The Orville has never been shy about paying homage to its sci-fi influences. But while this week's season finale made use of one of the genre’s most famous tropes, “The Road Not Taken” was also a solid showcase of the show’s (mostly) unique strengths.
“The Road Not Taken” built directly on the previous episode, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”, in which an experimental time-travel device accidentally zapped another version of Commander Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) aboard the ship. This Kelly hailed from seven years prior — specifically, from the morning following her very first date with Ed (Seth MacFarlane).
In the show’s established timeline, Ed and Kelly ended up getting married, going through a traumatic divorce, and then slowly becoming close friends (although Ed has some lingering romantic feelings) while serving together as the Orville’s captain and first officer.
After returning to her proper place in time (with a faulty memory wipe that allowed her to remember everything she’d seen about her own destiny), the younger Kelly decided to tell younger Ed that she didn’t want to go out with him again.
In her mind, she was doing everyone a favour, sparing herself and Ed a significant amount of emotional pain. But the “what if?” scenario in the season finale shows us her well-intentioned decision had terrible ramifications that affected the entire universe.
The new timeline revealed in “The Road Not Taken” shows that without their marriage and divorce, Ed never became captain of the Orville (a gig he got thanks to a guilty Kelly’s behind-the-scenes advocacy).
Without Ed and Kelly running the ship that saved Earth from the Kaylon attack (as seen in a two-part episode that aired earlier this season, “Identity”), the sinister robot race proceeded unchecked in its quest to wipe out all biological life.
Determined to set things right, the alternate-timeline version of Kelly crisscrosses the galaxy, gathering up the Orville crew (many of whom did actually serve together on the Orville, as it turns out) to try and redo her accidental time jump, this time with a functional memory wipe so she won’t have any idea what the future holds — and therefore won’t be able to second-guess herself and mess it all up again.
This episode is significant not just for that elaborate plot, but because it involves so many locations. Aside from “Identity” (and a few other episodes and key moments), season two of The Orville has been mostly set aboard the ship itself, delving into stories that tell us more about the characters’ inner lives.
By contrast, “The Road Not Taken” featured alien-planet battle scenes, high-speed chases through an ice moon and an asteroid field, and extended sequences inside of a black hole and at the bottom of an ocean trench.
But at the same time, the finale was written so that it made use of all those character traits and quirks we’ve spent two seasons getting to know.
Dr Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), who’s equal parts brainiac physician and loving single mum; Gordon (Scott Grimes), an expert pilot who elects to end several days of starvation with a Twinkie; Bortus (Peter Macon), who’s both stone-cold starship professional and caring family man; and John LaMarr (J. Lee), a ladies’ man whose engineering genius ends up saving the day more than once.
“Road” also featured the brief return of Alara (Halston Sage), a much-loved character who’d seemingly permanently left the show earlier this season — a bit of fan service to reward loyal viewers.
Since this season of The Orville, which is quite affectionately made in the image of Star Trek, has been running at the same time as Star Trek: Discovery, comparisons between the two are even more inevitable than they already would be, and there were some scattered similarities beyond the obvious.
The Orville’s “Identity” storyline, featuring a battle that saw humanity’s longstanding foes (the Krill, who are very obviously modelled on Trek’s Klingons) show up at a crucial minute to help defeat a shared enemy in the form of an apocalyptically genocidal AI, was echoed in Discovery’s battle against Control.
The fact that the Orville named its “looks human but is actually Krill” character Janel Tyler (any relation to Discovery’s Ash Tyler?) feels like a pretty obvious wink, as does the character name “Commander Grayson”. (Say it fast and it sounds a lot like Amanda Grayson, no?)
Also, as mentioned before: Time travel, a sci-fi mainstay that also factored heavily into Discovery’s most recent season.
But The Orville — which is, overall, far more brightly-lit and way less emo than Discovery — doesn’t have to uphold decades of franchise history.
It’s basically a show that does whatever it wants from week to week, whether that means showing us (humorously) what happens when a pair of hulking alien Moclans get addicted to the ancient vice known as “nicotine”, or showing us (quite seriously) what happens when those same Moclans are confronted with situations that challenge the long-held traditions that govern their predominantly male race.
As a result, The Orville’s tone can feel a bit inconsistent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you hear the name “Seth MacFarlane” and are expecting wall-to-wall intergalactic hilarity.
To be sure, this isn’t a show that’s dark enough to suddenly kill off a main character (even Isaac, the ship’s Kaylon crew member, gets revived after he briefly turns evil and is shut down). The stakes are never really that high.
But it also isn’t afraid to confront some heavy themes... and balance out those themes with karaoke, dance parties, pranks, fight scenes set to the rallying cry of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”, interspecies romances, over-the-top moustaches, cookie bouquets and other random oddities that somehow fit perfectly into the fabric of the show.
It’s a weird mix, but even with Discovery looming over its head, there’s really nothing else like it on TV. Here’s hoping our current timeline allows it a third season.
The Orville is available on SBS On Demand in Australia.