The show’s second season goes out with an effects-driven bang, offering a slight but fun alternate universe adventure.
Between Avengers: Endgame and The Orville‘s second season finale, it’s a good week for [SLIGHT ENDGAME SPOILER SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANNA KNOW ANYTHING] science fiction stories about embattled heroes weathering a dark timeline, only to risk everything to go back in time to fix it.
Well, color me surprised: last week, I could have sworn that younger Kelly’s (Adrianne Palicki) decision to not date Ed (Seth MacFarlane) was just one of those ‘splinter timelines’ they discussed in the episode proper. Lo and behold, “The Road Not Taken” closes out The Orville‘s second season with a gritty, Star Wars-ian alternate universe borne of that decision, turning the twist into a full-blown game changer.
You see, with the younger time-displaced Kelly remembering the events of her brief sojourn to the future Orville, she decides to spare both of them the pain of love and loss by cutting off their relationship at the pass. But in classic Butterfly Effect fashion, that sets off a chain of events that prevents Ed from taking command of the Orville, which eventually keeps him from saving Earth from the Kaylons a few episodes back. Thusly, the Kaylons successfully destroy Earth, throw the Union into disarray, and start taking over half the galaxy.
As we enter this grimier, more rakish version of The Orville, Ed and Gordon (Scott Grimes) are just dirt-covered scavengers who barely escape a Kaylon attack, only to be picked up by a bigger scavenger ship manned by leather-clad members of our former crew. The ship, of course, is led by a battle-hardened Kelly – the only one who knows about the alternate timeline due to Dr. Finn’s (Penny Johnson Jerald) memory wipe not working for various plot reasons. She’s gathered up all the former Orville crew members she can muster, sans Isaac (Mark Jackson) and Bortus (Peter Macon), for a last-ditch plan to restore the timeline: have Lamarr (J Lee) replicate the time-jump that threw Kelly into the future, but this time make her memory wipe stick so they can proceed as history intended.
All this, of course, is chiefly an excuse to take a detour from the bright, shiny curves of Star Trek into full-on Star Wars pastiche, and MacFarlane and crew make no bones about their influences here either. The scavenger ship evokes the Millennium Falcon in a lot of ways (including one particularly on-the-nose chase through an asteroid field); the ships, clothes, and corridors are run-down and filthy; and there’s even a rag-tag resistance (run by long-lost security chief Alara Kitan (Halston Sage) in a fun cameo!). As with all things about this show, though, the homages are loving, and it’s all done with so much charm that it’s hard to fault them for a lack of originality.
Where “The Road Not Taken” does fall apart a bit, though, is in a decided lack of stakes, and some shoddy pacing here and there. The overall plot to get Kelly back to restore the intended timeline takes us to a lot of different destinations, perhaps yet another echo of the Star Wars formula – backwater planets, a resistance base, a bombed-out Earth, Kaylon space. The cast and crew are clearly having fun running, jumping, and barking orders at each other amid laser fire; it’s real throwback space-adventure stuff that the show doesn’t often indulge in outside its other big episodes, and it’s nice that The Orville has the budget to back it up.
Because this all has to be squeezed into 45 minutes, though, we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with each setpiece, and some plot elements are picked up, only to be dropped completely. At one point, the crew hide out in the event horizon of a black hole to get away from the Kaylons; via time dilation, we see that the Kaylons spend two entire days looking for them. You’d think this would play into the time shenanigans involved at episode’s end, but it’s merely a small diversion; the chase could have ended with them just losing the Kaylon without any black hole business, and no one would have been the wiser. It’s this dedication to providing feature-quality spectacle that is sometimes The Orville‘s biggest weakness; here even more so, since we know these alternate universe characters will cease to exist once the episode’s closing minutes arrive.
But of course, The Orville‘s greatest strength lies in its characters, and some have more fun playing their dark-universe counterparts than others. MacFarlane’s clearly having a blast playing a shakier, more Han Solo-y version of Ed, even if most of that is expressed through a slightly more arched brow and some five o’clock shadow; Sage, for her money, puts the greatest spin on her character out of anyone, as alt-Alara’s gruffness and self-assuredness is a big shift from the wide-eyed junior officer we left her as. Everyone else, though, is mostly just playing themselves – that’s charming in its own right, but this was a good chance to take some risks and have people get weird with it.
Still, as with last week, “The Road Not Taken” is still ultimately about Ed and Kelly’s relationship – whether, in this alternate world or in our own, the two will end up together, and whether or not that’s a good idea. It’s interesting for this episode to explore the idea of two people that have to be together, if only because their divorce will lead them to save the universe. Ed and Kelly’s deep, undying knowledge for each other because of those experiences have always been the strong point of this show – and even if nu-Ed and nu-Kelly’s rekindled romance at several points throughout this episode is a bit of a buzzkill, it’s important to remember that you have to love someone before you can lose them, and that loss can be an important bit of character growth for you.
For the most part, “The Road Not Taken” is a fun but shallow blockbuster of an episode, an interesting thought exercise that lets the production and effects teams paint a different picture of MacFarlane’s Trekkian utopia. It might well be the closest thing we get to a Mirror Universe episode; as such, it’s relatively low-stakes, but a fun, action-packed diversion nonetheless.
With the show’s fate still in the air, we simply don’t know whether The Orville will get a third season, or if this is the last we’ll see of Ed Mercer and his intrepid crew. If so, that’s a shame – this season managed to dust off some of the weaker elements of the show’s early days and solidify it into a gentle, earnest exploration of sci-fi ideas sprinkled with the thinnest veneer of workplace comedy. If The Orville started out as “Family Guy in Space,” it’s gradually and organically morphed into something more refreshingly complicated than that, developing itself into, at the very least, a charming extension of the values and tone of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is something the TV landscape has been sorely missing. Here’s hoping we get more of that in a third season and beyond.
- Once again, the effects team knocks it out of the park this episode – from Ed and Gordon’s chase through some ice fields in their shuttle, to the spectacular vision of the Orville launching from the ocean like the aquatic creature its design evokes, it’s clear that cost may be one of the reasons the show might not come back for season 3. Looking this good has got to be expensive as hell.
- As if the other Star Wars comparisons weren’t enough, we get Yaphit (Norm MacDonald) greeting our crew through a Resistance door looking just like the little ball droid from Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi.
- The Kaylon’s heads apparently come off, making them laser-mounted flying drones! Real Star Trek: Insurrection vibes there.
- One small observation: in this universe, the main Orville theme never plays, composer Joel McNeely instead opting to create a new, James Horner-inspired motif for when the ship rises from the ocean. It’s still great stuff, but it’s just a nice touch to see the production crew treat this episode like a whole new universe.
- Ed and Gordon’s first meal in their stolen food replicator? A Twinkie – which of course raises the stakes for their last stand when they get pulled into another ship via tractor beam: “I don’t want my last meal to be a Twinkie.”
- It was cool that Dr. Finn’s kids got to play a part, however small, in the space-faring action on display, especially Ty and Gordon’s tractor beam maneuver. “Mom, I did the tractor beam!” Claire, absently as only a distracted mother can be: “That’s great, Ty.”