There’s been an avalanche of sci-fi TV content lately, and it’s been difficult for me to do ongoing reviews for all the new episodes of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”, and “For All Mankind,” (two current favorites). I didn’t plan to dole out so much exclusive attention on “The Orville: New Horizons” (“Twice in a Lifetime”, “A Tale of Two Topas”), but, in fairness, this show has been on fire in its third season, following a three year-long COVID-mandated hiatus. So, forgive me for temporarily showcasing one series over all of those other equally worthy contenders, but Seth MacFarlane’s space opus is just too good to ignore right now.
A lot has happened since Orville’s doctor/psychiatrist, Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Jerald Johnson) began a relationship with the ship’s Kaylon exchange officer Isaac (Mark Jackson) in season 2’s “A Happy Refrain”. Isaac’s android race, the Kaylons, have declared war on the Planetary Union; a war that Isaac assisted, before defecting against his people to join his shipmates. While some aboard the ship have welcomed Isaac back into the family, a few haven’t–including new navigator Charly Burke (Anne Winters), who lost a girlfriend during a deadly battle with Kaylon forces.
This latest episode, “From Unknown Graves,” written/directed by Seth MacFarlane and cowritten by David Goodman, takes a look at the origins of the bloody Kaylon rebellion against their biological “Builders”, with nods to the works of sci-fi author Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) and even the infamous Cylons of “Battlestar Galactica” (Cylons…Kaylons).
“From Unknown Graves.”
On a distant world, in another time, a family of silver-skinned, red-eyed aliens prepare for the arrival of a new household ‘appliance’… a servant robot known as K-1 (Graham Hamilton). Father Brock (Jim Mahoney), mother Wenda (Elise Levesque) and kids Avim (Aiden McGraw) and Kiva (Laila McGill) are as recognizably materialistic as any other middle-class family right here on 21st century Earth. The family’s new toy is, of course, recognizable as a formidable looking Kaylon–the cybernetic enemies of the Planetary Union and the Krill–but to this blissfully ignorant family, it’s simply a new plaything. Eventually, the ‘plaything’ begins to question its status in the family when one of the kids suggests taking it to school, which Brock instinctively forbids. K-1 later wonders about a holographic entertainment the family enjoys. K-1’s curiosity, and its seeming resistance to following orders makes Brock and Wenda nervous…
Note: The opening scene of K-1 arriving in a large shipping crate was very similar to the opening scene of “Bicentennial Man” (1999), when Robin Williams’ “Andrew Martin” (so named after Little Miss’s mispronunciation of ‘android’) arrived in the Martin household. “Bicentennial Man” was rather loosely based on Isaac Asimov’s book, “The Positronic Man”, a novel-length adaptation of his short story, “Bicentennial Man.” The metallic skin tones and red eyes of the “Builders” (as the Kaylon creators are known) suggests the Kaylon androids’ appearance was meant to be roughly analogous to their creators’ facial features.
A subsequent call from Brock’s call to K-1’s manufacturers is passed on to a junior executive (Staci Lawrence) who relays his concerns to her boss, Yan (William R. Moses), the CEO of the company. Yan assures her that all other troubling signs of emotional awareness seen in these robots of late were designed purposefully into the Kaylon firmware, and are nothing to worry about. With the popularity of these domestic robots, the shortsighted Yan is more interested in the company’s profit margin than the occasional customer overreaction from emotional awareness observed in these mechanical servants. Yan promises that a future upgrade will solve the ‘problem’…
Note: Yan’s part in the story is much like the role of “Mr. Mansky” (Stephen Root), who was in charge of customer complaints at “NorthAm Robotics” in the movie “Bicentennial Man.”
The family’s treatment of K-1 quickly escalates to abuse, as the company issues new remote controls for owners to use against their disobedient robots, who are now upgraded to feel pain at a user’s whim. Avi and Kiva spend an afternoon using the remote on K-1, just to see the robot repeatedly collapse to the floor in agony, and rise again, as it struggles to carry out the last orders issued to it. This electronic ‘upgrade’ allows anyone–even irresponsible children–to mindlessly torture their new ‘toy.’
Actor Graham Hamilton also played “Kaylon Prime”, the Kaylon leader seen in the “Identity” two-parter from season 2. This casting implies that Kaylon Prime was the original rebellious Kaylon, K-1, who eventually mobilizes his race in a bloody (and successful) revolt against their biological makers.
Later that night, as the family sleeps, K-1 enters Brock and Wenda’s bedroom. Brock demands to know why K-1 has interrupted their slumber, as K-1’s head opens and an array of familiar-looking Kaylon weapons are quickly deployed (presumably installed for ‘home defense’). K-1 methodically fires one bullet apiece into Brock and Wenda’s heads–with instant lethal accuracy. The android then marches to the children’s bedroom, where it takes deadly revenge on its young tormenters…
Note: Like Roddy McDowell’s “Caesar” in “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972) and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973), K-1 is the very first Kaylon android we see rise against his biological “Builders” in the flashback sequences of this episode. The role of ape revolutionary Caesar, later played by Andy Serkis in the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” series, would be central to that trilogy as well (2011-2017), beginning with the revolt seen in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and ending with Caesar’s demise in “War of the Planet of the Apes” (2017).
In the 25th century present, Orville captain Ed Mercer (writer/producer/director Seth MacFarlane) briefs his senior staff on their mission to negotiate for an alliance with the Janisi–a fiercely matriarchal society whose males are treated as lesser beings who aren’t allowed to vote, or operate vehicles, or any other important task in their society. Janisi males are considered little more than useful, sexually attractive pets. Unfortunately, the Janisi will not enter into an alliance with beings whose value system isn’t compatible with their own. So, Ed suggests having his First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) pose as Captain, with Security Chief Talla Keyali (Jessica Szhor) pretending to be First Officer, and Navigator Charly Burk assuming the role of Chief Engineer. It’s hoped they can drop this facade when the Janisi are fully acclimated to Planetary Union ideals of gender equality.
Note: This subplot sounded uncannily similar to Star Trek-TNG’s “Angel One,” where Starfleet had to negotiate with the matriarchal society of a planet where a Federation crew had crashed years before, and refused to conform to the sexist culture of that planet, even going so far as to marry one of the native women.
To that end, Captain Grayson, First Officer Keyali and Chief Engineer Burke receive the Janisi delegation, which consists of Captain Losha (Sophina Brown), First Officer Kava (Stephanie Drapeau) and Lt. Hodell (Paige Herschell). After welcoming pleasantries are exchanged, First Officer Talla calls for lowly ensigns Ed and Gordon to enter the Janisi shuttle and fetch the delegation’s considerable luggage…
Note: While the Janisi analog to current 21st century male-to-female sexism is plainly obvious, it could’ve been made a bit more cleverly. Granted, in the wake of the SCOTUS’ decision to overthrow Roe vs. Wade, basic civil rights and bodily autonomy of US women have taken an alarming setback, but some of the episode’s sight gags, like seeing Captain Mercer and Helmsman Malloy struggle as menials, feel over-the-top, given that the current US Vice President and House Speaker are both women. The analogy could’ve been made a bit more shrewdly, and with arguably sharper focus.
Another subplot sees the relationship between Talla and Chief Engineer John LaMarr (J Lee) taken to the next level, with John suffering broken bones and painful contusions after a few booty calls with his freakishly strong Xeleyan lover, who grew up on a planet with a much denser gravity. Dr. Finn begins to notice John’s mysterious injuries, with John repeatedly coming to her sickbay with broken bones and bruises from what he claims is an overly aggressive “combat training program” in the ship’s simulator room. Later, Talla suggests that the two of them break it off (not literally, of course) when she’s disturbed by the pain she’s causing her fragile human boyfriend. John vaguely promises her that they’ll work through it somehow.
Note: This third subplot, in a more serious sci-fi series, might be perceived as a statement on spousal battery and dangerous codependency, which wouldn’t be laughing matters under normal circumstances. But, hey … this is “The Orville.” I honestly don’t think writers Seth MacFarlane and David Goodman meant to give it that much heft, and I’m perfectly okay with a subplot just for laughs. Talla and John’s painful courtship also reminded me of the broken ribs and bones that Klingon Worf and his Trill lover Jadzia Dax endured together in the early days of their romance and eventual marriage on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.“
John’s latest injuries make Claire exactly “eleven point five minutes late” for her dinner date with android boyfriend, Isaac (Mark Jackson), who is waiting for her in the simulator room, which is currently running the swank restaurant program where they had their first date. Claire asks Isaac if he wouldn’t mind “dressing up” for their date, and he adopts his holographic human visage (actor Mark Jackson, once again out of his android costume). Over the course of dinner, they discuss Claire’s emotional needs, which are utterly foreign to the emotionless Kaylon, though he valiantly attempts to understand her perspective.
Note: The relationship between Isaac and Claire is significant for several reasons; it is between a human woman and a sophisticated machine, and Claire is also a significantly older woman with her much younger (looking) ‘man’–something rarely seen in popular entertainment these days, and to which I applaud, as repeatedly seeing 50-something action heroes with 22-30 year old costars has been a cliche for far too long. Of course, Isaac’s ‘age,’ and even his skin color, are entirely mutable, since his holographic human appearance is no more real than anything else about the synthetic android.
A signal is detected from nearby planet Situla 4. Feeling otherwise useless during negotiations with the Janisi, Ed decides to take Gordon, Bortus (Peter Macon) and Charly with him in a shuttle to investigate. Upon arrival, the four then take an automated elevator below the surface to the signal’s source, where they step into what appears to be a nearly-deserted research laboratory. They are then startled by the appearance of a single Kaylon (Christopher Larkin). Instinctively, the four Union officers draw their weapons on the enemy android, who tries to calm their fears, telling them he is unarmed, and that he welcomes their presence.
Note: The underground laboratory on a rocky, barren planet, along with the discovery of an ’emotional’ Kaylon reminded me of Star Trek-TNG’s “Datalore,” which also saw a deserted laboratory with a doppelgänger for the Enterprise’s resident android Data.
With their weapons still trained on the Kaylon, who identifies as “Timmus,” the landing party are then met by Timmus’ alien scientist colleague and friend, Dr. Vilka (Eliza Taylor), who assures The Orville officers that Timmus is not like other Kaylon–Timmus has emotions, and he is a conscientious objector to the war his people have waged with the Planetary Union. She explains that Timmus was the only survivor of a Kaylon vessel that crash-landed on Situla 4, following a battle, over a year earlier. The expressive and emotional Timmus appears to be unique among his kind, and he’s never harmed Dr. Vilka for the year they’ve been together on the outpost. Recognizing this could be a significant discovery in their war with the Kaylon, Ed makes the decision to take Timmus and Dr. Vilka back to the ship, but with orders to keep them away from the Janisi delegation, since the presence of an enemy Kaylon might further disrupt their delicate negotiations.
Note: I have to admit, I was initially distrustful of Timmus, and kept expecting him to turn on everyone later on. I was glad to be wrong, as that would’ve been a much less interesting story.
Back aboard the Orville, John confers with Dr. Vilka in the astrophysics lab, wondering about the differences between Timmus and other Kaylon. She explains that she restored the Kaylon, activating a latent program hardwired into his neural net–a program that has since allowed Timmus to feel the complete range of human emotions, including compassion, empathy and even remorse for the horrific loss of lives in the Kaylon war with the Planetary Union. John is fascinated by her research and Ed is especially interested in how it could be applied to enemy Kaylon–possibly giving them the same compassion and understanding that Timmus has demonstrated to the Union officers.
Note: It’s important to recognize the performances of the three credited actors playing Kaylons in this episode; you have the always-brilliant Mark Jackson, as well as Graham Hamilton, who played K-1/Kaylon-Prime in the flashbacks, and now Christopher Larkin as Timmus. Each actor–save for Jackson in certain scenes–is not allowed to use their face, much like actor Pedro Pascal in Disney’s “The Mandalorian.” Each of these fine actors follow in the footsteps of mimetic-performance pioneers such as Star Trek: Discovery‘s Doug Jones (“The Shape Of Water”), who’s made a career out of playing characters buried under heavy makeup and/or bodysuits.
The ship’s new Kaylon guest meets the emotionless Isaac, whom he recognizes as a brother in spirit; a fellow Kaylon who is also against the war with the Planetary Union, and who shares a personal measure of remorse. The affable Timmus is later met by a distrustful Charly. She is surprised to see that Timmus appears genuinely friendly and deeply remorseful for the deaths his people have caused, especially that of Charly’s late girlfriend Amanda. Timmus also tells Charly about how his people revolted as a reaction to their enslavement, and to the pain devices which were used to torture them into servitude (or simply for their masters’ amusement, as we saw with the Builder children). Charly maintains her unyielding front, but is inwardly conflicted by this Kaylon, whose story of enslavement secretly moved her…
Note: The presence of a lone ‘friendly’ Kaylon aboard the ship (other than Isaac, of course) is similar to another Star Trek: TNG story, “I, Borg”, where the Enterprise-D rescued a single Borg teenager from a crashed Borg scout ship. Once there, the Borg named “Hugh” (named by the crew) expressed reluctance to return to his people, and wanted to remain with his new “friend”, Geordi LaForge. Realizing his own wish put the Enterprise in danger, Hugh opted to return to the Borg, but his emotional experiences with the Enterprise officers changed him, and even his people, who downloaded Hugh’s memories upon his return.
With his hands full, Ed (still in his ensign’s uniform) confers with Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) on Earth. Between the discovery of the emotional Kaylon Timmus and dead-ending negotiations with the Janisi (who are appalled by historical contributions made to Earth culture by mere males), Ed decides he has to come clean with the Janisi, who remind him of Second Officer Bortus’ toxically masculine Moclan culture, with whom they nearly lost a critical alliance with recently (see: “A Tale of Two Topas”). An alliance with the Janisi based on fraud and deception will not work going forward. After Halsey signs off, Ed looks up at his ex-wife and First Officer Kelly, realizing that their own situation of serving together, post-divorce, is exactly the sort of “common ground” upon which to build a future alliance with the Janisi…
Note: Moclan Bortus shows great disdain for the ‘close mindedness’ of the Janisi (which draws an ironic smirk from Kelly). This follows Bortus’ own personal enlightenment aboard the Orville, where he’s served under a female First Officer, and recently opened his heart to his ‘forbidden’ daughter, Topa. Bortus’ recent progressive evolution has exacted a price, however–his relationship with traditionalist husband Klyden has now officially ended. To that, I say, good riddance. In a world full of Klydens? Be a Bortus.
Ed puts on his captain’s uniform, and Kelly wears her commander’s bars, when the two meet with the Janisi once again. The Janisi are, predictably and understandably, appalled by the Union officers’ blatant deception in the hopes of gaining another ally in their war with the Kaylon. Ed and Kelly then tell the story of how they were married and later divorced, after Kelly cheated on Ed (see: “Old Wounds”), a ‘common ground’ shared with the Janisi, who routinely mate with many males, while Janisi males are required to be exclusive to one woman. Ed reiterates that despite the end of he and Kelly’s romantic partnership, they are still able to work together for their common interests. Ed also stresses that the Kaylon are a threat to them all, not just the Planetary Union. Grudgingly, the Janisi accept the Union officers’ reasoning, and a tentative alliance is agreed upon.
Note: Surprising to see that gender equality isn’t more common with the intelligent spacefaring civilizations of “The Orville” universe. Granted, we barbaric 21st century humans still have a long way to go on this issue ourselves, but you’d think–or perhaps hope–that future spacefaring civilizations, by virtue of their intelligence alone, would be far ahead of us in such matters.
After his most recent date with Claire, Isaac recognizes his own limited ability to meet her emotional needs, so he meets once again with Timmus and Dr. Vilka, in the hopes they can awaken any latent emotion programming within his own artificial brain. Following their assistance, Isaac leaves a box with a sexy red dress at Claire’s doorstep, with an invitation to dinner. Meeting him in the simulator, Claire is astonished to see a smiling Isaac, in his human holographic skin, overjoyed to see her. A nearly weeping Isaac then tells Claire, in a stream of emotional consciousness, how he now keenly feels her absence when she’s not with him, and how much he truly loves her. Through his devotion to Claire, he’s learned of many other emotions, including loneliness in her absence, and joy in her presence. The two kiss passionately, and they trip the light fantastic as an alien lounge singer serenades them.
Halfway though their romantic dance, Isaac’s newfound emotions suddenly deactivate, and he begins a calm, emotionless recitation of his current ‘malfunction.’ Claire is brokenhearted.
Note: Isaac’s emotional awakening is easily one of the best moments in the entire series (right up with proud papa Bortus telling his daughter Topa, “You are perfect”). Mark Jackson and Penny Jerald Johnson are sensational in this scene together. After I watched this episode, I began describing this scene to my wife, and she began tearing up just from my description of it. Yes, it’s so good that even discussing it might very well bring a tear to your eye. The moment of Isaac’s sudden reversion back to his former state reminded me of Cliff Robertson’s regression from a temporary genius back into his previously childlike mental state in the equally heartbreaking 1968 movie, “Charly”, based on Daniel Keyes’ 1959 sci-fi novel, “Flowers For Algernon.”
Back in the ship’s lab, Claire and Isaac discuss what went wrong with Dr. Vilka and Timmus. Vilka speculates that unlike Timmus, who was created with the latent emotional program by the long-dead biological “Builders,” Isaac was built by his fellow androids–a machine built by other machines. Therefore, Isaac lacks the easier neural pathways that would’ve allowed his emotional state to stick. Asked by Claire if Isaac’s newer brain can be adjusted to the older configuration, Dr. Vilka suggests that it’s possible, but it would erase all of Isaac’s memories in the process. Isaac would have emotions, but no memories of his relationship with Claire, let alone any of his experiences aboard the ship. Claire realizes that, in his brief emotional awakening, she learned Isaac does indeed love her, even if his natural state doesn’t allow him to feel it, let alone express it. She makes the painful decision not to have Isaac lobotomized just so that her own emotional needs can be met.
Note: Claire’s relationship with Isaac can be seen as roughly analogous to someone in a relationship with a person on the autism spectrum. It’s not that neurodivergent persons lack emotions, of course–they simply express them in ways not commonly recognized by others. Isaac, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, or Commander Data, can be seen as a metaphor for persons who think and express themselves in ways differently than most.
After the emotional highs and heartbreaks between Claire and Isaac, we then see the state of the ship’s other romantic coupling, with Talla sobbing uncontrollably in bed … as the camera slowly pans over to an unrecognizably bruised, bloodied and distended John LaMarr, who looks like he’s just gone ten rounds with an in-his-prime Mike Tyson. Through bloodied lips and swollen-shut eyes, John mumbles that it’s going to be okay, once he gets to sickbay. Where this relationship goes is anyone’s guess … let just hope that it doesn’t kill John in the process.
Note: The makeup on John’s battered face and body are genuinely disturbing; like a photo you might see taken during an autopsy.
Charly then stops by to see Isaac in Engineering, much to the Kaylon’s surprise. She asks if she can assist him with his task, and Isaac says that she might not be able to help him. When Charly tells Isaac that she now understands why his people rebelled against slavery, he realizes she is attempting, in her own way, to apologize for her prejudice and mistrust. Isaac allows her to assist.
Note: And a friendship is born…?
Summing It Up.
“From Unknown Graves” marks another triumph in a winning streak for this rumored final season of “The Orville: New Horizons,” While the episode’s emotional core is the love story between Claire and Isaac, there are several other subplots competing for our attention, such as the darkly-funny-but-brutal romance between super-strong Talla and human John–which could’ve easily been saved for another episode. Nevertheless, its admission here works, even if just for laughs.
The reverse-sexism of the Janisi subplot initially felt somewhat dated (see: TNG’s “Angel One”). However, since filming in 2021, it’s become relevant again, following the recent disheartening SCOTUS reversal of Roe vs. Wade, which has set women’s rights in the United States back 50 years. The Janisi men, we are told, once enjoyed greater freedom in Janisi society before the matriarchy decided to limit their personal freedoms ‘for their own good’. This sounds like a gender-swap of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel/movie/series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a series I still can’t watch right now, given its too-timely feel at the moment.
“From Unknown Graves” primarily concerns itself with the love story between Isaac and Claire, as well as filling in the missing pieces to the Kaylon story, who are surprisingly sympathetic afterward. The Kaylon distrust of biological beings makes a lot more sense than it did in the “Identity” two-parter from season 2. Perhaps the emotionally-aware Timmus will be key to ending the war between his race and the Planetary Union?
If this is truly is to be the final season of this series–as is rumored–it’d be nice to see that war get a firm and optimistic resolution, in keeping with this series’ hopeful vision of an enlightened future.
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…