This review of The Orville: New Horizons contains spoilers.
The Orville: New Horizons Season 3 Episode 2
The season 3 premiere of The Orville: New Horizons reinforced why this show picked up in popularity in its second season. It was poignant and character-driven, but not without the trademark Seth MacFarlane humor and sense of adventure. It accomplished so much, as well, introducing new characters, new dynamics, story threads that will undoubtedly be revisited and gave audience members the sense that this new era on Hulu is in fact a shinier “new horizon.”
It’s often the case that when someone is pitching an idea or presenting something to an audience, that they should start with a bang, and grab the attention of said audience. What is also common practice is that one of your weakest ideas should be sandwiched somewhere early on, often in the second spot. The writing team of The Orville seemed to have followed this pattern perfectly in this season’s first two episodes. Granted, it’s only been two installments, but after last week’s dynamic return, episode 2, “Shadow Realms” certainly fizzles.
When Den of Geek spoke to the cast and crew of The Orville to discover what to expect from this season, Executive Producers and Writers David A. Goodman and Brannon Braga (who also co-wrote this episode) specifically spoke about the darker tone. Braga wrote the brilliant Star Trek: First Contact which is one of the seminal stories in the Next Generation lore. It crafted a rich, dark tapestry that was part time-travel adventure and part zombie film.
While “Shadow Realms” has its share of darkness, it is a slow character burn for the entirety of the first act. The crew are rednevouzing with Admiral Paul Christie (Guest star James Read) who is to serve as chief negotiator with the ‘frenemy’ alien species, the Krill. The Union wants to use a path of Krill space on a regular basis, but the crew of the Orville are most excited that this means it will open vast light years of unexplored space. As Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) briefs the bridge crew, Lieutenant Keyali (Jessica Szohr) notices that Doctor Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) is visibly deep in thought and distracted. Keyali asks Finn if she’s ok, but the doctor merely shrugs it off as being overtired.
As soon as Admiral Christie comes aboard, he immediately visits Claire in sickbay. We quickly discover that the two not only know each other, but quite intimately, at that. At first we can only glean that Claire was once Paul’s student while at University, but it’s glaringly obvious there is more to their relationship. Christie tries to turn on the charm and ask Claire to dinner, but his advances are shot down fairly quickly. Claire’s purposefully open with the fact she’s spending the night with her sons, which surprises Paul as it had been some time since they last spoke, and he wasn’t even aware she had children. Their exchange ends with Claire telling Paul outright that it’s best they don’t complicate the mission with anything but a working relationship.
As the night continues, there is a diplomatic reception where the crew of The Orville and two Krill delegates converse. The Krill, not accustomed to human niceties, make the evening as humorously awkward as they can. Things become even more awkward when Christie, ever the charmer, toasts the new alliance between the Krill and the Union, while staring directly at Claire while toasting to “a better future.” Claire, feeling that once again Paul has crossed the line, asks Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) to come to her quarters to finish off a bottle of wine she took from the reception, as she just needs to get out of that situation.
As Claire and Grayson share the bottle, Claire shares an idiom with Kelly about memory being either “a prison or a gallows.” It is a great moment between Finn and Grayson, as the two women begin to bond over their past mistakes in love. The pair rarely get a chance to interact, so it was refreshing to see the friendship develop a little. Eventually, Claire reveals to Kelly that she was once married, and sure enough, it was to Paul.
Paul is used at a nauseum for this episode, to the point where Read, a guest star, actually has to carry it. That was a bold choice, to say the least. Rarely is it that a one-off guest character, who was never mentioned prior to this episode, becomes the one to lead the story along its path. It wasn’t even as if he was accompanied by one of the regulars in the show, the audience for the majority of the first half of the show went where Christie went. With such a long delay in between season 2 and 3 of production, The Orville was sipping from unfamiliar waters while it arguably should have been quenching the thirst of fans. That drink should have come from the pool of regular characters we’ve missed so much.
Christie, Mercer and Grayson meet with the Krill one last time, where the Union is granted permission to cross into Krill space, but there are several conditions. Two of the more strict provisions are that they are equipped with a tracking device so the Krill can monitor their movements, and that they adhere to a very specific path. The Admiral agrees to almost anything, but tells them they wanted to explore a region called the Kilar Expanse.
The Krill show more fear than ever before on the show, saying that is basically forbidden space. The Expanse is a place of pure evil, inhabited by demons and that even the most righteous are possessed by this evil and commit heinous acts. The three Union officers take it in stride, and weigh their options before making the decision to venture on. Before the Krill leave the ship, they offer a prayer to “those who are about to die,” and ominously inform Mercer and his people that they won’t stop the Orville from heading into the Expanse, but they also will not come to their rescue, should our heroes need it.
The Admiral joins Claire at dinner to tell her he’s staying aboard, and coming on the mission. The two begin to reminisce a bit and Christie shows Claire he’s kept his wedding band all these years. Claire asks him to respect the boundaries of professionalism, that she had to spend a long time to get over him, and doesn’t want to go through that again. Before they venture off into the expanse, Christie even speaks with Isaac and asks what it was like to date Claire. Once again, we find ourselves following the story of a character who has not earned it. It was a nice moment for Isaac, but the show dwelled far too long on Christie and his hang up on Claire.
The episode finally gets moving both literally and in terms of the story when The Orville ventures into the Expanse. Bringing in more and more elements from the horror genre, the Expanse is complete darkness. There are no stars, no suns, and the only light comes from The Orville. Keyali informs Mercer she’s detected a distress call, and so they venture deeper into the Expanse. As they trek further and further, they come across an ominous, organic-looking monolith, which they deduce is some sort of space station. Mercer, Grayson, Keyali, Finn, LaMarr, and Admiral Christie all take a shuttle to board the station and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Thus begins a long thread of poor writing choices for this episode, as suspension of belief becomes as dark as the starless Expanse. It’s easy to question the story beats used to set up the horror half of this episode, and how quickly the characters fall into horror movie tropes. Why were so many high ranking officers on this particular, dangerous away mission? Why were they going in without hazmat suits or weapons? As soon as they board the station, Mercer unwittingly embraces another trope, telling the crew to split up, which simply initiates a series of character decisions that would have regular film fans screaming at the characters on screen, desperately reminding them of their stupidity. After praising the writing of the previous episode, ‘Shadow Realms’ seemed lazy, utilizing frustrating, overused story beats.
Needless to say, Admiral Christie gets too close to one “energy node” in the station; a glowing almost fungal-looking node which expands as he gets close and gives him a bit of a jump scare. When they all return to the ship, The Admiral, to no audience members’ surprise, collapses, and begins to mutate almost immediately. Dr. Finn, after examining the Admiral, informs the Captain that something is rewriting Christie’s DNA.
The rest of the episode devolves into a fairly pedestrian “monster of the week” story. Christie mutates into an arachnid looking and aggressive creature, and he somehow manages to cripple The Orville and shuts down the power. This leads to characters venturing off on their own, children being left in scary hallways, things that go ‘bump in the night’ and inevitable jump scares when an unnamed crew member suddenly realizes something is behind them. All these moments create tons of atmosphere, but lack real enjoyable logic. You simply have to go along with it, because it is a horror episode. The Christie Alien can also mutate others by excreting a green sputum in the face of its victim, which is supposed to add an extra threat, but we never even get a sense of how many crew are being hunted or who have turned.
For a lot of the episode, it was somewhat reminiscent of “Genesis,” an underrated yet quirky episode of The Next Generation in its final season. In that, the Captain returns to a crippled ship, a float in darkness, while the crew has devolved into monsters and animal-like creatures. An episode, coincidentally, also written by one Brannon Braga.
What is interesting to note, is that in only two episodes so far, season 3 has been very Claire-heavy. Two episodes in a row now, have specifically been about her interpersonal relationships, her family, and her innermost emotions. Granted, if every show had a veteran like Penny Johnson Jerald on their cast, it would be very safe to fall back on her talents, but this reiterates the theory that this is probably one of the weaker episodes this season, even without knowing what’s to come. It’s easy to see how originally the writing team didn’t plan on having two Claire centric episodes back to back, but thought they could slip this one in at the second slot and eventually hope it becomes forgettable.
“Safe” is also an extremely apt adjective when describing this episode overall. Braga and co writer André Bormanis simply wrote a lesser version of a teleplay Braga already wrote. This new alien species solidified itself as a possible future threat, especially when the Christie Alien spoke with Claire (yes, he can speak in monosyllabic monstrous-sounding responses) and said they would return and that all those aboard The Orville would be “one” with them. Yet even that was reminiscent of the Borg from the Trek renaissance of the 1990’s it has simply been done before.
Yes, there were some moments of character development for Claire, and yes we discovered a little more about her past, but that seemed to be a side note at best. In an episode that is immersed in the horror-genre, nothing truly felt like a threat. The Orville crew that were lost to this mutation were widely unnamed, and despite Christie being a central player in this particular episode, losing him had no emotional impact. As mentioned, the show will undoubtedly revisit this hostile species, but the real danger here was creating a second episode that may lose more audience members than random-unnamed crewmen.