Every starship must have a chief medical officer, and while Star Trek’s Bones McCoy may be the most iconic space doctor of all time, The Orville’s Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald, a Deep Space Nine alum) has some valuable and unique skills to bring to the table. As The Orville’s second season continues, we’re increasingly convinced that Dr. Finn is the ship’s real MVP.
We meet Claire at the same moment as Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane, who’s also The Orville’s creator), as he’s first getting to know his senior staff. Her credentials are so impressive (“molecular surgery, DNA engineering, psychiatry”) that Ed is a little confused as to why she’s been assigned to a mid-level vessel like the Orville. “I always request my transfers based on where I think I’m needed. I feel more stimulated that way,” she explains. She knows this is Ed’s first command, and she’s there to help—not in a way that undermines his authority, but in a way that implies she’s handled a lot of crises in her time and expects there will be more in the immediate future. (She’s right, of course.) She’s also quick-witted, turning Ed’s joke about whether or not he has the balls for the job right back around: “Well, I’m your doctor...and if your balls are under par, I’ll know.”
Claire’s ability to step in (without overstepping) when she’s needed is a recurring theme, and it’s soon clear that her advice is valued by everyone on the crew, not just the rookie captain. In another early episode, the Orville’s chief of security, Alara Kitan (Halston Sage, who’s since left the series), lets her inexperience show when the chain of command ticks down far enough to put her in charge. In a panic, she begs Claire to come up with some medical excuse that’ll excuse her from taking command, but Claire is having none of that. She does, however, have some wise words for the young officer: “Command is all about the balance between inspiring confidence in your leadership and knowing when to trust your people.” (She adds, “I’m not gonna whisper the answers in your ear, but I’ll try to be your Obi-Wan whenever I can,” a 20th-century Earth pop culture reference that sails over Alara’s head. In a later episode, Claire quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson. The lady is culturally well-rounded.)
Not many situations faze Claire when she’s in Dr. Finn mode—she’s a total pro, whether she’s going undercover on a new world as part of a landing team, offering marriage counseling to Bortus (Peter Macon) and Klyden (Chad L. Coleman), or bringing Bortus back from the brink of death after Klyden stabs him in the chest (as is the custom when their species gets “divorced”).
But Claire’s even keel is tested from time to time, mostly when she’s dealing with her kids. See, there’s a very good reason she sometimes comes across as the Orville’s den mother, because in addition to being the most mature of the group, she actually is the mom of two boys, Ty and Marcus. The show waited until the eighth episode to reveal this, so it’s kind of a surprise at first—but only for a second, because it makes total sense. She’s a single mom, but unlike her Star Trek: The Next Generation counterpart, Beverly Crusher, there’s no dead husband to mourn. Instead, Claire, who always knew she wanted kids but didn’t feel like waiting around for the right guy to come along, explains she went ahead and got pregnant through artificial means.
After the big reveal of Claire’s family, The Orville devotes almost an entire episode, “Into the Fold,” to exploring their dynamic. For kids being raised on a deep-space exploratory vessel, Ty and Marcus are pretty typical—especially young teen Marcus, who just wants to play video games and for his mom and little brother to leave him the hell alone. There’s a lot of jeering and fighting and general brattiness, enough to make even the super-steady Claire lose her shit while trying to discipline them.
Still, though the kids are pretty annoying to be around on The Orville, much less in the close confines of a transport shuttle, Claire’s still determined to take them on vacation to a “play planet.” But what’s meant to be a fun trip takes a dangerous turn when Claire, Ty, Marcus, and Orville science officer Isaac—a robot-like being who’s curious about humans even though he’s disdainful of all biological life forms—accidentally fly through a spatial anomaly and crash-land on an unfamiliar planet. Claire becomes separated from the group and is taken prisoner by a not-so-friendly humanoid creature, while Isaac and the kids must try to repair the ship, evade other hostile inhabitants, and find Claire before Ty succumbs to a nasty plague.
Though Isaac has some funny moments in this episode, awkwardly trying to babysit the very same kids he offered to “vaporize” as a favor to Claire before the crash, it’s really a Claire showcase. Not only do we get insight into how she became such an amazingly patient physician—the squabbles among the Orville’s crew have nothing on her shrieking spawn—but we also get to see her keep a cool head (and overcome her fear of heights) while she’s plotting to escape her captor, motivated more by worry about her kids (especially when she learns Ty is deathly ill) than about her own safety.
Though Marcus and Ty don’t really figure naturally into most of The Orville’s storylines, Claire’s frustrations (and small but valuable triumphs) as a mom have popped up again, notably in the season two premiere. Though Claire’s subplot in “Ja’loja” was pretty obviously a way to introduce a new character who happens to be both Marcus’ teacher and the new boyfriend of the Orville’s first officer, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), it still showed us, again, how kids in 25th century space aren’t that different from kids on 21st century Earth, and neither are their parents. After Marcus and his ne’er-do-well pal hack the food simulator to summon a bottle of vodka (because of course they would), Claire has to deal not only with her son’s bad behavior, but the snippy attitude of his best friend’s parents, who blame Marcus for everything.
Though Isaac—who’s now Ty’s piano teacher—first suspects “a biological foreign agent” is to blame for Marcus’ surliness, and then agrees with Claire’s exasperated self-assessment that she sucks at parenting, he ends up helping her out big-time (and putting those awful other parents in their place) when he proves that Marcus wasn’t the mastermind behind the food simulator caper. The situation makes Claire realize that even though sometimes parenting sucks, she doesn’t suck as a mom—and she has her friends (even ones that happen to be emotionless artificial life forms) to help her when things start to feel impossible.
Of course, Claire isn’t always so serious—we mentioned her ball-busting joke earlier—and neither are her storylines. In season one, there’s an episode that’s set almost entirely within the ship’s simulator, with everyone’s worst fears pushing Alara Kitan to the brink of terror. Claire’s dislike of heights is represented, but she also appears as a diabolically evil version of herself, threatening to do gruesome brain surgery on Alara. It’s all the more unsettling because we’ve grown accustomed to Claire’s signature blend of rock-solid good judgment and level-headed kindness.
But you have to assume that Penny Johnson Jerald’s most memorable moment on the set of The Orville so far was while shooting season one’s “Cupid’s Dagger.” Specifically, the day her character—under the influence of a pheromone that’s making people on the ship act amorously—shared a sex scene with Yaphit (voiced by Norm MacDonald), a gelatinous blob whose longstanding crush on her had previously gone unrequited, for obvious reasons. It’s so oozy and disturbing, and The Orville makes it even freakier by turning a pheromone-addled Claire into Yaphit’s Fatal Attraction-style stalker after their tryst.
The stunt is mostly to show an extreme example of how the pheromone works—the main story is about Ed and Kelly’s love triangle with the chemically irresistible alien (played by Rob Lowe) who unwittingly broke up their marriage. And it’s totally weird to see Claire being so...undignified. But the incident passes, and her relationship with Yaphit goes back to being platonic with only residual embarrassment. After all, someone’s gotta keep a cool head when, say, Bortus accidentally eats a piece of Yaphit’s goo and must submit to having a jellylike tentacle shoved down his throat to retrieve it (a sight actually grosser than that sex scene, to be honest). And that someone has gotta be Dr. Claire Finn.
She may not be a perfect person, and she might make some mistakes from time to time, but when it comes to being a space doctor, she’s an unflappable badass. The Orville is about space adventures, sure, but it’s also about its characters and their quirks, and Claire has become one of the show’s most delightful standouts.
The Orville aires Thursdays on Fox.
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