The show’s creator and runner – Seth himself – offered up an interesting observation (of sorts) in the build-up to this new season: his unique take on the experience is that Season 3 should be essentially viewed as ten mini-movies instead of series’ episodes as these new adventures have been given that much creative attention.
After having already gone on record that I found Season 3’s premiere “Electric Sheep” to have some good ideas handled a bit too choppily, Episode 2 – “Shadow Realms” – is a bit more straightforward in presentation, feeling less-and-less like a mini-movie and more-and-more like your standard run-of-the-mill outing for any traditional TV space saga.
Here’s the premise as provided by IMDB.com:
“The Orville explores a mysterious region of space.”
Yes, it’s a fairly bare bones outing, one that feels extremely derivative of a handful of like-minded fare, putting The Orville very much thematically on course where many, many shows have boldly already gone before. The alliance with the Krill open up new areas of the universe for exploration, and – as you can guess – this leads to a very dark ‘First Contact’ encounter with a species that infects other lifeforms only then to transform them genetically into bug-like drones. Think ‘the Borg’ if the Borg assimilated others via a virus, and you get the point. While the idea might seem fresh, it truly goes already goes back to the days of 1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers quite easily, instead making Seth’s mini-movie feel more like an homage than it does anything else.
This isn’t to suggest that the hour was inferior. What Shadow Realms does well is kinda/sorta fleshes out Dr. Finn’s character further – the story explores a history never discussed before – and the practical effects crew come up with some wonderful monster moments (for which I’m always a fan of). There’s a respectable amount of tension – much of which I’ll credit to longtime director Jon Cassar’s work – along with some spooky atmospheres required to sell the overall sizzle when the shinola hits the fan (as they say) once the dire predicament is revealed. The hour moves easily and efficiently. It’s part Aliens (1986) mixed with part Event Horizon (1997), all achieved on a solid TV budget, so kudos to all involved there.
And yet …
That show uniquely well transformed audiences from their living room into the rooms, corridors, and sections of a fully-staffed spaceship. Whereas that ambiance gave the Starship Enterprise 1701-D the authentic ‘feel’ like a living and breathing machine, The Orville – with the exception of its engine room, bridge, and the cafeteria – largely feels empty. Its hallways – vastly more expansive than those on the Enterprise – are often vacant and hollow, so much so that I kept wondering in this hour where all of its crew were. Had they gone into some kind of security lockdown (owed to the circumstances), or was everyone just sleeping through this adventure?
Now, some of this is owed to the ‘haunted house’ gimmick of the episode. Under this infectious procedural, the ship is without power and struggling to stay afloat (to a degree), so it wouldn’t quite serve the narrative to have folks out-and-about when what was truly happening was that producers were creating this empty, soulless space for which man-sized bugs would be jump-scaring you into oblivion. But at a time when a ship’s crew would’ve, should’ve, and could’ve been actively trying to save the spacecraft, it seemed curiously like only the bridge officers were on duty. It seemed repeatedly like only bridge officers could handle any and all activity that came up … and that was a narrative miss, if not a narrative mess.
Also, I always personally struggle with stories that clearly pose jeopardy to the nth degree when you know that it’s extremely unlikely any major players are going to be killed off. (Dare I suggest that maybe we don’t always dial things up to eleven?) The actors and actresses are contracted to appear in X number of episodes, so crafting yarns with the implicit ‘they’re not going to survive this time’ dynamic can be a tough sell. Do it too often, and you become the boy who cried wolf. Everyone watching knows this already, and that’s why thinking men and women don’t buy into the hyperbole, no matter how well it's conceived or executed. While I have no problem with the exaggerated suspense here, I’m just hoping this doesn’t become a trend going forward.
Lastly, Shadow Realms felt a bit too incomplete as a one-off adventure.
Though we get a new species introduction, there’s no true resolution. (There is a face-off between the good guys and the bad, but there’s no authentic solution to all of this.) The best hours of any show – in my opinion – do deliver a final message, and this one feels a bit listless, a bit insufficient. Because of this obvious missing link, it’s hard to quantify the ‘moral to the story,’ that old school storytelling technique Seth and company are quite fond of. It’s so obviously misplaced that I can’t help but wonder if a sequel installment was already on the drawing board.
I guess time will tell.