Even though I found The Orville season one a bit disappointing, by the time I’d finished watching it, season two had recorded itself to my Virgin Media box. Ever the glutton for punishment, I decided to press on and watch all fourteen episodes. The question is – was it worth the time?
To be honest, it didn’t start out well. The first few episodes of the season suffer from many of the same problems that plagued season one. Whenever two women are alone together, they pretty much always talk about men. Storylines are cringeworthy and silly – see, for example, the episode set on the high-gravity world of Xelaya, or the one about a planet where everyone takes astrology so seriously that people born under a particular star sign spend their lives in internment camps.
This all culminated in a low point for me when Claire Finn, the ship’s competent and capable chief medical officer, gets a storyline in which she decides to pursue her romantic interest in Isaac, the emotionless Kaylon robot. Was this really the best storyline the writers could come up with for Claire? Were they even capable of writing things for a woman to do that didn’t involve dating or talking about men?
Fortunately, things turned around a bit in the latter half of the season. We finally got some more respectable storylines. In a mid-season two-parter, the Kaylon basically transform from being “arrogant Commander Datas” into a relentless Borg-level menace determined to eradicate all organic life. In another episode, the show tries its hand at a Star Trek style moral dilemma, when Mercer is put in the difficult position of having to choose between a fragile peace with the Krill, and the human rights of a former Union officer. It even rounds the season off with some classic time travel shenanigans.
Apart from the general improvement in storylines, there was one other thing that enhanced my enjoyment of the latter half of season two – and oddly enough, it arose during a storyline involving one of my least favourite characters, Gordon Malloy. Like Geordi LaForge before him, Gordon ends up falling for the holographic recreation of a woman he has never met. Although hardly the most amazing of storylines, it did lead me to the realisation that this show’s obsession with dating and relationships affects the men just as much as the women, and somehow, that made it more acceptable to me. It’s pure soap opera, and it might not be your cup of tea, but overall it was a lot more bearable here than it was in season one.
The Moclan Problem
In my review of season one, I spent some time discussing the car crash episode “About a Girl”, in which the Moclans – The Orville’s parody of Klingons – forced Bortas and Klydon’s daughter to undergo “corrective surgery” to become male, the only socially acceptable Moclan sex and gender. It was an episode that tried and spectacularly failed as a classic Star Trek style morality play.
Instead of giving that up as a bad job, this season doubles down on trying to use the Moclans to explore gender issues. In one episode, a former lover of Bortas comes aboard, only to reveal his shameful secret – he’s actually attracted to women rather than men. This is a massive taboo in Moclan society, and leads to his possible murder at the hands of none other than Bortas’s husband Klydon. It’s pretty clear that this episode is intended to explore homophobic attitudes in our own society, but while it’s not outright bad, it doesn’t really have much new to say. It also casts Klydon in a pretty bad light, as he comes across as both bigoted and misogynistic.
And indeed, Klydon continues digging that hole in the next Moclan-focussed episode, where it becomes clear that he has absolutely no respect for any of the women on the crew, and is raising his son to be just as prejudiced as he is. In this episode, we learn that Moclan women are far more common than previously thought, and that there is in fact a secret underground to smuggle them to a colony where they can live in peace. Upon learning this, the Moclan authorities want to shut the whole thing down and force all the women to undergo corrective surgery. Fortunately, a compromise is reached, but it’s still a pretty difficult forty minutes to sit through.
What makes this worse is that in between these episodes, the Moclans are treated as comic relief. In the season opener, we see Bortas preparing for the Jal’oja, a special annual ritual in which a Moclan does his only urination of the year. In another episode, Bortas and Klyden get addicted to cigarettes, with hilarious results. I’m all for giving characters range and variety, but there’s some real emotional whiplash in laughing at a character’s jolly japes one minute, and hating their outright misogyny the next.
- Captain Ed Mercer: Ed continues to be mildly likeable this season. He spends some time dating a woman who turns out to be a Krill agent in disguise, but later has to consciously accept that he still has feelings for Kelly. Fortunately, the series seems keen to keep them as just good friends, although in the penultimate episode Ed does get something of a second chance when a younger version of Kelly travels to the present. This episode could easily have gone down the route of “hey guys, wouldn’t it be awesome if you could get the young, fun version of your girlfriend back, before she became a nagging bitch”, but in fact it ultimately showed that Ed himself has grown and matured enough that his present self is no longer a good fit for the younger, more carefree version of Kelly.
- Commander Kelly Grayson: Now that we’ve moved beyond bringing up the fact that Kelly cheated on Ed every five minutes, she’s able to settle into a good friendship with Ed – one that’s she keen not to ruin by resuming their romantic relationship. She does date teacher Cassius for a while, which leads to the rather painful experience of him trying to win her back after they break up. Can we please just get past the toxic and erroneous idea that “no” means “yes, but you have to work for it”?
Overall, I’d like to see Kelly given more material about her work and the challenges of being the first officer of a starship, and less of the dating stuff, but I did appreciate the interactions between her past and present self. By coming face to face with the person she was seven years ago, Kelly is able to appreciate how she has grown and matured, but also take stock of how much he present life matches up to what she once imagined for herself.
- Dr Claire Finn: Claire continues to struggle with the challenges of being a single parent, and, as mentioned above, she dabbles in a romantic connection with the ship’s android, Isaac. As with Kelly, I’d definitely appreciate it if the balance of her character was tipped more towards exploring workplace challenges instead of romantic issues.
- Lt Gordon Malloy: Gordon’s main things this season are trying to take a promotion exam in the hopes of impressing women, and dating a holographic representation of a woman who lived in the 21st century. He’s less irritating than he was in season one, but I still don’t particularly like him.
- Lt Commander Bortus: I’ve already discussed my various issues with the Moclans above, so there isn’t much more to say here. Bortus is at least a lot more open-minded than Klyden, in that he achieves the very low bar of not being a raging misogynist.
- Lt Talla Kiyali: After Alara Kitan has to return to her home planet, Kiyali becomes her replacement as head of security. Given that she’s another Xelayan, I was initially worried that it was going to be a like-for-like replacement, with very little difference in the characters. In fact, Kiyali is entirely her own person. Where Alara was portrayed as being a bit naive and lacking in confidence, Kiyali is quite the opposite. She isn’t afraid to step outside the bounds of rank and speak her mind, and can confidently hold her own in any situation. We still get the obligatory “mostly talks about men and dating” angle, but I do quite like her.
- Lt John LaMarr: Now that he’s chief engineer, John’s biggest contribution this season is doing technical stuff that serves the plot. If he did get any character development, I certainly failed to notice it.
- Isaac: Thanks to his close relationship with Claire and her children, Isaac ultimately chooses to turn against his people and rescue the crew from annihilation. His romance with Claire somewhat echoes the events of TNG’s In Theory, when Data briefly dated a human crew member.
After a weak start, The Orville season two manages to get its act together enough to deliver a solid second half. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly excited for season three, but if it can maintain this level, it might actually be worth watching.