This The Orville review contains spoilers.
The Orville Season 2 Episode 1
The second season of the original Star Trek began with the famous episode “Amok Time,” in which Mr. Spock had to return to his home planet to have sex or die. And the second season of The Orville continues its overt to love-letter to old-school Trek with a similar premise in its second season premiere, “Ja’loja.” Bortas must return to his home planet for “the great relief,” because Moclans only urinate once a year. But, unlike “Amok Time,” The Orville doesn’t focus too much on this, and instead does an episode in which everyone figures out who they’re going to take as their dates for Bortus’s big day. Which spells trouble for Ed and Kelly.
Beginning with Captain Ed Mercer (Seth Macfarlane) sitting at the bar drinking and feeling bored with his daily routine and saying “all your thoughts just march inward,” The Orville season 2 premiere gives an early signal that despite the similarity to the ennui of Captain Pike in original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” this story is going to be more about people’s personal problems than outright space adventure. Though the set-up of “Ja’loja” borrows from “Amok Time,” the everybody-getting-ready-for-a-big-ceremony story feels more like The Next Generation classic “Data’s Day,” than anything else. That’s because there aren’t any intergalactic stakes in “Ja’loja,” just farcical romantic hijinks.
This works because it seems like The Orville is playing to it strengths right out of the gate. If any of the tonal wonkiness of the first season was off-putting for anyone, this second season debut seems to be sending a clear message: This show is a sitcom first, which means its characters will encounter sitcom-style problems in science fiction guises.
Like a lot of good sitcoms, our emotional investment in The Orville relies on how much we want one particular couple to work out their issues. On Friends it was Ross and Rachel, on Cheers it was Sam and Diane. Here, Ed and Kelly’s relationship is derailed by the arrival of Kelly’s new boyfriend, Cassius. And this twist gives us what is easily the episode’s best scene. Aware that Kelly is on a date (which he claims to be fine with) Ed takes a shuttle for a flyby past her window on the ship. This is the kind thing showrunner and writer Seth Macfarlane is great at. In all The Next Generation episodes in which Riker treated Troi like shit because she wanted to date someone new, we always sort of forgave him because (aside from having sex with holograms in season one) The Next Generation would never really show us Riker doing something overly creepy or stalker-y. But, The Orville goes there. Captain Mercer is using a shuttle to spy on his ex-wife and it’s equal parts hilarious and cringe-worthy.
For the most part, romantic relationships on sci-fi shows set in outer space make almost no sense in a realistic context. And yet, serious sci-fi shows, from Battlestar Galactica to Babylon 5 to Firefly all tugged at the audience’s heartstrings with various tragic or on-again, off-again relationships. Only the truly buttoned-up Next Generation tried to avoid ongoing romantic storylines at seemingly all costs. Sure, Picard and Crusher simmered for seven years, and Riker freaked out when Troi dated Worf, but these are blips on what was otherwise a starship wearing a giant chastity belt.
Tellingly, The Orville overtly references this idea when Kelly presents Ed with a scenario early in the episode. If he were forced to send her to die in a complicated and dangerous mission, would he be able to do it? Captain Picard faced this exact problem in The Next Generation episode “Lessons,” when he briefly dated Nella Daren. Dramatically, Picard did send Daren to what might have been her death, but only got broken-up with later. The fact this episode was called “Lessons,” is laughable, because the only lesson we learned was that Picard shouldn’t date a co-worker who is technically his subordinate. But, after this episode ended, so did that particular problem for the character of the Captain. Basically, save for a few moments, we get the impression that Picard never really dated much after that.
Which is why the newest season premiere of The Orville is so refreshing. Though Ed Mercer’s actions are played for laughs, the show has hit upon something TNG could never quite crack: People in these situations would act like idiots, give into jealousy, and generally make their lives worse because of love. And, it wouldn’t happen in just one episode, it would happen over and over again. It might not be the most original premise, but sci-fi shows almost never are able to make this kind of thing funny or relatable. Picard falling in love meant he had to learn a huge lesson and get depressed. Hell, in “Amok Time,” Spock was punished for having a biological needs by being tricked into thinking he killed his best friend. Shows like Trek tend to really make the characters feel like shit when they fall in love. Even Star Trek: Discovery is guilty of this: Michael Burnham falls in love with Lt. Tyler, only to find out he’s a Klingon spy. At the end of the day, the lack of relatable romance is the least optimistic thing about Star Trek in general.
But on the Trek-spoof The Orville, Ed’s behavior toward Kelly (and Kelly’s attempt to find a new relationship) accomplishes something very rare in this kind of science fiction. He might be a jerk, but he does love her. This is good and smart and fun to watch. Mostly because it feels real.