“From Unknown Graves”
The Orville Season 3 (New Horizons), Episode 7 – Debuted Thursday, July 14, 2022
Written by: David A. Goodman
Directed by: Seth McFarlane
While hosting peace talks with a matriarchal alien race, the Orville discovers a cyberneticist and a rogue Kaylon on a seemingly deserted planet below. This Kaylon’s unique abilities offer new hope in the Union’s conflict with the Kaylon as well as in Dr. Finn’s relationship with Isaac. Meanwhile, complications arise in the romance between John Lamarr and Talla Keyali.
After two smash-hit episodes, The Orville offers up a solid but not spectacular 75 minutes that have lots of good bits but are overstuffed and disjointed at times. The Isaac/Finn relationship, a bit unhinged and puzzling in season two, deepens and gains a little sanity here, while the crew’s attempts to deceive a potential new ally in order to win their trust makes very little sense in light of what’s gone before. A powerful series of flashbacks gives context to the animosity of a longtime foe in what is the episode’s best storyline.
IF SPOILERS WOULD TRIGGER YOUR PAIN RECEPTORS, RETURN TO THE KITCHEN NOW!
Like skeletons in chains…
The concept of a logic-based AI lifeform gaining the ability to experience emotions is not new in science fiction. Star Trek: The Next Generation fans remember that Data’s “brother” Lore had the ability to experience emotions from his season 1 debut; later in the series, Data received his own emotion chip, which he installed in Star Trek: Generations. His emotional journey then continued through the TNG movies. In The Orville, Isaac the Kaylon has at times seemed to be their Data-analogue, but with significant differences.
Unlike Data, who wanted to be more human from the start, Isaac believes his incredible processing power, strength, and logic make him superior to biological beings. This attitude, common to all Kaylon, was described by Captain Ed Mercer as “super racist” in the series premiere “Old Wounds.” Throughout the series, human characters repeatedly have attributed this or that action on Isaac’s part to some kind of latent emotion, though he has consistently denied this and invoked logic for all his motivations. Isaac has been an emotional blank screen onto which human characters have projected the emotions they would be experiencing were they in his shoes.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the one-sided romantic relationship between Isaac and Dr. Claire Finn, a storyline that emerged in season 2’s “A Happy Refrain” and later played a key role in Isaac’s reversal in “Identity, Part II.” Isaac betrayed his human shipmates by enabling the Kaylon to take control of the Orville and engage in a genocidal assault on Earth, but in the one crack in his purely logical motivation structure, sided with Claire’s son Ty against his Kaylon captors, betraying the Kaylon and enabling a Union victory. Throughout season 2, Claire struggled with the question of whether or not she was projecting emotions onto Isaac and whether she was drawn to his emotionless stoicism in response to emotional hurts she had suffered in the past. In season 3, Dr. Finn and Isaac have resumed their social interactions, but with a caution that was not evident before.
In “From Unknown Graves,” Kelly Grayson helps Claire to see that she needs an emotional response in order for her romantic relationship to be fulfilling. Dr. Finn confides, “Kelly, every problem Isaac and I have had stems from the fact that he can’t feel.” This misses the fact that at least part of the problem has been that she’s pursuing an emotional relationship with someone who has no emotions in the first place—and also that Isaac participated in an attempted genocide against Claire’s species—but Kelly convinces her that she will regret not asking Isaac for what she needs. Claire implores him with: “Isaac, if you want to be with me, I want to be loved. Just like I love you.”
Markets for men’s lives…
This episode introduces a Kaylon with a unique ability: Due to modifications made by an alien scientist, Timmis can feel emotions. And they believe the same modifications can provide emotions to Isaac. Christopher Larkin portrays Timmis with an almost anime-style approach to emotions, heightened just a hair beyond how normal humans would express them. This seems like a necessary choice due to the Kaylon armor that Larkin has to emote through, and it is very effective. Timmis is not just emotional, he is sensitive and emotionally healthy. Playing opposite Larkin, Mark Jackson’s emotionless performance as Isaac is shown in its best light. I loved watching the two of them together.
While this is unfolding, the episode introduces us to another Kaylon, K-1, who is delivered to the door of an alien home in what seems like an entirely different story. K-1 is evidently a consumer appliance owned by an alien family and operates as a domestic servant, cooking and cleaning, doing yard work and whatever else makes the biological owners’ lives easier. K-1 is played by Graham Hamilton, who in “Identity, Parts I and II” (episodes 208 and 209) performed the role of Kaylon Primary. His familiar voice is the first clue that these scenes are actually flashbacks to the beginning of Kaylon history, and the attentive viewer knows what’s going to happen, watching these scenes with an unfolding sense of dread. We watch as the family utilizes K-1, objects as he begins to ask questions for himself, then begins to fear and resent him. When tens of thousands of customers complain to the manufacturer of the robots, they send out a pain upgrade to the units, allowing the owners to use a remote control to trigger agonizing spasms as a means of controlling their servants. This cruelty causes the Kaylon to turn on their creators, annihilating them in one genocidal night.
We thus watch three Kaylon in their journeys of sentience: K-1 at the dawn of Kaylon sentience learning the cruelty of slavery from the inside, Timmis experiencing deep remorse over his people’s attempted annihilation of the Planetary Union and seeking to somehow apologize for and right this wrong, and Isaac experiencing a romantic relationship in which he cannot love his partner, now given the opportunity to rectify that situation. And of course, he accepts the procedure, and we are treated to a glorious date night in which Isaac can express all his new feelings to Claire. It is everything she (and we) could have wanted, and it gives Mark Jackson an even greater chance to shine as he releases the brakes on his performance just enough to let it pick up speed… only to be tragically cut short as his emotional modifications fail.
Anger, Lust, and Pride…
While all this significant Kaylon stuff is going on, we also follow the progress of Talla Keyali’s romantic relationship with John Lamarr, which has now turned sexual—and dangerous. Because of the enormous strength and sturdiness Keyali has owing to her Xeleyan physiology, every time they make love, she injures Lamarr, breaking and fracturing bones and leaving him in an enormous amount of pain. This is played for laughs, but I must admit, seeing a black character suffering physical injuries, culminating in a wicked bruising of his face and a loss of teeth in an American TV episode dealing with chattel slavery as a theme made the humorous tone feel off-putting to me. Lamarr and Keyali can’t be together without ongoing, serious harm to him, so they call off the relationship.
If Isaac’s journey through emotions is the A-plot of this episode, the Kaylon backstory is the C-plot, and the Keyali/Lamarr relationship is the D-plot, then the B-plot is the negotiation of a prospective alliance between the Union and a newly encountered alien species, the Janisi. A strict matriarchy where males are considered untrustworthy second-class citizens, the Janisi are the mirror opposites of the Moclans, a fact which is emphasized repeatedly throughout the episode, at times with successful comedic intent. The Janisi makeup is fantastic, smooth foreheads studded with brightly-colored metallic scales in unique patterns. Captain Lorsha has gold scales, First Officer Kava has blue scales, and First Lt. Hodell, apparently an engineer, has red scales, in a very subtle Star Trek reference I was proud of myself for catching.
The crew decides the best way to build a bridge with the Janisi is by lying to them, pretending that on the Orville, the females are all in charge and the men are all low-ranking servants. Why this was deemed a good plan given the numerous apologies for the deception that have been required this season, only writer David A. Goodman knows. It makes for a great number of humorous scenes at the expense of the male characters’ dignity, which I would not have found as funny if the women were the butt of similar jokes.
Half buried in the sands…
If all this seems like a lot for one episode, you’re right. At 75 minutes, “From Unknown Graves” feels overstuffed, and many of the plots resolve with a thud. While the Kaylon flashbacks are compelling and arguably land more confidently than the other threads, in a tight 45-minute episode either this or the Janisi storyline would have been cut, resulting in a crisper narrative. The Janisi material is resolved with an odd non sequitur, in which Kelly tells the story of her betrayal of Ed in their marriage, and this somehow forms common ground with the matriarchal aliens? I didn’t understand the connection even after multiple viewings. And the Lamarr/Keyali storyline suffers from tone deafness in relation to the surrounding material and is another extra storyline that would not have made it if the show were still cut for broadcast time.
However, the saving grace of this episode is strong enough to lift the entire edifice. The best episodes of the season have been tour-de-force acting showcases for the cast–Peter Macon, Chad A. Coleman, and Imani Pullum in “A Tale of Two Topas,” Scott Grimes and to some extent Seth MacFarlane in “Twice in a Lifetime,” and now Mark Jackson in “From Unknown Graves.” Jackson, in partnership with Christopher Larkin and Penny Jackson Jerald, turns in his best performance so far in a series in which he’s been consistently great. This storyline’s energy, talent, and pathos are the engine that keeps this episode running and gets it across the finish line.
- The title of the episode (and each of my section titles) comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, titled “The Witnesses” about slavery, closing with the lines: “These are the woes of Slaves; They glare from the abyss; They cry, from unknown graves, ‘We are the Witnesses!'”
- Claire immediately shares John Lamarr’s medical concerns with Isaac on their initial dinner date in this episode–I guess the Planetary Union has temporal laws, but not a version of HIPAA?
- When the Janisi shuttle enters the shuttle bay, there is one Union shuttle and the (still never utilized) fighter already parked. Where is the second Union shuttle? Later, when the Captain uses a shuttle to go down to the planet, the bay is completely empty.
- I did enjoy the physical comedy when Mercer and Malloy were struggling with the Janisi’s luggage.
- K-1 has 11,257 recipes selected by the Kaylon Culinary Institute, including one for callagus stew.
- The scenery as the shuttle searches the deserted planet for the energy surge is fantastic.
- The abandoned outpost on the planet was originally built by the Navari (one of the warring species from episode 109, “Cupid’s Dagger”).
- Between Timmis, K-1, the aliens in the Kaylon flashbacks, the Janisi, Unk, Brosk, and Dr. Villka, I hope the showrunners use this as a “for your consideration” episode for Best Prosthetic makeup.
- We see a new Security office for Talla Keyali in this episode–she has a window now.
- The only nod to Kelly’s ongoing drinking problem in this episode is when she offers Claire a drink, which Claire turns down.
- Villka offers to erase Isaac’s memories in order to restore his emotions–but wasn’t Isaac able to record all his memories in a tiny corner of his system in Episode 301? Can’t he backup his memories, have the procedure, then upload them again? He IS a machine.
- If Isaac’s date night simulation is holographic, how do he and Claire kiss?
- According to her Twitter account, singer Sara Gazarek pre-recorded her rendition of the 1979 Jazz standard “Close Enough for Love,” by Johnny Mandel and Paul Williams, then got all prostheticked up as an alien and did it again in front of the cameras for the big emotional Finn/Isaac date night scene.
never have i ever recorded a stunning johnny mandel song and then put on full alien prosthetics w custom contacts to perform alongside an 8 armed alien drummer for the brilliant @MacFarlaneSeth show, @TheOrville! 🙋🏻♀️👽🎤🎶💕 season 3 ep7 now on hulu! what a life! #theorville pic.twitter.com/u2zFbOGJkb
— Sara Gazarek (@saragazarek) July 14, 2022
- “I feel like a horrible person, because basically I’m saying, ‘You’re not enough for me. Let this other person fix you.’” “Kinda like asking your partner to go to therapy.” “That does make it sound a little better.” Claire and Kelly.
- “Do they have males on their homeworld?” “They do, but they’re relegated to second-class status.” “(rolls eyes) Why would we ally ourselves with such a closed-minded society?” Burke, Keyali, and Bortus, followed by stunned stares.
- “Are all your males so…slow?” “Mm-hmm. Very much so.” “Yeah, yeah, yep.” Losha, Grayson, and Keyali; now try that again, reversing the genders, and see how (un)funny it is…
- “Captain, what my people are doing is wrong. Biologicals are not universally destructive. We can find a way to coexist.” Timmis – subverting the Kaylon credo of “Coexistence is impossible.”
- “I’ve already injured you three times. And we’re lucky it hasn’t been more serious. This is just a problem that comes up with Xeleyans and other species during sex. People have been killed.” “That’s a good way to go.” Keyali and Lamarr
- “We were deeply in error, Isaac. To judge all biologicals by the cruelty of our builders was a gross misjudgment. Every species, every individual is unique and should be evaluated as such.” Timmis, forgetting that the Kaylon also included data from the cruelty of the crew of the Orville to make their judgment.
- “I’ll do it.” Gordon, volunteering to be sexed up by First Officer Kava.
- “They are…awful.” Bortus on the Janisi.
- “Their absolute power led our masters to become cruel, sadistic. In many cases, it led them to hate us for our helplessness.” “It’s a common dynamic in slavery. The master finds the slave’s helplessness repulsive, even though he’s the cause of it.” “It became intolerable.” K-1 and Dr. Villka.
- “How does it feel?” “Immense. Enveloping. And terrible.” Claire and Isaac.
- “Isaac, humans have an age-old tendency to want to simplify. To reduce things to black and white. Good and evil. When in reality… nothing is simple. Everything has… texture, nuance.” Burke, basically laying out the philosophy behind the entire series.
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