"Mad Idolatry" is one of the best episodes of The Orville this season, and certainly the most ambitious. It also takes me back to the very first episode to explore this series' primary baggage, which is: This show tries very hard to be Star Trek (except populated by Average Joes), which means it sets itself up for comparisons and expectations that are among some of the best examples of televised sci-fi. In the case of this episode, it uses TNG's "Who Watches the Watchers" and Voyager's "Blink of an Eye" as starting points to examine its own take on the hazards of cultural contamination. It's a worthy tale that borrows aspects of classic episodes from those respective series. It thus invites the scrutiny of serious science fiction, even while employing characters that come off as amateurs. Can it survive that scrutiny?
This episode can (albeit not without caveats), but it continues to make me wonder whether the whole premise of the show grows from a fundamental flaw of imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. If you insist upon offering up direct takes (albeit modified and containing original ideas) on Star Trek episodes, you will forever live in its shadow. "Mad Idolatry" is definitely living in shadows; it's essentially the definitive
Prime Directive cultural contamination episode for The Orville, much as "Who Watches the Watchers" was the definitive Prime Directive episode for TNG. Then it shifts into the long-term time-lapse observation mode of "Blink of an Eye."
This makes for a sometimes fascinating, sometimes derivative outing. I'm willing to say it's more fascinating than derivative, but it also suggests that this feeling The Orville is a Trek impersonator may never completely go away.
When a planet materializes from a parallel universe, the Orville crew investigates. They discover the presence of a Bronze Age society. Grayson stumbles across the locals, a little girl falls and is injured, Grayson heals her with a medical device, sends her and her family on their way, then leaves the scene and returns to the ship. The planet vanishes back to the parallel universe. When it re-emerges, 700 years have astonishingly passed on the planet, while only 11 days have passed for the Orville. This is because time passes more quickly in the other universe as the planet orbits its star (which exists in both universes). With 700 years having passed, Kelly discovers an entire religion has been built around her on this world because of her chance encounter being perceived as a deity's magic. And, of course, things have gone horribly wrong — as is frequently the case with religions and the fanaticism carried out in their names — with people being threatened and judged and strung up and executed based on the teachings of the Church of Kelly.
Now, I had my doubts here, as I did with "Who Watches the Watchers" that one chance encounter under these extremely narrow circumstances would necessarily result in the creation of an entire religion, but I can grant it as the story's given. What's tougher to grant is the sheer idiocy on the part of the Orville crew that leads to the cultural contamination. A significant problem in "Mad Idolatry" stems from the writing shortcuts that require the characters to either exhibit gross incompetence or willful insubordination in order to move the plot along.
When the locals are discovered at the outset, Mercer warns Grayson to be careful not to engage them, because avoiding cultural contamination is a key — one might say a prime — directive in these sorts of situations. Grayson says she will be careful and stay safely out of sight. We then, almost comically, cut directly to a heroic shot of her standing conspicuously and statuesquely atop a cliff. Way to stay hidden. I chalked that up to the editors having a good shot they wanted to use and not realizing the glaring disconnect between the shot and its message, but then Grayson continues to deliberately walk closer to the very people she should be staying away from. Hello?
Later, when investigating the surface 700 years later, an entire landing party walks right up to a country house with no cover whatsoever and are immediately confronted by a confused local. Hello? Does the Union not have strict protocols for how to conduct these matters? They probably do, but this crew wouldn't follow them anyway. This is demonstrated after Mercer gets chewed out by an admiral for covering for Grayson's error (followed by a funny moment where Mercer mocks the admiral without having first closed the video window). The admiral orders them in no uncertain terms not to further interfere with the planet. But Kelly feels guilty and wants desperately to undo the damage she did, prompting Mercer to abet willful insubordination to go back to the planet to try to prove, against 700 years of history, that "Kelly" is not a god.
These scenes (as with "If the Stars Should Appear") have that distinctly TOS "studio backlot as an alternate-Earth town" flavor to them, and Kelly makes urgent pleas/demonstrations showing how technology is indeed not magic, which are very similar to the ones Picard made to the natives in "Watchers." These scenes didn't do much for me (and I thought the entire plan was a stupid one likely to make a bad situation worse), but they set the stage for the much more interesting material to come.
For the next round, we get a modern-day world not unlike our current day, where now issues surrounding "Kelly" are grist for news, opinion, politics, and religious warfare using modern technology. This is fascinating because you can see how a seed planted 1,400 years ago has become an indestructible tree (Happy Arbor Day!) with roots reaching out, spanning the globe. It's a compelling demonstration of how this society's religion has become an integral piece of the whole, with no hope of it ever being reversed by the ones who put it there.
For his next feat of disobeying direct orders and thumbing his nose at the supposedly crucial rule of non-interference in alien cultures, Mercer allows Isaac to live on the planet for the next 700 years (an intriguing notion from a storytelling purpose, as Isaac does not feel the passage of time the way a human does — but a terrible decision for Mercer as a Union captain; doesn't this violate all the rules the admiral told him to obey, and shouldn't there be grave consequences for these actions?) in an attempt to mitigate further societal damage. By this point, mitigating the damage seems moot and actually counterproductive, but it stimulates our imaginations, as we see Isaac disappear with the planet, wondering what will lie on the flip side when it emerges in seven centuries. (The story doesn't even float the possibility that Isaac, and indeed this entire world, could be destroyed in the next 700 years, given the possibility of global war or catastrophe.)
When it does emerge, it's a compelling sight (this episode benefits from imaginative visuals), showing a society now far more advanced than even the Union's. It's a society that has continued to develop, retired "Kelly" and its religions to the dustbins of history, and makes a sanguine point for Grayson that even if "Kelly" had not been there to occupy that religious space, something else would have. It was just the way society would inevitably have developed, the story argues. It's an interesting take on the macro scale.
During the down time while the planet is out of play, there's a B-story involving the possibly rekindling relationship between Ed and Kelly. This proves reasonable. I'm not a huge fan of continuing to watch will-they-or-won't-they, but I must admit this is perhaps the season's most prominent and revisited character arc, so it makes a certain amount of sense to pay it off here. And I do appreciate the payoff, where they both realize they should remain "just friends" because of the inherent conflict between an intimate relationship and professional duties, which specifically plays out in this episode. (But, I mean, duh. To actively pursue this relationship would mean someone would have to transfer or resign given their ranks aboard the ship, right?)
In the process of reaching that conclusion we get some serviceable interludes. I'm not a huge fan of Man-Child Mercer. While this episode was the least annoying example of MCM this season, it still borders on goofy. I think there's a better middle ground to occupy that doesn't go as far as the super-cultured ultra-intellectualism of a Jean-Luc Picard but who is more of an adult than a guy who makes a PB&J sandwich for a dinner date. Sorry — it's actually a separate PB sandwich and J sandwich as a pretext to bring PB&J together via a make-out session. (Now that's one smooth move there.) Far funnier as these lighter character moments go was the Moclan game of hot potato, where you apparently win by losing.
I like the choice to go somewhat lower-key as a season finale, rather than doing the obligatory cliffhanger, and "Mad Idolatry" feels like a good way to go out for the year. (The Orville filmed 13 episodes this season, but one episode was held back and will not air until next season. For scheduling reasons Fox has that I don't understand, they don't feel next week's slot is worth airing a new episode.) As I said last week, I think this series has come quite a way since it began and has smoothed out many of its larger problems. But it still has things to work on, like determining just how professional this crew is supposed to be, and whether we're supposed to take them seriously as sci-fi characters or just jokey avatars in a space adventure. (Clearly there are larger aspirations here, so the show trying to have it both ways is problematic.) They also need to figure out how to build a universe that feels like its own thing rather than a remake of Trek's greatest hits. Stories like "Mad Idolatry" have the sort of ambitious themes and scope that could be mined for greatness, but it remains to be seen if The Orville is a vehicle that can carry it that far.