Review: “Mad Idolatry”
The Orville Season 1, Episode 12 – Aired Thursday, December 7
Written by Seth MacFarlane
Directed by Brannon Braga
In its first season finale, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville explores some of the nuances of faith, reveals its version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive, and brings the relationship between Captain Ed Mercer and Commander Kelly Grayson to a more mature and stable point. The result is an episode that is quieter than one would expect from a finale, and a treatment of religion that is more respectful and less cartoonish than what was seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
By healing the cut on a young girl on a primitive planet Kelly Grayson inadvertently spawns an entire faith, which we get to witness due to the nature of the planet’s orbit, which makes it jump back and forth from our universe to another where time runs a lot faster. With TV’s limitation of 42 minutes to tell a story with this scope, shortcuts have to be made. So, on this planet there is only one religion, which borrows the terminology and imagery of Christianity as a shorthand for the audience. The 14th century version of the Church of Kelly even had a sort of Vatican, with the 21st century version evolving to televangelists. The progression presents an overly-simplistic vision of the growth of a religion from obscurity to prominence to transcending that religion as a sign of maturity. At the same time, in the midst of this simplification, MacFarlane’s script allows some of the characters to have complexity and dimension.
It’s important to point out the terrifyingly huge scope of the material MacFarlane seeks to address in just an hour of television, covering roughly 2,100 years of a planet’s social, technological, and religious development. Pulling it off – for the most part – is no small feat. “Mad Idolatry” manages to avoid some of the major pitfalls that TNG fell into with episodes like “Rightful Heir” and “Who Watches the Watchers?”, but it avoids those issues not by staying away from ideas, but rather by allowing more voices to speak.
When Mercer and crew meet the unnamed planet’s Pope-equivalent, the Valondis of the Church of Kelly, he seems pampered, rich, and satiated with food and drink, even while the people around him are starving. Yet, when Kelly arrives to confront him, it is clear he is a true believer, and he is committed to communicating the truth about Kelly to all the people when he learns who she really is. He believes that “The truth must never be compromised. The people should decide for themselves.”
This episode explores the Planetary Union’s policy of avoiding “cultural contamination” as The Orville’s version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Apparently violating this rule can land you in prison. But, just like our Star Trek heroes, Grayson and Mercer ignore the rules and try to fix the damage Kelly has inadvertently done to the society, doubling down after her initial encounter with even more attempts to set things right.
Their attempts provides the context for the best example of nuance in this episode. They approach the problem from the arrogant position of treating the inhabitants of this planet like children. They learn this lesson in hubris after leaving Isaac on the planet for 700 years only to see he (and they) were not needed to solve any problem. The 28th-Century aliens explain, “If it had not been you, our mythology would have found another face. It’s a part of every culture’s evolution. It’s one of the stages of learning.” In other words, their culture was robust enough to learn and grow from challenges on their own, without superior wisdom from the Planetary Union.
The aliens proclaim what MacFarlane has said is his personal faith, “You must have faith in reason, in discovery, and in the endurance of the logical mind.” The idea that religion is a stage that people will eventually grow out of is a sort of atheist condescension, but it’s presented in a more respectful manner than in the aforementioned TNG episodes.
There were also a couple of issues of simplification with how the show dealt with the time-dilating of the unnamed planet. Firstly, while this planet was supposedly evolving in a parallel to our history, the first jump we saw went from what we were told was their Bronze Age to something like the 14th century Middle Ages, which is about 2600 years of development in just 700 years. But what was even weirder was the science behind the planet’s “multiphasic orbit.” We are told this planet orbits similar stars in two universes, but with one universe moving 700 years for every 11 days, the star in their parallel universe will die out in just 250 of our years, give or take. So, by definition, there is no way for these two stars to share the same properties, or at least not for long. It may just be technobabble to allow for their story of time-jumping, but the science should still make some sense. Perhaps Alara summed it up best by saying “Well, that’s trippy.”
The main area for character development in the finale picked up on where the season started, with the relationship between Ed and Kelly. The gaps in time waiting for the planet to re-emerge gave them an opportunity to rekindle their romance and recognize their feelings. In the end, after seeing how far Ed will go for her, Kelly decides that a relationship won’t work. “You and I together jeopardizes your command.” This is a mature and sensible decision and was handled well. However, for such an important character issue, they could have spent more time on this story as it felt like their new romance was on pause for what was in reality about a month of ship time.
This was another one of those episodes where the humor was more subdued, and with exception of some mild poop jokes, the juvenile humor quotient was especially minimal. The best humor continues to come from Peter Macon’s deadpan Bortus, “Am I suspected of some misdeed?” and Scott Grimes’ wise-cracking Malloy, “These clothes are going to give me dysentery, I just know it.” MacFarlane and Grimes continue to show excellent comic chemistry, such as their “Let’s pretend I don’t know what that is” “Do you know what that is? “I do not” “So we could just say that” exchange.
“Mad Idolatry” is an episode that doesn’t focus on character, action, or plot, but rather on philosophy and ideas. As such, it’s a very quiet but nice way to end The Orville’s first season. It’s an episode that perhaps tries something more ambitious than it could possibly achieve, but in the process, it addresses serious questions with a decent amount of nuance and respect, and even a little fun too.
- Admiral Ozawa is played in this episode and previously in “The Krill” by Kelly Hu, perhaps best known for her role as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2.
- Philip Anthony-Rodriguez, who played Fadolin in this episode, previously played Juan, an engineer on the USS Horizon, in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Horizon.”
- This episode features Sports Illustrated model Kyra Santoro as the barely-clad Ensign Turco in John Lamarr’s quarters. This is her first acting role.
- The crew’s uniforms are looking noticeably pucker-y and bunched at the seams, a sign of wear and use over the course of the season
- The area on the planet from early in the show looks like the spot where Jason Nesbitt fought the Gorignak in Galaxy Quest, although it’s quite overgrown
- Ed Mercer receives a letter of reprimand in his permanent file for doctoring a report to protect Grayson.
- Continuity was maintained with Lamarr’s promotion to Chief Engineer from the previous episode. He takes the helm station only briefly to fill in for Gordon Malloy while he’s on a landing mission.
- The 28th-Century equivalent society looks like V’Ger’s home planet from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with reflective-gloss space ships. They wear outfits that shine like the Kryptonian costumes from Superman: The Movie.
- The Moclan game, Latchkum, is pretty bizarre. I may prefer a nice game of Fizzbin.
- Perhaps one reason the people of this planet revere Kelly as a god is that she is always depicted as right in this show. Here’s another excellent bit of wisdom from Kelly: “These jobs we’ve chosen, they condition you to be okay being by yourself. And after a while you start to think that giving yourself over to someone else is some kind of weakness, even though it’s exactly what you need.” That’s good stuff.
- Best line: “You’re worth more than you think.”
Clips from “Mad Idolatry”
The Orville book coming next month
While you wait for the second season of The Orville you can go inside the making of the show with The World of the Orville by Jeff Bond.
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