I'm beginning to think giving Seth MacFarlane longer runtimes for this season of The Orville was a really bad idea. They say the final rewrite of a screenplay happens in the editing room, and now in three consecutive episodes we've had an editing room that's far too lax. Nicholas Meyer once said that art thrives on restriction. Well, redundancy thrives on a lack of discipline.
Take the opening minute of "Mortality Paradox." We watch Talla's shuttle approach the ship (with multiple shots), enter the shuttle bay and land, and then we see Talla get off the shuttle, walk up a spiral staircase and through a corridor, and finally into Grayson's office. This sequence could've been done in 30 or even 15 seconds. Instead, it takes over a minute. Now, that's not a huge deal in the scheme of things, but it's indicative of the overall lack of economy and discipline here, and the tendency for this episode to be repetitive by showing us different iterations of the same idea.
Buried somewhere in this episode is a really good Twilight Zone sci-fi outing, but it's sabotaged by its inability to get to the point and its conviction that the strange settings and atmosphere will carry us through. It works for a while, but then runs out of steam.
The Orville investigates a planet, previously recorded as barren and uninhabited, but now suddenly scanning as having a population of 8.5 billion people and 25th-century technology. But when Mercer and his team's shuttle approaches where a major city should be, the entire surface is suddenly now a forest in all directions. Within this forest is a 21st-century suburban high school. Why a 21st-century suburban high school? Probably because high school sets and/or locations were cheaper than building still more sci-fi ones.
Mercer, Grayson, Malloy, Bortus, and Keyali go into the high school. The door locks behind them, and they can't get out, even with Talla's super-strength and their weapons. The bell rings and all the students come pouring out of the classrooms. Somehow, Malloy is involved in a narrative that's underway, involving money he supposedly owes to "Randall." It's like TNG's "The Royale" but in a high school. Malloy gets beaten up in the bathroom by some of Randall's thugs. Randall wants his money by the end of the day. I was reminded of Three O'Clock High.
A Popular Girl laughs at Bortus. Malloy whispers in Bortus' ear, and Bortus says, "You have a fivehead." After school, out on the sports field, Randall comes looking for his money. "Randall" turns out to be a lumbering 30-foot ogre that's prepared to eat Malloy. Malloy's eyes flash suddenly. Then our heroes make a mad dash and run through a door and are suddenly on a jet plane.
In the plane, our crew makes it to the cabin to find no pilots as the plane plummets to the mountains below. This time, Mercer's eyes flash. Then it's on to the next set piece, a Moclan morgue, where we descend a staircase into blackness. Then another, on Xeleya, as the crew tries to paddle across a river before being attacked by a giant sea creature. Then another door is put before them. In an apt line that feels like Mercer is channeling us, he announces: "We are done with this bullshit!"
Each set piece is like its own mini-episode. There is no new information to learn after the first one because the information is always the same: A crew member's eyes flash just before they think they're about to die. Really, this is an episode that lives or dies on its atmosphere and mystery. It almost works, because each setting is its own intriguing place. For my money, the best is the crashing plane, because of the stormy environment and exterior shots of the plane barreling toward the mountains — and Kelly punching out the annoying flight attendant, which was fun.
But all these situations are a case of diminishing returns, because they don't give us anything else to chew on. They are merely redundant exercises sold purely on their technical qualities while the score channels John Williams like there's no tomorrow. Before long it was trying my patience because I just wanted the show to get on with it already.
At the center of it all is a super-advanced holographic generator that's creating all these environments. At first it appears it may be Kaylon technology trying to win the war through creating mass delusions, but it actually turns out to be the super-advanced alien society from "Mad Idolatry," which has now advanced 50,000 years from their starting point. Their evolution has come so far that they have merged with technology and become immortal, and so they used these simulations to learn from our characters what it feels like to face certain death. They're sort of like Nagilum from "Where Silence Has Lease," to which this episode owes a great deal of its inspiration (except this takes it to the next level of production). This doesn't explain why the near-death experiences are all so rooted in inexplicable 21st-century situations (why even have a high school at all if the experience at the center of it is an incongruous monster attack?), but hey, whatever; that's cool.
So, yeah, it overstays its welcome. The final act mostly works. The mystery, although inevitably explained with illusions and magical technology, strings us along reasonably. And the encounter with the advanced alien representative (Elizabeth Gillies), while overly earnest and not having the most striking alien design, is very much a concept of science fiction. And the coda where the crew talks about death and its meaning is nice.
But this is definitely a case where less would have been more. A 45- or 50-minute cut probably would've been much tighter than the overlong 60-minute cut we have here. I get that MacFarlane is in love with everything he gets to put on the screen, but making the hard choices is the difference between releasing something okay and something good.
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