Review: The Orville Weaves High Concept Sci-Fi With Character Development In “New Dimensions”

Review: “New Dimensions” 
The Orville Season 1, Episode 11 – Aired Thursday, November 30

Written by Seth MacFarlane

Directed by Kelly Cronin

When Chief Engineer Newton (Larry Joe Campbell) departs the Orville in order to accept a post designing a space station, an unusual candidate emerges to take his place – bridge slacker extraordinaire John Lamarr (J Lee). The ship explores a fascinating new realm, but has to battle their way out using technobabble. Captain Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) learns that Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) was partly responsible for his appointment as commanding officer of the Orville, and struggles with his self-confidence as a result. Along the way, “New Dimensions” showcases the awkward, teetering balance that is The Orville, trying to be both a thought-provoking science fiction show and a workplace comedy. The result is an uneven but mostly-enjoyable episode.

“New Dimensions” shifts fairly well between two major plotlines – one centering around Lamarr and the other around Mercer. It’s almost like the showrunners at The Orville heard complaints from last week’s TrekMovie’s review – John Lamarr has been one of the most useless characters I’ve seen on TV, and this episode seeks to bring him much-needed depth. It does so by telling us that Lamarr is secretly a genius engineer, raised on a fledgling farming colony where intellect marked you as strange and different. In his childhood, he learned to hide his smarts, and it became a habit that he never cared enough to break.

 

When a prank Lamarr and fellow troublemaker Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) play on the gelatinous engineer Yaphit (Norm MacDonald) is discovered, Grayson finds out that in Union Point, the space academy of the Planetary Union, Lamarr had top scores in Advanced Engineering, and that “his aptitude rating is through the roof.” Grayson urges Mercer to give Lamarr the chance to shine. Mercer rightly argues that intelligence isn’t everything – Lamarr has consistently shown poor judgment and a general lack of respect. “Heading up a division is about more than just smarts,” Mercer comments, “He’s never shown any indication of leadership ability. He’d have to oversee a lot of personnel.” But Grayson is determined – she sees potential in Lamarr. She begins giving him assignments designed to allow him to show his worth, and although he has a rough start, soon Lamarr’s intelligence and problem-solving skills begin to emerge.

The problem with this is two-fold: first, The Orville has already done a lot to showcase the foolish, ignorant side of Lamarr. There is a lot of character momentum there to overcome. Second, J Lee may not be up to the task of portraying the change. His acting thus far is broad and showy, with very little subtlety. It is hard to believe his character has the sort of rich inner life that this new direction requires. Maybe Lee will grow into this new role – I hope so. The obvious TNG parallel here is with Geordi LaForge, who started the series as the pilot of the Enterprise-D, but in the second season was promoted to Chief Engineer, where the character flourished. The problem is, though LaForge seemed wasted on the Bridge, it was clear that there was potential to waste in the first place. The same cannot be said for Lamarr, and even without the use of his eyes, Levar Burton was able to communicate a depth of thought and feeling in his character that I have yet to see Lee reach.

Giving Lamarr command of the science team is a smart first step for Grayson to take, but it rankles Yaphit, who is next in line for promotion to Chief Engineer. Yaphit now has two grudges against Lamarr: the foul prank that the Bridge officer played on his gelatinous crewmate earlier in the episode, and seemingly being passed over for promotion in favor of a slacker. In a somewhat silly scene, Yaphit suspects racism. “You guys can’t handle the thought of a gelatinous person in charge of a department. This is so racist!” Yaphit rages. Mercer replies with the obvious and dull rejoinder, “I am not racist! I have several gelatinous friends.” Ha. I have a couple of problems with the Yaphit scenes: For one thing, Norm MacDonald has one and only one voice setting, and it is annoying, and for the other, Yaphit winds up slinking back into the story with no resolution near the end. He angrily refuses to eat a gumdrop in an ill-conceived ice-breaking activity in engineering, but ¾ of the way through the episode, he returns sheepishly to the engineering team with no indication of why he has a change of heart. It feels like there’s a scene missing somewhere, some conversation that reconciles Lamarr and Yaphit. Without that scene, Yaphit’s arc makes no sense.

Of course, Lamarr proves himself through the challenges of the episode, earning the Chief Engineer position. Along the way, he snarks hilariously at technobabble, and pukes all over a shuttlecraft. Like I said, uneven.

 

The Mercer plotline showcases the struggles the captain has with his sense of self-worth. When a joking aside from Grayson reveals that he had received his command in part thanks to her recommendation, he begins to doubt his abilities.  Would he have succeeded in earning the Captaincy on his own? Grayson assures him that he would have, that he is in fact an excellent Captain, due to his ability to see all sides of a situation and make a good judgment call. But Mercer values self-reliance. It’s here that the episode both shines, and falters. The Mercer plotline makes the best description I’ve ever heard of the concept of privilege, a controversial topic in our culture at large. Mercer thunders, “I’m a prideful ass? Why, because I want to be self-reliant? Because I want to feel like I got where I am alone?” To which Grayson replies, “I don’t know if your two-dimensional perspective has room for this concept, but nobody does anything alone. We all have people who help us along the way. Sometimes we know about it, sometimes we don’t. But it doesn’t take a damn thing away from you.”

It’s exceptionally well-done, subtle, and sensitive, but it’s telegraphed a minute earlier by Mercer’s reference to the fascinating 1884 novella that was turned into a fascinating 2007 computer-generated film – Flatland. I love that it is in the back of MacFarlane’s mind in writing this episode – the influence is clear throughout. I hate that he has Mercer say, “Have you ever read Flatland?…it’s a metaphor for inequality.” Boom. It’s so on-the-nose, such a flashing light saying, “THIS IS THE MORAL OF THE STORY,” that it treats the audience with just a smidgen of disrespect. We got it already, dude. You don’t need to highlight it so obviously. Let me put it this way: the subtle excellence of this episode’s treatment of privilege ranks right up there with the best Trek “issue” episodes, like “Measure of a Man,” “Darmok,” and “Far Beyond the Stars,” while the on-the-nose bluntness of these lines smacks more of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”

 

These two storylines play out against a fascinating science fiction backdrop – the concept of a 3D ship co-existing in a 2D realm. It’s a fun, fascinating idea, and no less so because it was borrowed from Flatland. The show’s visuals in this regard are another uneven mix. I found the 2D space to be unimaginative (though colorful!) in its circuit board-like portrayal. The scale of the details seemed wrong, in comparison with the Orville. On the other hand, the way the 3D ship interacted with the 2D realm was wondrous and lovely. The camera angles and movements, the shot choices, and the visualization were all gorgeous and well worth watching. But when the crew discusses the fact that the 2D entities inhabiting that realm might not even be aware of their presence, what looks like the start of a fascinating exploration of philosophy, or religion, or science, is instead used as the setup for a masturbation joke.

The episode ends with a gentle kiss from Mercer to Grayson, a hint of the softening that their relationship has been undergoing, and with Lamarr taking his new post in Engineering.

Again, an uneven episode. Some great, lovely and fascinating bits, troubled as usual by the show trying to be two things at once. As is often the case, if you try to be two things at once, you can almost never excel at both.

 

Random thoughts:

  • Ty (Kai Di’nilo Wener) and Marcus (BJ Tanner) Finn are in this episode, for just about no reason.
  • I liked Kelly’s line: “I’m your First Officer. Part of my job is to help assemble the best possible staff on board this ship.” A lot of people have no idea what Riker did on the Enterprise-D other than leading Away Teams. I appreciate that The Orville shows us what Grayson’s responsibilities are.
  • I also liked Kelly’s description of what happened in The Orville’s universe when money was phased out: “Human ambition didn’t vanish. The only thing that changed is how we quantify wealth. People still want to be rich, only now rich means being the best at what you do.”
  • Sadly, that was followed by Lamarr’s observation that, “Some people want to go to work, go home, drink a beer, and pass out.”
  • We meet a Horbalak smuggler (Paul Vogt) named “Blavaroch.” Gordon’s comment, “God, that generation has so many Blavarochs” almost made me spit out my drink, it was so funny.
  • Gordon’s suggested icebreaker seemed to me like a wasted opportunity. It involved Yaphit eating a gumdrop – a gelatinous candy – when earlier in the episode, Gordon and Lamarr had tricked Bortus (Peter Macon) into eating a small bit of Yaphit – a gelatinous entity.
  • Incidentally, that “prank” is rather horrifying, when you think about it.
  • The skull-headed crewman, named Dann in the last episode, and played by MacFarlane buddy Mike Henry, is an amusing supporting character. Share a little about yourself, Dann…
  • Using the shuttle to tow the Orville is a good solution, but it raises obvious questions of mass and inertia that the show doesn’t bother to answer.
  • The show makes reference to Doctor Who’s police box, Oscar the Grouch’s can, Snoopy’s doghouse, and Dumbo – continuing its trend of referring to 20th and 21st Century pop culture in a show ostensibly set in the 25th 

Clips from  “New Dimensions” 

Preview of season finale

Keep up with all the The Orville news, reviews and interviews at TrekMovie.com.

 

 

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