Season 1, 12 Episodes
Created by Seth MacFarlane
“We can’t reason with them. And if we went to war, they’d see it as a holy crusade.”
What an abundance of good fortune we have with two Star Trek-derived television shows airing at the same time, and they are both good! I initially expected Star Trek: Discovery to be the mature, dark, and well-evolved high quality extension of the franchise that it is, and The Orville to be, well, basically a spoof taking elements mainly from Next-Generation and playing them for maximum humor. And let’s face it, if somebody wanted to spoof Next-Generation it wouldn’t be hard to do. How pleasant it is to be surprised that while Discovery provides just as much nutrition for a starving geek as expected, The Orville did not turn out to be its lightweight, carbs-heavy junk food cousin. In fact, in terms of topical intensity, The Orville provides almost as much thought provoking subject matter as Discovery.
Two episodes of The Orville warrant discussion, since people who watched them are still talking about them weeks later: the gender reassignment episode and the how-to-create-a-terrorist episode. Both of these shows demonstrate a great deal of thought in the production and writing. In the first, About a Girl, Bortus plays a character who comes from a single sex species. In the earliest episodes of the show, Bortus was used mainly for comic effect because of his deadpan demeanor, and macho and laconic persona. He was presented as the most boring guy on the ship, humorless and thoroughly male. Bortus’ partner, Clyden, also provided comic relief by portraying, in a muscle-bound body, many thoroughly feminine qualities, or at least qualities people associate with the feminine. For instance, Clyden complained constantly that Bortus was neglecting him and spending way too much time on the job.
These two present a kind of inverse of the gay couple that has occasionally popped up on more progressive television shows who provide laughs through their relationship quibbles. Here, instead of one more feminine and one more masculine partner, they are both the most ultimately bearish bears imaginable. So it’s meant to be funny when Clyden whines about the lack of quality relationship time he’s getting with Bortus. That humor has a little bit of a meanness about it, and quite frankly, a little bit of misogyny and/or bigotry. However, that disappeared when Bortus and Clyden hatched a baby. Though the process of sitting on his egg also renders Bortus a subject of humor, once the child is born, all the humor of this relationship disappears immediately. The child is female. Apparently Bortus and Clyden come from a species that is only mostly male, not exclusively male. The emergence of this female child causes great consternation for the two parents. On their home world, all female children are immediately surgically converted to the male sex. This is where the episode starts drawing uncomfortable parallels to life in the contemporary United States.
A small percentage of human beings are born with the traits of both sexes. The practice up until very recently and in most places today still consists of assigning a gender to the child and performing whatever surgical intervention is required to make that child more completely one sex or another, rather than both. This denies the child a choice long before the child’s personality develops and their own preferences can be determined. That’s one part of the equation that is mirrored in this episode of The Orville.
Another part concerns the dispute between the two parents over whether or not to perform the surgery on their newborn. Bortus and Clyden disagree. The stakes are obvious. If they choose the child’s sex, they conform with their society’s demands and make the child’s life easier. He will be able to blend in completely with what is expected of him in his culture. But if they opt for the surgery, they deny that child’s natural gender attributes and completely eliminate any possibility of the child’s choice to be female. This is an ugly decision to have to make. Not only that, but the situation forces Clyden to admit that he, too, was born female, and surgically converted. Bortus never knew that about his husband.
Further, forcing the newborn to undergo surgery which will determine its life trajectory in this manner completely offends the sensibilities of the human beings on board the ship. Dr. Finn flat out refuses to perform the surgery. She considers it a violation of medical ethics. This is an interesting point, since so many doctors in the U.S. have performed just this surgery on intersex people with no qualms. Some intersex people feel violated by the surgery because it denies them the full development of their own personal gender and also because it denies them choice.
It all comes down to this: would you want someone –permanently– choosing for you, within days of your birth, the most intimate aspects of your sex life? On The Orville, Clyden prevails and the child is surgically made male. The decision may be made, but one senses that the ramifications will continue to unwind.
This episode demonstrates a sensitivity to gender issues that is extremely rare. While LGBT characters appear in increasing numbers on even mainstream television shows, the QIA population remains not just underrepresented, but invisible in most instances. Just having such a dilemma provide the framework for a plot development shows bravery. The Orville deserves kudos for even bringing the topic up, but also extra special commendation for handling it in such a sensitive manner.
On the episode called Krill, Captain Mercer and Lieutenant Malloy infiltrate a ship of a mysterious and enigmatic enemy. The Krill comprise a theocratic, militaristic culture devoted to war. Highly religious, they consider themselves higher than any other lifeform by divine decree. Initially Mercer’s job is merely to obtain a copy of the Krill Bible in order to use it to find a way to begin establishing diplomatic talks. The species is so aloof that the Union doesn’t really know enough about them to even figure out how to make an approach. Once on board the Krill ship, however, he discovers that the ship carries a bomb of planet-destroying magnitude and that it is going to be dropped on Earth.
Obviously the easiest choice would be to destroy the ship and the bomb on it. Problem solved; case closed. The Krill however, inculcate their children with their philosophy by schooling them on ships involved in very dangerous missions – like delivering planet-killing bombs. Mercer does decide to destroy the ship and the bomb it is carrying, but he makes what he thinks is a merciful decision to spare the children on board. The one adult who also survives illustrates for him the irony and the shortsightedness of that supposedly humanitarian choice. She tells him that all he has done is ensure that those children grow up with a seething, overarching hatred for humanity and a craving for revenge.
The parallels to the endless wars waged by the U.S. Government of this and prior administrations send chills down the spine of anyone watching that show. The Krill present a kind of amalgam of Islamic Fundamentalist and North Korean views of the West, and even ties in some of the nastier aspects of Christian fundamentalism. What the episode Krill did was make it obvious that maybe we have done much to reinforce the worldviews of people who hate us. Perhaps we create the very conditions that make us targets.
One other episode deserves a kind of honorable mention. On an only somewhat lighter note, The Orville also explored the dark side of social media. The episode Majority Rule posed the question: what if social media replaced the justice system? The answer was as disturbing as you could expect. Do you really want people on Facebook and Twitter to pronounce judgment on what kind of person you are?
I expected a spoof; while there is certainly more humor on The Orville than on the official ST franchise and that humor tends to be both cornier and raunchier, The Orville delivers so much more than that. After the gender reassignment episode, I was pleasantly surprised that The Orville was going to delve into deeper topics. Now at the close of the season, I’m not pleasantly surprised anymore – I’m impressed. This is good TV.
Now that The Orville has established itself as first class TV, maybe they will do something about the brevity of the season. Twelve episodes followed by a nine month hiatus is disappointing. The reviews are good, so let’s hope they expand on a good thing. I just wish we didn’t have to wait nine months for more of this often excellent show.