“The Orville”’s back, with a bewildering addition of a subtitle: “New Horizons.” First, why? Second, it’s the show’s presumed final season; adding “New” to the title suggests they’re trying to get more people watching, so again, why? Finally, this episode’s a direct sequel to events in the previous season; not the season finale either, it’s about resentments stewing amongst the crew since halfway through the second season.
The new title has zero impact on the show (the opening titles are the same otherwise), it’s just odd.
The show also started as a Fox TV broadcast program and becomes a Hulu streaming show this season; there are the telltale commercial break fades to black, which are the only time the episode’s ever clunks. Because, holy cow, is “The Orville” back.
It’s a long episode—seventy minutes, so basically a two parter combined, subplots subtracted—written and directed by show creator Seth MacFarlane. Based on the space action sequences set to Kevin Kaska’s music, Disney ought to at least let MacFarlane direct a Star War, if not write it as well. While “Orville”’s much more like “Star Trek” in its approach to characters, humanism, and quality, the action sequences this episode—thanks to Kaska's score—feel like they’re out of Return of the Jedi or even Empire. Always in very good ways.
The episode opens an action sequence flashback to an alien battle, ending with ship’s doctor’s son, BJ Tanner, remembering how his mom’s alien robot ex-boyfriend and their family friend, Mark Jackson, betrayed everyone. Jackson’s race of alien robots tried to destroy humanity last season, resulting in thousands of dead Federation officers—sorry, sorry, Union—before he changed his mind and saved the day. The action then cuts to new cast member Anne Winters being cruel to an unemotionally unconfused Jackson in the mess hall.
The entire episode’s going to be about how the crew is dealing with Jackson being back on board, back on the bridge, when there’s so much unresolved, justified animus.
It’s an enormous swing from MacFarlane—as writer and director, as top-billed captain of the Orville he gives himself almost nothing to do—and it’s a resounding success. MacFarlene leverages “Orville”’s secret weapon, ship’s doctor Penny Johnson Jerald. While the episode starts focusing on Tanner and Winters being angry about Jackson, it gracefully becomes Jerald’s episode for a while, with significant functional contributions from J. Lee.
Besides Winters joining the cast—she’s the new helmsman, since Jackson’s buddies destroyed her last ship and killed almost everyone onboard, including her best friend—the other big subplot is the Orville getting a zippy fighter jet version of a shuttlecraft, giving MacFarlene another chance to flex the space action.
MacFarlene also leans in on the “Kirk looking at the Enterprise for forty-five minutes” trope, with multiple lovely, lengthy sequences of the ship in space flight. Given how much effort they put into the episode, I’m kind of surprised they didn’t think to fix the commercial breaks.
It’s an outstanding episode, with the long run time breaking the traditional act structure for a forty-five minute show and allowing for numerous deeply emotional beats. Winters gets a layered arc, Jerald gets one starting fifteen minutes in or whatever, Tanner, J. Lee, lots of great arcs throughout. Maybe next time they’ll get to the “New Horizons” (or just ended with the subtitle reveal), but “Orville”’s off to an incredibly strong, surprisingly ambitious start.