of the series remains more-or-less intact, despite the three-year gap between Seasons 2 and 3. While admittedly a darker season opener than, say, Bortus needing to return to his home planet to take a piss, “Electric Dreams” still has the action, adventure and good-naturedness that defined its previous seasons, but with the sophomoric humor of earlier episodes largely exorcised.
Perhaps the only downside of this otherwise intriguing story of prejudice, suicide and survivors’ guilt is the excessive use of starship ‘money shots’ flooding the episode. The ship spends far too much time in space-dock, only clearing her moorings in the final 25 minutes of this 70 minute episode. Yes, the visual effects of “The Orville” are easily on a par with the work we see in modern-day “Star Trek” and even DisneyPlus’ new Star Wars offerings, but “Electric Sheep” practically smothers the viewer in spaceship porn–to the detriment of of both pacing as well as ancillary characters, such as Bortus and Talla. This is my most nit-picking complaint of this otherwise solid third (and final) season opener.
With no current plans for a fourth season, perhaps we may see this Star Trek-variant spawn future made-for-Hulu TV movies, or perhaps even a feature film (like its role model “Star Trek”). If this truly is the show’s final year, it appears to be going out on a high note. Following “The Orville” over the years has been like watching the class clown finally getting ready to graduate with honors.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
If you are currently entertaining thoughts of self-harm, or if simply reading of suicide in this column has triggered any thoughts/feelings of doing so, please call 800-273-8255 and seek help immediately.
Available 24 hours. Languages: English, Spanish. Learn more
Where To Watch.
“The Orville: New Horizons” (aka Season 3) is available to stream exclusively on Hulu.com. Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Orville” are available on DVD, but not Blu-Ray (don’t ask–it’s weird).
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