Season three of The Orville — moved from Fox to Hulu and now dubbed "New Horizons" — premieres some three-plus years after the second season ended. "Electric Sheep," the first installment — filmed more than two and a half years ago — serves as a re-acquaintance of sorts, with the Orville docked at a starbase for a retrofit and waiting to deploy for its next exploration mission.
But the episode first opens with a Major FX Sequence, featuring a huge battle between the Kaylon and Union fleets, and Marcus (BJ Tanner) running through the corridors of the ship trying to escape the explosions and mayhem. He's able to get back to his quarters where Isaac is there waiting, but then Isaac suddenly goes into Red Mode and lunges at him like a predator. Marcus wakes up in a panic. (This opening sequence was released months ago to stave off impatient fans amid yet another delay announcement, except it didn't contain the obvious reveal that it's all a nightmare.)
The episode doubles back to finally deal with Isaac's betrayal in "Identity," which was completely papered over in the subsequent second-season episodes. It's a wise and prudent move, with believable circumstances, and it's filtered through the perspective of the newest member of the crew, Ensign Charly Burke (Anne Winters), a survivor from a ship that was destroyed in the Kaylon attack. She watched a close friend and mentor die in front of her during that battle, and she has some blunt, angry words for Isaac when he tries to sit with her in the mess hall.
Not long after that, "MURDERER" is painted on the wall in the science lab where Isaac works. An investigation is opened, Burke is questioned, and she's honest about her feelings on the matter of Isaac's reinstatement (though she says she didn't write the message). We get an interesting admission from Mercer as well: He's not even sure if reinstating Isaac was the right thing to do.
It turns out Marcus wrote the message, and when Claire orders him to apologize, Marcus instead tells Isaac that he doesn't forgive him and wishes Isaac were dead. Later that day, Isaac rigs a device in the science lab that overloads his CPU and leaves him permanently deactivated. All attempts to reactivate him are unsuccessful. Isaac is dead.
At its core, "Electric Sheep" is a story about suicide and people's feelings on the matter. There are some philosophical discussions — it's a personal choice, it's a shortsighted one, it affects others, not all cultures have the same view of it, etc. — that are interesting in a contemplative middlebrow way and done in the Trekkian mold of an "issue episode" slightly revamped with sci-fi trappings. Tackling the issue thematically while also framing it within the specifics of Isaac's status on the ship is a smart approach.
The obvious MVP of the episode is Penny Johnson Jerald, who is put through the emotional wringer with all these events. Her relationship with Isaac (which I confess I never understood) had ended with his betrayal and subsequent kinda-redemption, and now he kills himself for reasons it seems no one will be able to ever fully know. (Claire suspects Isaac had more feelings than anyone realized, but I always believed it to be a matter of simple pragmatic logic where Isaac reached this decision based on the need for the crew to move on; ultimately I was proven right). Claire's discussion with Kelly about not knowing what to do with her very conflicted feelings after such a terrible series of events is an episode highlight.
Part of me had hoped the story would commit to its choice and Isaac would remain dead, and that they'd find a different way to keep Mark Jackson on the show. But "Electric Sheep" also follows the Trekkian mold of finding a sci-fi way of unkilling a supposedly dead character. The technical details of this prove underwhelming (LaMarr's big realization in particular doesn't really seem to land). But it does provide a new dilemma in that the only person capable of saving Isaac with her unique talents is Charly, who is also the one who possibly hates him the most. (Mercer's speech about Charly not having a monopoly on pain concerning the Kaylon tragedy was a nice reality check.) There are shades here of "The Enemy," where Worf was the only one who could save a dying Romulan, and refused on the citation of his hatred. In this case, Charly relents so Marcus doesn't have to live with his own guilt.
That Isaac's choice for ending his life turns out to be a matter of pure logical calculation is yet another kick to the head for Claire, and she implores him to henceforth consult her regarding the full emotional ramifications that his actions have on the crew, and which he doesn't fully understand. Oddly, if anything, this episode ends with even less resolution than we came in with. Isaac is still here, he's still a part of the crew (based on a decision Mercer made and still isn't sure about), and no one knows what to do about Isaac's temporary but extremely consequential betrayal. Hopefully "Electric Sheep" isn't the end of the matter, because it's far from conclusive.
With the move to Hulu comes a shorter season (10 episodes instead of 13) but with longer individual installments (this one runs nearly 70 minutes). Whether that's an overall good or bad thing remains to be seen, but with this premiere I'm definitely not sold on the idea of longer shows — at least not this long. The pacing was off, and you can tell someone (probably MacFarlane) was way too in love with the effects sequences. Glamor shots of the ship and fleet are all fine and good if you're doing a ST:TMP type of "LOOK AT THIS NEW STARSHIP" showcase, but here, in the third season of a series with a ship that's not the Enterprise by any stretch of the imagination, the creators prolong routine FX shots beyond all reason, as if they are their own reward. It's a case of diminishing returns.
In particular, there's an entire sequence where Malloy is testing the weapons on the Pterodon, the ship's kewl new fighter jet, which, frankly, should've been entirely left on the cutting room floor. It's not half as fun as the overly pushy music thinks it is and does nothing to advance the story. I suppose it adds some "day in the life" atmosphere, but it's not worth the time spent on it. A lot of people complained about the extended runtime of the latest season of Stranger Things. I had no issues because the expansive sprawl of the various storylines warranted it (give or take a trip to Russia). But that's definitely not the case with "Electric Sheep," where the expanded time has simply allowed MacFarlane to indulge his worst self-indulgent instincts when he should be letting the editors do their jobs. Maybe this episode could've been 55 or 60 minutes, but 70 is really pushing it.
Also notable here is the almost complete dearth of comedy. I've never been especially sold on The Orville's comic sensibilities, particularly its most juvenile tendencies. But "Electric Sheep" has basically no humor in it whatsoever, and that's a significant change in a show that was initially defined as a sci-fi comedy-drama. It remains to be seen if this is permanent, but I hope this show doesn't try to take itself too seriously, because gravitas hasn't really been its forte either.
Overall, this is a good and solid start to season three. The visuals are crisp and absorbing as always, and it's nice to catch up with this crew. Maybe next we'll find out what these "new horizons" are.
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