This The Orville: New Horizons review contains spoilers.
The Orville: New Horizons Season 3 Episode 5
Orville fans this season have frequently discussed how much the show has departed from its original comedic roots, and that may be half true. No longer can The Orville be considered almost parody-like in its humor and no longer do audiences get the trademark Seth MacFarlane jokes at random times. But that does not mean the show has completely forgotten where it came from. Captain Mercer (MacFarlane) has seemingly grown – he’s no longer occasionally awkward when the situation calls for diplomacy – and that character perfectly embodies the show’s growth.
Half way through its “rebirth”, The Orville: New Horizons has repeatedly shown just how “new” their approach to storytelling is going to be this season. Mercer, and indeed MacFarlane himself, seem to have evolved, and with it, this newly, more dramatic Orville has really found itself with a careful balance of impactful dramatic moments and more organic lightheartedness. MacFarlane and his writing team have proven time and time again this season that this is what the show should have always been, and it has made for a very memorable batch of episodes so far.
MacFarlane once again pulls triple duty here, having penned, directed, and of course, acted in “A Tale of Two Topas”, and this is definitely something fans should note. In the premiere, MacFarlane wrote a powerful intro to the new season with parables about xenophobia, PTSD, and suicide. Yes, this is the same man who constantly wrote diarrhea gags and sex puns early in his career, but if anyone doubted his prowess and intelligence as a storyteller, these episodes should put that to rest.
“A Tale of Two Topas” opens on an alien planet, as the show so often does. A looming almost Mayan-inspired temple with Indiana Jonesesque booby traps and all the fixings for an exciting archaeological adventure are present, yet this subplot isn’t important. At all. If there was even further indication that MacFarlane is tapping into the mature side of his storytelling soul, then look no further. The old MacFarlane, and perhaps the old Orville would have taken audiences on a fun yet ultimately fruitless adventure full of classic movie homages.
Instead, the real story begins as we join Topa (Imani Pullum), the son of Bortus (Peter Macon) and Kylden (Chad L. Coleman) on the simulator as the young Moclan commands a holographic crew through a Kaylon battle. The simulation ends in defeat, which frustrates the boy to the point where he slams the command console and cuts his hand. Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) interrupts just as the training exercise ends and checks in on Topa. He tells her that he is trying to get a headstart on command training, as he soon wants to apply to become a Union officer. The two have an amazing rapport, and agree it would be beneficial if Topa shadows Commander Grayson to learn the workings of command and the ship itself.
Eventually Topa opens up to Grayson that he is paralyzingly unhappy, almost as if the poor kid is suffering at an existential level; not knowing who he is, not knowing where he belongs, and quite simply not being happy with anything in life. The possibility of becoming a Union officer gives him some hope, as he eventually believes the answer to his unhappiness is somewhere in the stars.
Grayson, recognizing that this is perhaps symptomatic of Topa’s gender identity and the reassignment surgery he had as an infant, goes to discuss the matter with Klyden and Bortus. The conversation goes as expected, with Klyden angrily citing hundreds of years of Moclan tradition, and telling Grayson that she is very much out of line for even broaching the subject. Bortus is much more level-headed about the subject, simply stating they had yet to make a decision about whether or not to inform Topa about his birth.
The central message of this episode is extremely clear, in fact, the A-plot is very much the only story thread worth watching. More importantly, it would appear that on the surface, this episode, which for the third time in the first five episodes deals with a very loaded topic, has chosen a clear cut side of the argument. Yet one of the strengths of this episode is MacFarlane does well to convey so many nuances to a very touchy subject. While most agree that Grayson has the child’s best interests in mind, it is also clear she has overstepped, and infringed on Klyden and Bortus’ rights as Topa’s parents.
MacFarlane was never afraid to deal with the darker, harder to talk about threads of the subject, either. Topa’s storyline, and her consideration of suicide is absolutely heartbreaking. All of those around Topa who want what’s best for the child but are caught up in cultural objections, parental discretion or even Union politics gave the episode a well-rounded view of the topic of gender identity.
This is arguably one of the strongest ensemble work as well, with Palicki, Macon, Coleman, and young star Pullum all giving very believable performances. Palicki’s passion about Topa’s best interests is a motherly side of Grayson not really shown before. Her coming to blows with Klyden over what is best for Topa didn’t seem over-the-top or forced, and Coleman does well to vilify Klyden’s perhaps outdated views, without making them seem unjustified.
Yet Pullum, who is stepping into the role of Topa for the first time (the character was previously played by Blesson Yates) taps into absolutely stellar emotional depths that she becomes the standout of this episode. To see her have such a developed perspective on the existential crisis of Topa is a testament to the young actress and the emotional maturity she must possess.
In the end, it is decided that Topa should go through gender reassignment surgery. Isaac, as a non-Union officer is the only one who can perform the procedure on Topa to realign her gender to avoid the aforementioned Union politics. An unintentional touch from MacFarlane’s script, (as it was written years ago), is the coincidental topical nature of the Union telling Mercer and crew they cannot perform the procedure. This plot point is at least somewhat relatable to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to dictate what’s best for the citizens of the United States, and how a governing body can often try to tell people what to do with their own bodies, all in the guise of politics.
However, while the episode features some tremendous moments of actors shedding real tears under heavy prosthetics (to the point where you forget they’re wearing prosthetics) the script still needs a little more. As mentioned, the subplot leaves a massive hole in the story, simply because it has no bearing at all on what was happening in the episode. Fans who have been perhaps overly harsh on new crew member Ensign Burke (Anne Winters) could easily use this episode to strengthen their argument. Burke, like much of the bridge crew in this episode, is an afterthought. Granted, this happens from time to time, as the story will focus on an individual or a smaller group rather than the entire cast, but with Burke, it feels as if after a tremendous premiere, The Orville team simply haven’t figured out what to do with her. Halfway through her debut season she’s already relegated to moments where she’s asking the central character “wanna see something cool”?
Coleman, for as much as he brings this episode a believable counter-argument, is trapped within the inescapable mobius strip of the script. Klyden’s entire arc is merely “scream, threaten, get physically restrained, repeat.” Surely in an episode that does show some nuance, there was more nuance to be found with Klyden’s character, including tapping into his birth story (which was also biologically female) and why that further motivates him to do what he thinks is best for Topa.
The new direction of New Horizons has certainly given fans some very heavy subjects at times already, but it is most certainly working for the show overall. If MacFarlane and the creative team can better remember the keys to their early success perhaps a little more often, then episodes like this can both educate and entertain. For now, “A Tale of Two Topas” and episodes like it, may simply have to be satisfied that “educate” can be powerful on its own, and be content with broaching an important real-life issue.