I probably wouldn’t have been so quick to use a Futurama Space Pope reference if I knew how frequently the show would visit the interpersonal relationship with an AI well, which is evidently both a deep and easily-accessible well. The thing is, there were no major flaws to this episode. No strange tonal missteps that stood out or half-baked high concept premises. It very much demonstrated the overall improvement in quality I discussed last week, and it even had some of the funniest line delivery of the series. But, man, it also just wasn’t that interesting. There are boundless storyline possibilities to pursue when writing for a science fiction show. Not every week has to confront god-like space clouds, or warring civilizations that manifest some internal struggle of human psychology, or anything heavy and intense like that, but “Gordon falls in love with a simulation of an aspiring singer/songwriter from 2015” doesn’t feel like an idea that should have made it past musing out loud during the writer’s meeting. I’ve read a lot of feedback from viewers that are tired of this season’s emphasis on the crew’s interpersonal relationships, but I’ve found that to be the strongest and most unique aspect of the show. More so than the workplace comedy antics, or the space adventuring (though I’ve changed my mind about that after the Kaylon episodes), the way The Orville handled friendships and love is the most confidently told and fully-formed. So it’s a bummer that “Lasting Impressions” felt like a dull retread of stuff the show has already touched on in more interesting ways. And the b-story was Bortus and Klyden continuing to be dicks to each other, so there was no reprieve there.
The episode opens with a Dr. Sherman (Tim Russ, Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager) overseeing the opening of a time capsule from 2015. Among the assorted relics of that seemingly forever-ago time of the last years of the Obama administration is an intact cell phone. The boys in engineering are able to get it up and running again and Gordon immediately becomes fascinated by the video message left by Laura (Leighton Meester), the phone’s former owner. Laura upgraded her phone and decided to leave the old one —all messages, photos, and voicemails intact— for the edification of future civilizations. Gordon becomes increasingly preoccupied with Laura to the point where he interfaces the phone with the ship’s simulator in order to create an immersive, ongoing interactive replica of her life. Questions about just how much of our lives we record and just how accurate our self-editing is in how we build our digital identities are very pertinent and absolutely rich with sci-fi potential —with the most likely example being the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”. This takes the idea of constructing a person from their phone even further by attempting to build their entire world. Friends, locations, events —everything we document with varying degrees of obsessiveness. It’s a cool concept, but also an underutilized one. Nothing really comes of the simulation beyond recreating an era-appropriate location for Gordon to woo Laura. Which is fine, inasmuch as that’s not the story “Lasting Impressions” is trying to tell, but it still feels like wasted potential. It is easy to understand Gordon’s original infatuation with Laura. There would be something so compelling and mysterious about discovering this charming, unobtainable person through one of their most intimate devices. It would be such an easy shortcut into feeling like you knew this person, and by being privy to all their opinions and mannerisms that you naturally have a connection. But for all the information Gordon has at his disposal, he doesn’t use it to manipulate Laura in any way. In fact, he’s surprised to learn of her passion to become a singer.
Gordon’s relationship with Laura continues to the point where he begins inviting the rest of the crew to Pictionary parties with Laura and group of digitally-reconstructed friends. It was about as squirmy as an episode of The Orville gets with each crew member being visibly uncomfortable being involved in what was essentially Gordon’s elaborate role-play scenario. Gordon was hurt by their criticism of his man-on-computer-simulation love, but at no point felt what he was doing was strange. It all comes to a head when the computer, only utilizing the information available in Laura’s phone, has her get back together with her ex-boyfriend, Greg. Gordon angrily deletes Greg from Laura’s profile, but as anyone who’s ever stepped on a bug while time-travelling to a prehistorical era can tell you, there are consequences for messing around with the past. By removing her ex-boyfriend, Gordon also removed Laura’s enthusiasm for pursuing a singing career, since he was the one who encouraged her in the first place. Gordon realizes the dreams of a computer copy of a person who’s been dead for four hundred years is more important than his feelings, so he brings Greg back.
And god help me, I’m going to offer some advice to all the lovesick simulator addicts out there. When you harness your godlike powers to obliterate a former lover’s existence from your pretend girlfriend’s life, be surgical about it and just tell the computer they never got back together. Maybe there are some limits to the procedurally-generated program we don’t know about that would make a more intricate character extraction difficult, but if the simulator is capable of making a solid bed out of energy and somehow keep the chamber spotless despite every single crew member having sex in there constantly, that hardly seems too difficult in comparison.
As for Bortus and Klyden; they take up smoking after Bortus finds a pack of cigarettes among the other time capsule items. They both enjoy it very much, but Moclans are highly susceptible to nicotine addiction and thus must quit. They’re bad at it and hide cigarettes from each other and fight. I understand Moclans are a belligerent species and a healthy Moclan relationship may not resemble a healthy human relationship, but it’s not particularly fun just watching the two of them fight all the time. Bortus filling a throw pillow with contraband cigarettes was pretty funny, though. So until next time, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
- Fashion Corner: Whatever neural machine learning the simulator’s AI had to use to construct the party extras must have been limited. Everyone was identically dressed in t-shirts layered with open button-up shirts. The most 2015 thing about the whole scenario was Laura’s home’s open floor plan.
- “On the verge of a catastrophic climate collapse and they’re dedicating a whole page to teeth whitening.” I’m not being sarcastic when I say that kind of blunt, inelegant messaging is one of my favorite things in sci-fi shows.
- Ironically, for being all about 2015, this episode has almost zero 20th century pop-culture references.
- Some of the great aforementioned line delivery:
- “Ooh, military time. Is that a hipster thing? “No Trisha, it’s not.”
- Klyden, on smoking: “I feel like my whole life I’ve been standing and I finally sat down.”
- Bortus, on gum: “Is it helping?” “No. It is not.”
- Pretty cute how Laura’s phone display read out today’s date.