Image: FOX

Tonight we learned nothing comes in the way of a mother’s love; not even a war-torn moon festering with alien plague cannibals. With “Into the Fold,” The Orville continues to build up its first season with episodes focusing on individual crew members. It’s a smart approach, since it gives us a chance to deepen our relationship to these characters. As the show continues and we invariably build toward high-stake ensemble episodes, the audience will be that much more invested if we know the people we’re rooting for. This week’s episode belonged to Dr. Claire Finn, and it was a welcome reminder just what a great and versatile an actor Penny Johnson Jerald is. She’s been a slight presence so far and I hope that changes, since her performance here proves her as a stand-out among the cast. We get to spend more time with Isaac as well, and though his development is slight (though no less meaningful), his dry brand of pleasant sociopathy provides the core of this episode’s humor.

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Claire is preparing to take her sons, Marcus and Ty, on vacation to an amusement park planet. Ty, the younger of the two, is incredibly eager to go, especially on a ride that induces zero-g vomiting. Marcus, on the other hand, well into the black morass of his pre-teen years, is eager to disassociate himself from such kiddie stuff. He’s belligerent, only wants to play video games and antagonizes his brother. Claire struggles to get both kids loaded aboard the shuttle, where -to her dismay- she learns a last-minute personnel change has Isaac serving as pilot.

The kids act like terrors aboard the craft, and Claire’s inability to get them to settle down leads to Isaac making all manner of patronizing statements about her parenting ability. Isaac’s lack of social grace also leads to Claire’s matter-of-fact reveal that she’s never been married or partnered, and chose to raise children on her own. It’s a neat aspect about her character, and while some of The Orville’s enlightened ideals are delivered with the brute clumsiness of a ... well, a Star Trek episode, this was presented simply and without commentary.

Image: FOX

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Of course we never get to the fireworks factory. En route, the shuttle gets pulled into a tear in space and catapulted out the other side, far off course. The shuttle is damaged in the process and crash lands on nearby moon. The crash is surprisingly tense, with Claire forced to make an urgent repair in a scene shot through a cloud of smoke and disorienting close-ups. The shuttle itself is rent in two, separating Claire from Isaac and her kids. Claire, unconscious, is dragged off by some local scavenger. The rest of the party have no idea where she is.

Pairing the logical but endearing robot with two precocious children could easily be cloying. And sure, it turns out that both the unfeeling machine and the lil’ scamps may have something to teach each other after all, but what they learn during their time together feels honestly earned. MacFarlane wrote this week’s episode as well as last week’s “Majority Rule,” and I’m amazed by the difference between the two. Where “Majority Rule” was ham-fisted, “Into the Fold” is understated and naturalistic. Also, Isaac’s unintended casual cruelty somehow never stops being funny. Just as with the practical joke he played on Gordon in “Pria”, Isaac’s lack of sentimentality offers The Orville’s most reliable laughs. Lacking the Pinocchio syndrome that compels androids like Data to reach out to humans in an earnest attempt to gain empathy, Isaac can instead tell lackluster bedtime stories to two frightened children that consist of nothing more than a recap of the day’s horrific events, concluding with, “and the two children were left in the care of a superior life form while their mother was either missing or dead.” The humor is well-calibrated (robot pun) enough that his off-hand bluntness is ridiculous without being repetitive or needlessly cruel.

Image: FOX

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Meanwhile, Claire wakes up to discover she’s the prisoner of a skyscraper-dwelling survivalist. The moon’s inhabitants nearly destroyed each other in a biological warfare attack, and the survivors are terminally diseased and have resorted to eating each other. Her captor has hoarded enough resources to avoid disease or starvation, but he’s cloistered away in his tower, alone. He may not want to eat her, but his intentions are hardly better. In another tense scene, Claire manages to escape and find her way back to the ship, only to have to deal with an encroaching gang of attackers, as well as Ty, who has become ill after falling in the water. This leads to the emotional climax of the episode. Claire is struggling not to freak out, agonizing over the seemingly hopeless situation they’re stuck in. Without speaking, Isaac reaches out and takes her hand in his own. It’s a sincere, touching moment only slightly marred by the preciousness of the twinkling score. As the cannibals bear down, Claire entrusts Marcus to take a blaster and make a final stand alongside Isaac and I love her brief, decisive instructions: Keep a wide stance, and never take your blaster off of stun. They may not value human life, but we do.

The Orville arrives just in time and everyone makes it safely aboard where they’re cured of their various diseases. Claire goes to engineering to thank Isaac, who in turn delivers a “what-did-we-learn-today” moral. Which would be kind of a lackluster ending if it weren’t shot in a really neat composition of the two facing each other in profile against the glow of the ship’s central reactor. If you’re not going to be able to make it to the amusement park planet, this is the next best thing.


Stray Observations:

  • As of today, The Orville has officially been greenlit for a second season. Star Trek: Discovery was renewed a week ago. So if you’re a fan of one, or both, or still aren’t tired of comparing these two very distinct experiences to each other, it’s a pretty good day.
  • I hope a future episode actually visits the amusement park planet. That place sounds pretty damn great.
  • Some of those space cannibals sure do look a lot like Klingons. Maybe the makeup department picked up the forehead ridges on liquidation sale after ST:D revamped the race.
  • “The older, less intelligent one.” Isaac, asking Claire a question about Marcus.
  • “Most of space is empty, so our odds are pretty good.” Captain Ed on assessing the risk of following the shuttle through the space fold when it might send them into the middle of a planet. While I applaud his Captain Kirk-like gung-ho attitude, maybe a less nonchalant shrug of an attitude about barreling into a worm hole is prudent?
  • The scavenger’s apartment building lair reminded me a lot of High Rise. I wonder how long ago he ate the dog?

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