This review of The Orville: New Horizons contains spoilers.
The Orville: New Horizons Season 3 Episode 3
“To many humans, a mystery is irresistible. It must be solved.” Wise words from arguably the wisest of Captains in modern television history, Jean-Luc Picard. A quotation that encapsulates not only human behavior, but one of the Roddenberry mottos that often serves as a driving force for these fictional travelers to explore strange new worlds.
The production team of The Orville: New Horizons embraced this motto long ago. No matter the danger, the Orville pushes through the eternal darkness of space looking for answers, and that’s what makes episode three: “Mortality Paradox” one of the more intriguing adventures the crew has had.
Lieutenant Keyali (Jessica Szohr) returns from a week’s long leave where she was apparently visiting her parents. She checks in with Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) as soon as she’s back on the ship, and lets Kelly know about some unusual Kaylon activity that she came across during her flight back to the Orville. Keyali lets Grayson know that anything that far out in the sector is considered strange and should be treated as a threat.
After she returns to duty, Keyali shares Selayan Chocolate with her bridge mates, letting them all know the dense delicacy is one of her mom’s specialties. When she offers one to Bortus (Peter Macon) he lets her know he won’t indulge, as he and his partner, Klyden are taking their own shoreleave in a month, and Malloy (Scott Grimes) has advised Bortus to get his ‘summer body’ ready for the Moclan beach.
Isaac (Mark Jackson) interrupts with a series of bizarre readings. It appears that Narran 1, what is understood to be a planet that is merely barren rock, is sending out electro-magnetic signals, something which Isaac reveals can only be made by a substantial population. Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) naturally wants to investigate, and so orders Malloy to alter course.
When they arrive at Narran 1, Isaac scans the planet further. From first glance, it is anything but barren, and Isaac confirms it when he senses transportation networks, industrial power sources, and advanced cities housing a population of approximately 8 billion inhabitants. Naturally, this is not the end of their exploration, so in order to investigate the mystery, Bortus, Keyali, Malloy, Grayson and Mercer take a shuttle to the planet’s surface. Even more peculiar, when they fly close enough to the surface to make visual contact, there is nothing but greenbelt as far as the eye can see. As they land, their scanners on the ground confirm that the forest goes on for thousands of kilometers.
As the crew searches for answers through the dense evergreens, Grayson makes contact with LaMarr, who currently has command of the Orville con. He confirms what the away-team sees, that the cities have vanished. All readings merely indicate vegetation on the entire planet. Bortus suddenly picks something up on his scanner indicating there are life forms ahead. As the team makes their way through a clearing toward the signs of life, there is only one thing that stands out among the forest, a cookie cutter high school building.
When the team makes their way into the building, they’re suddenly trapped as the door locks behind them. Even Talla’s Salayan strength can’t budge the door, and weapons are useless. They’ve also lost contact with the Orville, and so have no choice but to wander the halls of the school looking for answers. When a school bell rings, typical human teenagers create more bustle and more confusion, and even though the crew can ask them questions, no one has a straight answer about where the Orville crew are.
Isaac and LaMarr attempt to break through to the crew below, but with no luck. Isaac indicates the shuttle is intact, but the crew is nowhere on his scans. LaMarr decides a second landing party is best, so orders Isaac to take Doctor Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) with him in case there are injuries. Isaac argues the same fate might befall the second landing party which sparks anger in Ensign Burke (Anne Winters), who reminds Isaac that they are not Kaylon, and should not be dismissed as merely “lost commodities.” It was a brief exchange between the two, but a nice reminder of the dynamic between Isaac and Burke season 3 set up in the premiere. When Isaac and Doctor Finn arrive on the planet’s surface, they see exactly what has been reported for years with Narran 1, that it is in fact, desolate. There are no signs of life, and no signs of the first away team.
Back at the high school, Talla and Bortus discover classes within this mirage of a school continue as if it were any other day. They try to break through classroom windows, but still to no avail. Separated from the rest of the away team, Malloy is suddenly ambushed by three 20-something looking teenagers who tackle him into a washroom, rough him up, and demand that “Randall” gets his money. Having no idea who Randall is, Malloy does his best to stall and ask for more time.
FInally Bortus and Keyali make their way into the bathroom where Malloy suffered his beating, and help him up. When they reunite with Mercer and Grayson, Bortus informs the Captain that Malloy’s wounds are real. The away team realizes that even if this is a simulation or a hallucination, they can be hurt, possibly even killed.
The away team’s only lead is to confront the mysterious Randal at the end of the school day, as instructed by his middle-aged looking teenaged goons. Turns out, Randall is a massive alien troll, brandishing an ax. The crew’s weapons are once again useless, and Malloy is grabbed. As he seemingly cannot escape death, Malloy’s eyes gloss over noticeably, before Talla wounds the monster, and they escape. Malloy later describes the moment as his entire brain “freezing,” similar to an out-of-body experience.
This begins a series of bizarre survival vignettes. Mercer faces his moment of foggy-eyed fear in a plane crash scenario. Bortus confronts a Moclan morgue, full of the dead resting in floating pods. Grayson almost drowns due to a deep water leviathan. All of these tense adventures connected in a nightmarish labyrinth of tests, doorways and bottomless staircases. The remainder of the episode is one bizarre mystery after another, and is absolutely packed with twists.
The mystery absolutely drives the story from beginning to end, and much like Picard once said, it’s irresistible. Some viewers might be slightly confused by the random nature of some of the scenes, the 90s-era CG Troll that comes out of nowhere or how 40-year-olds still get cast as teenagers, but ultimately it is a very enjoyable ride.
That ride was very reminiscent of the classic science-fiction adventures many of us grew up with. Each vignette felt like it had palpable tension land actual stakes, regardless of the fact audience members knew no crew member would actually die. Knowing the formula of episodic television should never take away from the fear, it should still have you on the edge of your seat, and ironically, “Mortality Paradox”, following up an alleged horror episode last week seems like higher stakes with larger thrills.
Co-Executive Producer and writer of this episode, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, gave us one of the best balanced scripts the series has seen in quite awhile. Executive Producer Brannon Braga once told Den of Geek the writing team strived to mimic the success of his Star Trek: First Contact. He promised for the run of season 3, they tried to mix thrills, humor, adventure and even a little horror. Chevapravatdumrong should also be praised for the bits of continuity she threw into the story as well. The moment we revisit Ensign Burke’s tension with Isaac was a nice touch, as was the callback to season 1’s “Mad Idolatry” which was the driving force for this episode.
More importantly, and unlike the previous two episodes this season, “Mortality Paradox” gives several cast members a chance to shine. In the first two episodes of the third season, we’ve only had Doctor Finn stories to chew on, and both have been fairly heavy. This episode gave us a chance to get Malloy’s trademark sarcasm, learn a little more about Moclan culture, see various alien creatures of varied computer generated success, but most importantly, just have fun.