"New Dimensions" is a split-tiered story chronicling a day at the office aboard a Union starship, merged with a TNG-era tech story that sets the record for technobabble on this series (although it's certainly not record-setting when compared to TNG or Voyager). It's like a workplace drama/comedy mixed with middlebrow sci-fi. The narrative shifts can at times be jarring, albeit not nearly as jarring as some of the early comedy/drama tonal clashes seen on this series.
Let's start with the workplace drama, which is of considerably more consequence. Part of what this episode does is offer a take on how the workings of ship-wide personnel are conducted. Chief Engineer Newton (Larry Joe Campbell) has taken another job posting, leaving the Orville engineering post open. In reviewing LaMarr's personnel file while logging a reprimand in his record for pulling a prank (which resulted in a piece of Yaphit being eaten by Bortus), Grayson discovers LaMarr is actually quite brilliant according to his entrance exam scores, despite all evidence in his behavior to the contrary. She recommends to Mercer that LaMarr be considered for the chief's job, something LaMarr doesn't even want. Mercer is understandably skeptical; this is the same guy who nearly got lobotomized for pulling a dumb prank in "Majority Rule." And yet he's apparently really smart. (Maybe John is "book smart" rather than "common-sense smart.")
I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, LaMarr is probably the most underdeveloped regular character on the ensemble, and most of his material has been juvenile and inconsequential. So it's good to finally give him some sort of focus where he's not being an idiot. On the other hand, I have a hard time buying the explanation of why he has gone to such lengths to bury his intelligence, which is explained away as "people don't like a know-it-all" and "I just want to go home and have a beer after work rather than worrying about being a leader or role model." And even in this episode, John comes across as a simple man rather than a thoughtful one. I would've liked some useful dialogue to sell this idea that John has actual reasons for being an underachiever. It doesn't help that J Lee's performances have been uniformly lacking on this series, including in this episode.
I get that the Union fleet is not Starfleet and is filled with Average Joes, but the idea that being liked and being smart are mutually exclusive is amateurish. This feels like material trying to cover for the retconning of a character rather than a smartly drawn arc. That being said, I appreciate this for its future potential despite its contrived nature.
Meanwhile, Yaphit comes across as an insubordinate jerk when he learns LaMarr is being considered for the chief job. If John's lack of leadership experience and ambition serve as strikes against him, Yaphit's hostile unprofessionalism are even more overstated, making him seem even more undeserving. MacFarlane and his writers would be well-served by toning down the character histrionics.
To add to the whole man-child theme, we've got Mercer discovering the deal Grayson made with Admiral Halsey back in "Old Wounds" that gave him command of the Orville — and reacting like a big baby. Mercer instantly loses all self-confidence, which is an overreaction on the level of Alara's total shutdown over a momentary hesitation in "Firestorm," only less forgivable given the character's experience and leadership position. Why is it the characters on this show (with the exception of Grayson, who seems to be the only adult) go into a tizzy over issues they should be mature enough to handle sanely? I mean, Seth MacFarlane is 43 years old, and yet Mercer can't reconcile that every career is built on some combination of merit and luck, and instead needs to pout because someone extended him a favor? The saving grace here is how at the end Mercer admits he was acting like a "whiny bitch" and shows some (belated) thoughtfulness and self-awareness in working out these issues — but in the meantime we get another series of shrill arguments where Mercer goes on self-important rants and Grayson tries to talk him off the ledge. Haven't we seen enough of this between these two?
The sci-fi plot is okay. It's nothing to write home about, but I appreciate the series' effort to engage its sci-fi concepts, if only superficially. Sure, the rendering of the pocket of two-dimensional space looks like a massive circuit board out of Tron, but it's colorful. The show really tries selling the wonder of this realm with the score, but the writers don't really do much with the actual idea beyond using it to hide from some Krill bad guys and half-heartedly theorizing it might house an entire civilization. The technobabble here is much heavier compared to previous Orville episodes, and the problem-solving is not nearly as convincing as the halcyon TNG days (and I couldn't figure out why being flattened into 2D didn't instantly destroy the ship), but this was fine.
I realize this is sounding more negative than perhaps I'm intending. Maybe that's because I'm sensing unrealized potential here. I appreciate The Orville is putting in the effort to service its characters (we end here with LaMarr promoted to chief engineer, which should hopefully improve the character in the long run, and even Yaphit is eventually allowed to be a team player). This series has come along and is far more legitimate than when it premiered. The tone has been moderated and for the most part is acceptable, give or take some of the shoehorned-in dude-bro humor. And I like the small things that expand the canvas around the margins, like with the recurring appearance of Elevator Guy, seen here exclusively not in elevators.
But I also think this show could and should better execute the things it sets out to do — by considering sci-fi with deeper meaning, earning character payoffs rather than inventing them suddenly, scaling back the more childish inclinations, and so forth. I like where we end up after "New Dimensions," but the ride getting there is a bumpy one.
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