Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Orville Season 2, Episode 1: Ja'loja

At long, long last, The Orville's finally back! Huzzah!

Jesus Christ, I hate these hyper-long breaks between seasons. The Orville's Season 1 finale aired way back on December 7, 2017. Slightly more than a year before this episode premiered. That's just too frakin' long.

Because it's been over a year since the show was on, creator Seth MacFarlane decided to try something risky. Instead of starting off the season with an epic slam-bang, effects heavy extravaganza, he gave us a slow, low key character-driven episode— one designed to reintroduce the characters to the audience.

It's a gamble that paid off, as Ja'loja was a delight from start to finish. With this episode, the show's characters have gone from broadly drawn archetypes to well-rounded, realistic people. Well done.

If this premiere is any indication of how the rest of the season will play out, The Orville is now a much more confident and competent show, as it's finally discovered its tone and figured out the right mix of comedy and drama.

For all intents and purposes, The Orville has now officially become Star Trek, updated for the 2010s. Everything about it just looks, and more importantly feels like Trek. Compare that to Star Trek: Discovery (aka STD), the official new Trek series.

How embarrassing for CBS that a show that started out as a parody is now better than the real thing! It's abundantly clear that MacFarlane understands Trek and what makes it tick, something the producers of STD are apparently incapable of.

I do have one small complaint about the show, and that's the length of its seasons. Unfortunately it looks like they've settled on a scant thirteen episode format. Apparently that's by design though, as according to Seth MacFarlane, "I'd rather do fewer episodes and have them be better content-wise than do twenty two and have them be filler."

Eh, he has a point. Think about all the "treading water" episodes they have over on The Flash. Heck, The Walking Dead's seasons are eighteen episodes, and half of them are filler! So I guess I can live with The Orville's thirteen ep seasons.

While we're on the subject, you may recall that Season 1 of The Orville was supposed to be thirteen episodes long, but it was cut down to just twelve. The reason for the reduction? So Fox could air the Taraji P. Henson White Hot Holidays Xmas Special, whatever the hell that was. 

As a result of this pre-empting, Primal Urges, which was originally supposed to be Episode 12 of Season 1, will now become Episode 2 of Season 2. Clear as mud?


The Plot:
Several months after his breakup with Kelly, Mercer sits drinking alone in the Orville's bar. Alara joins him, and the two whine and moan about their love lives.

Bortus approaches Mercer and asks him to divert the ship to Moclus. When Mercer asks why, he says it's time for his ja'loja— his yearly urination, an important and revered celebration on Moclus.

Mercer calls a briefing of the senior officers, where Bortus explains the ceremony. He invites them all to attend, as he considers them family. He cautions them that it's unlucky to attend a ja'loja by oneself, and urges them all to bring a date. This causes most of the senior officers to panic, as none of them have a significant other.

OK, the episode then splinters into at least five different storylines, so instead of hopping back and forth between 'em all and confusing everyone, I'm just gonna go through them one at a time.

Kelly meets with Mercer, which causes him to she wants to get back together with him. Unfortunately he's dead wrong, as she's there to inform him she's started seeing someone. She refuses to say who it is, claiming he'll meet her new beau at the ja'loja. 

Mercer asks her if she still loves him, but she refuses to answer (which of course means yes). She says they can't date while serving together, as he'll be reluctant to send her on dangerous missions.

Kelly shows up at the Orville's classroom to see Cassius, her mysterious new boyfriend. Dr. Finn's son Marcus and his new pal James act up in class, and Cassius punishes them by assigning them both a report. After class, Cassius tells Kelly he's worried about Marcus, as he used to be a good student. They go to Kelly's quarters for drinks.

Mercer sits in his office, morosely staring at old photos of he and Kelly. He decides to take a shuttlecraft out for a spin.

Kelly and Cassius are having a great time in her quarters, until she looks out the window and sees Mercer spying on them by doing a "drive by" in the shuttle. Enraged, she suggests they take their date to the Simulator.

Kelly confronts Mercer about spying on her,. She thinks he and Cassius would probably get along if he'd try to get to know him.

Later on, Kelly and Cassius discuss Mercer's spying. Cassius says it's not that big a deal to him, as he's done "drive bys" before. He says he's not going to be angry at Mercer just because she is. This infuriates Kelly, and she storms out.

Mercer meets with Cassius to apologize for the drive-by. When he hears that Kelly and Cassius had an argument over him, he feels bad for the guy. He gives Cassius tips on things Kelly likes, and leaves.

Meanwhile, Isaac teaches Dr. Finn's son Ty to play piano. Her other son Marcus enters with his new friend, James Duncan. James is a smug little asshole and an obvious troublemaker. 

Marcus asks if he can go to the Simulator with James, but Finn tells him his homework comes first. James whispers, "Dude, is your mom always such a pain in the ass?" A furious Dr. Finn tells James to go home, and sends Marcus to his room. She worries that her son's starting to hate her, and doesn't know how to handle it.

Sometime later James drags Marcus and another boy along with him to an empty cabin. James then hacks into the Food Synthesizer and orders up a bottle of vodka. The three sneak into the Simulator Room (why didn't they just stay where they were?) and start chuggin' booze.

Kelly and Cassius enter the simulator, where they see James, Marcus and the other boy there, drunk on their asses from vodka.

Dr. Finn goes ballistic on Marcus, grounding him and forbidding him to see James. She tells Isaac, who's hanging out in their quarters for some reason, that she thinks she sucks at parenting. The blunt Isaac agrees.

James' parents Jody and Nathan Duncan stop by Dr. Finn's office. They tell her they think Marcus is a bad influence on their darling angel James, and that it'd be best if the boys didn't see each other any more. They also request a parent-teacher conference with Cassius, to get Marcus transferred to another class (how many are there?). Isaac volunteers to come to the conference with Finn.

Dr. Finn, Isaac and the Duncans meet for their parent-teacher conference. Finn brings up the time James called her a pain in the ass, but the Duncans refuse to believe their precious snowflake would use such language. They claim that since James is a straight A student and Marcus gets Bs and Cs, he must be the guilty party. 

Isaac examines Cassius' grading files and discovers they were altered by James, and reports the violation to Kelly. The Duncans leave in a huff. Dr. Finn's so happy with Isaac she invites him to be her ja'loja date.

The Orville stops by Outpost 58 to pick up Janel Tyler, the new dark matter cartographer. She tours the bridge, where Gordon's immediately taken with her and awkwardly tries to flirt with her.

Gordon wants to take Janel to the ja'loja ceremony, but doesn't know how to ask her. He goes to John for help. John synthesizes a horrible jacket for Gordon, telling him that clothes make the man or something.

John then takes Gordon to the Simulator (which gets a real workout in this episode), where he practices picking up women in a holographic bar. After a few fumbles, he manages to sort of do OK. John tells Gordon he's ready for the real thing.

John sends Gordon to the mess hall to ask Janel to the ceremony. He confidently heads toward her, then chickens out and retreats.

Alara mentions to Bortus that she doesn't have a date for his ja'loja. He tells her one of his lower ranking officers is also single, and says he'll order him to mate with her. Alara says not to order anything, but she'll agree to a blind date.

The blind date turns out to be Dann, the bulbous-headed alien engineering crewman. Alara's put off by him at first (racist!), but then decides to give him a chance.

Alara meets Dann in Mooska's, the ship's restaurant. He reads a poem he wrote for her, and asks her to critique it. She gives him a brutally honest assessment, which of course offends him. She leaves, allegedly to use the restroom. Thirty seconds later he sends her a creepily clingy text that reads, "I miss you."

The ship arrives at Moclus, and everyone gathers on a mountain cliff to watch Bortus pee.
At the after party, Kelly and Cassius make up. Dann reads his poem to Gordon, who's amazed by it. Dr. Finn tells Isaac she owes him one. Mercer nurses another drink, as Janel approaches and asks if she can join him.


• Way back in Old Wounds, the very first episode of The Orville, Mercer greeted his senior staff, and had the following conversation with Bortus:

Mercer: "All right, uh, Lieutenant Commander Bortus, our second officer. You know, I've never met a single-gender species before. Your entire species is male, isn't it?"
Bortus: "That is correct, sir."
Mercer: (chuckling) "So, there's probably not a lot of arguments about leaving the toilet seat up and that kind of thing, right?"
Bortus: "No. Moclans urinate only once per year."
Mercer: "Really? That's... Me, I'm-I'm up two, three times a night."
Bortus: "That is unfortunate."
Mercer: (embarrassed) "It is."

Who could have guessed that an innocent little throwaway joke from the pilot would end up becoming the basis for an entire episode?

• As the episode opens, Mercer's sitting in the ship's bar, listening to As Time Goes by on a record player. He asks Olix, the bartender, "How long you had that thing?" Olix replies, "Had the computer replicate it last week."

Um... hey Olix, I think you meant to say "synthesize it last week," right buddy? We synthesize things on this show. They replicated things on that other show. Don't want to make the CBS lawyers angry now, do we?

• Olix the bartender's voice was unmistakably that of Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander. Whether that was actually him in the scene or he just voiced the character isn't clear. If I had to guess, I'd say he probably just dubbed the lines.

On the other hand, Alexander appeared in alien makeup on Star Trek: Voyager way back in 1999. And MacFarlane somehow talked Rob Lowe into painting himself blue twice in Season 1, so who knows? Maybe it really is Alexander under all those rhino prosthetics.

• Like John, I have many questions about ja'loja.

How much urine does a Moclan accumulate in a year's time? A gallon? Ten? More? What's the population of Moclus? A billion? However many it is, it's a given that there would be hundreds of thousands of jJa'loga ceremonies going on every single day. That's a hell of a lot of pee flowing down the mountains! Stay out of the rivers on Moclus!

• Back in Season 1, Alara spent the first few episodes secretly lusting after Mercer. Based on the opening of this episode, it looks like that particular subplot's been abandoned.

It's been rumored that Seth MacFarlane and Halston Sage (aka Alara) were dating last year. More recently it's been rumored that the two have broken up. If true, that would explain why the Alara/Mercer romance subplot got the axe.

• Was there any particular reason why the cameraman decided to lie down during this scene?

• At one point Mercer tells Kelly he wants to get back together with him, as he's certain they're still in love with one another. Kelly tells him that dating while serving on the same ship is a terrible idea, as he'd be reluctant to send her on a dangerous mission. She says this wouldn't be fair to the rest of the crew.

Kudos to MacFarlane (who wrote the episode), as the whole scene's very well done. Even better, Kelly has a point. It IS a bad idea for them to date, and it would most definitely be unfair if Mercer sent Bortus on a suicide mission instead of Kelly.

Do I think this scene will stick, and the two of them will never get back together? Of course not. It's a TV show. Of course they're gonna end up together. If not this season, then somewhere down the line.

• The computer screens and readouts on The Orville are always so well done that I'm never sure if I'm looking at a CGI effect or the real thing. Given that this particular music sheet screen is animated, I'm betting it's probably an effect.

By the way, it looks like The Orville couldn't resist and fell into the "transparent screen" trope that's infected pretty much all sci-fi shows since the 1990s. For some reason, production designers seem to believe that in the future, all readout screens will be clear. 

Obviously they think this makes their props look futuristic, but it always seems silly to me. Imagine how hard it would be to read something off a transparent piece of plastic, as the text constantly blended in with the background.

• Kudos to the casting director in this episode, for choosing the most perfect actors possible to play James and his parents. James looks like a smug little asshole without having to say a word, and his parents come off as insufferable pricks as well.

• Man, the civilian costumes in this episode were downright AWFUL! Without fail, each and every one of them features strange cutouts, bizarre textured panels and bewildering colors. Don't believe me? Take a look at this gallery of outfits from the episode:

In a way, this could be considered another swipe from Star Trek: The Next Generation, as that show's attempts at whipping up 24th Century fashions were always disastrous as well.

I have to wonder if costume designer Joseph A. Porro deliberately designed these costumes as a VERY subtle homage to the ones in TNG, or if he just sucks at his job.

The only costume in the episode that works is Gordon's zipper-festooned "dating jacket." And even then, it's successful because it's supposed to be ghastly (which is most certainly is).

By the way, I love that his jacket even has completely useless zippers on the back!

• The funniest part of the episode was when Mercer took a shuttle for a spin to do a "drive by" past Kelly's quarters in order to spy on her.

You can definitely tell this episode was written and directed by Seth MacFarlane. Everything about this particular scene screamed Family Guy, from the framing all the way down to the comedic timing, as the shuttle slowwwwwwly creeped into view.

• Dann asks Alara to be brutally honest about his poem. She hesitates, and then gives him a surprisingly intelligent and insightful (but frank) critique. This was a nice callback to the fact that Alara's from a race of intellectuals.

• Oh, god, texting's still a thing in the 25th Century.

• Bortus tells the crew it's bad luck to attend the ja'loja ceremony alone, and asks everyone to bring a date. 

Looks like some of 'em are in for some bad luck, as I see quite a few single people there!

Mercer's definitely by himself, as is Alara. Gordon and John appear to be on their own as well. It looks like the only actual couples are Kelly & Cassius and Dr. Finn and Isaac.

I guess it's possible that Mercer and Alara went together just for show and the episode never mentioned it. Gordon and John could have done the same.

• Bortus begins a Moclan chant as he prepares for ja'loja, the Great Release. Note that the camera cuts chastely away before he begins pissing off the cliff.

For a brief second I thought they might go through with it and actually show him peeing, but then I realized that might be too much for primetime TV even in 2018.

There were several ways they could have gone about this, other than the cutaway. They could have shown the exact scene above and had a firehose-like gush of pee shoot out from the general region of Bortus' crotch. And of course the scene would have gone on for five full minutes of screen time, as they beat the joke into the ground like most of the gags over on Family Guy.

Or they could have shown pee streams squirting from dozens of orifices (orifi?) all over his body, highlighting the fact that he's an alien.

I was also half expected an extended buildup to the event, and then at the last second Bortus would announce that he can't go while everyone's looking at him. Mercer would then say, "Do... do you need us all to turn around for a minute?" Really surprised they didn't go this route.

Lastly, they could have had the music reach a dramatic crescendo and then cut to a closeup shot of Bortus' feet, as a single, tiny, concentrated drop of pee landed on the ground between them. I actually would have preferred that, as it'd have been a funny payoff to the episode-long setup.

In the end they made the right call to cut away from the peeing, and they handled the whole thing in a very natural and realistic manner. The crew was taken aback when they first heard about the ceremony, and even joked about it, which of course is what would really happen in this situation. Once they got the jokes out of their system though, everyone was cool with it. They realized this was a big deal in their friend's culture, and treated the ceremony with respect at the end. Perfect!

• At the end of the episode, Dann reads his poem to Gordon, who gushes over it and says it's exactly what he needed to hear. So are the two of them just good friends, or are the writers going to make them something more? 

Not that there's anything wrong with that!

• And it definitely looks like the writers are pairing up Mercer with Janel Tyler. I guess she's a regular or recurring character now?

This Week's Incongruous 21st Century (And Earlier!) References:
Not too many this week. The Orville's bartender replicates, er, I mean synthesizes a record player and LPs.

Mercer and the crew still listen to and enjoy As Time Goes By, a song that's nearly five hundred years old at the time of this episode. And Kelly's a fan of the 70s - 80s power rock group Journey.

Teachers still use the A through F grading system. One would think teaching methods would change a bit in the next four hundred years.

People still send texts on their communication devices.

This one might be a stretch, but whatever. At one point Mercer tells Kelly, "Gosh, you know, I'm really impressed that you can adjust your feelings like a knob on a radio, but I can't do that." What are the odds that four hundred years from now, people would not only know what a radio was, but understand how they worked?

When I first watched the episode, I didn't notice a single swipe. The more I thought about it though, the more I started to recognize.

The most obvious one is Bortus' Ja'loga ceremony. In the TOS episode Amok Time, Spock underwent pon farr, in which Vulcans develop the urge to mate once every seven years. In that episode, Spock even requested the ship divert its course to Vulcan for his ceremony, much like Bortus asks Mercer to swing by Moclus.

By the way, Amok Time and Ja'loja were both the first episodes of their respective series' second season. Coincidence? Or planned?

The ja'loja ceremony's also slightly similar to Worf's Right Of Ascension (which is basically a Klingon bar-mitzvah) which was seen in the TNG episode The Icarus Factor.

Dr. Finn's parenting troubles are reminiscent of Worf struggling to raise his son Alexander in many episodes of TNG.

Gordon's troubles with the opposite sex are reminiscent of Geordi La Forge, who had similar wimmin troubles on TNG

Also on TNG, uber-nerd Reg Barclay used the holodeck to create a fantasy version of Counselor Troi, that couldn't keep her hands off him. Gordon does something somewhat similar here when he uses the holodeck, er, I mean the environmental simulator to practice picking up women.

Kelly tells Mercer it's wrong for them to date, because he'd be reluctant to send her on a suicide mission. Captain Picard faced a similar dilemma when he was dating stellar scientist Nella Darren in the TNG episode Lessons.

• Bortus and Klyden's son Topa looks to be about four or five years old in this episode, despite the fact he was born in early in Season 1. His rapid aging mirrors that of Worf's son Alexander, who also turned into a five year old in the space of about a year as well. Maybe Moclans and Klingons mature very quickly.

• This Week's Best Lines:
Mercer: "You know what the worst days are, Olix? The days when you can't stay busy. No Krill confrontations, no spatial anomalies, just nothing going on and all your thoughts just march inward."

Olix: "So most days."

Mercer: (to the senior officers) "Now, I know this is gonna sound utterly insane to most of you and your first instinct may be to laugh, but we're all going to take this seriously, so I don't want to hear any jokes, no snide remarks, nothing. Now... Kelly?"
Kelly: (unprepared) "We're diverting course to Moclus to watch Bortus pee."

Bortus: "Once a year, every Moclan must prepare for his ja'loja, the Great Release. They must travel to their N'kafas, a place they select during childhood. There, amidst family and friends, a Moclan urinates, signifying a cleansing of the spirit and the beginning of a new year in his life. As you are my closest friends, I would like you to be there."
Gordon: "What if it's, like... a windy day?"

Mercer: "And Bortus, if you need any time off to make preparations, feel free to relieve yourself."
(Gordon tries to suppress a laugh.)
Gordon: "No, it's- it's okay, man. He's just taking the piss out of you."
Mercer: "Okay, that's it. Dismissed."

Mercer: (to Kelly) "I've been trying to figure out how to keep my brain busy, just so I can stop thinking about You know, I... I played backgammon with Isaac last week, Kelly. Backgammon. That is a low point for a man."

Ty: "Mom makes me practice a half hour every day. How long did it take you to learn piano?"
Isaac: "Approximately one-millionth of a nanosecond."

Dr. Finn: "Nobody told me it would be this bad."
Isaac: "Is there a reason your son has become uncharacteristically combative?"
Dr. Finn: "Isaac, I have no idea. I never raised a teenager before, and I don't have a clue as to how to get to him. It's like he hates me for no reason."
Isaac: "Have you examined him for unidentified viruses or neurological disease?"
Dr. Finn: "No, of course not."
Isaac: "If he is carrying a biological foreign agent that could infect the rest of the crew..."
Dr. Finn: "No, Isaac, he's... he's not sick. He's just growing up, and I can't stop it."
Isaac: "Are there not chemical compounds that could effectively stunt his physical development?"
Dr. Finn: "My gosh, what's the matter with you?"
Isaac: "I am merely trying to assist."

Gordon: "I want to ask her to be my date to Bortus's ja'loja, but I have, like, zero game, and I know you're kind of, like, the girl guru on the ship, so... I figured you could help me."
John: "Uh, you must've heard about the Keribex."
Gordon: "The what?"
John: "That's why everybody thinks I'm the guru. You ever met a Keribex?"
Gordon: "No."
John: "It's an alien with two heads. I dated one for about two months last year, and here's the thing: I dated both heads at the same time, and neither of them found out about the other one."
Gordon: "Wow."
John: "Yeah, it'd still be going on, but the left head always wanted to go hiking, and that's just sort of a deal-breaker for me."

Bortus: "I am led to understand that you are a failure in the practice of mating."
Alara: "Well, I don't think I'd put it exactly like that, but yeah, things could be better."
Bortus: "There is a young officer under my command who I have noticed also has no mate. If you wish, I will order him to mate with you."
Alara: "Wow, that is the sweetest and most totally wrong thing anyone has ever said to me."
Bortus: "I have no reason to doubt his seed is fertile."

Dr. Finn: (to Marcus) "If anything else that does not reek of contrition comes out of that mouth, you will be grounded for the rest of your life. You understand?"

(John synthesizes a "dating" jacket for Gordon, who then tries it on.) 
Gordon: "Does it work?"
John: "It does, yeah."
Gordon: "Feels like too many zippers."
John: "Oh, no, no. Always go with one more zipper than you're comfortable with."

Mercer: "Okay, so you're dating Cass-ius."
Kelly: "Yes. Yes, I am. Okay. Go ahead, say it."
Mercer: "Say what?"
Kelly: "Whatever snarky jab you were about to make."
Mercer: "I saw him in the mess hall using both hands to sip his tea."

Dr. Finn: "They want a parent-teacher meeting to decide the issue."
Isaac: "I would be most interested in observing such a ritual. May I accompany you?"
Dr. Finn: "You'd come with me?"
Isaac: "Yes."
Dr. Finn: (thinking it over) "Well, then it won't be two against one."
Isaac: "Two against one. Do you anticipate hand-to-hand combat?"
Dr. Finn: "Possibly."

Dann: (after reading his poem to Alara) "What do you think?"
Alara: (obviously trying to be nice) "It's really good."
Dann: "Be brutally honest. I need absolute honesty or I can't grow as an artist."
Alara: "No, it's... it's great."
Dann: "You won't offend me, just tell me the truth."
Alara: "W-Well, um It's maybe a little surface-y."
Dann: "Oh."
Alara: "Like, i-i-it doesn't ask anything of the listener. The imagery's a little obvious, so there's nothing to unearth. And there's no room for subjective interpretation."
Dann: "Okay. Boy, got a little chilly in here all of a sudden, didn't it?"

Bortus: "I hope you enjoyed the ceremony, Commander."
Kelly: "I did. I did very much. I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like it."
Cassius: "Hope you washed your hands."

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