A breakthrough in experimental time-bending technology aboard the Orville brings with it significant new real-world risks in the potential for timeline contamination, especially if the technology were to fall into the wrong hands. Or even the right hands: An unexpected mishap sends Malloy 400 years into the past (to the year 2015) where he somehow sends a message through time that explains he's stuck there unless the Orville crew can find a way to retrieve him. The Orville uses the technology to jump back in time, but the jump lands them in 2025, at which point Malloy has long since given up hope of rescue (after having waited three years in self-imposed near-total isolation) and fully integrated himself into the 21st century, with a job as an airline pilot, a wife, son, and second baby on the way.
The core of "Twice in a Lifetime" tells a simple and effective emotional story: Malloy, who has moved on to another life, must now make the choice of what to do now that Ed and Kelly have found him and can take him home. Actually, it's not much of a choice at all: Malloy fully intends to stay in 2025, where his wife is the very woman, Laura (Leighton Meester), who put her cell phone into that time capsule in 2015 and was the subject of a series of simulated dates for Malloy in "Lasting Impressions." He intentionally sought her out here, having landed in her exact time period, and they are now happily married. (This is not purely a coincidence, as the story implies that his subconscious sent him to this year because he was already thinking about her.)
Malloy's actions are strictly forbidden by the Union protocols on timeline contamination in the unlikely event of a time-travel incident. But what was Malloy supposed to realistically do faced with the prospect of being trapped forever in another century? Live out his days in complete isolation and never talk to another human being again because it might cause the downfall of a future society?
Apparently, according to the Planetary Union, yes, he was. Ed and Kelly seem really disappointed in him. (Ed points out that Malloy has clearly been living in this century too long, on the account that he has become as selfish as someone from the era.) But given Malloy's extreme situation and the Union's general stupidity when it comes to protocols of any kind (like first contact with alien civilizations we know nothing about, or letting alien robot infiltrators become crew members without knowing anything about their civilization, or signing treaties with enemies on the eves of their elections, etc.; I could go on), would you really take one for the Union team when you only have one life to live?
The A-plot of "Twice in a Lifetime" is consistently strong and straightforward, and benefits from a particularly good performance from Scott Grimes as a man in an impossible situation where he is being asked — ordered — to return to the 25th century and abandon his family. The central question — whether he has the right to cast the timeline to the wind because of his own need to live his life and pursue happiness — makes for an interesting moral quandary, which is made all the more striking by Ed's and Kelly's almost dumbfounded disbelief and borderline disgust that Malloy could be so selfish as to do such a thing in the first place.
I'm less thrilled with the B-plot here, in which Isaac (underneath a holographic human-body projection, allowing Mark Jackson to play his part without the robot suit) and Charly team up to find the unobtainium/vibranium/whatever substance needed to power the time-travel device up to 1.21 gigawatts to get back to the future. This material is perfectly fine, but it's also sometimes needlessly protracted. It's certainly not nearly as strong as the main plot, and I get the sense the story really wants me to think Charly is awesome, the way she acts all badass and takes charge at a biker bar (a set that is far too pristine to feel lived-in, by the way) and makes unlikely wagers and throws back bourbon like nobody's business. There's some fun in watching the slightly built Isaac going up against a Big Biker Dude in an arm-wrestling contest, but I also suspect that anyone that would be suckered into such a hustle would be unlikely to honor the bet by handing over their bikes at the end of it. But I nitpick.
Truth be told, the pacing here again doesn't feel quite right — a theme for the season. At 70 minutes (not counting commercials), this is paced like a movie rather than a TV episode, but with scenes that don't feel necessary other than to be expansive and show off that the episode can do things because it can and not necessarily because there's a good reason for doing so. I also feel like the expanded VFX budget is a line item that Seth MacFarlane feels compelled to spend every week, whether justified or not. Yes, this show looks consistently great (well, except for the goofy technicolor FX representing time travel, which looked cheesy), but we're supplied yet another random Kaylon attack merely to stage a VFX set piece. It's getting to the point where the Kaylon show up just to be convenient bad guys to shoot at us, rather than serving as a real nemesis in a war that makes any real sense or has stakes. (I'm hoping the Kaylon threat is properly dealt with as a matter of direct storytelling at least once before the end of the season.)
But I digress. The main story is strong and confidently told, with the right level of detail, smartly building upon "Lasting Impressions" (still one of this series' low-key highlights), and with an anguishing sequence where Mercer flat-out tells Malloy that if he doesn't return to the future, the Orville will simply go back 10 years and retrieve him from a time when he didn't have these emotional attachments to keep him here. This makes for a great little thought experiment involving what it means to erase a family, including two children — one born and one soon to be — from existence through changing the timeline. (This was memorably explored in DS9's "Children of Time," but that doesn't make it any less effective here.)
If you stop and think about it, there's really no reason for Mercer to present Malloy with this awful choice, other than to provide the story with this intriguingly troubling dramatic sequence and the resulting great monologue from Grimes. I mean, why tell him at all? Just do it. In fact, why isn't just going back 10 years once they have the fuel, and retrieving Malloy from there, not Plan A in the first place? Why track him down in 2025 at all? (Also, there's a paradox here: The Orville ends up retrieving Malloy one month after he arrived in 2015 — but he didn't send his distress call to the ship until he had been there for six months. So how could the Orville retrieve him if he never sent the message? Furthermore, given the fact that the crew can read Malloy’s obituary 400 years after he arrived in the past, from a future that's still intact, doesn't that prove that his life in the past didn't undo history in any significant way?)
So, no, this is not ironclad. But few time-travel stories are. What really matters here are the questions and how the characters deal with them. That's where "Twice in a Lifetime" finds its value. It may seem obvious, but we value the things that are actualized far more than the things that are merely potential. This is why the Malloy who never lived a life with a family can be so amazed that there was a version of himself that broke Union protocols and was willing to remain in a century where he didn't belong — because he never got to have those experiences of the life that never was. We can ponder our hopes and futures in the hypothetical, but our memories of our lived experiences are what are actually real.
Also, bonus points if they pay off that egg-salad sandwich in a future episode.
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