"Domino" is an entertaining but uneasy duel between Star Trek and Star Wars, with Star Wars ultimately — and regrettably — winning. It's basically a double episode, with the first episode being the Star Trek think piece and the second one being the Star Wars X-Treme Action piece. This is a trend that's been brewing all season, as well as in previous seasons, but "Domino" takes it to the nth degree. The transition is as unmistakable and instantaneous as that time From Dusk Till Dawn suddenly changed from a southwestern crime story into a vampire splatter flick.
This is fun, but it could've been better by seeing its ideas through rather than jettisoning political plausibility in favor of action. The second half is absolutely jam-packed with protracted VFX sequences that spare no expense in their effort to remake various sequences from various Star Wars movies, right down to individual shot selections. But the second half sells out a first half that was shaping up to be a smart political and ethical intrigue episode, which gets resolved mostly by tons of stuff blowing up and lots of tired action tropes.
The first half is engrossing and full of world-building, opening with a scene where the Moclans, freshly expelled from the Union, visit the Krill homeworld and make a pitch to Teleya to form an alliance to defend against the Kaylon, who, we learn, are massing resources to prepare a full-scale invasion of Union space. The Moclans have the temerity to demand they lead this new alliance, since surely Teleya, a woman, would have no such credibility. Teleya has some frank thoughts on that, and the Moclans agree to a joint co-equal partnership.
Meanwhile, a Union fleet defends against a Kaylon incursion with a newly developed superweapon that takes out an entire Kaylon fleet. This weapon has been developed thanks to the unique talents of Isaac and Ensign Burke, proving that working together as a team can allow former enemies to accomplish big things. If that sounds like a trite, after-school special, well okay, but the story's heart is in the right place.
The story also asks a lot of the right questions when it turns out this superweapon — which somehow uniquely taps into the Kaylon's fully networked interconnectivity and exploits it in a way that destroys them — can be expanded in scope in such a way that it would permit the Union to commit genocide upon all of Kaylon civilization. The early scenes benefit from some solid (albeit not standout) dialogue where various characters argue various positions as to whether we should wipe out the Kaylon while we have the opportunity, or whether the right to defense has limits. The questions were the same in "I, Borg," but if you're going to steal, steal from the best.
The Union Council votes to take the weapon to the Kaylon homeworld and demand an immediate cease-fire under threat of annihilation. The plan is successful, but only after the Kaylon realize — after losing additional fleets in the attempt to stop the Orville — that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice. The Kaylon flat-out admit that they will look for a way to neutralize the weapon, but for now, agree to the terms of surrender. (It seems to me the solution is right in front of them: Isaac is not vulnerable to the weapon, because he isn't connected to the Kaylon hive mind. Couldn't the Kaylon simply disconnect their own society in a similar way? It might be an extreme solution, but it's an extreme problem.)
The Kaylon surrender allows for some relaxing downtime, where Malloy and Burke sing a duet at Kelly's rural mountain cabin. Charly expresses reservations — not at all unreasonable — about whether allowing the Kaylon to continue to exist is a potentially deadly decision. Kelly talks to Claire about having had a "pit in her stomach" that has been alleviated by the new peace agreement. This would've worked better if I actually believed it; the Kaylon threat has been so much on the periphery of this series as this theoretical idea — much alluded to but rarely seen — that I don't think the show quite earns these feelings. Nevertheless, I'm glad they finally tackled this before the season ended.
The relaxation is short-lived. Someone breaks the weapon out of secure storage from deep inside a Union basement ("sub-level 32," because I suppose that's deeper than 31, haha-maybe). It's an inside job, with Admiral Ted Danson behind it. He delivers the weapon to the Krill/Moclan leadership, knowing they will use it to destroy the Kaylon in the face of the Union's refusal. This strikes me as a pretty dumb and unlikely plan. For one, it gets him killed, because Teleya is a Duplicitous Evil Villain. For another, wouldn't it be far easier for Danson to recruit more hawkish Union officers who are sympathetic with his plan and carry out the mission themselves on a Union ship under their control, rather than putting this superweapon in the hands of an enemy alliance?
The fallout from this shift is swift — too much so. In response, a slapdash alliance between the Union and Kaylon is established literally overnight, and it feels contrived. When DS9 had "By Inferno's Light," where various alliances suddenly changed, it was believable given the long history of all the various key players over many seasons. "Domino" attempts to do something similar within one episode, and I don't entirely buy it. Given the time constraints, I guess it's okay as a Crazy Plot Development, but do I believe that this Union/Kaylon alliance could be cobbled together so quickly like this? Nope.
Consider: These guys were an existential threat just days earlier, and had vowed to continue looking for a way to counteract the superweapon even with the peace agreement in place. Don't you think the Union might be a little divided about whether to launch into an all-out war with the Moclans and Krill (who themselves were either allies or potential allies just weeks ago) in a brand-new campaign to stop the Kaylon from being destroyed? I get that we need to stop genocide and everything, and we have a responsibility for what others do with the weapons we brought into the world. But then again: Do we? Especially when we're talking about robots with such a twisted view of biological lifeforms and the questionable allies-turned-enemies and enemies-turned-allies arrangements that have so quickly shifted? I feel like the episode just papers over all the troubling questions so it can jump into the action.
From here, we get into the second half (about which I have considerably less to say) where this becomes a big Star Wars battle at the site of a Moclan research facility that's essentially a Death Star against the Kaylon. Lots of Union ships are destroyed, but the death and destruction feels like superficial "fun" action and carries no weight, which is unfortunate considering this whole episode started as a question around the value of life and our responsibilities around taking it. There's a big shoot-out and fight in the tunnels inside the facility, including a big showdown between Kelly and Teleya, which feels especially tropey. (That Teleya is captured by the end, and the episode floats the question around her and Mercer's daughter, hints at things to possibly come in the season's final episode.)
The fleets of ships are so packed together and numerous as to look silly, and they all look the same, so it sometimes feels more like a video game than cinema. Other times, as on the planet surface, the dogfights are extremely well-done. Like I said: They spared no expense. There are countless individual VFX shots that were surely lavished over by the CGI animators. To them I say: Great job. Kudos. Nifty. But none of it means much, except to express the creators' burning desire to re-enact, with all their budget and time and resources, the idea of action sequences they (and we) are so familiar with from old Star Wars movies. Um, yay?
The episode builds to a climax where the weapon is about to fire and wipe out all the Kaylon, and the only one who can stop it is Ensign Charly Burke, but at the cost of her own life. So she makes the decision to sacrifice herself to save the Kaylon. As a character arc, this is solid, showing how she has grown from despising the Kaylon to gradually understanding they can change. And the episode gives us a fittingly big farewell funeral. But this also asks too much of us to be genuinely moved. This character was never anything aside from this narrowly specific arc about learning not to hate the Kaylon, and Anne Winters' lackluster performance was unfortunately never anything more than a one-note scowl. It's a nice try, and the intentions are sincere, but this doesn't get there for me.
Overall, I guess three stars. This is so good for much of its first half, and admittedly fun through its plotty and derivative second half, that I can't not recommend it. But there's a part of me that's disappointed they couldn't see this through to a more satisfactory conclusion, even if I have no idea what that conclusion should've been. The power structure has been upended in the Orville universe, but it feels more like a magic wand has been waved over the kingdom than a political situation has organically played out.
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