The Orville crew opens a 400-year-old time capsule that was sealed in 2015 in Saratoga Springs, New York, and among the preserved relics is a smartphone, left behind — with all personal data intact — by a young woman. Once reviving the phone and powering it up, the crew discovers a treasure trove documenting a short period of a long-ago life.
(The archeologist assigned to oversee this unearthing is played by Tim Russ, whom I haven't seen in anything since probably Live Free or Die Hard. His performance here suggests a specific eccentricity.)
"Lasting Impressions" is the sort of story that could likely be sold with a single-sentence pitch (which is the very definition of "high concept," even though this story does not at all play like one), simply because of how many possibilities the premise opens up. This could've gone in any number of directions, documenting any number of fictional lives. That it picks the mundane details of a would-be romance is a testament to the writers' faith in the concept.
This story is of such deliberately low stakes that watching it, as indeed I did, right after watching Discovery's "The Red Angel" — in which all life in the galaxy supposedly hangs in the balance — plays like a sort of now-I-can-just-sit-back-and-breathe tonic. It's relaxing and pleasant, and in its completely non-urgent and unassuming way it says something much more significant than its modesty suggests.
The story is about how Malloy finds himself smitten by the idea of this woman, named Laura (Leighton Meester). After watching her videos and reading her texts, he decides to use the ship's computer to analyze all the data on her phone and create an ultra-realistic interpolated simulation of this long-dead woman and the things in her life's immediate orbit, based on the brief snapshot the phone history contains.
The writers opt to use this idea to explore Malloy and his loneliness, and it's probably the best use of Malloy to date. The interactive nature of the program allows him to insert himself into a fictionalized version of Laura's life, where he assumes a starring role. Inevitably (and perhaps too obviously) he begins falling for Laura and wants to pursue a relationship.
Gordon's shipmates are not especially encouraging. LaMarr, skeptical from the outset, warns Gordon to keep some perspective and perhaps not venture down this road at all. Later, when Laura takes enough of a liking to him that she invites him over for game night with her friends, Gordon drags along Ed, Kelly, John, and Talla, who seem to be humoring him more than anything else.
This is all played for a mix of low-key humor and pathos. What's best about the episode is its mastery of tone. It doesn't pretend this is a huge thing that's going to crush Gordon or lead to an unhealthy holographic addiction like in TNG's "Hollow Pursuits." It's more like an earnest VR experiment where Gordon's reality is based on how much he can trick himself into believing it, on the basis of it being based on a real person's life.
Gordon's relationship with Laura is thrown for a loop when the Other Guy, named Greg, whom she broke up with right before Gordon entered her life, re-enters the picture suddenly. (Plenty of us have been the guy who gets hung out to dry when the girl goes back to the previous guy.) Gordon tries to simply delete Greg, but removing him significantly changes who "Laura" is in the program (like her courage to sing on stage) and destroys the illusion for Gordon. (Like in "Tapestry," start pulling on one thread and it all unravels. The point demonstrates how we are all sums of our experiences and relationships, which includes the inputs we get from others.) I like this approach. Gordon lets it play as real in his mind up until it simply can't anymore. And when he realizes the illusion can't be sustained, it's over.
The B-story, meanwhile, is more Bortus-inspired comic gold. You see, also inside the time capsule are cigarettes, which Bortus tries and discovers, because of his Moclan physiology, that he's instantly addicted. Klyden also gets hooked. Dr. Finn says it will take a few days to find a way to counteract the addiction. In the meantime, we get a number of hilarious Moclanisms: Bortus smoking on the bridge, to everyone else's disgust. Bortus and Klyden trying to quit and then jonesing for nicotine, then hiding their secret smoking from each other. Bortus chewing nicotine gum on the bridge, to everyone else's puzzlement. This show rarely goes wrong when using Bortus and Klyden as comic outsiders, and it works here as usual, and even ties thematically into the story of how the past reaches into the future, in this case with chaotic personal impacts. (But it would be nice, for once, if a plot involving Bortus and Klyden didn't inevitably have them fighting.)
The storyline of "Lasting Impressions" is less powerful than the subtext running through it, which is that these mundane things that happened 400 years ago to this one person have become immortalized through (1) preservation with technology and (2) universal emotional connection between people. In its own way, this provides a touching "Inner Light"-like reminder about our collective mortality and the hope that in some small way we might be remembered after we — and all who knew us — are gone. Filtered through Gordon's own romantic travails, it takes on a bittersweet quality: It may not have worked out between these two, but the more important thing — a connection across centuries that preserves the memories — has prevailed.
Watching "Lasting Impressions," I couldn't help but shake the feeling that this is really what The Orville as a series should be, as filtered through the sensibilities its creator has made clear over the past two seasons. In its purest form, it's a show about transplanting our current interests and way of life into a Trek-like future world, where exploring on a starship is not the point so much as the backdrop. (Indeed, the most consistently, if frequently misguided, pursued arc of this series over the last two seasons — the very contemporary-minded relationship between Ed and Kelly — speaks to this.)
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am this is one of the best episodes of this series — in its understated and true-to-self way. It's a triumph in understatement that sneaks up on you after the initial experience has passed. Thanks for the memories.