For its first four episodes, The Orville was like breathing in thin atmosphere. All the potential richness of an outer space adventure series with comedic overtones (or however the show wants to bill itself) felt largely untapped; and with the exception of a few strong moments, the show felt sparse. Jokes were slight and spaced too far between and the drama was uneven and lacking any sort of impact. Tonight’s episode, “Pria,” is the first episode of the season that feels like taking a lungful of real air. It’s clever, has Academy Award winner Charlize Theron in front of the camera and Star Trek alumnus Jonathan Frakes behind it, and generally delivers a packed, often very funny hour of television. It’s not transcendent (Yaphit is a waste of Norm Macdonald’s –and our- time), but it’s getting closer to the platonic ideal of comforting, escapist television.
After a brief opening scene of everyone watching Seinfeld on the bridge’s main display, the crew stages a rescue to save Pria Lavesque (Charlize Theron) from a mining vessel hurtling into the sun. Once aboard, she quickly makes herself comfortable, and to Kelly’s suspicion, begins cozying up with Ed.
While it makes sense that The Orville would utilize Ed and Kelly’s previous marriage as a character-focused means to propel the plot, jealousy-clouded suspicion of a potential interloper was a hoary conceit all the way back when Rebecca De Mornay was buying ominous wind chimes in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. It’s only because Kelly’s residual feelings for Ed are treated as light flutters of vestigial possessiveness instead of something uglier that the dynamic between the three doesn’t derail the episode. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long before Kelly is vindicated in her misgivings when the chief engineer discovers a mysterious gizmo discovered in Pria’s chambers locked into the ship’s engine. When the crew confronts her, she reveals she’s from the 29th century. What’s more, she came to the past to save the Orville from the dark matter storm that otherwise, according to her history, would destroy the ship and kill everyone aboard. It’s a neat declaration as both the viewer and the crew try and decide if it’s bullshit or not. The great thing about sci-fi is you can make a sort of absurd pronouncement and there’s no reason that it can’t be true. I thought she was lying and that her answer was a sort of meta-commentary on the show’s part on the delightful ridiculousness often inherent in space operas; But nope! She’s from the 29th century, alright. She’s no altruist, though. She’s an antique dealer who goes into the past to find ships right before they would otherwise be destroyed, Freejack-style, and sell them to collectors in the future.
Theron can’t do much with the writing, but she adds a lot to her character with just a look or tilt of her head. She’s best after the reveal, when she’s able to fully lean into her Cutthroat corporate businesswoman slash fortune hunter persona. Sure, she travels time and sends herself on a crash-course toward the sun in order to procure a ship, but once procured, she’s all too happy to have casual sex with the locals and just generally enjoy some down time drinking liquor on the couch and reading.
The episode’s b-story is delightfully, unexpectedly macabre. Mark Jackson plays Isaac as the non-union Mexican equivalent of Star Trek’s Data; capturing all the way down to lilt and inflection of Data’s child-like inquisitiveness at humanity’s assorted foibles and pleasures derived from others’ pain. So when Malloy plays a practical joke on the robot by studding his head with Mr. Potato Head features, it’s no surprise when Isaac’s response is dry, head-tilting curiosity. What is a surprise is when Malloy insists it’s Isaac’s turn to retaliate with a practical joke of his own, Isaac does so by slicing off Malloy’s leg in the middle of the night and hiding it in the ship. The gag both takes advantage of The Orville’s willingness to be at least a little transgressive –heretofore mostly utilized to talk about butts and penises- and yields up a bunch of really good sight gags over the course of the episode. Whether it was Malloy’s severed leg dropping through the ceiling at an inopportune moment, or the flaccid little vat-grown foot he’s forced to hobble to the bridge on, the bit proves that both Isaac and Malloy are right about what they posited humans find funny. Yes, our humor is basically sadism; but sadism -properly delivered- can be pretty hilarious.
The half-hearted hand-wave of an ending was an anemic little fizzle for such a strong episode. It’s futile to get frustrated with the show’s half-assed junk science resolution when half-assed junk science is the petrol that fuels all good sci-fi serial hijinks in the first place; but to conclude that destroying the wormhole would stabilize the timeline and reset everything back to where it was somewhere…oh… right around the start of the episode… bears a distinct air of not trying very hard. It’s at least partly understandable why we got the ending we did. Getting Charlize Theron for a guest spot basically guarantees Pria’s character will be a one-off. Which is unfortunate, because how great would it be for her to be stuck in the past acting as a Harry Mudd-type antagonist for the Orville? A savvy huckster anti-hero who uses the few pieces of future tech she still has to avoid prison and who occasionally drops in on the ship with some kind of crazy scheme to get her back to the 29th century and/or get rich. But barring either a significant dimming of Theron’s star or brightening of The Orville’s, this is the last we’re going to see of her. However, it’s also a shame to erase the ambiguity around the potential consequences of a crew that should be dead. Not that The Orville should turn into space Final Destination -where a thwarted space death methodically kills 300 people through elaborate Rube Goldberg set pieces involving a shed exo-skeleton lazily left on the floor and a malfunctioning food replicator set to “corn”- but the temporal distress caused by the ship’s continued existence would be a fun plot point to bring back in a future episode. This a minor gripe, though. “Pria” was the most enjoyable episode of The Orville yet. Maintain course, helmsman.
- You can see how this show strains against its FX budget, but it’s capable of presenting some great visuals. The scene in the dark matter storm where shots would track along the ship through the refractions of the dark matter bubbles was nicely done.
- This is the second time we get a look at what a scumbag chief engineer Steve Newton is. The first was in “Command Performance” when Alara had to shut him down to prevent him from calling her “kid.” Here, he’s just a sweaty old horn dog about Pria.
- Fashion Corner: The best part about the cocktail hour in Ed’s quarters is checking out everyone’s civilian attire. Malloy’s shapeless North Face fleece vest outfit was one pair of futuristic white New Balance sneakers shy of proving the timeless immutability of careless white guy attire. Pria was able to pull off her phone cord-wrapped catsuit with aplomb, however.
- Fashion Corner (part 2): Not so that bronze cowhide flare coat she was wearing at the end of the episode. What the hell was that thing? Those hip panels were poking out so awkwardly, I assumed they must be wings for a built-in jet pack to aid her escape.
- I finally started watching Star Trek: Discovery. It’s pretty good!