The second season of The Orville featured the episode “Lasting Impressions”, a variation on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Booby Trap,” which saw Geordi La Forge fall in love with a holographic representation of one of the Enterprise-D’s designers, Dr. Leah Brahms. Things got a little ‘icky’ when the real Brahms came aboard a year later (“Galaxy’s Child”), and La Forge had to reconcile his holographic ‘fantasy’ with a real (and married) woman. That episode had troubling implications, with La Forge coming off as a creepy nerd who hits on a married woman because he fell in love with a hologram of her. The Orville’s more innocent quasi-remake saw pilot Gordon Molloy (Scott Grimes) recover an antique smartphone from the early 21st century; a phone that belonged to a aspiring young singer named Laura Huggins (Leighton Meester), whom Gordon innocently fell in love with–even conjuring and romancing her holographic simulacrum. Since Huggins died centuries before, nothing ever came of Gordon’s simulated romance with Laura…until now.
In this third (and presumably) final season of The Orville: New Horizons, we see Gordon stranded in the 21st century, where his lingering attachment to Laura has caused him to (somehow) wind up in her corner of spacetime, and they finally meet. Gordon’s feelings for Laura are reciprocated, and they even have a family together… or will they? This being a sci-fi series, time suddenly becomes a multilane freeway, with many different exits, overpasses, and possibilities. Stranded in the early 21st century for ten years, Gordon finds himself enjoying domestic bliss, but he’s also in violation of Union temporal law. That means his shipmates are obligated to retrieve him, leading to some of the most potent moments of the series to date…
“Twice in a Lifetime.”
The story begins with an off-duty Gordon (Scott Grimes) throwing a casual party for his shipmates in his quarters. He performs “That’s All I’ve Got to Say” with his guitar (Grimes is also a gifted singer). Science Officer Isaac (Mark Jackson) attempts to make small talk with ship’s new navigator Charly Burke (Anne Winters), who isn’t having any of it. She still harbors deep resentment towards his android race, the Kaylons, for their ongoing war against the Union, which exacted a very personal toll for her. Charly then discovers Gordon’s replicated copy of an ‘antique’ 21st century smartphone; a keepsake he made after falling in love with a 21st century woman named Laura Higgins (Leighton Meester)–a love based entirely on information gleaned from her phone. Keeping things light, Gordon then uses the phone to take a ‘selfie’ with Charly and Bortus (Peter Macon).
Type: The Party reaffirms Gordon’s popularity with his shipmates, making all the more sense that they’d later risk everything to retrieve him from the 21st century…
In the Astrophysics lab, Chief Engineer John LaMarr (J Lee) invites Captain Ed Mercer (series star/producer/writer Seth MacFarlane), First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), pilot Gordon, Security Chief Talla Keyali (Jessica Szhor), Isaac and Gordon to see the latest refinements he’s made to the ‘Aronov Device’ (introduced in season 1’s “Old Wounds”) which can localize a time-traveling field around an object, sending it to the past or future. John demonstrates the machine’s new level of control using Gordon’s freshly-replicated egg salad sandwich, sending it back ten seconds, temporarily creating two sandwiches, before sending it forward in time one month, where it’ll be a future “pleasant surprise,” as Gordon puts it. The Aronov field can now be increased in size to surround a ship, as well–turning a fun ‘toy’ into a potentially dangerous and game-changing weapon in the Planetary Union’s deadly war with the Kaylons. Realizing it’s too dangerous to keep on the ship, Ed is ordered by Admiral Perry (Ted Danson of “Cheers”) to take the Aronov device to the maximum security labs on Sabik III.
Note: Once again, The Orville introduces a device of unspeakable power, yet frames it in a light and breezy way, by having the Aronov device send Gordon’s egg-salad sandwich on a time-traveling odyssey (a riff on the cigar’s journey in 1960’s “The Time Machine”). Early on, the series had issues with irrelevant, often groan-worthy jokes tossed in at poorly-timed moments. Series creator/producer/writer/star Seth MacFarlane has since learned from those early missteps, and now uses his sharpened humor organically within the context of both story and characters.
The Orville, along with other Union ships as escort, arrives at Sabik III, near the Veil Nebula, to find the orbiting research station destroyed. The crew’s horror is short-lived as the Union armada is ambushed by several Kaylon warships. The Kaylons clearly anticipated this next move, and hail Orville, demanding that they turn over the Aronov device. Responding to the hail, Ed threatens to destroy the device if they attempt to take it. Realizing the Kaylons might think he’s bluffing, Ed sends his friend Gordon down to the lab to personally destroy the Aronov Device, rather than let it fall into enemy hands…
Note: Which explains why 21st century Gordon has a weapon, which he uses to threaten the Orville landing party when they come to take him back to the 25th century…
The Kaylons activate a tractor beam, which holds Orville in place as they prepare to board the ship. Ed orders LaMarr to channel all necessary power into the deflector in order to break the ship free of the Kaylon tractor beam. While the surge in deflector power snaps them free of the Kaylon tractor field, it also sends a massive power surge into the Aronov device, just as Gordon was preparing to fire his weapon into it. This sends Gordon–seemingly split into several copies of himself–into nonexistence. Breaking free of the Kaylons, and with the rest of the Union fleet providing cover, Orville engages its faster-than-light quantum drive, and makes a strategic retreat in order to ensure the safety of the Aronov device. With the ship out of harm’s way, the crew discover that Gordon is missing. Hiding in a nearby nebula, the ship receives a faint distress call from Gordon, who has been thrown back in spacetime to Earth in the year 2015. The call traveled roughy 400 years at the speed of light to reach the ship at its current position.
Note: Might be coincidence, but 2015 also happens to be the year of ‘future’ Hill Valley, as seen in the movie “Back to the Future, Part 2” (1989). Given writer MacFarlane’s penchant for sci-fi movies, I doubt this detail was random.
Somehow, when Gordon was struck by the energy discharge from the Aronov device, he was thinking of 21st century Laura, and that random thought of her somehow hurled him through the centuries to her approximate point in spacetime. According to new biographic information in the ship’s computer, Gordon Malloy died at age 96 in Pasadena, California, in the year 2068. He found work as a pilot, and apparently violated the Planetary Union’s rule regarding time-travel; that anyone trapped in the past must remain completely incognito and off-the-grid to avoid corrupting the timeline. Ed realizes Orville will have to use its precious remaining dysonium fuel to go backward in time to rescue their shipmate before the ripple effects of his interference are fully felt.
Note: Yes, the explanation for how Gordon just ‘thinking’ about Laura could send him back to 2015 Earth is pure nonsense, and the show seems very aware of this, with LaMarr offering his own weak sauce explanation for it. Even more bizarre is Ed concluding–after reading Gordon’s obituary–that there may be untold changes in the timeline to come through Gordon’s interference. If they’ve read Gordon’s obituary, then those changes would’ve already happened. As writer/star MacFarlane says, via his character of Ed Mercer, “We don’t exactly know how time travel works.” Fair enough. Moving on…
Exhausting the last of its fuel, the Orville arrives in 2025–ten years after Gordon’s arrival. Bortus adjusts the ship’s deflectors to mask its presence in lunar orbit as the landing party of Ed, Kelly, Isaac and Charly arrives in the shuttle bay wearing 21st century clothing. Robotic Isaac uses a holographic projector to appear human (actor Mark Jackson, out of his costume, as we saw in season 2’s “A Happy Refrain”). They board the cloaked shuttlecraft, and head to 21st century California. During the shuttle’s descent, Isaac plots a careful course to avoid satellites and airplanes. Once more, the now-human looking android tries to make smalltalk with Charly, in an effort to dispel her prejudices against him, and again, she rebuffs his awkward attempt.
The shuttle lands at dawn, with its shimmering cloaking device masking its presence in the hills above nearby Pasadena. Charly and Isaac are assigned the mission of using advanced portable drilling equipment and sensors (carried in Isaac’s massive backpack) to ‘discover’ a hidden source of dysonium deep beneath the Earth’s mantle (‘dysonium’ remaining undiscovered in our time, of course). Ed and Kelly have the arguably more challenging job of finding Gordon and pulling him out of a life he’s made for himself in the 21st century, before taking him back to the 25th to face the consequences of breaking Union temporal law.
Note: Of course, “dysonium” is not a real element (the periodic table of natural elements has no gaps), but it’s one of those concessions made to the ‘fiction’ half of science-fiction in order to tell a good story, much like Star Trek’s equally imaginary ‘dilithium crystals.’
At a nearby airport, in a private aircraft hangar, we see Gordon, in a white pilot’s uniform and black tie, ordering parts for a small plane. With a bit more gray in his hair, Gordon has adapted very well to life in the 21st century. Gordon’s morning ‘routine’ is interrupted by the presence of Ed and Kelly. Despite their longtime friendship, the reunion is not entirely a happy one, as Ed tells Gordon he’s in violation of Union law. Gordon offers to take Ed and Kelly for a drive in his car, to show them the life he’s made for himself in the year 2025…
Note: Of all the Orville’s crew, Gordon would certainly be the most acclimated for 21st century life, given his penchant for 21st century references and humor. Not to mention his infatuation with a certain 21st century woman. In real-life, actor Scott Grimes was briefly married to costar Adrianne Palicki (“Kelly”) before filing for divorce–twice.
Realizing they’re quite a ways from the dysonium drilling site, pedestrians Isaac and Charly enter a biker bar on the outskirts of town to find transportation. Charly then gets the idea to hustle a couple of bikers by having Isaac arm-wrestle the strongest of the bunch for the keys to their motorcycles … with Charly offering herself as the prize if Isaac loses; a tempting bet for the horny bikers. With Isaac’s holographic disguise giving him the appearance of a 1980s milquetoast, the surly tough guys readily agree to Charly’s terms. On whispered advice from Charly, Isaac allows the tattooed muscleman to think he’s winning. “Oh no. I am losing,” Isaac deadpans, before pushing the man’s right arm onto the table, feigning token resistance. The bikers hand over the keys, and the two time-travelers are off on their new rides…
Note: The scene of a human-looking machine walking into a sleazy biker bar looking for transportation suggests a lighthearted homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arrival in 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” In both cases, the time-traveling androids use their superior strength to get their wheels and “head out on the highway.”
Following their sensors, Charly and Isaac locate the optimal drilling site for the dysonium; in the basement of an empty house that is conveniently for sale. Arriving at the front door, they are met by a busybody realtor who offers to show the property to the “young couple.” Playing along with the realtor’s assumption, Charly and Isaac gradually make their way into the home’s basement, where they tactfully ask the realtor to give them “a few minutes alone” to discuss their decision. With the realtor waiting upstairs, Isaac quickly unpacks the advanced laser drill and sample extraction gear, which he’s soon using to bore deep beneath the basement’s concrete slab.
While the automated equipment hurriedly hunts for dysonium, Isaac once again tries to engage Charly in smalltalk, and even thanks her for saving his life (“Electric Sheep”). Having enough of the android’s friendship overtures, Charly tells Isaac about her friend Amanda, who gave her life during a Kaylon attack in order for Charly to escape the destruction of the starship Quimby. Amanda wasn’t just a friend–Charly was in love with her, and hoped to tell Amanda just how she felt, right before the Kaylon’s assault. It’s for Amanda’s memory that Charly refuses Isaac’s friendship. With the dysonium collected, and the basement slab seamlessly repaired, the two of them leave. The realtor asks if they’ve made up their mind, and Charly curtly replies, “We just broke up.”
Note: Couple things. The dysonium extraction was a bit too neat and fast for my belief. Didn’t the realtor hear any high-pitched noises coming from the basement as the device began drilling? Secondly, we finally get confirmation of what I expected from Charly’s backstory in “Electric Sheep”; she was in love with her late friend, Amanda. Whether Amanda felt the same way can never be known, thanks to the Kaylons. While this is a shorthand way of working a gay character into the main cast, it’s too bad they had to saddle Charly with the ‘dead lover’ trope, or in this case, dead would-be lover.
Gordon pulls up into the driveway of his pleasant suburban home. There, he introduces Ed and Kelly to his pregnant wife Laura (Leighton Meester) and their young son, Edward (named after his captain and best friend, of course). Kelly and Ed are introduced as old friends, and Laura invites the two of them for lunch. Over their shared meal, Laura tells the story of how she and Gordon met. Laura then explains how Gordon initially wasn’t her “type,” but she decided to take a chance on him anyway.
Note: Gordon wisely omitted telling Laura about how he knew all the details of her life from an ‘antique’ smartphone discovered in a time capsule opened in the 25th century. Yes, this has some of the same creepy ‘Geordi-Leah Brahms’ vibes we saw in Star Trek: TNG, but in Gordon’s case, he made no deliberate moves to stalk Laura, other than randomly thinking about her just before his accidental trip through time. That Gordon chose to seek Laura out in the 21st century was an act of simple loneliness rather than a desperate stalker teasing his prey. If she’d turned him down, I suspect Gordon would’ve meekly gone into seclusion, per Union law.
After dinner, Gordon takes Ed and Kelly into his son’s bedroom where they can talk. Ed lays it out to his former helmsman; he is to be taken back to the 25th century, where he must face charges for interfering in the timeline. A defiant Gordon tells his former captain and first officer what they can do with their Union temporal law, which is wholly academic to a man forced to survive on his own in Earth’s past. Gordon blames Ed for not arriving sooner. With nothing more to say for now, Ed and Kelly leave–as Laura stands in the bedroom doorway, having just overheard the end of their heated exchange. With nothing more to lose, Gordon tells his wife the full truth; that he is a fugitive time-traveler, accidentally stranded in her century, and that his Union shipmates have returned to take him back. Surprisingly, Laura believes her husband. When Laura asks Gordon what he’s going to do, he tells her that he’s choosing his current family over his former life.
Aboard the Orville, LaMarr is working tirelessly to patch things up, following the strain of time-travel (not to mention a Kaylon ambush). He then pinches a nerve in his upper back, and is unable to straighten up. Xeleyan Talla (Jessica Zhor), who just happens to be in Engineering, offers to knead the knot in the overworked Chief Engineer’s back. Talla’s super strength, coming from a planet with many times Earth’s gravity, is just what LaMarr needed. Talla’s soothing application of force is turning both of them on, and the pair get physical right in the engine room, just out of sight–but not earshot–of LaMarr’s engineering staff!
Note: While this little scene could’ve easily wound up on the cutting room floor, it gives both characters a nice bit of, um, business, and it wisely breaks the tension of the heavier drama at the core of this story. I give it a pass, even if it reminded me of the gags-for-gags’-sake we’d see in earlier episodes. I’m also very curious to see if this is just another conquest for ladies’ man LaMarr, or will this be something deeper for both?
Later that night, as Gordon and his family enjoy a sitcom on TV, there’s someone at the door. Ed and Kelly have returned, with Security Chief Talla as well–implying that they will use her to force Gordon to return with them. Rather than be ripped from his family, Gordon pulls his weapon on his former friends. Ed asks Gordon if he intends to kill them all. Gordon says he’ll just stun them, and go deep into hiding with his family. As Gordon makes a last-minute plea to remain with his family, Ed has another idea; with the dysonium freshly mined by Isaac and Charly, the ship will attempt another jump back in time with the Aronov device. Isaac can refine his temporal targeting for 2015, and retrieve Gordon before he meets Laura. Ed’s plan is coldly logical. A dispirited Gordon realizes he won’t be able to stop them, and worse, he won’t remember his family, because they’ll never happen. Ed, Kelly and Talla return to the ship and prepare for another leap back in time. Gordon makes an admittedly empty promise to Laura that he’ll never forget their marriage and family life together.
Note: Ed’s plan is similar to Kirk’s plan with displaced USAF pilot Captain John Christopher (Roger Perry) in Star Trek TOS’ “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” where the accidentally captured pilot was simply beamed back into his jet’s cockpit as the Enterprise went even further back in time–hence, erasing Capt. Christopher’s abduction altogether (it sounds loopy, but it works when you see it). Unlike Gordon’s children, who are potential risks to Orville’s future, Capt. Christopher’s as-yet unborn son had to exist, in order to complete an historic future spaceflight.
The second jump in time is made, and they are successful–arriving in 2015 only a month after Gordon was stranded in the past, finding him in an abandoned cabin in the woods (per his own account of where he was at the time). This earlier Gordon, much closer to the version we saw earlier, is still fiercely loyal to Ed and the Union. After landing on Orville, he thanks Ed and the crew for coming after him. Ed, Talla and Kelly remain silent–still bearing the memory of the other Gordon, a man who was willing to risk all of their futures in order to save his family… a family this Gordon has absolutely no memory of, since they’ve never happened.
Note: This seemingly coldhearted solution of historically ‘undoing’ people who’ve garnered audience sympathy was similar to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Children of Time”, where we saw the starship Defiant’s crew faced with the choice of erasing an entire colony of their future descendants, who were born following another version of their ship’s crash landing, a century earlier. If the newly-arrived Defiant were to leave, it would undo generations of people born on the planet. That decision was made with similarly tragic results. It’s also very similar to writer/producer Marc Zicree’s brilliant fan film, Star Trek: New Voyages’ “World Enough and Time”, starring George Takei, which saw Sulu forced to ‘undo’ his own daughter in order to save his shipmates and younger self.
Following Gordon’s rescue, LaMarr reports another problem–the Aronov device has been severely damaged in the last time jump. The device’s cutting-edge technology, which took years of development, might take just as long to rebuild. It quickly dawns on a gobsmacked LaMarr that they could simply use Albert Einstein’s all-natural time machine–Special Relativity. LaMarr proposes accelerating Orville as close as possible to the speed of light (99.999%) without actually engaging the ship’s faster-than-light quantum drive–letting time dilation do the rest. Gordon and Charly then take the ship on a Doppler-shifted cruise to the 25th century, into a fully-restored future.
Note: I could nitpick, and point out that LaMarr’s plan ignores the fact that, as objects approach the speed of light, their relative mass increases as well–requiring exponentially greater amounts of fuel to push them ever closer to that threshold. At any rate, it doesn’t matter; the Orville gets kudos for pointing out and using an obvious solution that Star Trek could’ve, and should’ve used, many times. The Orville FX team also gets extra points for adding red/blue Doppler light-shifting as well.
Once fully settled, Kelly and Ed decide to tell Gordon the truth; about his alternate-self meeting Laura, and having children and a life in 2025. Since this recently-rescued version of Gordon has no memory of his family, he sees his alternate-self’s choice as “selfish.” Even if Gordon can’t remember having a family, Ed and Kelly can never forget their choice to knowingly undo that family’s existence.
Summing It Up.
Written by star/producer/cocreator Seth MacFarlane and directed by John Cassar, this episode could’ve settled for easy laughs with a “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”-style fish-out-of-water comedy, and it certainly has some of those moments (Charly and Isaac’s dysonium subplot), but the unexpected poignancy and tragedy of Gordon forcibly losing his wife and family gives this story a “City on the Edge of Forever” depth that it might not have otherwise had. Gordon’s dilemma is the heart of the episode, and it’s delivered with great sensitivity. The extra-length running time of The Orville: New Horizons’ episodes allows for greater breathing room, too.
The affable Gordon is often the ship’s jokester, and as we see in the first act, he’s the life of the party. We also see Gordon as a fully-realized human being, capable of loving a family with heartfelt sincerity. This is a Gordon we would’ve scarcely imagined back in season 1, and even though this part of him is lost to the ‘galactic reset button’ of time-travel, we know the potential for this side of him now exists. Kudos to actor (and singer) Scott Grimes, who really pours his soul into this story, too.
While the decision to ‘undo’ his family is arguably cruel, Gordon’s shipmates aren’t entirely wrong, either; Gordon is violating the Union’s “temporal law”, which feels admittedly academic in light of Gordon’s experience, but it exists, nevertheless. Who knows what consequences Gordon’s family in the past might have upon the Planetary Union’s greater future? While sympathetic to Gordon’s plight, Ed and his team also have the objectivity to see ‘family man’ Gordon as a selfish fugitive who’s risking an entire timeline for his own personal happiness. In Star Trek terms, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Note: Gordon’s position is much like Admiral Janeway’s in Star Trek: Voyager’s series finale “Endgame,” isn’t it?
The sci-fi geek in me also got a great thrill from seeing Einstein’s Special Relativity employed for time travel into the future. Albert Einstein first hypothesized this all-natural, one-way time machine back in 1905, and kudos to writer Seth MacFarlane for smartly using Einstein’s since-proven theory, even if some of the details are deliberately (and dramatically) fudged.
The Orville’s “Twice in a Lifetime” is a clever, yet accessible time-travel story that gives Star Trek a serious run for its dilithium. It might even break some hearts, as well.
Where To Watch.
“The Orville: New Horizons” is available to stream exclusively on Hulu.com, along with the first two seasons of “The Orville.” While this is, most likely, the final season of this all-too short-lived series, here’s hoping that writer/producer/star Seth MacFarlane will one day revisit this universe with a feature film, or even made-for-streaming movies/spinoffs. Maybe we might see “The Orville: the Motion Picture” someday? I mean, if you’re going to follow Star Trek’s template that closely…