Warning: Spoilers ahead for "The Orville" season 3, episode 3
You read that headline correctly: We're giving this episode of "The Orville," entitled "Mortality Paradox," a perfect 10. And while this latest installment might not appeal to those fearful of flying — or stand-up paddleboarding, for that matter — it is nonetheless a mind-boggling, full-throttle, thrill-a-minute, plot-twisting, edge-of-seat adrenaline ride that will absolutely, positively keep you glued to your TV screens for every single second of its 60 minutes.
What makes this episode stand out from any other is the perfect balance of every variable — humor, drama, action, suspense. Moreover, the set pieces are beautifully framed and photographed and the set design is spot on. And the direction by Jon Cassar, writing by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, and editing by Tom Costantino and Bart Rachmil — all of whom are long-time collaborators on "The Orville" — keep you guessing, quite literally, to the every end.
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There's undoubtedly an influence from two "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episodes, "Where Silence Has Lease" (S02, E02) and "Allegiance" (S03, E18), as, broadly speaking, both revolved around an alien species trying to learn more about their captives by presenting them with challenges to overcome. However, not only is this story considerably more exciting, not least thanks to some phenomenally good visual effects from the team, but it also exhibits the tiniest and most subtle nods to other epic works, which we'll come to shortly. And this is exactly the unique niche that "The Orville" has carved out for itself, which shouldn't come as any surprise, given that the mastermind behind it, Seth MacFarlane, does exactly this in his other well-known shows, "Family Guy" and, to a slightly lesser extent, "American Dad."
The episode begins with Lt. Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr) returning to the Orville from a visit to her home world of Xelaya. Along with some delicious-looking, super-dense chocolate (heavy gravity, heavy desserts), she also brings news of a residual Kaylon quantum signature out by the Avior system. And as we will learn, much later, this is all part of an extremely elaborate ruse.
Isaac (Mark Jackson) detects narrow-band electromagnetic emissions from the surface of Narran I, which is particularly odd, since it's meant to be a barren wasteland. However, "such intense and modulated signals can only be produced by the collective energy output of a substantial population of life forms," so off the crew goes to investigate.
At this point, very strange things start to happen. The vast cities detected from orbit have disappeared, and only a huge swath of vegetation remains. Having landed one of those gorgeous new shuttles, the away team — consisting of Capt. Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane), Cmdr. Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), Lt. Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), Lt. Cmdr. Bortus (Peter Macon) and Keyali — stumble on an old, North American-style high school building circa the 20th century.
This week, the accompanying musical score by Joel McNeely take some inspiration from the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" soundtrack, specifically "Into The Jungle" by John Williams. This can also be heard in the second-season finale "The Road Not Taken" (S02, E14). Moreover, it could be argued that there is the briefest of nods to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" as we roll above the double-helix-like staircase onboard the Orville. And it's practically a given that Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 sci-fi thriller "Strange Days" was at least mentioned when this episode was being scripted by the show's producers.
The staircase shot also resembles a spinning jet turbine slowing down, foreshadowing events yet to come — and that's exactly the kind of over-analysis needed on an essay answer, should "The Orville" ever make it onto the national curriculum.
After a brief reconnaissance of the school interior reveals nothing, poor Malloy then gets a beating in a bathroom and is told he has to pay someone called Randall the money that is owed. Naturally, this makes no sense to anyone. And, when we're finally introduced to Randall on the school playing field, it turns out he's not your typical school bully but is instead a terrifying, 40-foot-tall, drooling, bipedal reptilian carnivore — almost like a Rancor (opens in new tab) in appearance. Of course. Randall the Rancor. Whoever came up with that gem in the writer's room was no doubt chuckling all the way to the commissary.
The is the first surreal twist of many, and while we were still thinking this might be an episode with a quirky but ultimately unadventurous plot, we get the metaphoric equivalent of a slap in the face with a super-sized sea bass. Suddenly, without warning, our fearless five find themselves onboard a narrow-body jet airliner going through some extremely heavy turbulence. This is incredibly well filmed, very much in the spirit of a "Final Destination" movie, and, even if you don't harbor a perfectly normal fear of flying, it will almost certainly leave you at least mildly terrified.
Now a pattern is beginning to emerge. Just at the point of impact and almost certain death, the puzzled members of this landing party once again find themselves somewhere totally different; this time, it's a Moclan morgue. First Malloy found himself having a near-death experience, then Mercer and now it's Bortus, as he's nearly strangled to death by a supposedly long-dead Moclan. At this point, things really start to get weird, because, you know, they weren't before.
Meanwhile, a rescue mission has been launched on another shuttle with Isaac, Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) and two token security redshirts, who remain completely unharmed for the rest of this episode. However, for them the planet Narran I is exactly how it should be — a desolate, barren wasteland. They locate the other shuttle, but there's no sign of the other crewmembers and frankly there isn't an awful lot they can do.
After making their way down a seemingly endless staircase, another doorway eventually presents itself, and our beleaguered band of explorers emerges by a lakeside at night (although it looks suspiciously like it was filmed during the day and later color-corrected, but it's an alien planet, so, you know, that's OK). The team believes they've spotted someone, or something, in the hills on the other side of the lake, so Grayson, Keyali and Malloy attempt to cross on a crude raft.
You know what's coming, of course, but that doesn't make it any easier to endure. They soon catch sight of a multi-tentacled mollusk the size of the Washington Monument that would put Capt. Nemo's pet squid to shame. Before you can even think "How much garlic would I need for that?" the creature has grabbed poor Kelly Grayson and dragged her to the depths of the lake. Keyali manages to get to her in time, but not before Grayson believes she's going to drown. However, she doesn't die and is instead rescued, and the attempt to cross the lake is wisely abandoned.
At this point, Mercer loses his patience. And who wouldn't? He and the team refuse to enter another doorway that appears to them and instead opt to march around it. Before long, a power signature is detected, and some sort of holographic projector — built with Kaylon technology — is detected. (Remember that ruse earlier about the residual Kaylon quantum signature.) They destroy it and collect the debris for analysis. The planet's terrain seems to have returned to something resembling what it should, and our gallant gang relocates their lost shuttle and returns to the Orville.
But the thoroughly engaging plot twists aren't over yet. Everything seems to be normal; even Isaac and Dr. Finn are back aboard. But when other starships from the Planetary Union arrive to take possession of the Kaylon hologram emitter, Isaac recognizes the threat and suggests that these ships are in fact Kaylon warships, themselves camouflaged by holograms to look like Planetary Union ships. Torn between the decision of whether to shoot at a supposedly friendly vessel or to remain defenseless, Mercer's mind is made up for him when the Kaylon ships "de-cloak," so to speak, and open fire on the Orville. Outnumbered and outgunned, it isn’t long before a reactor core breach threatens the ship when, suddenly, everything freezes.
Every crewmember — with the notable exceptions of Mercer, Grayson Malloy, Bordus and Keyali — is frozen in his or her last position, which in most cases has an I'm-about-to-die-horribly feel. Keyali stands and transforms into
Autowoman an angelic, illuminated "Tron"-like figure. She does a Q-like click of her fingers, and suddenly everyone is back on Narran 1, by the shuttle they left behind. This strange entity is named Dinal (Elizabeth Gillies), and, in yet another surprise that no one could've possibly foreseen, it turns out she's from a planet the Orville crew encountered in the Season 1 finale and an episode entitled "Mad Idolatry" that aired in 2017. It follows a similar-ish premise to the underrated "Star Trek: Voyager" episode "Blink of An Eye" (S06, E12), in which the USS Voyager becomes trapped in orbit around a planet where time passes rapidly, days within seconds, and enters the mythos of its indigenous people.
In "Mad Idolatry," Isaac detects a space anomaly and, upon further scientific exploration, he discovers it's a planet in an orbit switching between two parallel universes. The away team consists of Isaac, Gordon Malloy and Kelly Grayson, and they soon observe it's a culture approximately similar to that of Earth during the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, by healing a fallen child's minor head wound with advanced technology, Grayson now appears magical to the locals.
The crew leaves the planet, but when it returns once again to "normal space" after an 11-day orbit in the "other universe," over 700 years have passed. It has advanced into an inquisition culture whose deity is First Healer Kelly Grayson. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Mercer allows Isaac to voluntarily remain on the planet in its next 700-year cycle in the other universe, as his artificial Kaylon body can endure for millions of years.
Another 11 days pass for the crew of the Orville, then the planet re-appears, its inhabitants advancing slightly beyond 25th-century standards. Isaac and two of the planet's representatives teleport onto the bridge and report that they no longer worship Kelly as a deity, recognizing her as a woman who played a necessary role in their planet's development.
But these events unfolded approximately two years ago and, in that time, the planet (which strangely we still don't know the name of) and its population have evolved 50,000 years. As such, they are immortal. And all of this was an observational exercise to create a moment when each one of the Orville's crew genuinely believed they were going to die — all except Keyali, because it wasn't really her. While Dinal is all smiles about the whole thing, reassuring everyone that no one was in any real danger, Mercer is quite justifiably upset. And who knows how long those guys are going to suffer at least a little PTSD going forward. An interesting existential discussion follows, but it doesn't change the fact that Malloy, almost certainly, will be making regular counselor appointments for a while.
This week's episode was exceptional, "The Orville" is really playing to its strengths, and when it does that, it excels. The episode is a love letter to all of science fiction and even contemporary pop culture, and when all of that is beautifully interwoven with a very well-written story, just a sprinkling of trademark MacFarlane humor and stunning and very clever cinematography, you have a real winner.
The first and second seasons of "The Orville" are available to watch on Hulu (opens in new tab)and Disney Plus (opens in new tab) in most countries, and packages in the US start at $6.99 per month. New episodes of season 3 will drop every Thursday. Viewers in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and the UK can watch on Disney Plus (opens in new tab) with accessibility coming soon for Japan and South Korea. Viewers in Latin American can watch on Star Plus.