When Pria (Charlize Theron, lured here I presume because she had so much fun with MacFarlane on A Million Ways to Die in the West, like Liam Neeson last week) announces to the crew that she is actually a time-traveler from the 29th century who came back to save and then steal and sell what was the doomed-to-destruction-had-she-not-intervened Orville, my mind immediately went to the con man in TNG's "A Matter of Time," and I blurted out to my wife, "Star Trek already did this episode too!" I realized in that moment that I had essentially become the annoying kid Dougie in the South Park episode, "Simpsons Already Did It." This plot was new to my wife; she's never seen "A Matter of Time" or indeed any of the Trek plots that have been repurposed so far for The Orville. Maybe I just need to let it go already.
Granted, this is an ongoing liability with The Orville, which is that these stories can sometimes seem like reheated Trek leftovers and thus distract from themselves, even when that critique really isn't fair (and it's not here). "Pria" does enough of its own stuff to be its own thing, and it does it fairly entertainingly — a marked improvement over last week's tepid "If the Stars Should Appear." Granted, it still sorely lacks conviction in its semi-dramatic intentions (and the sci-fi is fine if unambitious), but it's a more enjoyable effort for sure, and possibly the most purely enjoyable Orville episode so far.
That's because "Pria" features probably the most successful and natural integration of comedy into an Orville episode yet — so much so that I'm beginning to wonder if this series would be better off just embracing itself as a comedy and not trying to be Star Trek so damn hard. The subplot where Isaac doesn't understand humor when Malloy plays a practical joke on him (dressing him up as Mr. Potato Head) at first had me rolling my eyes at the blatantly obvious retread on Data never getting human jokes, which we've seen about a million times.
But as it later becomes clear, this was actually clever misdirection to set up a genuinely funny and twisted gag, in which Isaac plays a "practical joke" back on Malloy by amputating his leg in his sleep and hiding it somewhere on the ship. The timing of Malloy's horrific realization is wonderfully played by Scott Grimes. (The leg later falls crashing from a ceiling panel in a gag suitable for Airplane!) This is genuinely funny and subversive, because it (1) grows from a logical character place of Isaac's misunderstanding, but also (2) takes the trope we've come to expect from all of Data's stories and elevates it to a whole other level of twisted absurdity. This is sharp, vintage Seth MacFarlane. Well played, sir.
The sci-fi plot is serviceable and also unpredictable, mostly because we have no idea if Pria, who is clearly lying early on, is lying later after she's confronted and presents Mercer with the confessed "truth" about her identity. So it works fairly well, even with the usual time paradoxes and technobabble that come with the territory.
What doesn't work so well is the setup in getting there. The endless observations by other characters of Pria's attractiveness venture too far into "okay, we get it, and you're all being inappropriate" territory, and the whole thing is primarily used to set up a would-be-but-not-actual triangle between Pria and Mercer and Grayson and a question over whether Grayson is jealous or Mercer is being played. (Clearly it's more the latter, even if Grayson pushes the envelope too far in looking for evidence of Pria's malfeasance.) Mercer and Grayson have arguments over whether she's jealous, or whether he's lost all objectivity, and these notes are shrill and obvious and played for obligatory histrionics.
And Seth MacFarlane as a romantic lead? Nope. Not buying it. Not for a second. His scene with Pria on the
holodeck environmental simulator where he displays vulnerability before she moves in to kiss him ... well, it just made me cringe, in all its forced and unnatural glory. Wisely, they cut immediately to a post-coital punchline that plays it off as a joke, because attempting seriousness here is probably not in anyone's favor. It's a tricky business to ask anyone — even Patrick Freaking Stewart — to play these notes when a romance is thrust upon the audience at such implausible speed (this was often a problem with Trek romances-of-the-week); asking MacFarlane to do it is probably asking far too much.
Fortunately, once it gets moving, "Pria" is perfectly fine, and the comedy actually punches this episode up quite a bit, rather than weighing it down. But it's still hard to be invested in the characters' dramatic plights or the meat of the plot, because everyone comes off as amateurs compared to their Trek analogues. This is admittedly by design, as if to transplant an everyman office workplace mentality into Starfleet. But it doesn't really allow the substantive material to take root, like this whole contrived idea that Mercer puts his "heart on the line for the first time since his divorce" only to be betrayed by a time-traveler whom he makes vanish at the end through timeline manipulations.
Maybe the comedy isn't the problem here. Maybe it's the drama.