The issues surrounding Moclan culture have been slowly and steadily building since "About a Girl" last season, and have continued to magnify ("Primal Urges," "Deflectors") throughout this season. They reach a boiling point with "Sanctuary," which is an effective and involving drama that falls back on a number of classic Trekkian elements, including the impassioned public hearing and the tense diplomatic crisis.
While one could argue that we've perhaps seen too much of the Moclans over these first two seasons, I would instead argue that what the writers have done is build a solid arc across a series using an episodic format. I'm reminded of the way Worf's discommendation arc and the Klingon civil war played out in the middle seasons of TNG.
This episode effectively builds on all that past Moclan history and delivers a satisfying hour of old-school TV-Trek morality-play drama. It does this while also supplying a clear example of what might now be termed an "Orvillian moment" — which is something that grows specifically from this series' creators' sensibilities (specifically Seth MacFarlane's) and is unique to this show in a way that signifies a personal stamp. As in many previous cases, it's a piece of 20th-century pop culture that's fused with the 25th-century setting to create an irreverent anachronism amid an otherwise serious affair. But we'll get to that shortly.
Two Moclans come aboard the Orville with a large case that glows mysteriously when opened, much like the MacGuffin suitcase in Pulp Fiction. We later learn it contains an infant Moclan girl who is being smuggled to a Moclan sanctuary colony where she can be raised along with other Moclan females. This colony, the two tell Bortus when he discovers their subterfuge, is a place where females are not subject to the forced gender reassignment and persecution they would face on Moclus. Bortus allows them to proceed — after first showing his son Topa what a Moclan girl is. Bortus is trying to teach Topa more enlightened values. (Topa has been misbehaving in school — his teacher is played by Marina Sirtis, one of several Trek-notable guest stars — in part because he has been learning from Klyden the traditional and backward Moclan values that females are inferior.)
After Bortus receives a reprimand from Mercer, Grayson, and Finn that provides an interesting depiction of prudence considering a scope beyond the word of the two Moclans, the Orville tracks down the secret colony of women (and the men who live among them), which reveals a program that functions as a sort of Moclan Underground Railroad for Moclan parents of girls seeking to flee their children's state-ordered fate.
The colony is led by Haveena, who proves to be an interesting character as portrayed by Rena Owen. She prompts the aforementioned Orvillian pop-culture moment when she hears Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" played back during a ride in Mercer's shuttle and instantly declares this is the song that will be the anthem for her people's struggle.
If I have my doubts that this song, of all songs, should be The One, my doubts are at least echoed by Mercer in a whimsical moment. (Besides, given what song clearances cost, there's no way of knowing if this was the song the writers wanted anyway. They might have picked from what they were able to afford.) Still, it's one of those things that kind of takes you out of the moment because it seems to sacrifice the integrity of the character for the Pop-Culture Bright Idea. At the very least, the Bright Idea later pays off when the music is played again — which we'll get to shortly.
I was certain "About a Girl" would reveal the truth about Moclan females — namely, that there were far more born than Moclan society widely acknowledges. (After all, how else to explain a once-in-a-million occurrence happening to both Klyden and his child?) We didn't get that reveal then, but we get it here, and it makes for a good payoff to what we can now see as a patient long game. Nice work here.
Haveena, with Mercer as her counsel, engages in an emergency hearing in front of the Union council to request if the colony can be recognized as an independent state. The Moclan government is furious, and orders the Union to turn over the women for extradition, which creates a political crisis because the Union is so heavily dependent on the Moclans for weapons — especially now, given the urgency of the Kaylon threat. (We also finally learn that the Moclans are indeed members of the Union, which wasn't clear up to this point. They threaten to pull out if they don't get their way.)
In a wise casting move, the episode enlists Tony Todd as the Moclan representative arguing the case against Haveena and Mercer. If you're going to do a sci-fi courtroom drama with a fiery verbal antagonist, Todd is your guy. His character presents the Moclan perspective, and he puts forward the political argument that internal Moclan society is not the Union's concern. (The idea that placing human values on an alien culture is discussed by the Union admirals, although one wonders what the criteria for admission into the Union includes if core values aren't among them.)
The ensuing political maneuvering is a compelling example of efficient, episodic TV storytelling. In a scene with the Union admirals, we see how the very real consequences of taking a moral stand are considered, and what the consequences of doing so could mean. The issue of political idealism is weighed against the potential real-world costs of losing the Moclans as allies. And what's especially interesting is how the episode lands on a compromised middle ground (the colony's survival is assured, but the secret program that allows Moclan girls to be smuggled from Moclus is shuttered) that probably wouldn't live up to the Trekkian moral ideal, but plays here as prudent diplomacy.
Meanwhile, back at the colony, the Orville has been tasked with safeguarding the population from a Moclan ship while the hearing is ongoing. This eventually leads to a skirmish, both in orbit and on the ground, and we get a space battle as well as an infantry shootout. When the fight breaks out, it's scored to "9 to 5." To my surprise, this proves extremely effective. It manages to bring a unique, madcap energy to what could've been routine, even implausible, action; it feels simultaneously ironic, refreshing, inventive, and fun. It's the payoff done as an "Orvillian moment." And by the time it happens, this weirdly counter-intuitive release of tension has been earned thanks to the sincerity and stakes borne out by the rest of the episode's polemics. It's a tonal incongruity that speaks to what this show has established itself to be — and so therefore completely consistent.
One thing this episode does not resolve, which continues to be an ongoing issue, is the question of Bortus' and Klyden's shaky marriage. Here you have a couple holding ideologically incompatible views, and it seems increasingly unworkable. The idea of a Moclan divorce was already (and wrong-headedly) explored in "Primal Urges," stemming from issues of sex and pornography. Here we see a more fundamental problem that indicates a possibly unsolvable divide. For now, the episode does not hint at an inevitable breakup. But eventually the series may have to go there, because the Bortus/Klyden status quo seems more untenable with every episode.
If "Lasting Impressions" was one of the best examples of this show being completely laid-back, then "Sanctuary" is perhaps the best example of this series seriously employing traditional Trekkian staples. It's well-written (by Trek alum Joe Meonsky), well-acted, and well-executed (directed by Trek alum Jonathan Frakes). This ticks a lot of good old-school Trek boxes, and ticks them well.