Any episode that features an establishing shot of a homicidal space clown seen way down at the end of the hallway in a stylistic homage to The Shining — followed by that clown charging full-tilt toward the protagonist — can't be all bad.
The shot gets your attention, that's for sure. It's laughably weird and head-scratchingly bizarre, but it tells you we are in strange territory. It happens because, as we eventually learn, anything here can happen. It's a strange moment that threatens to bring down "Firestorm" before the story has even had a chance to take off. But you know what? I remember that shot more than anything else. It stands out.
On the whole, however, "Firestorm" falls into the neutral zone for me. I admire its willingness to take on the surreal and impossible and work through the strangeness with an approach of measured logic, but the longer it goes on the more artificial it feels, and the gimmick at the center of it all is a bit of a ho-hum letdown. At the very least it's a letdown rooted in a character's motivation.
That character is Alara Kitan, whose unexpected fear of fire (I suggest she join a support group with the Hound on Game of Thrones), leads her to hesitate during an engineering-deck crisis that claims the life of a shipmate. There's no evidence that her not hesitating would've changed the outcome, but she blames herself and judges herself very harshly. At one point she submits her resignation. Mercer refuses, offering a pep talk that is one of his better moments as the captain of this series.
Alara's reaction to her perceived failure is vastly overstated, but I'll allow it under the "she's just a young pup" statute — although the writers would be well-advised to perhaps move on to other things after this and the focus of her green-ness in "Command Performance." (But if anything, this episode shows that Halston Sage has gotten more comfortable in her role since that outing.) At the very least, we meet her Xeleyan parents (played by Robert Picardo and Molly Hagan) who tell her the story of why she's afraid of fire, while also establishing the Xeleyans as seeing themselves as humanity's intellectual superiors.
Also worth pointing out is how Bortus seems to be reliable comic gold, thanks to the infallible deadpan gifts of Peter Macon. Sure, he's basically the tough-guy straight man Worf was on TNG and it's a variation of one joke, but it's all about playing the right notes, which Macon does. If it works, I'm all for it.
Anyway, before too long, the weird things start happening. The killer clown. Elevator doors that open to reveal deadly voids that almost swallow up characters. A room full of spiders that appear and vanish instantly. A crazy Dr. Finn killing her own nurse, strapping Alara to a table, and threatening an "examination" of horror. A giant spider that literally eats Malloy. Every scene goes increasingly over the top into making the Orville into a haunted house, which makes it increasingly obvious that none of this is "real" in the conventional sense and that, because we've graduated to regular characters killing other characters or being eaten by spiders, this will all be reset as part of an elaborate sci-fi gimmick. The question becomes: Will it be a good gimmick?
There are shades here of many past reality-bending Treks from the various series where imaginary fears turn all too real, including TOS's "Shore Leave," TNG's "Where No One Has Gone Before," DS9's "If Wishes Were Horses," and Voyager's "The Thaw." (If you wanted to include Enterprise you could maybe stretch it to include "Strange New World," but that's a very thin one.)
"Firestorm" has perhaps the least fantastical and most straightforward solution among all those examples, in that the whole thing is a VR program on the
holodeck environmental simulator that Alara has locked herself into so she can "test" herself for additional failure against every threat imaginable. She doesn't know she's in a simulation because Finn erased her short-term memory after creating the program so Alara would forget it was a simulation and believe it was real.
As narrative trickery goes, this is a C-plus-grade twist in a mostly B-grade outing. I didn't hate it; I didn't love it. I do question the wisdom of revealing the trick with an entire act still to go, although the writers probably thought they had no choice by that point because what happens in the final act (the disappearance of the rest of the crew; Isaac turning red-eyed evil; Alara taking off her jacket and taking up arms because Now She Means Business; the entire ship eventually being destroyed) is too outlandish, so the ostensible stakes have to be brought back to being about Alara's mental state.
Still, when taken on those understated terms, this is actually pretty implausible. Subjecting yourself to an elaborate hoax and breaking regulations by invoking an inappropriate command code to barricade everyone out of your VR fantasy world? That seems like a weird and unprofessional way to deal with your (irrational) fears. Oh, well. The final exposition for all this, with everyone offering up their explanations of how they contributed to creating the threats in the simulation, is (1) very long-winded and (2) shows the crew rallying around a character in need, which is kind of nice. LaMarr is unfortunately still mostly a lame punch line. But Bortus is funny.
"Firestorm" is an okay-fine outing. I can't quite recommend it because it feels like a strung-together series of casual amusements — some which work, some which don't — servicing a character core that feels a little too labored. But there are certainly far worse ways to spend your television hour.