"Identity, Part I" is the best and most involving episode of The Orville so far. That it holds that distinction and still is not enough to be called "great" (at least in my book) is perhaps a problem, but this series is still young and it occupies an admittedly odd space.
The Orville is generally too cavalier to be considered serious, yet too serious to embrace the idea of a true satire/spoof. It loves Trek far too much to lampoon it. So it occupies the land of a seriocomic homage, which can make its universe hard to accept on straightforward dramatic terms. That fact must be confronted here, where an existential threat comes off more like a really cool cinematic concept than something we truly believe.
Perhaps The Orville's only ambition is to be a fun show. That's absolutely fine, if it can do it as well as this. "Identity, Part I" is a fun and exciting cliffhanger and is a marvelous technical production, especially where it concerns the use of CGI in creating the Kaylon homeworld, and in its old-school bombastic musical score by John Debney (one that frankly borders on excessive salesmanship, but I appreciate the throwback style nonetheless).
This is also a cliffhanger that faces a great deal of danger in being resolved with a major cheat or reset. The problem with setting up an insane cliffhanger — especially one that appears to go past the point of no return as it relates to the role of a major character — is that you have to resolve it satisfyingly.
"Identity" is clearly trying to be the Orville equivalent of "The Best of Both Worlds," but there are reasons why that's probably a fool's errand. Simply put, you can't go home again: This was a trick that worked once for TNG and was repeated endlessly after that, to considerably diminishing returns. I'm more inclined to compare this to, say, Voyager's "Scorpion," which was a compelling cliffhanger in its own right, but by no means one that produced those same thrills and chills. (For me, the last show that was able to really do cliffhangers chillingly well was Battlestar Galactica. This ain't that.)
"Identity" takes a while to get going, but in doing so it builds to that destination very nicely, such that when we finally get there, it's a satisfying payoff to an effectively established, well-paced slow boil. The simmer begins when Isaac shuts down without warning or explanation. So the Orville travels to Isaac's never-visited homeworld of Kaylon to meet its society of mysterious AI. The Kaylon are total isolationists; as established in the pilot, Isaac was their emissary to learn about the Planetary Union and determine if a lasting relationship could be forged. Mercer and his bosses hope maybe the Kaylon will join the Union to help defend against the Krill threat.
The Orville's landing on Kaylon is milked for every drop of the sense of wonder its worth. We get a majestic score and a brilliantly visualized CGI expanse of mechanized cityscapes reaching into the clouds, and a docking sequence reminiscent of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. The interiors are antiseptic rooms with massive walls of flowing data, which the Kaylon interface with like they're holding their hands under a waterfall.
The Kaylon tell Mercer and the away team that Isaac has completed his mission and has been deactivated, and now will be disassembled — which they then oddly proceed not to do after they wake him up and retrieve his data, and possibly do something else to him. (I'd say to look for this to mean something in part two.) Isaac then announces his plan to remain on Kaylon, so the crew throws him a going-away party, Orville style, which includes a scene where Scott Grimes sings, to which my reaction was simply — whoa, wow!
This story also fully recommits to the (IMHO) silly idea that Claire is full-on in love with Isaac. Yeah, I get that Isaac is a major piece of Claire's and her sons' lives, and that removing him would have huge consequences for them — even emotional ones. But this framing of their relationship in these traditionally romantic/domestic terms is a mistake that makes Claire look like she's foolishly expecting reciprocation where by definition none can exist. The fundamental problem with how "A Happy Refrain" framed up this relationship is apparently not going away anytime soon. (When Isaac tells Ty he won't forget him because he can't forget anything, Claire's reaction is one of scorned hurt feelings, which seems misguided. It's like being mad because your smartphone doesn't love you despite all the time you spend with it.)
That being said, the established backstory between Claire and Isaac — as questionable as I find the foundation of it — does help add significant stakes to this particular story, from both a plot and character standpoint. Isaac is not simply a machine, but a friend we trust, and so when the story starts moving into considerably darker territory, it lands with a more personal as well as visceral impact.
The build-up to that reveal includes the curious detail of why the Kaylon appear to be stalling with what should be a simple decision, plus the mysterious production of large spheres that the Orville detects elsewhere on the planet. But it's all brought home with an ominously staged and scored horror-like sequence where Ty ventures into a cavern beneath the city (don't they have locks on the doors that lead outside the ship?) and finds ... well, you'll see right after Ty tells Bortus ... and after Bortus gets on his communicator and says to Mercer those doom-laced words, "You should see this for yourself." It's a familiar trope, but an effective one, as they build up this moment until showing us a massive pile of the literal skeletons that are in the Kaylon's closet.
They've got billions of skeletons buried in sites across the planet. They're the long-ago remains of the people who created the Kaylon. (The Kaylon were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled...) And while one wonders why the Kaylon have left all these remains lying around when it would've been way more space-efficient to grind them up or incinerate them, the obvious answer is that it just makes for a much more jaw-dropping scene to reveal this dark secret visually.
Rather than getting immediately the hell out of there, which is what I would've done, Mercer's brilliant idea is to confront the Kaylon on this point, and they are happy to answer his questions. The Kaylon embody the worst fear that's inevitable with nearly all AI in popular culture — the foregone conclusion that they will rise up and slaughter us for being unable to live with them in the manner they believe we should. (They've coined this as a catchphrase: "Coexistence is impossible" — which, let's face it, is not nearly as good as "Resistance is futile," though I admire the effort.)
The final act goes into full attack mode, with the Kaylon boarding the ship to take it over, and opening fire on the security forces that resist them. The Kaylon come equipped with their own built-in head cannons (which is not to be confused with "head canon," which is a completely different thing, but one I'm itching to draw some sort of symbolic subtextual joke/connection.) The corridor blasting uses the same cinematic techniques that have been a staple since Star Wars; someone needs to train Union soldiers how to engage in firefights using actual cover and tactics rather than hopelessly exposing themselves as cannon fodder.
If my voicing of appreciation for this episode seems to be undermined by my snark toward its passably amusing but present flaws, that's probably because these are the things I thought about in a show that's not especially deep or meaningful but is quite fun to experience as it unfolds. I don't know how Isaac can possibly come back from his role in the Kaylon's plan to bring Armageddon upon Earth, barring a major contrivance or backpedal like "he was reprogrammed" (a la Data in "Descent"). But we'll save that discussion for part two after we know the answers, which I very much want to learn.