"A Tale of Two Topas" tackles a current-day controversial issue using the classic Star Trek (TNG) style. It does so with heart, feeling, empathy, thoughtfulness, messiness, ugliness, and no shortage of emotional and plotted complication. It’s all the more effective because of its straightforward take on the material. This is an episode that demonstrates how properly existing at the vertex where the intellectual and the emotional converge can result in something pretty great.
This episode uses science fiction to just barely put a twist on a current-day issue. In this case, it’s the matter of gender identity as seen through Bortus’ and Klyden’s child, Topa (Imani Pullum) — born female but reassigned male (unknown to him), shortly after birth as a result of the deeply misogynistic Moclan culture. While Topa is shadowing Grayson to learn more about how the crew operates, he reveals to her that he has been feeling "incomplete" and "unhappy"; he has realized there is something wrong deep within himself. In a rather alarming development, Topa goes to Isaac and asks him what it felt like to be dead. Isaac explains that being dead was not unpleasant, because it was merely a state of nothingness. Isaac wisely reports the conversation to Grayson.
On the eve of the signing of a treaty between the Planetary Union and the Krill, a delegation is invited to the Krill homeworld where the treaty is to be signed. The Orville will, of course, carry the delegation, and Admiral Halsey invites Mercer and his away team to attend the signing.
This invitation happens after we’ve already witnessed Teleya (Michaela McManus) — the undercover Krill woman who pretended to fall in love with a duped Mercer (see "Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes"), and who is now a rising populist politician with a growing following — provides an ominous speech that begins Trumpian and works its way up to Hitlerian as she decries the treaty that’s going to be signed and promises that all who have taken part in its creation will be punished as traitors if she wins the election. The crowd screams and chants like a howling mob.
I’m beginning to think giving Seth MacFarlane longer runtimes for this season of The Orville was a really bad idea. They say the final rewrite of a screenplay happens in the editing room, and now in three consecutive episodes we’ve had an editing room that’s far too lax. Nicholas Meyer once said that art thrives on restriction. Well, redundancy thrives on a lack of discipline.
Take the opening minute of "Mortality Paradox." We watch Talla’s shuttle approach the ship (with multiple shots), enter the shuttle bay and land, and then we see Talla get off the shuttle, walk up a spiral staircase and through a corridor, and finally into Grayson’s office. This sequence could’ve been done in 30 or even 15 seconds. Instead, it takes over a minute. Now, that’s not a huge deal in the scheme of things, but it’s indicative of the overall lack of economy and discipline here, and the tendency for this episode to be repetitive by showing us different iterations of the same idea.
Claire’s ex-husband, Admiral Paul Christie (James Read), who was her former professor way back in the day before they got married and then divorced, and who is now a top Union diplomat, comes aboard the Orville to negotiate passage through an area of Krill space that could open up entirely new exploration opportunities.
Included in this area of space are "shadow realms" that the Krill say should be avoided, because of the "demons" that exist within them. Because the Krill base this, like everything, in their religious fanaticism, Christie and Mercer are skeptical of the warning, and think exploration of this area of space is still important.
Season three of The Orville — moved from Fox to Hulu and now dubbed "New Horizons" — premieres some three-plus years after the second season ended. "Electric Sheep," the first installment — filmed more than two and a half years ago — serves as a re-acquaintance of sorts, with the Orville docked at a starbase for a retrofit and waiting to deploy for its next exploration mission.
But the episode first opens with a Major FX Sequence, featuring a huge battle between the Kaylon and Union fleets, and Marcus (BJ Tanner) running through the corridors of the ship trying to escape the explosions and mayhem. He’s able to get back to his quarters where Isaac is there waiting, but then Isaac suddenly goes into Red Mode and lunges at him like a predator. Marcus wakes up in a panic. (This opening sequence was released months ago to stave off impatient fans amid yet another delay announcement, except it didn’t contain the obvious reveal that it’s all a nightmare.)