Until now, “The Orville: New Horizons” has never felt aware of its own literal limitations. It’s the last season (for now, they keep saying, for now), and A Tale of Two Topas feels like show creator and episode credited writer and director Seth MacFarlane getting something done before the show’s over.
All they need to do is have alien babies age much faster than expected, just like MacFarlane’s captain’s half-alien child, who gets a mention at the beginning of the episode. But that alien child isn’t the subject of this episode; instead, it’s Peter Macon and Chad L. Coleman’s “son” Topa (played by Imani Pullum).
In the first season of “Orville,” Macon and Coleman had the baby and decided to surgically alter their female baby into a male one. Their race, the Moclan, are an all-male species who hate females in general and the rare female Moclan the most. Topa's now at least a tween—aging a decade while flying around the galaxy for a few years on the Orville. The timeline irregularities don’t matter because it’s a remarkable episode; as it all wraps up, it’s hard to imagine MacFarlane’s ever going to be able to surpass it as a director. It’s astoundingly good and needs to be; the episode’s a series of big swings, starting with Adrianne Palicki being the focus for the first third or so.
The episode runs seventy minutes; there’s time for various character spotlights, including Macon and, to a lesser degree, Coleman (who’s been the show’s resident asshole since the forced gender reassignment episode, which, again, was really early on).
Pullum’s interested in joining Starfleet—Union Point, whatever—and Palicki becomes his mentor. Except Pullum’s having some severe gender dysphoria without any context for it. Dad Coleman, who was also born female and had the surgery as a baby, would rather Pullum kill himself a boy than ever know he was born a girl. Dad Macon disagrees but culturally can’t complain. Macon’s acting is phenomenal this episode and even more impressive given the static alien makeup he’s wearing.
Palicki’s got a concerned third-party arc, leading to Macon and Coleman’s arc, before moving on to an unexpected complication. There’s only so much autonomy a person can have when the Union’s got to keep its allies happy, even if its allies are a bunch of religious bigots.
The episode’s main subplot—besides reformed killer robot Mark Jackson’s continued social problems with the crew (who haven’t forgiven the killer robot business)—involves an archeological dig on an alien planet. It provides a nice backdrop for the main action, which eventually requires doctor Penny Johnson Jerald too.
Great performances from Pullum, Macon, Palicki, and Coleman in the main arc, then Jerald and Jackson in the asides. MacFarlane gives himself a little to do later in the episode, and he’s real good too, but it’s not his episode, and he knows it.
It’s superb work.
Also notable is Andrew Cottee’s score. At the beginning, it sounds very Joel McNeely (so John Williams) but only for the Indiana Jones and the Alien Temple intro; once Pullum’s story takes the stage, it’s this emotive combination of lush tragic and romantic music; easy best music of the season.
And the best episode of the season, too, obviously.