HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
I have a number of conflicting feelings about The Orville. When it’s good, it’s straight out of the series bible from TNG, but when it’s bad, it’s incredibly bad. However, now that the show has made the shift to Hulu, I’m interested to see where this final season will go.
“Electric Sheep” is an episode that deals with themes of suicide, grief, guilt, and betrayal.
The episode opens with a recap of the second season finale’s final battle with the Kaylon, and then flashes forward to Isaac, the ship’s robotic Kaylon officer, working in the lab. LaMarr comes and informs Isaac that he’ll need to leave the lab due to a shut down for systems diagnostic purposes, so Isaac heads to the mess hall where new navigator Charly Burke gives him a royal dressing down for his role in the battle. Isaac returns to the lab only to discover that someone has defaced the wall with the word “Murderer” scrawled in red paint. Unfortunately, Talla has no leads but Burke, forcing Ed to have a word with her.
Meanwhile, Malloy has been assigned to shake down a new single-occupant attack shuttle, but Isaac did the final calibrations on the shuttle.
Talla eventually discovers that Marcus Finn replicated the paint used to deface the lab. Marcus has been having nightmares about the battle in general and seeing terrifying images of Isaac specifically. Marcus admits the error, but he rages about Isaac’s continued presence on the ship and expresses a wish that Isaac were dead. Even Isaac’s apology does not sway him. Subsequent to the apology, Isaac returns to the lab where he creates a targeted EMP pulse to shut down his central processor, effectively ending his own life. His last words offered his regards to the Finn family.
The Orville ships out from space dock with the mission of delivering Isaac’s body to scientists interested in doing research into Kaylon construction. Speaking with an intimate partner, John LaMarr has an inspiration, and he discovers a nearly sub-atomic storage cell containing Isaac’s memory. However, they need a biological brain capable of multi-dimensional visualization. The only crew member aboard the Orville capable of performing the procedure happens to be Charly Burke who despises the Kaylons for the death of her best friend.
After meeting with a grieving Marcus, Burke consents to aid LaMarr, and they successfully revive Isaac after a bit of combat with a Kaylon vessel. Isaac explains to Claire that his continued presence reduced crew efficiency, so logically, removing himself represented the best course of action. Claire contends that his thinking was flawed because he equated the present with the future. Isaac agrees to tell her if he has such thoughts again. Later, Marcus goes to observe Isaac in his lab, but he turns away and leaves without speaking to him.
“Electric Sheep” represents the Orville’s take on the fallout from Trek’s Wolf-359 where Isaac steps into Picard’s shoes as Locutus and portrays a much less enlightened take on the reaction of the rest of humanity to the enormity of the loss. Yes, we see Commander Sisko’s dislike of Captain Picard in Deep Space Nine’s episode “Emissary,” but on the Orville, this hatred is much, much more pronounced. Arguably, the Orville portrays a much more human response because “Electric Sheep” is a surprisingly complex episode touching on themes of grief, betrayal, and loss.
Claire confesses to Kelly that she struggles to reconcile loving Isaac even though his choices resulted in the deaths of thousands, and Kelly offers her the platitude that Isaac’s bad decisions did not mean Claire stopped loving him. While true, squaring continued love for someone who has done something so awful is a tremendously difficult thing to do. In a certain sense, Claire shares something in common with Sue Klebold. Like Sue, she’s discovered that someone she cared for deeply is capable of real horrors, and Claire legitimately struggles with it. Her children struggle equally. Ty creates a simulation of Isaac that he visits in the Orville’s holodeck, and while Claire tries to explain that he cannot use the simulation to replace his friend, Ty remains unconvinced. Marcus, however, struggles the most because he had told Isaac that he wished Isaac were dead, so Marcus understandably blames himself.
LaMarr struggles less with grieving someone he cared about so much as being angry that Isaac took his own life. His intimate partner explains that in her culture, suicide is considered a personal choice and honored as such, but LaMarr, in his anger, rejects that position. He argues that suicide is fundamentally a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Claire will make the same argument to a resurrected Isaac when she explains that he failed to account for the possibility of change in the crew’s attitude. He believed the future would be the same as the present, and Claire rejects that position.
The most interesting character here is Charly Burke, who lost her best friend when Amanda sacrificed herself to save Charly. She clearly wrestles with survivor’s guilt, rage at the Kaylons, and rage at Isaac specifically as the representative of his species. Marcus asks her if she’s glad Isaac killed himself, and she admits that yes, she is. However, she doesn’t want Marcus to carry that same kind of anger, which is what prompts her to act. I liked that the connection with Marcus overruled her rejection of Ed’s order to help Isaac and not just because I think Ed’s order was wrong, at least in both a moral sense and a civilian context. We do not compel people to surrender kidneys for transplants against their will, and we do not generally recognize that others have a responsibility to do everything they can to save someone else.
Charly needed to make the choice for herself, and the episode allows her to do so. Ed’s arguments to her are sound—that she had a duty to a fellow crewmember and a similar duty to demonstrate that humanity is better than the Kaylons—but so is her refusal. Ed also reminds her that she doesn’t have a monopoly on grief, which while true, ignores the validity of her experience, and Macfarlane plays Ed as being more frustrated with her refusal to obey than with her emotional state. TNG addressed a similar issue with consent in “The Enemy,” in which Worf refuses to donate his blood to a dying Romulan because the Romulan is a member of the same species that murdered Worf’s parents. Notably, Picard never orders Worf to donate, even though the Romulan’s death could cause an incident between the Romulan Star Empire and the Federation. In 1989, Worf’s consent matters to Picard. In 2022, Burke’s does not to Ed, and while it could be argued that the difference involves being compelled to act versus being compelled to surrender one’s bodily autonomy, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue here.
BJ Tanner gives an outstanding performance as Marcus in this episode, without which, the episode would necessarily fail. Tanner had to sell both Marcus’ grief and rage as well as his guilt and conflict, which is a big ask. Had Marcus been less convincing both opposite Penny Johnson-Gerald’s Claire and Anne Winters’ Charly, the episode would have lost its emotional core.
I’m cautiously interested to see where the Orville goes from here.
Three Quantum Drives
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard
- I love that the far future has Magnet tiles that even teenaged Marcus likes to play with.
- There’s a legit moment when someone says that suicide is pointless, and all I could think about was the MASH theme song.
- Claire asks Isaac how he feels, and he mentions that he doesn’t understand the question.
- Star Trek IV
- , anyone?
- I like the number of sol lights on everyone’s desks. It’s a good nod to humanity’s circadian rhythms.
- I will say, the CGI on the ship is outstanding.
- Good on Ed for using a decoy effectively. It’s nice to see him think a little more tactically.
- And yes, the title is an allusion to Philip K. Dick’s work and concerns Isaac’s ability to feel.
- Also, yes, I realize that a commander can order the rescue/retrieval of high value service members. Again, I don’t necessarily know that’s what’s going on here.