Every time the Orville had a really good show this season, I found myself wondering, “Is this it? Has the show finally found its stride?” Only for the following week to be a letdown. But not only was “New Dimensions” another enjoyable episode after last week’s parade of horrors, it offered a second, much better opportunity to reintroduce us to John LaMarr. It turns out the mild, practical joke and statue frottage-enjoying helmsman is also a super genius who just keeps it on the down low because he enjoys coasting through life with a minimum of interference. It’s a kind of out-of-nowhere character trait introduction that would be more annoying if it didn’t make John a much more interesting character than he has been all season. In the cold open, Gordon and John are attending a going-away party for Chief Engineer Newton. They play a joke on Yaphit by slicing off a chunk of his gelatinous body and placing it on the buffet, which Bortus then eats. It’s only as Kelly is writing the pair up that she digs into John’s Union profile and discovers he’s wildly intelligent. She decides he should be the next Chief Engineer, though Ed disagrees. Meanwhile, the ship glance off one of the countless space-time anomalies that dot the cosmos like potholes. The Orville didn’t hit it head-on and avoided damage, but a passing smuggler went straight through the thing, only to emerge through the other side really dead.
Kelly place John in charge of a science team to figure out what’s going on inside the anomaly as a test to see if he’s capable of leading engineering. John is miserable and it only takes the slightest provocation from Yaphit, irate at being pushed aside in command by a person who tried to get him eaten, to send John into a gumdrop-flinging tantrum. As they slowly work to discover what’s inside the portal, the rest of command discover the smuggler was carrying a shipment of stolen Krill plasma rifles. I enjoy how the show is consistent about making sure you remember the Orville is mismatched for nearly any altercation it may get into. It’s no juggernaut, Imperial or Galaxy-class ship loaded down with cutting edge shields and weaponry. It’s a mid-sized exploratory vessel tasked with fairly mundane Union duties. When they catch wind not one, but three Krill ships are coming to retrieve their stolen weapons, there’s no discussion about staying and fighting. They have to get out of there fast. Newly confident genius John proposes some quantum jibble-jabble about fields and equilibriums that will allow them to safely hide out inside the 2D portal and wait out the Krill threat.
And what a surprise how cool the 2D dimension looked: an endless technicolor Pac Man circuit board, with countless points of light tracing long, colorful paths. It was a lovely and unique setting to have as a backdrop as the characters worked through their angst.
The episode is all about an examination of two people struggling with the role of command. While John is struggling with being outed as competent, Ed finally learns about Kelly’s part in getting him aboard the Orville. It was all the way back at the stinger for the first episode where they revealed Kelly directly intervened with Admiral Halsey to land Ed his position as captain. The way it was presented felt like it could be interpreted as either a sinister or benign secret depending on what direction the show chose to take it. But after that single scene, the reveal was left inert for ten episodes. Now the secret is finally out and the ramifications were, thankfully, very anti-climactic. I said then the worst thing The Orville could do was frame Kelly’s intervention as something underhanded or manipulative and in doing so, undermine the show’s positivity. Even better, when Kelly finally did let slip her part in getting Ed his captaincy, it barely counted as a plot point at all. And it allowed Kelly to make a fantastic speech about how the myth of the rugged individualist self-made man is all just so much bullshit. Ed suffered a little crisis of confidence, but it blessedly never materialized in some high-pressure scene where he had to make some last minute split-decision or hundreds would die. He moped a bit, he complained a bit, Kelly reminded him he wasn’t the world’s most special angel and nobody gets to where they are in life without help and then he flew a 2D shuttle, got a nosebleed, and then everything was fine.
John’s ultimate explanation about his reluctance to demonstrate his intelligence as a consequence of growing up on a colony full of blue collar-types with little patience for brainy people was interesting, but also a bit unsatisfying as a one-paragraph synopsis for an entire lifetime of self-muting behavior. The glimpse offered by Kelly’s discussion about reputation as currency in The Orville’s still very human, very imperfect world was as interesting a bit of world building the show has done so far. Ending humanity’s struggle for material want didn’t force an evolution away from our baser animal selves. And while the show shouldn’t give up its two dimensional-hopping space adventure ways to become a high-concept character study on the commodification of status, it would be neat to see how much of human’s impulse to be great remains, and what it cost John to give up so much of himself in order to just sit quietly next to Gordon and make fart jokes. But really, whatever. This is another instance where The Orville’s slightly flabby storytelling is excusable because it’s in service of a worthwhile character arc. It’s smart to put John as the head of engineering. Newton was never an engaging chief -though granted, we didn’t spend much time with him. He only existed to be slightly sexist or doggedly competent as the story required. But putting an established member of the main cast into one of the most important areas of the ship sure makes a lot of sense. And the show managed to sell John’s growth and ability to fuse the demands of leadership with his casual regard for intoxication-powered unconsciousness.
- Once again, The Orville’s strength as a light-hearted sci-fi show is less in the jokes than in presenting places like the 2D dimension. It was so bright and candy-colored and delightful in a way that just wouldn’t mesh with a more straight-faced space show. Same with the noodle-slurping Horvilack and his very Brian Froud/Jim Henson-esque giant prosthetic head.
- “He fed a guy to another guy.” A salient argument as to why John may not be the best candidate for chief engineer.
- I couldn’t be more pleased to see Isaac and Dr. Claire’s kids pair up again. Isaac remains at the perfect misanthropic side of logical. Kind of a robot W.C. Fields.
- “Prideful ass? What is this, a Jane Austen novel?” Ed, getting upset about being a prideful ass.
- An episode has been cut from this season’s originally intended 13, so next week is the season finale. What secrets await? Who will show up on a video screen and surprise us with being someone we recognize? Who’s getting punched? Let’s all tune in next week and find out.