This The Orville review contains spoilers.
The Orville Season 2 Episode 6 Review
Hey, Orville loyalists. I’m going to have to do it again: it’s impossible to watch the latest episode of The Orville and not talk about how it references…Star Trek Battlestar Galactica! Just kidding, this is the episode of The Orville that went full-on Westworld. I’m sorry, I said Westworld, but I actually meant Ex Machina. This is The Orville’s response to Ex Machina.
The point is: Do you love robots? Do you love it when robots try to date, but their cold, cold robot circuits just mess up the dating process because their robot brains just can’t understand love? Great. Then this episode is for you. Everyone else, who has seen this storyline before, get ready for a bumpy ride.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: this season of The Orville is all over the place. Sometimes — like last week’s episode — it seems to use a conventional sci-fi approach to tell a new story. Other times, it feels accidentally derivative of something that happened on another sci-fi show last year. And still other times, The Orville is taking old Star Trek ideas and making them a little bit more real. This week’s episode, “A Happy Refrain,” is none of these things. Instead, it’s a robot/human love story that assumes the audience has never watched or read this kind of story. Ever. Seriously, if you love The Orville and you’re kind of new to science fiction, then guess what: This episode was great! If not, this episode was also fine, but wholly unoriginal.
The entire episode is all about Claire and Isaac (the resident robot on The Orville) dating. Like any episode of a TV show in which mismatched characters date, the idea that Isaac is a robot is simply a stand-in for him being an emotionless asshole. This was true when Data tried to date on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and when the Cylons got busy with Baltar on Battlestar. The juxtaposition of human emotions with robot coldness is perhaps as old as science fiction itself. Seriously, just go find old Astounding Stories issues and count how many covers of those pulp magazines feature robot-y looking robots cradling human women in their arms.
This, above all, is the essential problem with Isaac. He looks like an old school robot, which scans more as a joke than as anything a longtime sci-fi fan can take seriously. Sure, this episode flips the script on that detail, because at one point, Isaac creates a human face and body for himself in the simulation room. But still, it seems like we’ve seen this kind of thing before, whether it was in Blade Runner or Buck Rogers, or with Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. In other words, The Orville isn’t adding anything new to this story. Fans might disagree, but here’s some proof…
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the episode is that the biggest problem Claire and Isaac have with their relationship is connected to the fact that Isaac knows everything about Claire because he’s a robot with an awesome database. Now, this seems kind of fresh, but it’s really not. In the Isaac Asimov short story “Liar!” there’s a telepathic robot who not only knows everything about everyone, he’s also aware of their feelings and inner-most desires. This causes the robot in the story to lie to everyone in order to make them feel better, which, of course, results in chaos.
I mention this because that summary is more interesting than the robot-dealing-with-emotions story from this episode of The Orville. The only way to love this episode is if you love the characters of Isaac and Claire. I like Claire, but Isaac is such a generic robot, ripped from the tradition of science fiction, that it’s very hard to take anything with him seriously. Plus, stories like this from Asimov are more creative because they add in other elements. The Orville is writing Isaac like a pre-Asimov robot, which makes these tropes feel like they’re rooted in the ‘30s or something. This kind of thing was old when Data was around on TNG and is just tired at this point.
Orville fans will say that I don’t get it and that using old sci-fi tropes is what the show is good at. But there is nothing original about this episode. Literally nothing. There is better robot love happening on Westworld than anything that occurs “A Happy Refrain.”Sure, it’s kind of interesting that Claire and Isaac seem to be trying to make their relationship work at the end of the episode, but I think I liked that better when I saw it last year in Solo when Lando was low-key dating his co-pilot L3-37.
If you like Claire and Isaac, then this was a great episode. If you like cool science fiction about robots, you’re probably due to get this episode wiped from your memory already.