Between its bevy of Trek alumni and
effortless mixture of space spectacle and moral complications, this week’s Orville shines as one of the season’s best.
I freely admit that Star Trek Discovery has been getting light-years better since its shaky first season, and has found its lighter, more complicated voice in season two that feels more akin to the show on which it’s based. But at this point, it feels safe to say that The Orville is the show that’s really carrying the torch for the essence of old-school Trek – complicated, episodic television that places its focus on characters rather than overarching plot, informed by previous episodes while making each hour stand on their own. With “Sanctuary”, Seth MacFarlane and crew might have just figured out the perfect alchemy for what makes a great episode of The Orville – and in doing so, honoring its Trekkian influences in the best way.
“Sanctuary” brings to a head several issues that have lurked in the background of season two’s Moclan-heavy episodes. In “Primal Urges” and “Deflectors”, among others, we’ve learned of the tenuous relationship between
All of this started, of course, when Bortus’ female child was forced to be changed into a male, named Topa, in the show’s third-ever episode – an event that forever changed Bortus’ perspective on his own people’s culture, and reaches its apotheosis in “Sanctuary”. The episode starts simply enough: a pair of Moclan engineers (Regi Davis and Shawn Andrew) sneak aboard a mysterious package, which turns out to be their daughter – a female Moclan infant. Bortus learns of this, and is immediately torn between his duty to his captain and his sympathies for their plight; favoring the latter, he lets them sneak away from the Orville to smuggle their baby to a safe harbor that has promised to take them in.
However, Capt. Mercer (MacFarlane) and the crew find out about Bortus’ little subterfuge, which leads them to eventually discover a secret sanctuary planet occupied by females – led by the Moclan author Heveena (a radiant Rena Owen), whom we first met in “About a Girl”. Here, Mercer and the audience learn the Moclans’ greatest secret: Moclan females aren’t rare aberrations, but astonishingly common. Forced reassignment surgery and cultural erasure aren’t just quirks of Moclan culture – it’s straight up genocide. From there, Mercer has the bright idea of having the colony apply as an independent state in the Union, a move which offends the Moclans to the point of threatening to leave the Union… and taking its weapons with them.
This episode was directed by Jonathan “Two-Takes” Frakes (who’s pulled double duty on both this and Discovery in both of their respective seasons, which is just lovely), who helmed Star Trek: Insurrection, of which “Sanctuary” feels like a much more assured version. A secret world of vulnerable refugees hidden inside a nebula; vengeful members of the same species engineering a genocide to protect their own interests; F. Murray Abraham and Marina Sirtis in the cast. All that was missing was Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) pulling up a Thrustmaster Pro joystick. And yet, unlike the languid pace and unclear stakes of Insurrection, “Sanctuary” knocks it out of the park in half the runtime and a TV-show budget.
For one thing (as has been the case with most Orville episodes), “Sanctuary” takes its ethical dilemmas seriously – the impasse between maintaining Moclan status in the Union and preserving the lives of thousands of innocent people. On the one hand, denying sovereign status to the female Moclan colony opens the door for elimination and mass sterilization of a race’s entire gender. On the other, the Moclans leaving also creates a power gap at a time when the Kaylons aren’t exactly happy with them. With the show’s admirals (Victor Garber, Ron Canada, Kelly Hu, Ted Danson) collected in a conference room to debate the issue face-to-face for the first time, it’s Ed who offers up the most succinct argument for admitting the colony: “if we’re not willing to stand up for the values the Union was build on, what are we defending?”
Miraculously, while “Sanctuary” gives its moral discussions room to breathe, it also squeaks out a little more action spectacle after the budget-busting space battle from “Identity Pt. 2”. As peace talks reach their tensest point, a broken standoff between the Orville and a Moclan ship over the planet leads to a dustup on two fronts: the two ships trading blows inside the nebula, and Kelly and Bortus pulling a nifty reprise of their prison break from “All the World is Birthday Cake” as they defend the colony from Moclan soldiers. It’s great, well-paced stuff, the two ships dancing in the blue-purple nebula while Palicki, Macon, and a whole bunch of rubber-faced stuntpeople square off in a studio-lit forest. All, it must be noted, to the tune of Dolly Parton‘s catchy girl-power bop “9 to 5”, a tune that becomes the siren song of the Moclan woman’s revolution. As Heveena notes when Ed first introduces her to it on the shuttle to Earth, “she speaks with the might of a hundred soldiers!” You’re damn right,
The conflict ends in typically bittersweet Orville fashion, the two sides hammering out a tenuously acceptable agreement that ensures the safety of the colony, but prevents any more Moclan women from finding sanctuary there. Even, I daresay, more than Star Trek, The Orville delights in not wrapping its conflicts up in a neat, tidy bow – for its clean retro lines and IKEA-friendly aesthetic, MacFarlane’s spacefaring universe wants to show the messy work that goes into building and maintaining a Federation-like utopia. Sometimes, cultural differences will take a lot of work – and the occasional trading of blows – to resolve, and it won’t always (or often) be perfect. But as “Sanctuary” frames its smart, well-paced, and exciting exploration of these issues, the real victories can be incredibly personal. Sure, Moclan-Union relationships are strained, but Bortus gets to see Topa begin to grow into the kind of Moclan who won’t adhere to his culture’s blatantly misogynistic values.
- Seriously, I don’t know how they keep up the budget for this, but the VFX for The Orville continues to look fantastic – especially every single shot inside the nebula and the kinetic, dynamic dogfight between the Orville and the Moclan ship.
- It was a great little touch to see Talla (Jessica Szohr) take the conn and, true to character, immediately make the call to start firing on the Moclan ship as soon as it showed aggressive behavior. Alara wouldn’t have made that move, at least so assertively.
- A reminder to all of us that we should live our lives in such a way that, were we to ask, “Do you suppose Dolly Parton would be proud of us?”, the answer would be a resounding, beaming “yes.”
- In addition to the admirals, Abraham and Sirtis (who didn’t get nearly enough screentime, tbh), another Trek alum showed up in the form of the legendary Tony “Candyman” Todd, playing the recalcitrant Moclan representative. It was nice to see Kurn can be a jackass even in a Star Trek parody.
Heveena’sspeech to the Union council was an incredible display of sci-fi sophistry, brilliantly delivered by Owen – including her impassioned recitation of “9 to 5” lyrics to sell her point. “Every revolution begins with a single act of defiance.”
- The female Moclan warriors on the planet had some Big Dora Milaje Energy, and I’m here for it.
- I’m genuinely curious to see where Bortus and
Klyden’smarriage goes from here – Bortus is clearly sick of Klyden’sbigotry by now, and Klyden doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to change his position on things (hell, he’s already on Talla’s shit list for his behavior in “Deflectors”). Will another culturally-acceptable stabbing be in his future?
- This episode was pretty light on laughs, but I’ll admit that MacFarlane’s “OH I got you” after Admiral Halsey (Garber) wink-wink suggests
to contactthe Orville under cover of bad transmissions finally hits him. MacFarlane’s been really good this season about finding the balance between Shatnerian blowhard hero and just a well-meaning guy trying to get the job done, and this episode was a good example of it. His little bit of rhetorical lawyering at the Moclan hearing was great, too, twisting Todd’s Moclan re[ into a logic bomb after pointing out that, if the Kaylon destroy them all because their split, all that will be left of Moclan society is females. “At least you’ll still be a single-gender species,” Ed prods.