Monday, November 20, 2017

The Orville Season 1, Episode 10: Firestorm

This week on The Orville we got a so-so episode that felt way too familiar. Firestorm wasn't terrible, but it could have been better, and I'd have enjoyed it a lot more if it wasn't a tired pastiche of at least ten other modern Trek episodes.

Because the episode felt so familiar, most viewers probably realized early on that none of what was happening to Alara was actually real (especially after the "death" of a major character). After that it wasn't a case of what's going on, but why is it happening.

Heck, this episode wasn't even original by The Orville standards! They already did the "Alara Thinks She Doesn't Have What It Takes To Be An Officer" shtick earlier this season, in Command Performance! How many times can they rework this same plotline? I can't wait to see her lose confidence in herself again in the season finale.

My biggest beef with the episode is that it feels like a cheat. The whole plotline relies on knowledge the audience isn't given. That's not fair. You've got to give the audience a fair chance at solving the puzzle. You can't deliberately leave out clues and vital information just to make your story work.

It didn't help matters that the episode's explanation was so convoluted I had to watch it twice to understand it! The whole thing gave new meaning to the word "contrived."

On the plus side, there were some excellent performances this week, particularly by Halstan Sage as Alara, and Penny Johnson-Jerald as Doctor Finn. Both of them really stepped up their games in this episode.

There was also a fun little cameo by Robert Picardo, aka the holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager.

Now for the bad news. This week Fox announced that The Orville's already minute thirteen episode season is being cut short by one, due to "scheduling problems." I have no idea what the hell that even means. 

I'm positive they finished filming the season weeks or even months ago, so the "scheduling" problem can't be due to actor availability or something like that. Since this is Fox, I'm assuming it has something to do with the goddamned NFL. Networks always give precedence to football.

Fox has assured Orville fans that the thirteenth episode will eventually air in Season 2 (whenever that starts). So now the question is how will that affect Season 1? 

If Episode 13 is just a normal, standalone story, then I guess there's no problem (other than having to wait a year to see it). If it features a season-ending cliffhanger though, then it's gonna suck to have to wait a year to see it.

If Episode 13 does end in a cliffhanger, then why not bump Episode 12 to Season 2? Then they could go ahead and air the Season 1 cliffhanger as planned.

Remember, this is Fox we're talking about, so whatever they do, I'm sure they'll screw it up really, really badly.


The Plot:
We open with an impressibly beautiful shot of the Orville struggling to make its way through a violent plasma storm. Why are there always so many storms in space? And why can't they just fly around them? Anyway, the ship takes a massive hit from a bolt of plasma lighting or something. This causes major damage in Engineering, as a large beam falls on a redshirt, er, I mean Lt. Payne, pinning him to the floor.

The other engineers try to move the beam, but it won't budge. Chief Newton calls the bridge and says they need Alara's super strength, and she races to Engineering to help. When she gets there, a conduit suddenly bursts and spews flames across the room. For some reason, this causes Alara to freeze in her tracks. Newton screams at her, and she finally snaps out of her trance. She runs around the fire, flinging pieces of rubble aside. Unfortunately Payne's already dead. Lt. Payne, we hardly knew ye! Literally!

Cut to Lt. Payne's funeral, as the entire crew assembles in the shuttlebay. Mercer says a few words, and Chief Newton performs a eulogy for his friend and fallen comrade. Alara sheds a tear, blaming herself for Payne's death.

Later we see Alara in a holodeck gym, er, I mean a gym in the environmental simulator, as she wallops a punching bag to deal with her guilt. Kelly and Doctor Finn enter the sim, and tell her Payne's death wasn't her fault. Finn says his injuries were so severe he'd likely have died even if Alara had freed him. Alara hisses that she froze when she saw the flames, and now Payne's dead because of her. She thanks them for her concern, but politely tells them to mind their own business.

Alara then goes to Mercer and submits her resignation (for the second time this season). Mercer very wisely and professionally tells her he has complete faith in her, and wouldn't want anyone else as his Chief Of Security. He suggests she try and find out why the fire made her freeze.

Alara calls her parents long distance and talks to them. Unfortunately they're absolutely no help at all (hey, things are the same all over the galaxy!). Her father says a military career is beneath her, and urges her to come home and finish her schooling.

She angrily tells them she's not coming back to Xeleya, and asks if they know of any reason why she'd be afraid of fire. Her mother admits there was a house fire when Alara was just a baby. She fell asleep, a fire broke out, Alara's cries woke her, and the two climbed out a window. Her mother never mentioned it to her because Alara was only eight months old when it happened, and couldn't possibly remember it.

Alara walks down a corridor, deep in thought. She stops when she sees a creepy looking clown at the end of the hall. It stares at her for a few seconds, then suddenly runs at full speed right toward her. It knocks her down and disappears around a corner. She follows, but it's nowhere to be seen.

She then reports to the bridge, tells Mercer she's obviously going insane and asks to be relieved of duty and confined to Sickbay. Mercer has Isaac scan the security footage for the Clown Alara saw. Amazingly it shows up on camera, proving it was real! Mercer tells the bridge crew to split up into teams and search for the Evil Clown.

Alara and Bortus search the shuttlebay. For some reason it's dark inside, and of course the lights won't come on. Bortus wanders off the check the upper level. Suddenly Alara's attacked by the Clown. They grapple, and she's surprised that it's just as strong as her. It grabs her phaser and shoots at her a few times. They battle again, she gets the phaser back and shoots at the Clown, disintegrating it.

In the briefing room, Alara says the Clown must have set the phaser to kill instead of stun. Mercer puts the ship on Yellow Alert, and tells everyone to keep their eyes open for more clowns. Kelly and Alara then chat as they walk down a corridor. Kelly enters her spacious quarters, but when she opens the door, she falls into an infinite void. Alara manages to grab her and pull her back into the corridor.

The two report to Mercer, who worries that the entire crew's going nuts. He speaks to Doctor Finn, who says she'll run brain scans on everyone, and begins with Alara. For some reason she straps her to the table (with indestructible metal bands), then starts acting really creepy and out of character before running off to get her instruments.

Nurse Park enters, sees Alara strapped down and tries to free her. Suddenly Finn appears and shoots Park dead with a phaser. She then pulls out a scalpel and starts to slice open Alara's stomach. Fortunately Alara manages to free her hand from the restraints and punches Finn across the room.

In the Brig, Mercer questions a decidedly unhinged Doctor Finn, who starts rambling about Lovecraftian monsters lurking in the depths of space. She warns Alara they're coming for her.

The senior staff then meets in the Enterprise-D's conference room, trying to figure out what's going on. Kelly wonders if the plasma storm affected the ship somehow. Suddenly the room's 
invaded by thousands of tarantulas. The crew runs out of the room, grabs some phasers from a nearby weapons locker and heads back in. Of course the spiders are all gone.

For some reason, Mercer suggests heading back into the plasma storm to search for clues as to what's going on. That doesn't make a lick of sense, but let's just go with it. Alara warns him that the storm almost destroyed the ship the first time through it— they may not be so lucky again. Isaac says it might be possible to modulate the deflectors to make them more effective against the plasma energy.

Alara and Gordon walk to Engineering to help Chief Newton modify the deflectors (um... do either of them know anything about deflectors?). On the way, a giant CGI spider appears, eats Gordon and scuttles back down the corridor. This of course is the point in the episode where the audience figures out that none of this is real, and it's somehow a dream or situation.

A shaken Alara races to the bridge, but finds it strangely empty. She sees the ship's heading back into the plasma storm. She frantically tries to contact Engineering, but there's no one there either. She then realizes everyone else on the ship has apparently disappeared.

Suddenly the ship's rocked by a plasma bolt, which knocks out the power. She runs through the spooky, darkened corridors to Engineering, where she inexplicably finds Isaac. He explains he was on the bridge when everyone disappeared, and came to Engineering to try and modify the deflectors.

As they try to restore power, Alara says she saw Gordon die right in front of her, and there was nothing she could do to save him. Isaac says he's sorry to hear of Gordon's death, but they need to work quickly in case the alien creature returns. Alara thinks a second and says she never mentioned that Gordon was eaten by a alien spider. Whoops!

An infuriated Isaac then attacks her, and the two have a pretty impressive, stunt filled superstrength battle. She eventually overpowers Isaac and knocks him out. Alara then does her best Ellen Ripley impression as she strips off her jacket, takes a phaser rifle out of a locker and runs down a corridor..

A battered Isaac appears in the corridor (man, half this episode takes place on their corridor set!), and tells Alara the ship will run red with her blood. He sprints toward her and she fires, seemingly killing him. Just then the ship's rocked by another plasma bolt, and the computer announces the inner hull's been compromised and starts the evacuation warning.

Alara runs through the halls toward the shuttlebay. Suddenly we see that she's actually in the holodeck, er, I mean environmental simulator, as Mercer, Kelly, Doctor Finn and Isaac watch from above. Finn says they need to shut down the simulation now, as Alara's vital signs are dangerously high.

Mercer orders Isaac to shut it down. Unfortunately Isaac says he doesn't have the authority, as Alara has evoked Directive 38. Mercer helpfully explains that's a rule that allows the Chief Of Security to override all authority on a ship, even the captain's. He says it was designed as a safeguard in case a ship's captain is compromised in some way. But if a Security Chief invokes the rule and is wrong, it's a career-ender. Isaac says the only thing they can do now is wait for Alara to complete the simulation.

Alara makes it to the shuttle bay as the ship shudders and explodes around her. She opens the shuttlebay door, just as Isaac, who just will not die, appears behind her. They fight again, and she knocks him across the bay. She jumps into a shuttle and starts it up.

Suddenly Isaac pushes a crate of flammable materials into the center of the bay door and shoots it, causing it to explode. Alara sees a wall of flame now blocking her path and freezes. She then steels herself, shakes off her fear and flies the shuttle through the flames and out of the ship. As she clears the Orville, it violently explodes.

The simulation ends, and a very confused Alara finds herself standing in an empty holodeck. The others enter and she asks them what the hell's going on. They explain she's been in the holodeck the whole time, and finally finished the simulation. She asks who the hell did this to her, and Mercer replies, "You did."

Cut to the convoluted explanation of this episode's ending
. Apparently after Mercer refused to accept Alara's resignation, she ordered Isaac to create a traumatic simulation for her, to help uncover and overcome any other hidden fears. He populated the simulation with the various phobias of the crew, which explains all the clowns and spiders. Kelly says the simulation started in the corridor right before she first saw the Clown.

Alara asks why she doesn't remember any of this, and Doctor Finn says she partially erased her memory— at her request. After all, she wouldn't be scared if she knew the situation wasn't real. Mercer says he should court martial her for invoking Directive 38, but says he's letting her off the hook since no one got hurt— and because she passed every crisis that was thrown at her. He tells her there should no longer be any doubt that she's capable of doing her job. Let's hope so.

• Despite the fact I wasn't crazy about this episode, I did appreciate the fact that it kept me guessing as to just what was going on. When Alara saw the fire and froze, I assumed it was going to be a "Character Has A Debilitating Fear And Has To Learn To Overcome It" episode. 

I realized that was wrong when she saw the Clown and Doctor Finn started acting all squirelly. Then I was sure the ship had picked up some sort of evil alien entity inside the plasma storm.

I knew all that was wrong the instant Gordon was "killed." There's no way they'd off a major character this soon on the show, so I realized nothing we were seeing was actually happening. Alara was either hallucinating everything or she was in an elaborate holodeck simulation. 

Hats off to the creators though, for some nice bits of misdirection to keep us guessing as long as possible.

• Since the bulk of this episode takes place inside the holodeck, er, I mean environmental simulator, we can blame any mistakes, incongruities or continuity errors on Isaac, who wrote the program.

• There were some absolutely gorgeous closeup shots of the Orville at the beginning of this episode, as the ship flew through the plasma storm. I wish someone would hurry up and put out a model kit of the ship!

Firestorm featured a lot of Engineering technobabble, and as near as I can tell many of the terms were mentioned here for the first time. Chief Newton says, "Sir, we've lost both quantum phase inducers in the upper engine! I need to divert all available power to the containment regulator now!"

I'm assuming "quantum phase inducer" is similar to TNG's warp field generator, and the "containment regulator" is the equivalent of that show's antimatter containment field.

• When we see Alara in the boxing gym simulation, she's wearing a red shirt & trunks again.

She wore red back in About A Girl when she boxed Bortus, who was wearing a blue outfit. Apparently whenever the Orville crew works out, they're required to wear gym clothes that are properly color coded to their departments!

• I don't really have anything to say about Gordon, John and Bortus' love of holodeck dueling, but I had to include photos of 'em in their French noblemen outfits & powdered wigs!

• It was nice to see Mercer acting like a true captain in this episode. When Alara wanted to resign her commission, his response was measured, logical and confident, and shows just how much Mercer's matured and grown into his position since the pilot. Well done!

• In an effort to find out why she's so afraid of fire, Alara makes an awkward call to her parents. Her impressively-eared father Ildis Katan was played by Trek alumni Robert Picardo. He was the holographic Doctor for seven seasons on Star Trek: Voyager

Her mother, Drenala Katan, was played by actress Molly Hagan. She's a working actress who's guest starred in hundreds of TV shows. She looks really familiar to me, but I honestly don't think I've ever watched a single show she's been in.

• Man, Alara's parents are intellectual snobs, who value intellectual careers over physical professions. They actively belittle their own daughter, badmouth her career choice and even imply her intelligence is below average! They're even a bit racist toward humans! Here's a sampling of their dialogue:
Alara's Dad: "We just want what's best for you. And we feel a military career is beneath you. It's what any parent would say to their child."Alara: "Any parent on Xelaya. You do realize that there are planets where a military career is a very honorable thing. The humans view it with great respect."Alara's Dad: "Well, yes, the humans. The hillbillies of the galaxy."
At first I thought it was just her parents who were jerks, but Alara's "Any parent on Xeleya" line implies the whole population's that way!

• This week Alara mentions her planet's name is Xelaya. I could have sworn that back in Majority Rule she told Lysella she was from Xelayan. I even remarked then that it sounded odd for the planet to be called that instead of Xelaya. I guess the producers agreed with me!

• On the various Trek series, Gene Roddenberry's vision of Starfleet was that of an organization devoted to science and exploration, not a military service (that concept kind of got blurred as time went on, but whatever). 

In this episode we find out in no uncertain terms that the Union is the military organization, as Alara's father tells her he thinks the military is beneath her.

• Alara informs Mercer and the crew that she's just encountered and evil clown. Isaac then asks, "What is a clown?"

How can Isaac not know that? A few episodes back in Into The Fold, he "accessed his Earth files" to read Peter Rabbit to Doctor Finn's horrible kids. If he's got the complete text of that story rattling around in his head, there's no reason for him to not know the word "clown."

This is probably one of those mistakes we can blame on the holodeck simulation. Although Isaac supposedly programmed the thing, so... why would he make himself look like an idiot in it?

• Loved the Evil Clown's little party favors that shot out of its frilly collar when it roars. It kind of reminded me of the Dilophosaurus' frill in Jurassic Park. Clever!
• Where the hell was Bortus when Alara was fighting the Evil Clown in the shuttlebay? Yeah, he said he was going to check the upper level, but surely he had to have heard the fight below and wondered what was going on.

Again, we can probably blame this plot hole on Isaac's shoddy simulation.

• Kudos as well to Penny Johnson Jerald, who gave an admirably creepy performance as a Doctor Finn possessed by some unseen space entity. The second she appeared in the episode, I knew there was something off about her. 

I think it was the way she was casually leaning back at her desk, which is something she doesn't usually do. It was a nice, subtle little indicator that you might not pick up on the first time you see the episode.

I also loved her eerie, sing-songy speech to Mercer, telling about the nightmarish terrors that live in the darkness of space:
"Captain! Do you ever sit in your quarters and look out the window? Do you ever stop and watch the darkness out there? It's very, very dark in space. Looks so empty. But there are terrors lurking all around us in the infinite shadows. You can't see them but they're there."
Something about the way she said it made my skin crawl a bit!

• For a few minutes I was sure the show'd killed off Nurse Park— and in his second appearance, too! Luckily his "death" turned out to be part of Isaacs holodeck program.

• The giant alien spider was pretty well done too— especially for a TV budget!

• I really like the Red and Yellow Alert indicators in the Orville's corridors. They sort of did this a bit in TNG, but never to this extent.

• If you look closely at the images above, you can see that whenever Alara uses a control panel, the various buttons briefly light up when she touches them. I wonder if these are some kind of actual high tech touch screens, or it's a subtle CGI effect? Do we even have screens that can light up like that when touched?

I'm kind of leaning toward CGI, because once I noticed the buttons I started watching them closely, and they don't always light up in every scene.

• Near the end of the episode when Alara peels off her jacket and goes all Ellen Ripley, the music actually sounds a bit like that of ALIENS! Nice touch!

• I've had a lot of fun all season pointing out that the Orville is a horribly designed ship. Nowhere is that more evident than in this episode. This week we get a really good shot of the view directly outside the shuttlebay— which is blocked by the center engine ring! 

Every time a shuttle takes off or lands, it's got to thread its way between the rings to get to the bay! Who thought that was a good idea? Couldn't they have put it on the bottom of the ship or something?

• This episode fixed a problem that always bugged me on TNG and the other modern Trek shows.

Whenever we'd see someone sitting in a holodeck recreation of a ship, the simulation would end and somehow they'd be magically standing upright. Realistically, if someone was sitting in a holographic chair that suddenly disappeared, they'd immediately fall backwards on their ass.

In this episode, Alara's flying a holographic shuttle. When it suddenly disappears around her, she actually stumbles a bit as she struggles to stay upright! Wow! 
Well done, guys!

• This Week's Incongruous 21st Century (And Earlier!) References:
Were there any this week? I guess we could count the fact that Gordon and John talk about "hobo clowns." Surely by the 25th Century poverty would no longer be a thing on Earth. Unless I missed something, that's about the only thing I can think of.

Oh— I was gonna mention that Possessed Doctor Finn had some pretty primitive medical instruments like scalpels and forceps and such, but those were all part of Isaac's holodeck program, and probably don't count.

Man, there were a crap ton of them this week! As much as I've grown to like this show, sometimes it's still shocking to see just how much they've lifted wholesale from TNG and other Trek shows.

As I said earlier, Firestorm was a mishmash of many different modern Trek episodes (most from TNG).

The Orville flies through a violent plasma storm.
This happened in too many episodes to name on the various Trek shows.

After the ship passes through the space storm, Alara and the rest of the crew begin experiencing terrifying hallucinations.
In Where No One Has Gone Before, the ship passes through a space cloud, and the crew begin experiencing terrifying hallucinations.

When Doctor Finn starts acting strangely, Mercer suspects she was possessed by an alien entity when the ship went through the plasma storm.
In Lonely Among Us, Captain Picard begins acting strangely, and the crew suspects he was possessed by an alien entity when the ship when through a strange cloud.

At one point Alara discovers the entire crew's disappeared, and she's the only one left onboard the ship.
In Remember Me, Doctor Crusher is unknowingly trapped inside a static warp bubble, which perfectly recreates the Enterprise-D and everyone on it. As the bubble contracts, the crew begins disappearing until she's the only one left onboard the ship.

In the third act, we find out Alara's actually inside an elaborate simulation of the Orville, and has to "win the game" in order to escape.
In Ship In A Bottle, the sentient holographic recreation of Professor Moriarty traps the crew inside an elaborate holodeck simulation of the Enterprise-D. 

I'm confident there were many other Trek episodes that were copied here, but these are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

This week we get our first ever (I think) look at the Orville's conference room. Amazingly, it's almost an exact copy of the one on the Enterprise-D. Seriously, every detail is faithfully reproduced here— the highly polished conference table, the high-backed chairs, the view screen on the far wall and even the bank of windows with a view of space beyond. If I didn't know the TNG sets were all dismantled thirty years ago, I'd swear they just filmed this scene on the Paramount soundstage.

The Orville's brig also looks suspiciously like the one from TNG as well, right down to the forcefield generator around the door.

This episode also gives us our first ever look at an Orville phaser rifle, or whatever they call their weapons. As you might expect, every version of Trek has had both a handheld and rifle version of their phasers.

By the way, when Alara takes off her jacket, grabs the rifle and goes all Ripley on us, it was very similar to the Voyager episode Macrocosm, in which Captain Janeway did the same thing to hunt a gigantic virus that invaded the ship. Captain Picard did much the same in the Star Trek: First Contact movie.

At one point this week, Kelly enters her quarters and almost falls into an infinite void.

The scene's virtually identical to one in the TNG episode Where No One Has Gone Before, in which Captain Picard steps into a turbolift and almost falls into an infinite void.

• This Week's Best Lines: 
Isaac: "What is a clown?"
John: "Big red 'fro, lots of makeup, big ol' floppy shoes, scary as balls."
Gordon: "Wow, you're describing my mom."

Gordon: "Was it like a circus clown, or a hobo clown or what?"
Alara: "What's the difference?"
John: "Hobo clowns are the most dangerous because they're hungry!"

Mercer: "We'll divide into teams. Isaac will remain on the bridge and continue to scan. All weapons are to be kept on stun. We want the clown alive."
Gordon: "Captain?"
Mercer: "Yeah?"
Gordon: "I think it's only prudent to caution everyone to watch out for pies."
Mercer: "At this point, anything is possible, so yes, pies, seltzer bottles, balloon animals. Be alert!"

Alara: "I'm telling you, there was nothing human about this thing. I should have been able to snap him like a twig, but he was strong. Those fangs."
Gordon: "Vampire clown."
John: "Shut up!"

Bortus: "There is an alligator in the cargo bay. I successfully crushed it with a chair."
Mercer: "Where did it come from?"
Bortus: "I do not know. Regardless, it is crushed."

Kelly: "Isaac, what about the plasma storm? Is it possible that it affected us or the ship in some way?"
Isaac: "How so, Commander?"
Kelly: "I'm not sure. This is gonna sound like I'm talking out of my ass..."
Isaac: "Then please try to ennunciate."
(ahh, literal humor!)

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