Image: FOX

After last week’s gross episode, The Orville rebounds with a solidly enjoyable adventure. Tonight’s episode, “Firestorm,” is essentially a redux of the season’s second episode, “Command Performance,” that once again places Alara at the center in order to address her lack of self-confidence and anxiety in response to crisis. Over the course of eight episodes, “Firestorm” shows significant growth in both the cast member’s individual performances as well as their chemistry together. This is especially noticeable in the humor, which utilized far fewer random gags in favor of more well-crafted banter. Plus, it had a pretty great fight scene, a fairly respectable-looking cgi spider monster, and a finale that has a bloody, rifle-toting Alana looking as bad-ass as any James Cameron protagonist.

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The episode wasted no time getting started, beginning with the ship in the midst of a destructive plasma storm. A bolt of space electricity causes massive damage to engineering, and a crew member becomes trapped underneath a length of very bouncy Styrofoam-looking rebar. Alara is called in to free the engineer, but a sudden burst of flame causes her to hesitate. By the time she reaches the man, he’s dead. Suffering a crisis of confidence, Alara goes to Ed and offers to step down. Ed refuses her resignation and reiterates his confidence in her abilities. It’s not often we get scenes of Ed ministering to his crew. Usually, his command occurs whenever everyone is in a moment of crisis together. Giving the space for a scene where he can calmly offer support is helpful to show how he earned command of his own starship.

Afterwards, Alara reaches out to her parents in one of The Orville’s signature cameo-by-video scenes, where Robert Picardo -as Alana’s father- gently criticizes her intelligence and suggests she leave the Union and return home to finish her degree. Alara, unconvinced, probes them as to why she may be afraid of fire. Her mother confirms a house fire occurred when Alana was eight months old.

After the reveal of Alana’s latent pyrophobia, strange events begin to occur on the ship, starting with the much too on the nose (ha ha) presence of a skulking clown in an abandoned corridor. Clowns have become the bacon of irrational fears: a faddish zeitgeist that has somehow persisted long past a reasonable cultural sell-by date. But you still don’t want one running toward you, full-tilt down a desolate hallway. The thing disappears without a trace, but its presence was detected by the ships scanners. Whatever it was, it was real, and Alara isn’t insane. Tracking down and disintegrating the creature doesn’t solve anything, though, as the bizarre occurrences only escalate.

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The second third of this episode is by far the most enjoyable, as you get to wallow in the surreal menace of vignettes like sudden bottomless voids and a room that drips spiders. The best scene provides another example of Penny Johnson Jerald’s value to the show, as Dr. Claire seemingly goes mad and attempts to perform surgery on a conscious Alara. After she’s thwarted, she gives a suitably creepy Lovecraftian monologue on the myriad unseen horrors that dwell in the blackness of space. Then she asks for a pizza.

Image: FOX

As everyone around her seemingly disappears, it becomes apparent that whatever is happening, is happening specifically to Alara. Throughout the episode, characters offered enough speculation about the plasma storm housing some sort of alien entity or dimensional portal to telegraph whatever the reason for the strange occurrences wasn’t going to be something so obvious. That said, when it finally is revealed, the explanation requires a burdensome amount of exposition; including retroactive memory wipe reveals, seldom-used security override directives and a hand-waving “all’s well that ends well” lack of repercussions for a character who essentially broke the law just to freak herself out super hard on purpose. But despite the improbable Rube Goldberg mechanics required to make her scheme fit together, the resolution works because it was satisfying to see a plot where everything taking place specifically happened to encourage character growth.

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To briefly harp again on the failure of last week’s episode, it wasn’t just because the questionable subject matter was clumsily handled, it’s also because it did so little to tell us anything about the characters. What should have been an opportunity for reflection on Ed and Kelly’s evolving relationship was squandered on a queasy bit not worth the air time. In general, this has been a problem affecting The Orville. The crew has a problem that suggests a thematic through line to follow to conclusion, but end up resolving everything with a limp, unrelated shrug. But “Firestorm” sees its central idea through to the end. Alara was afraid, and wanted to control her fear. It wasn’t some quasi-supernatural occurrence that coincidentally dovetailed with the anxiety Alara was feeling about her ability to perform her duties, it was an event she precipitated to address them. So yeah, there are a lot of baffling unanswered questions. The test may have used fears gathered from crew psych evaluations, but why would a Xelayan be afraid of a human clown? And I guess it was thoughtful of Isaac to program so much supportive crew interaction into the simulation to take place between the horrors. But again, I’m happy not to concern myself with the soggy technical end of the narrative on account of the strength of the emotional notes. And also that fight scene. Man, Alara and Isaac were really throwing each other around like a pair of rag dolls.


Stray observations

  • Without knowing they were in a simulation, I was baffled by the officers being the ones to split up and find the clown. How important can Head of Security be if apparently Alara doesn’t have a crew of disposable grunts available to go out and get eaten by a ghost clown?
  • According to Alara’s dad, humans are the “hillbillies of the galaxy.” Feelin’ pretty hard to refute him right now.
  • “Hobo clowns are the most dangerous, because they’re hungry.” Sure, the whole clown thing may be played out, but that’s solid reasoning.
  • Bortus, reporting to Ed: “There was an alligator in the cargo hold. I successfully crushed it with a chair.” “What was it doing there?” “I do not know. But it is crushed.” God bless you, Bortus.
  • The next gen episode this evoked to me was “Remember Me,” where Dr. Crusher is trapped in a bubble universe where people keep disappearing around her. That one spooks me.

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