With its renewal on the bubble, “The Orville: New Horizons” has just wrapped its third and possibly final season. So, how does “The Orville” conclude? With a cliffhanger space battle? A deadly disease that threatens to wipe out the ship’s crew? The Planetary Union in peril? Thankfully, none of the above. Series creator/producer/writer and star Seth MacFarlane’s affectionate ode to Star Trek ends with a celebration of its characters and the series itself. And in a year filled with more than enough real-world drama, “Future Unknown” certainly hits the spot.
The previously tumultuous third season began in the aftermath of a deadly battle with the Kaylon (“Electric Sheep”), and continued with the impossibly intolerant Moclans getting expelled from the Planetary Union (“Midnight Blue”) as well as the death of the ship’s brilliant new navigator, Charly Burke (Anne Winters), whose sacrifice let to peace between the Planetary Union and the Kaylon (“Domino”). Along the way, there were some victories. Bortus’s daughter Topa (Imani Pullum) was finally surgically affirmed as female, correcting her involuntarily-assigned sex of male (“A Tale of Two Topas”). A painful romance bloomed between Security Chief Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr) and Chief Engineer John LaMarr (J Lee), while Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Jerald Johnson) openly resumed her previously-stalled relationship with the ship’s lone Kaylon android, Isaac (Mark Jackson), after he confessed his love for her during a brief window of emotion (“From Unknown Graves”). Oh, and did I mention that no less than the legendary Dolly Parton herself made a surprise cameo in “Midnight Blue”? It’s been quite a ride…
In the midst of these emotional ebbs and flows, the show never lost its sense of fun. The humor, which used to hobble the series early on in its first season, has comfortably found its place as a spice to the stories, not a main course. This is a series that’s went from class clown to valedictorian, and it’s been wonderful to watch. There’s only one catch–a fourth season renewal remains in doubt.
With the series’ own future hanging in the balance, let’s take a look at the aptly-titled…
The episode opens with the officers of Orville gathering in an alien forest for a Moclan re-bonding ceremony (the equivalent of renewing wedding vows). In the ritual, Bortus (Peter Macon) and his mate Klyden (Chad Coleman) strip down to a pair of positively medieval-looking Speedos, and chase each other through a forest, only to catch each other, and engage in brutal, semi-feral sex. Save for the sex, the rest of this bizarre ritual is witnessed by their friends and yes, even their daughter, Topa. It’s an R-rated answer to Star Trek TOS’ “Amok Time,” but with a happier ending.
Note: It’s interesting that while Bortus and Klyden have defected from their home planet of Moclus for the sake of their beloved daughter, they are still very much Moclans at heart. It’s similar to a Russian who defects to the West, but still enjoys Russian music, culture, etc. Their political choice doesn’t mean they have to abandon the culture with which they’re familiar. The bonding ceremony also seems to have strengthened Bortus’ sense of Moclan identity as well, as he seems more bullheaded and rude than in other recent episodes.
The ship’s lone Kaylon, Isaac (Mark Johnson) is inspired by Bortus and Klyden’s public declaration of love for each other, and researches the customs of human romance for the sake of his own paramour, Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Jerald Johnson). While android Isaac is normally unable to feel emotions, he was allowed to experience them briefly in a recent experimental procedure, where he declared his love for Claire. In his own logical, algorithmic way, Isaac does love Claire, and with that in mind, he decides to propose to her in the ship’s lounge. Claire is caught off-guard by Isaac’s proposal, and tells him she needs to think about it. Later, after she collects her thoughts, Claire asks the immortal android what will happen to him after she dies, and Isaac promises her that he will take care of her sons, and all of her future progeny for as long as he exists (!).
Note: Who can refuse an offer like that? Despite the fact that Isaac cannot express love in a traditional way, his offer to take care of Claire’s descendants for the entirety of his immortal existence is about the most beautiful expression of love I’ve ever seen in science fiction.
The doctor gathers opinions on Isaac’s proposal from her friends, Security Chief Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr) and First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki). When Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) walks in, the lightly besotted ladies seek his solo sober opinion. Ed suggests that Claire ask her sons what they think of the idea. Claire talks it over with Ty (Kai Wener) and Marcus (BJ Tanner), who adore Isaac, and approve of the robotic guardian as their new stepdad.
Note: This rare, non-crisis episode almost has the feel of a cast wrap party as much as an actual episode. The playful sense of fun we feel from these characters is contagious.
Meanwhile, in the closest thing this episode has to a jeopardy story, the ship receives a call from a stolen Union com scanner that is coming from the planet Sargus 4, a planet the ship visited in season 1’s “Majority Rule.” The caller is a humanoid coffee barista named Lysella (Giorgia Whigham), who previously visited Orville when she helped the crew save Chief Engineer John LaMarr (J Lee) from being lobotomized for a sexually-provocative (yet innocent) dance with a sacred statue. Now Lysella is begging for asylum from her planet, where all decisions are made via public upvoting or downvoting, rather than informed choices–opinion instead of fact. Since Lysella’s already aware of the Planetary Union’s existence, Ed sees little harm in bringing her back to the ship. Lysella is then shuttled from her world, and offered asylum within the Planetary Union. Kelly is then assigned by Ed to acclimate the young woman to life in her new world.
Note: “Majority Rule” was one of those early episodes that got me to appreciate this series as more than a “Galaxy Quest” clone; it clearly had things to say about society in a way that modern “Star Trek” was ignoring at the time (a situation since rectified with “Strange New Worlds”).
Ship’s helmsman and resident jokester Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) goes down to Engineering to tell John that the captain wants him to join the Sargus 4 landing party, to the universal laughter of the engine room staff. Gordon later sees the return of the sandwich he sent three months into the future with the Aronov device (“Twice in a Lifetime”), and, as he predicted, the return of the sandwich was indeed a “pleasant surprise.”
Note: Given this season’s more generous episode running times (anywhere from 70-90 minutes), the scene of Gordon’s prank on John, as well as the return of his sandwich could’ve easily been cut, but one of the advantages of the show moving to a permanent streaming format is that it eliminates the worry about making time for commercials, something that Seth MacFarlane expressed great relief with during his virtual appearance at “The Orville: New Horizons” panel at San Diego Comic Con this year (see the bottom of this column for details).
A snag occurs when Isaac seeks John’s advice on his pending nuptials, and the ship’s ladies’ man suggests that Isaac play the field before he settles down. The literal-minded android later asks Kelly if she wouldn’t mind dating him. Kelly, of course, immediately intuits the source of this bad idea, since John had already given Isaac other bits of bad advice over the years. When Isaac’s ‘indecent proposal’ gets back to Claire, she dresses John down, in full view of his engine room staff, threatening his “punk ass” if he ever tries to give her impressionable fiancé ‘advice’ ever again.
Note: Penny Jerald Johnson is terrific in this episode, and while Claire’s dressing John down in front of his Engineering crew is highly unprofessional, I give it a pass in this ‘non-emergency’ episode where ship’s protocols seem even more relaxed than usual. If this were “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” this would’ve been a much bigger deal, but the Orville has always been a less formal environment.
After bringing Lysella aboard, Kelly acts as ambassador and friend to the displaced young woman. Lysella is awed as she goes deeper into the ship than she had in her previous visit. She also asks Kelly about the Planetary Union’s economics. Tackling a subject Star Trek has always been coy about answering, Kelly explains to Lysella that there is no money in their collective. Everyone in the Union has a basic survival necessities stipend, but choosing not to have a purpose in life is generally frowned upon, and even stigmatized. In a universe without money, reputation is currency, and whatever occupation one chooses, they are encouraged to be the very best at it. When Lysella asks how such changes came to be, Kelly explains that the invention of the matter synthesizer was the game-changer. When insecurities over food, housing, medicine and other basic needs were suddenly eliminated, it began an inevitable social evolution as well.
Note: Kelly’s explanation of how the Union’s social order occurred fills in some of the missing pieces of what was only implicit in Star Trek. Star Trek used to shilly-shally on this issue, not wanting to give audiences easy answers. But the Orville just lays it all out. Matter synthesis was the technology that fundamentally changed human society, not faster-than-light travel (which could also be easily exploited by the wealthy, as we’ve seen with modern privatized space travel, which has only become a new toy for the rich and powerful). It’s suggested that our hunger for hoarding things is one of the things wrong with our world today.
After being shown the Simulator Room and other wonders of her new environment, Lysella begins to feel something akin to survivors’ guilt for the people on her world. She asks Kelly why the Union doesn’t simply share their miraculous technology with every struggling species in the galaxy. Kelly explains that it doesn’t work like that, and it’s against the law. Feeling sullen and guilty, Lysella later asks to be taken home to Sargus 4. Naturally, Ed isn’t crazy about the idea, reminding Kelly that Orville isn’t a passenger liner; however, he agrees to take Lysella home.
In the hangar bay, Lysella is about to board her shuttle, when its onboard scanners set off an alarm. Talla’s security check reveals the young woman has once again pocketed a com-scanner, as she did a few years earlier. This time she’s also downloaded schematics for a matter-synthethizer, and other forbidden technologies she was going to share with her people on Sargus 4. Kelly decides it time to show Lysella exactly why the Union doesn’t share its advanced technology…
Note: The security alarm aboard the shuttle brings up one of my few minor nits with this episode; given that Lysella pocketed a com-scanner on her last visit, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to make sure she wasn’t repeating that offense before she was cleared to board? Granted, the shuttle’s scanners detected her piece of stolen tech well before any harm was done, but they apparently didn’t work so well when she was returned to her planet in “Majority Rule.”
In the Simulator Room, Kelly conjures a simulation of the planet Gendal 3 as it appeared early in the 21st century. Gendal 3 was a 21st century Earth-equivalent planet the Planetary Union visited on one of its earliest voyages, before it adopted strict protocols against sharing technology. Those early Union near-missionaries unintentionally corrupted Gendalian society by sharing advanced technology well before they’d achieved the social wisdom to use it properly. Kelly advances the timeline of the simulation to show the planet as it is now–a dead world with a few horribly mutated ‘survivors’ remaining. The Gendalians used the Union’s ‘gifts’ selfishly, and promptly employed them to destroy each other. This costly lesson was one of the reasons why the Union takes such care in going undercover whenever contacting a new species. Lysella heeds the lesson, and renews her commitment to life in the Planetary Union.
Note: Star Trek also had an early 22nd century Starfleet example of cultural contamination in TOS’ “A Piece of the Action,” where a book about Chicago Mobs of the 1920s was left behind by early space voyagers. “The Book”, as it became known, forever transformed a planet’s impressionable population into a society structured around organized crime. Admittedly, this is a disturbingly dystopian idea as well, but in 1968, it was played for laughs. Kelly’s holographic simulation of Gendal 3 is a lot more sober-minded.
Aside from the important lesson for Lysella, the rest of “Future Unknown” is all about Claire’s wedding celebration. The bachelorette party in the Simulator Room conjures a stripper–in this case, a Kaylon stripper–in honor of Claire’s fiancé–complete with tassels attached to its metallic approximation of nipples. The girls enjoy raucous, drunken laughs together as the Kaylon shakes its cybernetic moneymakers for the crowd. The bachelorette party, under Kelly and Talla’s planning, is a huge success…
… which brings us to Isaac’s bachelor party, which is the opposite. Originally, Isaac requested Gordon as his Best Man, since he has the sense of humor necessary for the event (according to the android’s exhaustive research, of course). Attention-hungry Bortus stole the limelight, and nominated himself in the role of Best Man, over the objections of an understandably pissed-off Gordon. Needless to say, as Ed predicted, the bachelor party thrown by Bortus is a disaster.
Note: This is what I meant when I noted earlier that Bortus acts a lot more “Moclan” than usual in this episode; it’s as if the renewal ceremony with Klyden reaffirmed their boorish sense of Moclan identity, despite their defection from Moclus.
Bortus uses the Simulator to recreate a somewhat lifeless Las Vegas lounge, where the bulky Moclan appears onstage in wig and white jumpsuit to offer his impression of Elvis Presley. He then belts out a baritone rendition of “Love Me Tender” that just about puts his audience to sleep. Only his mate Klyden shows any enthusiasm for Bortus’ crooning.
Note: Actor Peter Macon’s natural baritone can work for certain songs, such as his rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” for “A Tale of Two Topas.” But Macon dials it down even lower here, for deliberately comic effect. Bortus’ Elvis makeup is absolutely hysterical, as well… even better than his mustache in season 2.
Back on the bridge, the officers are momentarily alarmed by the appearance of a massive fleet of Kaylon ships suddenly dropping out of quantum drive around the Orville. Before they can take a defensive posture, Isaac assures everyone that the arriving fleet are his “wedding guests,” which includes most of the Kaylon population, save for a small defensive contingent left in orbit around their home planet.
With that brief misunderstanding cleared up, Captain Mercer officiates at the wedding of Claire and Isaac in the ship’s Simulator Room. A lovely woodlands simulation is conjured, and despite the groom’s guests consisting of an army of robots, the wedding is very traditional, almost surprisingly so. Groom Isaac wears the holographic human visage that he uses for his date nights with Claire (actor Mark Jackson out of the Isaac suit).
Note: The actor first appeared out of the Isaac costume in season 2’s “A Happy Refrain”, when Isaac and Claire first began dating. Even out of costume, Jackson is so identifiable as the character (maintaining Isaac’s body language, as well as a perfectly blank facial expression) that no fourth walls are broken. It’s truly a remarkable performance.
Claire and Isaac exchange vows, with Isaac’s vows acknowledging his inability to reciprocate his bride’s feelings, though he believes her presence will allow him to function optimally. This is as close to heartfelt feelings as the emotionless android can muster, and as Claire acknowledged in “From Unknown Graves”, it’s good enough for her. She’s already seen his emotional side when it was all-too briefly activated, and she knows he loves her in his own unique way.
Note: Like Star Trek’s Data or Mr. Spock, some might see Isaac as a metaphoric example of a neuroatypical personality; expressing emotions and processing information differently than most, but no less deserving of love and kindness than anyone else.
Immediately after the ceremony, a surprise arrives at the reception via special transport, and former Security Chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) returns to the ship to wish Claire and her former shipmates well.
Note: Halston Sage also returned in the alternate-universe season 2 finale, “The Road Not Taken”, which saw the Union engaged in a losing war with the Kaylon, with Alara helping to coordinate an underground resistance movement (all because a time-traveling Kelly failed to take Ed up on his offer of a date). Despite the character’s exit in season 2’s “Home”, the character of Alara has always felt like a member of the family, and her appearance in what may be the final episode of the series just feels right, somehow. That said, I adore Jessica Szohr as Talla, Alara’s more seasoned replacement, who also hails from Xelaya. It’s a win-win.
During the reception, Kelly takes a moment to see how her Sargusian protege is doing. Despite her earlier feelings of guilt for seemingly abandoning her people, Lysella appears to be adapting well to life on Orville. The wedding reception seems to have added a much-needed sense of normalcy and ritual to her new life.
Note: If the series does return for a fourth season, I would hope that actress Giorgia Whigham, who made quite an impression in “Majority Rule,” might be returning as a regular, or even semi-regular character. Lysella could be the audience’s 21st century avatar into the more socially and technologically progressive world of Seth MacFarlane’s utopian 25th century.
As Bortus gives a horrifically unfunny Best Man speech, he is politely interrupted by groom Isaac, who diplomatically offers that he’d like to hear a toast from Gordon as well. Gordon, of course, was born to give Best Man speeches, and he effortlessly tosses out jokes like Halloween candy. The affable Gordon is then prompted by Claire to sing a song for the assembled guests…
Note: As we heard in season 2’s “Identity, part 1,” Scott Grimes is a wonderful singer, a talent he’s since used on the show on various other occasions, including this season’s “Twice in a Lifetime,” which is the ultimate Gordon episode. I have to admit, when the series began, I despised the character of Gordon Malloy, as his role seemed to be nothing more than tossing out dumb 21st century references. The beginning of “The Orville” was pretty rough, and Gordon seemed to embody those very elements of it that didn’t work. However, by sheer force of his personality, actor Scott Grimes won me over. His melodic singing certainly didn’t hurt, either.
Gordon then borrows a guitar from the the band, and launches into a lovely rendition of James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life.” The lyrics to the song also act as a sweet-nature ode to the series itself:
“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
Any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.
The secret of love is in opening up your heart.
It’s okay to feel afraid, but don’t let that stand in your way.
Cause anyone knows that love is the only road.
And since we’re only here for a while, might as well show some style. Give us a smile.
Isn’t it a lovely ride? Sliding down, gliding down,
try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride.”
Note: It’s clear that Seth MacFarlane is a man who knows and loves his music, as his musical choices for “The Orville” are often atypical and inspired for a sci-fi series, such as using Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” to accompany Kelly’s landing party kicking the asses of Moclan invaders in season 2’s “Sanctuary”, for example. MacFarlane, like Grimes, is a singer as well, and has several albums to his credit, including “Music is Better Than Words,” and “No One Ever Tells You.”
The episode ends with the guests enjoying Gordon’s fitting ode to the bride and groom, as well as his shipmates. We also see Kelly and Ed–the divorced couple who learned to work together as Captain and First Officer over the course of the series–holding hands. It’s a small moment, but significant. Once again, offering us tantalizing bits for the series’ possible return, or more fodder to fans to speculate about in online fanfic in years to come.
Note: The white dress uniforms and black trousers also bear a superficial resemblance to the white topped dress uniforms we first saw in 1998’s “Star Trek: Insurrection”, which also seem to be based on the white dress uniforms worn by modern US Navy officers as well.
“Future Unknown” functions either as a wonderfully stress-free season finale, or as a celebratory sendoff for the entire series. Whatever happens next, “The Orville: New Horizons” ended gracefully (for now) and left me with a big satisfied grin on my mug.
Future Still Unknown
At San Diego Comic Con 2022 last month, I sat in on the panel for “The Orville: New Horizons” in Ballroom 20 at the San Diego Convention Center. On deck for the panel were Penny Jerald Johnson (“Dr Claire Finn), Mark Jackson (“Isaac”) J. Lee (“John LaMarr”) Peter Macon (“Bortus”) Chad Coleman (“Klyden”), Anne Winters (“Charly Burke”), Jessica Szohr (“Talla Keyali”), series producer Brannon Braga and the surprise addition of series creator/writer/producer/star, Seth MacFarlane, who joined the panel via Zoom.
Actor Peter Macon told a horrific story of red ants which crawled into his ‘Bortus’ headpiece during a filming break, only to be sealed into his scalp when shooting resumed (!). Seth MacFarlane also admitted to Macon that the series frightened him with its daunting storytelling potential, a potential reached in its third season. The series’ creator also expressed relief that the series is no longer on Fox, as they no longer have to cut scenes and make room for advertisements. MacFarlane also announced that while a fourth season isn’t yet confirmed, seasons 1-3 will soon be running on DisneyPlus, in the hopes of expanding the show’s audience and (perhaps) getting a fourth season.
Where To Watch
As of this writing, the first 2 seasons of “The Orville” and season 3 of “The Orville: New Horizons” are now on Disney+, and remain on Hulu as well. You can also purchase physical media copies of seasons 1 and 2 on DVD (no Blu-Ray release) from Amazon.com; no word on whether season 3 will get a physical media release, but given Disney+’s lack of DVD/BluRay releases, I’d doubt it.