Bortus’ marriage is on the rocks and a civilization is endangered by a supernova in a solid, surprisingly poignant return to form for The Orville.
This piece was originally posted on Alcohollywood
The Orville has never been shy about its “Star Trek with the serial numbers filed off” pretensions, right down to characters like Peter Macon‘s stoic reptilian third officer Bortus – a Worf clone if ever there was one. A lot of the underlying joke behind Bortus leans on his species’ single-gender nature, which puts such an intense, warlike alien in a stable, comparative normal same-sex marriage with his mate Klyden (Chad L. Coleman). As part of the show’s starship-as-workplace gimmick, “Primal Urges” centers on a Bortus-heavy story about holodeck porn addiction and how it affects their marriage, and manages to put a pin on one of the first season’s most controversial episodes.
Bortus and Klyden’s marriage has hit a bit of a rough patch – Klyden hates the long hours Bortus works, which prevents him from being in the mood for “the sexual event.” What he doesn’t know, however, is that Bortus has developed quite the porn addiction, taking off early from work to spend hours in the simulator acting out all manner of inventive fantasies involving other sexy Moclans (“I cannot,” Bortus says to a solicitous Moclan prison guard in one fantasy. “I am a virgin in that way”). Even before his addiction is found out, however, Klyden expresses his desire for a Moclan “divorce” by doing what their species’ custom demands: stabbing him in the chest. Cue Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) taking the two of them through Moclan couples counseling, and a virus from one of Bortus’ more experimentally commissioned fantasies wreaking havoc on the ship’s systems.
Much of “Primal Urges” involves taking the premise of “what happens when a marriage between two Worfs goes on the rocks?” to its furthest conclusion, and your enjoyment of the episode (and of the series, to be honest) hinges on how much patience you have for that joke. Macon and Coleman are still doing riffs on the Michael Dorn thing, but their particular brand of dry intensity works as a droll backdrop for regular Seth MacFarlane contributor Wellesley Wild’s script.
The best Orville gags are subtle, the kind of tiny riffs on interpersonal relationship dramas set against the backdrop of the cosmos. Arguments about being late from work, demanding more time for each other, and the slow escalation of Bortus’ porn addiction are ripped from the Lifetime Original Movie playbook, but they shine in this deeply weird context. Wild and director Kevin Hooks play the drama straight, which is the best possible tactic for this kind of show, making for one of The Orville‘s best hours.
Of course, hanging over the heads of the Bortus/Klyden family is the fate of little Topa, who was introduced in the show’s third episode “About a Girl”, an hour that drew some heat for some perceived insensitivity in its allegory about sex reassignment and cultural norms around gender. While that early hour could have handled those issues with greater care, “Primal Urges” weaves that story elegantly back into the Moclans’ own problems. During couples counseling, the real source of Bortus’ tension is revealed: he has come to resent Klyden for urging Topa’s reassignment and has felt distanced from him ever since. A more complicated, sophisticated show would turn this into more of the story’s central thrust, but the fact that it’s mentioned at all is laudable – it shows some real growth and complexity to a character whose one-note stoicism has long been part of his central gag.
What’s most surprising about “Primal Urges” is the extent to which the episode’s B-plot, which appears at first glance to be a bit of throwaway Star Trek-y business to keep the rest of the cast busy, ties into Bortus’ family melodrama in surprisingly poignant ways. As the Orville orbits an expanding red supergiant, the crew discovers a subterranean civilization living below the surface of a planet about to be swallowed by the star. They only have time to save 30 of the 75 people living there, and the star’s radiation makes Bortus one of the only crew members who can man the rescue mission. The situation provides more than its share of pathos for an episode that also centers around Klingon porn, with family members separating from children, reminding Bortus of the value he must place on his own family.
Overall, “Primal Urges” is a fine return to form for The Orville, effortlessly blending a lighter, more casual approach to space travel with a much greater eye towards fleshing out their one-note joke characters into real, complicated people (albeit ones with comically bumpy foreheads). It’s clear the second season is leaning into a far more understated strain of humor than the sitcom-y nature of the show’s first few episodes; if shows like “Primal Urges” are the result, it’s the right course to set. If they keep it up, the show might just end up being the proper successor to TNG MacFarlane so clearly hopes it to be.