“Mortality Paradox” gave me a distinctly TOS feeling, despite the show’s clear attempts to draw inspiration from TNG, and I’m honestly not entirely certain that the episode knew what its mark was much less hit it. However, the episode’s production quality makes up for a number of sins, to be sure. Still, I find myself wishing that the episode had developed its themes just a bit more clearly.
Talla Kiyali returns to the Orville after having visited her family back on Xeleya and returns to duty just in time for the ship to investigate strange readings from Narran I, a previously barren planet that suddenly shows not just signs of life but also signs of an advanced civilization. Ed Mercer orders an away team consisting of Bortus, Talla, Kelly, Gordon, and himself to take a shuttle down to the planet where they find not an advanced civilization but rather an old-fashioned high school. They split up to explore the structure, but Gordon finds himself dragged into the boy’s restroom where bullies beat him to within an inch of his life. He discovers that he owes a “Randall” money. Randall turns out to be some sort of monster that belongs more in a mobile app game advertised on Facebook than it does in a high school. As “Randall” grabs Gordon, Gordon’s eyes glaze over in time for Randall to release him.
The team flees back to safety and open a door to find themselves on a plane that proves to be without a pilot. Gordon forces his way up to the front of the plane with the rest of the Away Team and tries to execute a landing onto a rocky promontory. He manages, but the plane stops half on and half off a cliff. Ed’s eyes glaze over identically to Gordon’s.
The Team deplanes, and Bortus opens the emergency door into a Moclan morgue, full of capsules containing bodies that are hanging in the ritualistic period. Bortus opens a capsule and discover a deceased Moclan who “wakes up” and proceeds to strangle Bortus, whose eyes glaze over.
They again flee the morgue and run into what appears to be a Xeleyan lake. They notice a blinking light and decide to go explore it. Kelly and Tall volunteer to take the suspiciously convenient raft across the lake, and as they cross, they discover a much better animated sea monster that grabs Kelly off the raft and drags her down into the depths of the lake. Talla jumps in to rescue her, and she’s successful. The pair heads back towards the shore where they left their colleagues since the blinking light has ceased. Once they make landfall, a door appears, and Ed refuses to go through the door.
They find a signal and follow it to discover a Kaylon holographic array. They destroy it and return to the Orville where they report to Union command that the Kaylons have discovered how to manipulate biologicals’ perception of the world around them. The Union dispatches a science delegation to meet them, but they discover that it’s a ruse by the Kaylons. A full Kaylon attack group descends upon the Orville and proceeds to overwhelm the ship. One ship even attempts to ram the bridge, and suddenly, everything freezes.
Eventually, the scene around them fades, and they find themselves back on Narran I as it should appear. The being they knew as “Talla Kiyali” transforms into a glowing entity whose fashion sense comes straight out of Tron. She explains that she’s part of the society that worshipped Kelly back in season two, and owing to their rapid progress through time, they have evolved far, far past the Union. They had forgotten what mortality was like, so they chose Kelly and her colleagues as test case studies to explore how they experienced fear of death. As it happens, immortality isn’t compatible with a real drive to evolve, as we discovered in “Death Wish.”
Back on the Orville the real Talla Kiyali makes her rendezvous, proving that she’s just fine. The Away Team returns to the ship, and they depart the system, having learned…something? Maybe?
I’m honestly not entirely certain what the point of this particular episode actually was. While yes, the handy dandy Dinal does explain that they were experimenting with the intrepid crew of the Orville, largely because they felt a connection to Kelly, in particular due to her role as a former object of worship on Kandar I, way back in the episode “Mad Idolatry.” I similarly gather that the discussion they have with Dinal is meant to be an exploration of the ethics of experimenting on living beings without their consent, but honestly, there’s really not enough development of that discussion to drive that point home.
Furthermore, the “tailored” nature of the trials doesn’t really make sense. Yes, I can see that the high school scenario would relate better back to Gordon given that the character has been to this point styled as being a bit of a man-child, a term that Claire will actually use to describe him. The link to Bortus with his own simulation is more or less just that he’s Moclan, so they force him to face a Moclan death scenario. However, the episode fails to make clear the links between Ed and the aircraft and Kelly and the water monster. I suppose the Xeleyan setting could be a feint, obscuring the fact that the “Talla” in question isn’t really “Talla” at all. The Kaylon scenario just seems to relate back to the season-wide arc.
If this episode has a strength, we can probably find it in Dinal. The character’s complete disinterest in the impact of the experiment on the actual people is note perfect for an immortal who has so far surpassed the creatures used for experimentation that their experiences mean nothing to her. The episode’s potential moral falls on her shoulders with her casual dismissal of Ed’s concerns, but again, I just don’t think the episode capitalizes enough on that conversation for the episode to succeed if that was the point.
However, despite the muddled themes, this episode feels less like a TNG episode, which definitely serves as the series spiritual ancestor, and more like a TOS episode. A number of episodes deal with the crew being manipulated and/or menaced by more powerful entities: “Squire of Gothos,” “Charlie X”, “And the Children Shall Lead,” etc. TOS portrays a more capricious universe whereas TNG demonstrated that everything happens for a reason, if not a divinely inspired one. I really appreciated that this episode of the Orville embraces that capriciousness. Dinal and her people experimented on the Away Team because they had both the desire and the power to do so. Dinal’s expressed desire to experience mortality is just window dressing for the issue that lies at the heart of her simulations. There’s a really interesting meditation on power and the uses thereof that I wish the episode had explored just a bit more.
Two and a half quantum drives
Stray Thoughts From the Couch
- The episode is breathtakingly gorgeous. The visuals in New Horizons are just stunning, and the entire series seems to drip with money. I can’t imagine what the effects budget was, but it was substantial.
- The Moclans certainly seem to embrace the egg motif.
- I had to get on a plane the day after I watched this episode, and frankly, that was a poor choice on my part.
- I dearly loved that Randall turned out to be that insane monster. That was legitimately funny.
- I do think folks from the Orville recognize too well images from what is to them the distant past. Yes, I understand that the show is being made in that timeframe, but there’s an easy familiarity that I wouldn’t have, say, recognizing a general scene out of Ancient Egyptian life. It just strikes me as odd.
- Dinal’s appearance was certainly a choice.