Review of The Orville: New Horizons
MacFarlane, Seth, creator. The Orville: New Horizons, Fuzzy Door Productions and 20th Television, 2022.
The third season of The Orville arrived with a brand-new subtitle—New Horizons—a signal from show creator and star Seth MacFarlane that the series would initiate a renewed concentration on the ship’s exploratory mission and questing spirit. However, what viewers received instead was, rather, a season-long study of the contradictions, emotional bonds, and injustices that define the human condition (or perhaps, the “sentient” condition, since these same interactions play out among various alien species as well—as with Orville’s spiritual predecessor Star Trek, alien species tend to serve as analogs for humans, whose behavior is presented as the “sentience default” galaxywide). Only one episode of New Horizons, “Shadow Realms,” centers on the exploration of unknown space; the remainder focus instead on the exploration of psychological and societal inner space and on characters’ attempts to find meaning for themselves as well as a secure place in their world for themselves and their loved ones. The Orville: New Horizons, far more than previous seasons, demonstrates the truth of Trek writer David Gerrold’s oft-quoted observation that “the final frontier is not space. The final frontier is the human soul. Space is merely the arena in which we shall meet the challenge.” (The World of Star Trek, 1973) It is likely no coincidence that, while still leavened with humor, this new season of the show is much less reliant on jokes; like the ship and its crew, the series itself has emerged into a new maturity, tempered by trauma and existential fear.
At the conclusion of the second season, the crew of the Orville and the Planetary Union were living in the long shadow newly cast by the massive Kaylon invasion. That invasion, led in large part by Kaylon and Orville crew member Isaac (Mark Jackson), caused the deaths of thousands of Planetary Union members and their reptilian Krill allies-of-convenience, as well as the destruction of numerous ships. The season’s first episode, “Electric Sheep,” sets the psychological tone for the series, opening with an expansive recap of the desperate battle, which we find is a flashback-cum-dream experienced by Marcus Finn (BJ Tanner), the older son of Orville medical officer Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jereld). As Marcus awakes violently from his PTSD-fueled dream of the battle and Isaac’s betrayal, the Orville itself is seen berthed in an orbiting spacedock, being refitted—symbolically reborn for a new age of unprecedented conflict. Ongoing conflict between past and present is depicted as Isaac walks the decks of the ship in an atmosphere of deep distrust after his betrayal, much of it coming from new ensign Charlie Burke (Anne Winters). Burke herself, like Marcus, suffers from righteous anger at Isaac, having barely escaped the destruction of her ship and witnessed the death of her friend/secret love. This first episode, and much of the season, is concerned with attempts to psychologically heal from grievous wounds, inflicted not only by outside invaders but by supposed allies.
Even one’s own culture can do great harm to those within it; much of this season centers on the issue of what we owe to our culture (or state, or planet) versus what we owe to each other and those we love. One of New Horizons’ most important characters is Topa, the child of Lt. Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) and his husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman), both members of the Moclan species. Topa (Imani Pullum) was born female in season 1—a supposed “rarity” and source of deep shame to the one-gender Moclan culture—and she was surgically altered to male at Klyden’s insistence. Season 3’s most emotionally devastating episode, “A Tale of Two Topas,” sees Topa experiencing gender dysphoria and suicidal depression, trapped between her own feelings and Klyden’s determination to honor his cultural traditions (determination fueled by self-loathing) and maintain Topa’s forced masculinity. Bortus, encouraged by Topa’s compassionate mentor/Orville first officer Kelly Grayson (Adrienne Palicki), chooses, at last to eschew the mores and strictures of his own home culture to preserve Topa’s life and emotional well-being, and she is returned to female form. The viewer is left heartbroken in watching Klyden angrily leave Bortus and Topa, declaring that he wished Topa had never been born, while Bortus then proclaims his own undying love for her. It is moments like this that give New Horizons significant emotional resonance and demonstrate SF’s ongoing capacity for viewing our own social struggles through a fantastical future lens. In a follow-up episode, “Midnight Blue,” the Planetary Union makes a similar fateful choice, choosing to expel the Moclans from the Union for their brutal treatment of female Moclans. For the Union to stand so strongly in favor of universal personal autonomy (which in another context might simply be termed “human rights”) is a profound ethical moment, since the loss of the arms-producing Moclans exposes the Union to greater risk of Kaylon annihilation. It’s a choice that spirals into other far-reaching consequences when the expelled Moclans ally themselves with the Krill, creating a new threat that must be countered with an uneasy Union alliance with their deadly enemies the Kaylon. This new world showcases characters cautiously exploring new modes of thinking and renegotiating their relationships to the universe around them. The series’ final episode, “Future Unknown,” explicitly presents new ways of beings coming together, as Claire and Isaac consummate their romantic relationship with a formal marriage, heralding a momentous change for both human and Kaylon futures.
Other characters explore themselves and their impact on the world around them during the season as well. In “Gently Falling Rain,” Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) learns that he has a daughter named Anaya (Charlie Townsend), conceived with undercover Krill operative-turned coup plotter and new Krill Chancellor Teleya (Michaela McManus). This revelation causes Ed to reevaluate his relationship to the Krill and leaves him determined to find a way to reestablish an alliance with the Krill and Teleya to protect Anaya. Previous seasons of The Orville proved that MacFarlane has always been skilled at understanding the complexities of human emotion that give the Star Trek franchise its particular resonance and relatability, but here in New Horizons we really see that understanding flower and the series as whole dramatically shift from the story of humans aboard an exploration vessel to humans themselves as exploration vessels. It adds a new and surprising dimensionality to a series that began life as a reasonably simple Star Trek pastiche driven by MacFarlane-style humor. We see this newfound maturity on full display in the episode “Twice in A Lifetime,” which centers on helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes), who in previous seasons has served as the series’ primary quip machine. New Horizons, as it does with other characters, takes Malloy to a new level of emotional maturity and depth; in “Twice,” Malloy is accidentally thrust back two hundred years in time to 2020s Earth and believed lost. In the years (from his POV) before the Orville mounts a temporal rescue, Malloy marries and starts a family. Against Union law, he is determined to stay in his deeply satisfying role
s of devoted husband and father, having discovered in himself new reserves of emotion and familial love.
The Orville: New Horizons provides viewers with gripping, thoughtful, emotionally fraught stories, which represent the natural evolution of a series when that series is not content to navel gaze into its past. Instead, New Horizons continues to mirror the development of its original Trek inspiration (as well as the long legacy of Trek-influenced sf media), moving from the typical exploration narrative towards a greater dramatic multidimensionality.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.