The Orville comes to the rescue of a Union colony under attack by a Krill vessel. Mercer's tactical cleverness is able to outmaneuver the Krill's superior firepower to win the battle and destroy the Krill ship. In the wreckage, the crew discovers an unscathed Krill shuttlecraft, which presents an opportunity for the Union: They can use the shuttle to send some operatives undercover as Krill crew members in an intelligence-gathering mission to learn about this mysterious enemy and their motives. Specifically, the assignment is to retrieve a copy of the holy book that guides the Krill's deeply held religious beliefs, in the hopes that we might learn what drives their society. Mercer and Malloy take on this task — for which they are not particularly well equipped.
"Krill" is the best episode of The Orville yet. It's the first episode that from start to finish feels like it's living in its own skin and starting to build its own universe, rather than reassembling pilfered pieces from here and there. Sure, the plot (undercover characters pose as the enemy) is another take on a reliable standby, but that's perfectly fine. I have no problem with new takes on reliable devices if the writers can bring a sense of energy or specificity. This is an entertaining, well-paced, breezy hour that works on the lightweight terms where this series lives.
And this undercover plot in particular proves to be a perfect vehicle for the blend of adventure and silliness. The humor mostly works; at the very least it didn't make me cringe or completely pull me out of the show. (The opening teaser with Bortus amazing everybody by being able to eat anything is particularly amusing and grows naturally from the characters.) Some of this is fish-out-of-water funny, like the fact Mercer's and Malloy's Krill names are "Chris" and "Devin." Some of it is pop-culture throwaway, like when Malloy asides that one of the Krill prayers sounds like "Katniss Everdeen" — or how he keeps quipping that the Krill deity, named "Avis," is actually the name of a car-rental company. (Since it comes from Malloy this seems in-character rather than merely random. But, okay, yes, also random.) Watching our two heroes desperately bumbling their way through a mission where they're in over their heads is solidly entertaining for the duration.
The show gradually builds some significant stakes and puts Mercer and Malloy in escalating danger. They have enough trouble trying to make the digital copies of the Krill's holy book. But when they learn the Krill are preparing to deploy a new weapon to wipe out a Union colony with 100,000 people, things get, as they say, real. Now they must figure out how to stop the weapon. They come up with a plan that will kill the entire crew: Because the Krill evolved on a planet of perpetual night, bright light is deadly to them ("Like vampires!"). So Mercer rigs all the lights on the ship to get super-bright and fry the crew after a 10-minute digital-clock countdown. But because there are children on board the ship, we also have an unexpected moral quandary, so we have to figure out a way to protect them from this deadly outcome by shooting out the lights in the classroom and keeping them confined there.
All of this, in having just described it, sounds colossally absurd. And, yes, it is. (Why would the lights on the ship even be designed to get bright enough to be lethal to the people living there?) But in the moment, this plot works like gangbusters and is fun and entertaining and glides right along. The episode was directed by Jon Cassar, who directed countless episodes of 24, and it seems appropriate that the vibe I get from "Krill" is Star Trek: 24: An Interstellar Comedy.
BUT — and there is always a "but" when it comes to this series — "Krill" also highlights how there may be a ceiling to how good this show can ever actually be. And that ceiling might never be able to push above "good" to become "great." That's because, for all its deftly balanced comedy and action/adventure, "Krill's" drama is always a hostage of its irreverence.
This is a show that tries to harbor some modest Serious Intentions regarding humanizing the enemy and trying to understand their culture. But this proves difficult because, really, at the end of the day there's no useful depth given to the Krill. Consider their religion. We learn nothing substantive about it, except that they act in the name of Avis and use their beliefs to justify deadly attacks on anyone. And make no mistake: They are going to kill a lot of people if we don't kill them first. And that's about it.
During the Krill religious service, the officiant pulls out a severed human head and then repeatedly stabs it with a ceremonial knife. This is meant to be a shocking display that shows just how grave a situation our undercover heroes actually find themselves in, but the moment itself is so over-the-top as a cultural/religious display that it's merely ridiculous. Are the Krill supposed to be unforgivably evil or reasonable folks worth our sympathy? What motivates them and their attacks? Is all of Krill society this way? Are these a subset of extremists, or are the Krill just blind followers across the board? What we get isn't used for much useful social commentary beyond "religious fanatics are bad" — and, in all honesty, the point is mostly lost anyway, because the tone of the overall show (and the part that works like gangbusters; see above) is that this is just a light, fun, adventure romp and we shouldn't dwell on any of that heavy, religious fundamentalism head-stabbing stuff.
Until the final scene, that is. This scene reveals that all the children Mercer and Malloy spared from frying on the Krill ship will be returned to the Krill homeworld, where they will likely grow up hating humans (regardless of being spared by them) because of what Mercer did to all the adults. It's a valid, realistic point that highlights how we are not likely to win over young minds in a conflict that is much larger than them. But this also again highlights the fundamental tension in this series — the one between irreverence and earnestness. That tension is not going away. (The show wants to have it both ways — where I'm supposed to ponder the future of these poor Krill kids after the story fairly glibly just barbecued a bunch of adults.) If The Orville can balance the scales and execute as well as "Krill" does, it might be a good, fun series. But it may never be a great one.