“The Road Not Taken”
The Orville Season 2, Episode 14 – Aired Thursday, April 25, 2019
Written by David A. Goodman
Directed by Gary Rake
The Kelly from an alternate timeline has to try to get the band back together to save the galaxy in this second part of The Orville‘s second season finale. The fact that an episode constructed entirely out of parts of other science fiction shows, movies, and stories can still be watchable and enjoyable is a testament both to the skill of the writer and the appeal of this cast.
Warning: It is a period of civil war. Rebel SPOILERS, attacking from a hidden base, threaten to make a dark time for your life. If SPOILERS bother you, do not scroll below!
An Old Hope
The Orville does not start with a promise to seek out new life and new civilizations, nor does it promise to boldly go where no one has gone before, so perhaps it’s unfair to hold them to that concept. But part of what makes a story interesting is the novelty brought by the creators of that story. Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde once said, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt,” and I would say that it’s the responsibility of storytellers to make old ideas felt in new ways. “The Road Not Taken” succeeds enough in this regard to make it worth watching, but it certainly feels as though it is mostly walking roads that have been taken so many times before.
The episode opens with two masked men trudging across a frozen, snowy landscape identified as Sarin IV to break into an abandoned Union Listening Post. They are there to steal supplies, primarily a food synthesizer. Suddenly, they are attacked by a small Kaylon ship, which lands and disgorges three Kaylon, whose head cannons pop out and start firing. Unexpectedly, their heads detach from their bodies and start flying on their own, firing with stormtrooper-quality accuracy. The men dodge into a battle-scarred Union shuttle and reveal themselves as Gordon Malloy and Ed Mercer, both looking scruffy as nerf-herders and considerably worse for wear. “I thought we’d be safe here, least for a while,” says Gordon, in contradiction to the furtive, hurried way he was acting before the arrival of the Kaylon. “No such thing as safe anymore,” Ed replies, and we cut to the same shortened opening titles as last week’s episode. I miss the longer titles.
The Kaylon Strike Back
It turns out this is not the Ed and Gordon we have come to know and love in two seasons of The Orville; rather, these are a version of those characters created by a divergent timeline, spawned at the end of last week’s episode when Young Kelly turned down Young Ed’s request for a second date. My 12-year-old daughter’s comment: “Moral of the story, never turn down a request for a second date!”
As the shuttle makes for space, a Kaylon ship picks up their trail and chases them through the cliffs and caverns of a nearby ice moon in a thrilling sequence evocative of Firefox, The Empire Strikes Back, Firefly, and eighty other sci-fi stories. It’s done well, the visuals are beautiful, but every maneuver is something we’ve seen before, many times. Escaping, the shuttle engages its quantum drive, and there’s a nice shot looking aft, back down the shuttle’s flight path, which was something cool and unique.
We discover that it’s been nine months since the Kaylon assault against biological lifeforms began, the assault that our Ed and our crew were able to thwart at great cost in the two-part “Identity” story earlier in the season. But in this timeline, that victory over the Kaylon never came, and the Kaylon have wiped out half the known galaxy in the time since. I felt guilty not telling them that I know a guy who can do all that with a snap of his fingers…
Return of the Kelly
While Ed and Gordon use the synthesizer to make a Twinkie, their shuttle is suddenly intercepted by a cool-looking, large scavenger ship that is a cross between Stargate: Atlantis‘ Daedalus and a certain beat-up Star Wars light freighter of some renown. Should we be afraid of scavengers? Gordon freaks out that “they’re gonna cut off our skin and wear it like a suit!” Thus, we borrow the reputation of Firefly‘s fearsome Reavers for a little anxiety – but only for a moment, since as soon as the shuttle is tractor beamed into the scavengers’ landing bay, we discover that these scavengers are Dr. Finn, Lamarr, and Keyali, and they have Kelly Grayson as their leader. This is the Young Kelly who dumped Ed after one date seven years ago, now aged appropriately to be our Kelly’s counterpart. Alt-Kelly wears the coolest jacket, ever and shows a lot of cleavage, so you immediately know this is an alternate timeline.
This Kelly is searching the galaxy to put together the alt-versions of the prime Orville’s crew, on a mission to change the timeline back to the way it should have been. However, it’s not entirely clear why Alt-Kelly needs these alt-versions of our crew to pull this off. Certainly, neither Alt-Gordon nor Alt-Ed wind up contributing anything significant to the plot or resolution than almost any other characters would have done.
Alt-Kelly explains the divergent timelines to an incredulous Alt-Ed and Alt-Gordon, and then lays out her plan. The memory wipe that Prime-Claire performed on Young Kelly didn’t work because her brain was deficient in a key protein. Alt-Finn says that this was an easy thing for her Prime counterpart to have missed, and it’s something that can be corrected. If she travels back in time and makes certain the memory wipe is successful, then Young Kelly will accept Ed’s date request, and the timeline will be restored.
But where can they get this protein? There’s an anti-Kaylon resistance that has just barely escaped being wiped out, and LaMarr knows where one cell can be found. In the scavenger ship’s Millennium Falcon-esque cockpit, they quantum drive to a heavily forested planet. Taking the Union shuttle down to what I will call “Endor” for no reason at all, the alt-crew hike through a tall evergreen forest to the front door of what I will call the “Imperial Death Star Shield Generator Facility” for no reason at all. When Lamarr knocks on the door, an eyeball-sentry pokes out of a round eyehole in the center. Instead of saying “Jabba no wonga” it turns out to be a protuberance of Alt-Yaphit who recognizes the alt-crew and leads them into the rebel base where they meet the rebel leader, Alt-Alara Kitan! It’s great to see Alara, who in this timeline seems to have had a romantic relationship with Alt-Lamarr that ended resentfully. She gives them the protein, but there isn’t much time to catch up as hordes of Kaylon attack the base. The rebels buy our alt-crew time to escape by spending their lives in a futile firefight, with Alara left behind to lead the charge in what we can only assume was her last stand.
The Phantom Shipwreck
Our alt-crew try to escape in their shuttle, but it is occupied by a single Kaylon, head cannon at the ready. Ed and Kelly kill the AI lifeform after a cringeworthy discussion of who likes to be “on top,” and then our crew returns to their scavenger ship so they can flee from another set of Kaylon vessels, through another trench system, again reminiscent of Firefox, The Empire Strikes Back, and Firefly, etc. Gordon does come up with the novel solution of hiding in a black hole’s event horizon, resulting in a sequence that is as gorgeous as it is scientifically bonkers. The time dilation allows them to watch the Kaylon search for them repeatedly outside the black hole, only to give up eventually and leave. When they emerge, two full days have passed. “Wow! How was your weekend?” Malloy asks.
With the protein in hand, the alt-crew leave the event horizon of the black hole (!) and head for Earth, where the Orville herself is lying crashed, seven miles deep in the Pacific Ocean. The sight of a denuded, crater-pocked Earth, stripped of its atmosphere, and a shattered Moon is horrifying and heartbreaking. As for the USS Orville, it is surprisingly intact for a ship built for the vacuum space now under the crushing pressure of the world’s deepest trench. And it turns out the ship isn’t entirely empty as Alt-Bortus remained on board during the evacuation and kept the ship’s systems functioning, hoping to one day rejoin Alt-Klyden and Alt-Topa on Alt-Moclus. But Moclus has been destroyed, Alt-Keyali explains, confirming what Prime Ed had warned the Moclans about in “Sanctuary.”
Attack of the Clone
This all leads to what should be the episode’s pivotal emotional moment. In this alternate timeline, Ed has never been a ship captain, but Kelly and the crew insist he take command. When he sits, Kelly just to his left in the first officer’s seat, the rest of the crew at their Prime timeline stations, the music and the camera angles tell us this is the way things should be, but it left me cold. The episode already established that the key difference in the prime timeline was Isaac’s relationship with Dr. Finn’s kids, and not anything unique to Ed’s leadership. Could anyone really say to Ed Mercer that “commanding a starship is your first, best destiny.” This is not to say Seth McFarlane’s performance is lacking, but rather that the Mercer role has so far shown us little that makes the character particularly suited to the command of a starship.
One of the key reasons to do “alternate reality” versions of known characters is to shine a light on heretofore undisclosed aspects of their personalities or to throw their personalities into sharp relief by showing us far different versions of their prime selves. When Q shows Picard what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been a risk-taker from the start in TNG’s “Tapestry,” we intuitively know that the blue-uniformed Lt. Picard had wasted his potential. In this episode, when Alt-Ed says he had commanded a Union outpost, but so far not a starship, there is not really any feeling that his potential had been missed.
There is no doubt Mercer is a nice guy, and fiercely loyal to his friends. He is relatable and has an everyman quality to him. Ed’s most distinctive characteristic is his relationship with Kelly, his first officer. This episode doesn’t tell us anything about the character that we didn’t know before, but it does reinforce this relationship more than ever, Ed loves Kelly, in any timeline. In this timeline Ed and Kelly are able to admit their love; it remains to be seen if this character growth will transcend timelines.
Revenge of the Finn
Using the internal mechanisms of the Kaylon they shot in their shuttle, the alt-crew piggyback on the Kaylon “Connectome network” to retrieve Alt-Isaac’s memories of his research on the Aronov device, but in the process, they alert the Kaylon to their location. With the Kaylon bearing down on them, they have to bring the Orville to a dead stop and channel all available power into the Aronov device in order to enable it to send Alt-Dr. Finn back in time. With the Orville about to explode from overloaded power, Alt-Ed proposes marriage to Alt-Kelly, and she says yes. The Orville explodes.
Seven years ago, we see Young Kelly wake up with a hangover the day after her first date with Young Ed. She gets some coffee, and after her first sip disappears, dropping the coffee mug, shattering it. Zap! She’s gone. A few seconds later, zap! She’s back, lying on the floor like at the end of the last episode. Then, zap! Alt-Finn arrives before the timelines have a chance to diverge and fixes Young Kelly’s memory wipe. Then Alt-Finn and all her paraphernalia disappear, showing us that nightmare timeline has been erased and the universe has been rest. Young Kelly wakes up to the sound of Young Ed’s no-game date request call. This time, just as she originally did, she says she’d love to go out with him again, and the episode ends.
The Orville Awakens
“The Road Not Taken” works as an episode, despite its highly derivative nature. The dialogue is fun, the special effects are vibrant and exciting, and these characters are pleasant to watch. The story itself gives us nothing new, but it retells the familiar beats in a pleasant enough way.
As a whole, the second season of The Orville marks a shift in the balance between humor, character, and drama from the first season. The humor has become more subtle, and more in service of the character and the drama, and that has been a good change, making for a more solid, entertaining show. What The Orville did well in the first season they are doing even better in the second season, exploring thoughtful questions in a deeper, more substantial way than is common on television. If the stories, visuals, and music have been deeply derivative, they have at least been high quality, and for the most part have worked as homages rather than rip-offs, making The Orville a sort of tribute show to ’90s science fiction in general, and Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular.
Looking ahead, The Orville has not officially been renewed for a third season, but the writing is on the wall: I believe it will happen. What they need to do moving forward is to maintain the high production quality and the deep exploration of difficult topics, but work towards more innovative storytelling. And they need to develop the character of Captain Ed Mercer, who after two full seasons of this show is still fairly anonymous as a Captain. I look forward to seeing how they grow.
- Alt-Ed and Alt-Gordon plan to hide out near the Calivon, a dangerous species who are “close to an even match” for the Kaylon. The Calivon were seen in the first season episode “Command Performance.”
- Alt-Ty and Alt-Marcus are onboard the scavenger ship for no reason that the story can figure out. Alt-Ty pushes a button to activate the tractor beam. Alt-Marcus asks if the Alt-Orville is deserted. And that’s it. These kids can actually act when given a script, so I say use them well or don’t include them in the episode at all.
- Just like I’m not sure how a ship designed to survive in space can also survive underwater, I have no idea how engines designed to propel a ship through space can also propel a ship through water.
- The cited protein beta secretase that affected Kelly’s failed memory wipe is an actual, real-life protein believed to be associated with memory retention.
- The abandoned, battle-scarred corridors of the Alt-Orville are eerie.
- The stirring music accompanying the launch of the Alt-Orville from the bottom of the Marianas Trench is very reminiscent of the “Stealing the Enterprise” music from Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.
- Ed and Kelly share a drink in the empty bar – thankfully, when this Orville barely survived a space battle and crashed into the bottom of the Marianas Trench, not a single bottle of booze was broken.
- When Alt-Isaac’s personality occupies the severed head of the other Kaylon, his eyes are Isaac-blue, rather than other Kaylon-red.
- “There’s an ice moon orbiting the planet. I could take us inside, give us time to reset the drive.” “What do you mean, ‘inside’?” “I mean, like – not ‘outside.’” Gordon and Ed.
- “That’s a much more appealing version of events, but it’s not reality.” “Yes it is. In an alternate timeline.” “Is this one of those crack-house ships I’ve been hearing about?” Ed, Kelly, and Gordon.
- “Because I was Captain?” “Yes.” “I stopped the Kaylon?” “Right.” “I had to swim with my shirt on until I was 20.” Ed and Kelly.
- “Yaphit, it’s me, John.” “John? John who?” “From the Orville! We served together for years!” “Oh yeah, right! Sorry! Piece of me got blasted off last week, little bit of my memory was in it.” John and Yaphit.
- “You will surrender.” “You want the top or the bottom?” “I like to be on top.” Kaylon soldier, Ed, and Kelly in the most cringeworthy dialogue of the episode.
- “So, what have you been up to the last seven years?” “I’ve been pretty focused on my career, actually.” Kelly and Ed, demonstrating that Alt-Ed is the same exact person as Prime-Ed.
- “I don’t even see any fish.” “The Kaylon were thorough.” Claire and Kelly – this is a point I’m glad they made – the Kaylon hate biologicals, and animals are biologicals.
- “Are we the only ones onboard?” “No. One life sign, five decks above us.” Good thing Marcus asked that question, then!
- “Talla, want to open this jar of pickles?” Ed has his “signature line,” I guess.
- “If what I am told is true, and we are able to restore the timeline, then that is your chair.” “I’ve never captained a starship!” “Oh, yes you have.” “Sit.” Bortus, Ed, and Kelly.
- “We need to get inside Isaac’s brain.” “Isaac is on Kaylon. When we returned him, he was disassembled.” Ed and Bortus – this was what the Kaylon were going to do to Isaac in the prime timeline, but Ed and Kelly stopped them from doing so.
- “Am I a terrible person, that part of me wants this timeline to continue? In the middle of this nightmare universe, I’ve felt this weird sense of comfort, being with you.” “Well, maybe we’ll fail, have to go find someplace to live in secret.” “Some nice little house on a deserted planet. We could have a couple of kids, a boy and a girl.” “We’d have to learn how to farm, how to cook.” “Look at the sunset every night.” “Look at you every morning.” They kiss. “You know, Gordon’s probably going to have to live with us.” “Shut up, you’re ruining it!” Kelly and Ed in the best exchange in the episode.
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