HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
There’s a lot to like in this episode, at least visually, but I almost wonder if “Shadow Realms” exists because the writers decided we needed a “horror” episode. I’m not entirely persuaded the episode quite lands, considering we know mostly who’s going to be transformed into a spider monster from the jump. I’m also not entirely too keen on the Paul Christie character because he pushes, rather than accepting Claire’s rejection. However, as far as a TNG episode goes, “Shadow Realms” looks like a jazzy version of “Genesis” with updated visuals. It’s fun, even if it doesn’t exactly cover new ground.
The Orville picks up Admiral Paul Christie, who happens to be Claire’s ex-husband, to negotiate an agreement with the Krill for safe passage through their territory. The Krill agree in exchange for mining rights to a planet in Union space. They do warn against exploring the Kalar Expanse because demons inhabit the area as written in the Krill holy tome. The Union officers decide to go into the Expanse anyway, undeterred by warnings regarding the supernatural.
Meanwhile, Paul attempts to rekindle his romance with Claire, though she rebuffs his advances. He shows her that he still wears his wedding ring, albeit on his pinky, “for good luck.” He even goes so far as to consult Isaac about Claire’s current interests.
Pushing into the Expanse, the Orville encounters a foreboding looking space station emitting a distress signal. Ed orders an Away Team to explore, including Paul and Claire. Upon arrival, Claire discovers that the station appears to be organic in composition. While exploring, Paul discovers a glowing node that opens for him when it doesn’t open for anyone else. They return to the ship where Paul collapses, apparently seizing. They turn him over and discover some sort of markings on his face.
Claire determines that something is rewriting Paul’s DNA, turning him into a new creature. Claire claims to be able to slow the process but not stop it without further information. The Orville dispatches another team to the station, equipped with EVA suits this time. Paul, who has developed a new, very large eye, awakens and expresses fear regarding his condition. Claire offers some comfort before receiving a message from the second Away Team. Then, Paul disappears and evidently hacks into the ship, cutting off their main power. Paul returns back to Sick Bay, now fully mutated into a terrifying bug creature.
The second Away Team manages to make it back onto the Orville, and they discover that the station has begun transmitting a homing beacon. Ty and Marcus go hunting for their mother and in the process not only discover the monster but also that the monster can mutate other members of the crew to reproduce itself.
The spider-monsters begin replicating and attacking crew members to increase their numbers. Talla manages to subdue one, and Claire discovers that the newly transformed creatures lack a functioning immune system at this stage. Claire suggests replicating a synthetic virus in order to subdue the mutated crewmembers, though it would likely be lethal. Mercer wonders if there’s a way to communicate with them, and Claire volunteers to try and reach Paul, locating him through the ring he still wears. She attempts to negotiate, but the being Paul has become promises that she will become one “of us.” She threatens to release the toxin, and the creature calls to its fellows. They agree to depart.
The admiralty calls the Orville back, and Isaac goes to “check on” Claire. She explains that she’s missed him, and he says that he has missed her as well.
If, like me, you found yourself thinking that “Shadow Realms” feels like an Orville version of “Genesis,” feel vindicated because the two episodes share an author, Brannon Braga, though his is not the sole credit for either episode. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this felt familiar. In “Genesis,” an intron virus (Barclay’s Protomorphosis Syndrome) activates the crew’s “introns” or dormant genes and causes them to transform into more primitive life forms. Please note, I still don’t entirely understand how a cat can transform into an iguana, but sure. Picard and Data must devise a cure for the virus, which they do. However, they do so while dodging mutated crewmembers in darkened corridors because the ship isn’t running at full power.
In “Shadow Realms,” this bacterial agent appears to be how the spider species reproduces, but this episode, too, requires returning, uninfected crew members to dodge mutated crewmembers in darkened corridors because their ship is running on partial power. Admittedly, the love angle is new, and it’s not a particularly good addition. I say this, not because I think Claire handled the situation poorly but because there’s a certain power dynamic at play between Paul and Claire that renders it all incredibly suspect. Claire tells us that Paul was her professor and that they took up in her final year, ostensibly when she was out of his class, but there’s still a power imbalance between the two. Now, years after their divorce, Paul has attained the rank of admiral whereas Claire has very much not, despite her success aboard the Orville.
Claire does a fantastic job of deflecting and gently refusing his attentions, but Paul seems disinclined to accept her rejection. Why else would he go to Isaac to ask for tips? Later, post-transformation, Paul seems even less predisposed to respecting Claire’s autonomy, though how much of that was Paul is up for grabs. I did like that the story didn’t follow through on the tropes that I expected to see, i.e. Paul deferring to Claire based on their past relationship. However, not much else about the episode seemed new or different or refreshing, and honestly, despite the introduction of a menacing spider monster ship on the horizon, nothing about the episode created any real feelings of tension.
Visually, I loved the spider station designs, and I have to admit that New Horizons has been taking advantage of the streaming platform money. I even enjoyed Claire getting to threaten to wipe out an entire subset of species, but I kind of missed the triumph of science that we often get in Trek. The Orville mostly eschews the level of technobabble that we get in mainstream Trek, and generally, that’s a wise choice. However, here, I found that I wanted a little more explanation.
It’s a solid episode, if nothing particularly special.
Three Quantum Drives
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- I’m amused that Costco apparently exists in the Union future, because I absolutely recognized that bottle of rose that Kelly and Claire split between them. It’s not bad, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember the name.
- Yes, Macfarlane, I see your reference to another Star franchise.
- The glowing danger nodes look like pumpkins, and I just can’t take it seriously.
- The beginning ring and the ending ring looked slightly different to my eye, though it could have been the lighting.
- Spider Borg. Cool, Orville, it’s not like my nightmares needed new fodder.
- The “spider” part is a fun tie-in to Barclay as he devolved into a spider himself.
- Voyager also explored the concept of using another species as a home for your genetic material in “Ashes to Ashes.”