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A smart and kinetic The Orville makes the case for independence

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I was a little surprised when tonight’s episode began. It took some real chutzpah for The Orville to return to a story line about a Moclan engineer with a culturally taboo secret that endangers the crew only five episodes after “Deflectors”. Even Ed wanly trying to draw attention to this seemingly commonplace occurrence by noting the ship is beginning to feel “like a taxi cab” wasn’t enough to deflect that unless “Sanctuary” had a real worthwhile story to tell, the episode would be an astonishingly lazy retread. How pleased I was, then, that “Sanctuary” had a real worthwhile story to tell. In fact, probably the tightest, most engaging story told on The Orville yet. This is not to diminish the excellence of the other season best, Identity, part. 2, but it’s much easier to make a memorable episode using robot death armadas. So much of this season has been spent on the cultural, sexual, and biological concerns of the Moclan race; it threatened to overtake the show. But here, that focus was aimed outward, building on those concerns in such a way as to have major ramifications for the security of the entire Union. But in doing so, the episode never lost track of the more intimate moments the conflict emerged from, resulting in a story line that juggled elements both big and small to great effect.

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The episode starts off small enough. During class, Topa takes a toy he wants from another kid. When she asks for it back, he pushes her to the ground, claiming females are inferior. Marina Sirtis, first in a long line of special guest stars, isn’t having any of it and tells Bortus and Klyden. It’s revealed that Topa learned his misogyny from Klyden, who remains staunchly beholden to conservative Moclan culture. This galls Bortus, both due to his lingering guilt over allowing Topa to receive a sex change operation, and more broadly because his own world view is expanding. “Has your time on this ship not changed your perspective?!” He angrily asks of Klyden. And it’s a fair question. The main reason cities tend to be more progressive is because you’re forced to be around a lot of people who aren’t like you every day. Over time, the realization that most groups of people consist of the same admixture of assholes, regular folks, and the occasional really good ones helps significantly in chilling people out. It’s a lot easier to hold onto your prejudices when the only people around are exactly like you.

This argument coincides with the Orville transporting a Moclan couple who are hoisting around a magical glowing suitcase like it was space Pulp Fiction. Their secret cargo is revealed to be a daughter kept in stasis until the family can defect from Moclan society. They enlist Bortus’ help; aware of the trial he endured for his own child. Bortus keeps the couple’s secret, but not before bringing Topa in to see the baby in hopes that it may spark some empathy. Unfortunately, after the couple safely departs from the ship, Topa confided in Klyden about what he saw and they tell the rest of the crew. Trying to prevent another diplomatic crisis with the Moclans, Ed orders the ship to follow the couple into a massive purple nebula. Nebula are a boon to shows set in space, since they can infuse some color into an otherwise monochromatic palette, and it certainly works here as the Orville cruises through striking plumes of luminescent space dust.

Not as striking, however, as finding a whole planetary system hidden deep within. The crew takes a shuttle to the planet only to discover The Island of the Amazon Moclans!; an entire settlement of females in exile from their home. It turns out the Moclan government lies about the number of women born each generation. There are many more than officially recorded, and a few among those are able to escape to sanctuary. Leading the settlement is Heveena (Rena Owen) who we last saw all the way back at the end of “About a Girl” in season 1. The Moclan poet hopes to enlist he crew’s help and Ed suggests petitioning the Union for the planet’s independence. If they agree, the planet will be under Union protection, and the Moclans will be unable to reclaim the women who fled. This is where the episode begins to really open up as the ramifications for acting in opposition to the Moclan government have much greater consequences. He brings Heveena with him to earth so that she may directly make the case for independence in front of the Union tribunal. And boy, sci-fi show political assemblies are just the best. They’re second only to bar scenes for their ability to cram a bunch alien species into the background. But these are the fancy, well-connected aliens! It’s fun to see how the other halves live.

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The conflict the Union admirals face in fully endorsing Ed’s plan are obnoxiously reasonable. The Moclan delegation threatens to leave the Union if the female expats are granted sovereignty, and Moclan military power has become increasingly important in light of the Kaylon threat. Ed claims to have argued with the admirals about the Union reliance on Moclan technology, but it’s too late to do anything about that now. Without access to Moclan arms, or even worse, as the Moclan diplomat suggests, Moclus forms an alliance with the Krill, the Union is seriously endangered.

Meanwhile, the Orville faces off with a Moclan cruiser in orbit around the refugee planet. The Moclan ship claims to be waiting only until a decision is reached by the Union, but almost immediately begins sending out shuttles to detain the women on the surface. This all culminates in a satisfying “9-to-5”-scored fight scene as Kelly and Bortus fly down to the planet to help fend off the soldiers and Talla takes command of the Orville to engage in a dog fight against the Moclan cruiser. It’s a tense and well-edited series of scenes as the focus shifts between the tribunal, the settlement and the nebula surrounding the planet. On earth, a compromise is struck, and like all worthwhile compromises, it sucks. The planet does not gain independence, and they must stop secreting away female babies from Moclus. But the Moclans must leave the settlement in peace. Neveena, optimistic, remains hopeful for the future of Moclan womankind. Their existence is no longer a secret. The galaxy knows them and hopefully, acceptance will follow. And in a final shot, as Bortus looking on as Topa plays with the girl he had earlier shoved, it has.

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There still hasn’t been any official word whether or not The Orville is going to be renewed for a third season. And with only two episodes left, that’s cutting it awful close for comfort. I still think the show often falters in some very basic ways, but I always feel good about its positive, progressive tone. And when an episode like “Sanctuary” shows just how good the show can be, it really hits home what a damn shame it would be if it isn’t allowed to grow and continue even further.


Stray Observations

  • I’ve decided Talla needs to lop off that side pony and go for a Cyd Charisse-style bob cut with bangs. It’s a look that’s both stylish and severe enough for the chief of security.
  • I understand the show has a finite budget —and it’s not like this affected the story at all— but it was still a bit disappointing for the crew to land onto this crazy, purple nebula planet only to have it look like the park a block from Seth MacFarlane’s house.
  • I love the exterior scenes of earth that show all the buildings with integrated green space. It’s a nice future to envision.
  • This episode was written by co-producer Joe Menosky, and as far as I can tell it’s his first. The dialogue in this one was sharp, with a well-developed complexity. One line in particular struck me that unfortunately I was unable to transcribe completely. Ed was arguing with the Admirals about their complicity in ignoring some of the Moclans questionable beliefs and he responds with something like “Believe me; no one struggles more with walking that razor’s edge between cultural tolerance vs. moral negligence.” Anyway, it’s a great line.
  • I get down on the 20th century pop culture references, but how down can I be about Dolly Parton? None down, that’s how much.
  • There were really strong performances in this episode all around, especially from Peter Macon. He was able to use the Moclan tendency toward blunt honesty to convey a range of feelings. Rena Owen was fantastic as well.
  • Obligatory
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About the author

Nick Wanserski

AV Club contributor, illustrator, insouciant oaf.