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The Orville

Discovery isn't the only Star Trek show on TV this fall -- at least, in spirit anyway. September saw the premiere of Seth McFarlane's Trek-clone The Orville. Orville stumbled out of the gates at first with a premiere episode that I really didn't like. But it's been slowly getting better -- or at least, less bad, with each of the first few episodes being substantially better (though still not entirely effective) than the premiere.

A lot of this has to do with a shift in the show's tone. The show was advertised and marketed as a comedy (basically, a televised version of Galaxy Quest), and I went into the first episode with a comedic mindset, and that premiere episode definitely went out of its way to try to tell jokes. That was a problem because the jokes (and by extension the show) just wasn't funny. The focus on comedy and gags also detracted from the serious drama, which was poorly-written, sloppily-executed, and which revolved around a dumb sci-fi MacGuffin. Further, much of the comedy involved stupid pop culture references which are going to quickly become dated; thus, hurting the show's lasting re-watchability if it ever becomes good enough to warrant rewatching.

If you think Star Trek needs more dick and fart jokes --
or more dogs licking their balls in the background, then The Orville is for you.

The problem is that MacFarlane just isn't that good at writing jokes. It pains me to say this because I was a huge fan of Family Guy when it first premiered, and I'll still defend the quality of those first two seasons. But MacFarlane seems to be completely arrogant in his own joke-writing ability, while simultaneously completely dismissive of the audience's ability to grasp the jokes that he seems to think are much more complex and clever than they actually are. Most of these jokes boil down to being fart or sex jokes, and very few work on more than the most juvenile and immature of levels. Perhaps the best example of this is a joke in which the Captain Mercer puts a distress call on the viewscreen. The distressed scientist has a dog in the background who spends the entire conversation licking his balls. It was mildly funny due to its relative subtlety. Yeah, I guess that probably happened occasionally to Captain Archer in Enterprise. Ha ha. But then as soon as the conversation was over, the viewscreen flicks off, and the navigator and helmsman say "Hey, did you see that dog licking his balls?" What little subtlety is gone; joke ruined!

It's like McFarlane thinks he has to remind the audience that there was a joke, and that you should have been laughing, even though the joke wasn't that funny to begin with. This is the same problem that I've always had with laugh tracks in sitcoms: all they do is remind me that the jokes aren't funny. Except McFarlane doesn't use a laugh track, he writes the "hey, there was a joke here. Did you get the joke?" into the script!

"Command Performance" had humor more appropriate for its sci-fi set-up and relationship drama.

The next two episodes, however, seemed to plant their feet more firmly in the territory of genuine sci-fi concepts and character drama, and the show was stronger for it. The execution, however, is kind of hit-or-miss. "Command Performance" saw the crew violating Union orders in order to mount a rescue of the captain and first officer (who happens to be his ex-wife) who had been kidnapped and placed in a zoo on a forbidden alien world. I felt like this episode was good, but it came too early in the series to really work the way it's intended. We barely know these characters, and the crew barely knows each other. So the camaraderie, respect, and affection between the captain and crew feels forced and unearned. In the meantime, however, the relationship drama between Captain Mercer and Commander Grayson is pretty good, and even some of the comedy that comes out of their situation also works.

The punch line to the climactic joke of this episode has probably been the comedic highlight of the series for me so far. It actually makes good use of the stupid pop culture references that McFarlane is known for, and which have plagued his writing since Family Guy returned from cancellation. If these jokes can be written into the narrative in clever ways like this, then the show might still be able to successfully maintain its comedic flavor.

Preaching against straw men

The next episode ("About a Girl") wanted desperately to be The Orville's "The Measure of a Man" (or more aptly, "The Outcast"), but it was so blunt, ham-fisted, and lazy, that it just falls apart under even the most basic scrutiny. The implication that Bortus' cultural bias can be completely overruled by a single viewing of the 1960's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon just paints a reductive straw-man that the crew of the Orville (and the writers and producers of the show) takes excessive pride in shooting down while simultaneously completely failing to make any good arguments of their own.

The Moclans are an "all-male" society made up of straw man sexists.

The plot of this episode is that Bortus, a member of an all-male race, has a baby daughter. The fathers decide to perform a "corrective" sex-reassignment surgery in order to protect the child from being ostracized by society as he grows up. The doctor and captain of the Orville refuses to perform the procedure, so Bortus calls up a Moclan ship to have their doctors perform the operation, and the whole case ends up going to arbitration in a Moclans court.

But instead of having a nuanced or interesting discussion, the Moclans are just painted as straw-man sexists. Their sole arguments are that women are weak, stupid, and inferior to men, and that the child must be spared the humiliation and social stigma of being a weaker sex. "Do you want to prevent your child from ever having a first date?" is the crux of the Moclan argument. There's no discussion of how or why this culture developed this sexist attitude, nor is there even any attempt to play devil's advocate by even trying to justify their position from a historical or biological context.

Star Trek has its share of terrible,
preachy episodes too.

Yeah, sure Star Trek has had its fair share of agonizingly-preachy social justice episodes. The "drugs are bad" TNG episode "Symbiosis" comes to mind. But I would have hoped that the writers of The Orville would have learned from the mistakes of earlier Trek shows, especially considering that multiple veterans of the Star Trek production staff (such as Brannon Braga) are also involved in The Orville.

The crew of the Orville completely blundered arguing against this "first date argument", however, by failing to point out that the child would likely grow up on a Union starship, amongst a diverse crew from many different species that lack the Moclans' bias, and that her sex or gender would likely not be a liability in that society. At least, that's the argument that I would have made.

This episode did have a lot going for it, which might explain why its the critical darling of the series so far. They make an analogue to circumcisions being standard practice in human culture. The reveal that Bortus' mate, Klyden is transgender (and his desire to see his daughter have the same advantages that his reassignment provided him) was an interesting twist. There's some really good character stuff here, and the dynamic between Bortus and Klyden (including Bortus accusing Klyden of having "lied" to him with respect to Klyden's gender) is actually a home run in terms of addressing the issue of transgender relationships. I just wish the sexism stuff that makes up the crux of the plot had been handled with similar nuance and care. The gut-punch downer of an ending was actually pretty effective and a bit balsy, and the concluding sentiment that "we'll love our baby no matter who he grows up to be" is heart-warming.

Not challenging our preconceived notions

One of the strengths of science fiction as a genre (especially exotic science fiction that involves alien cultures), is that it allows writers to create fantastical scenarios that parallel the real world in such a way that a viewer's inherent biases may be disarmed. This can allow the story and concepts to challenge the viewer's preconceived notions by reframing the issues from a previously-unconsidered perspective, or by providing some twist that re-contextualizes the entire issue. This isn't really what The Orville has been doing though.

While I absolutely agree that sexism and the enforcement of gender conformity is despicable, and that the Moclans were clearly in the wrong for not letting this child be whoever she turns out to be, I would have much preferred that there have been something in that episode to at least challenge my preconceived notions. After all, Commander Maddox's points in "The Measure of a Man" that "the Enterprise's computer cannot refuse a refit" and that Data's memories would be downloaded and preserved were much more prescient than any counter-argument or world-building presented by the Moclans.

There was virtually no backstory regarding why females became stigmatized to begin with.

Had I written this episode, I would have included a discussion of how and why the sexist attitudes developed in the first place. Maybe in the distant past, Moclan females really were (for lack of a better word) "inferior". Maybe they were substantially more prone to genetic or congenital diseases that radically shortened their life spans and reduced quality of life. That lead to Moclan males seeking life-long bonds with other males because females didn't live long enough to sustain a life-long relationship. Over time, Moclan males stopped developing long-term mating bonds with females altogether, and only used females as surrogates wombs for the children they raised with their male mates. Eventually, Moclans developed ways to combine the DNA of two males in eggs to create offspring from male couples; thus, completely eliminating the need for females from a procreation stand-point. This relegated females to being social pariahs completely irrelevant in the social order. In an attempt to provide Moclan females with a quality of life comparable to males, the females that were born would have their DNA and physical features altered to make them male, and thus avoid the life-threatening ailments and social stigma that came along with being female. The alterations could even have been written to only be possible when the child is very young, thus undercutting the argument that it should wait until the child is old enough to decide for herself. This sort of backstory could reframe the gender-conformity as an actual attempt at compassion by providing Moclan females with a quality of life equivalent to males.

Those details would then be countered by pointing out that medical technology has improved in the following centuries, and that any previously-legitimate concerns regarding the health or quality of life of a Moclan female are no longer necessarily valid.

The point would be that instead of arguing against an obviously and unequivocally un-just (and outright evil) cultural bias, we'd be dealing with a perspective that actually sought to solve a genuine social problem and improve the quality of life for a suffering population in the most compassionate way that they could figure out how. The discussion wouldn't be "Those people are sexists, and they're disgusting"; the discussion would be "Is gender-reassignment (or any procedure, such as circumcision) an appropriate and ethical solution if it's done to prevent a genuine risk to the baby's future health and well-being?", or "at what point do we move beyond the necessity of such procedures?", or "Is such an operation even necessary if we lived in a culture that wasn't so hung-up on gender norms to begin with?". Those are actually serious topics of conversation! Further, those viewers that maybe already agreed with the obviously and unequivocally un-just cultural bias would have to contrast their insensitive perception of reality against a situation in which such a position might actually be defensible. This is what a world in which sexism is justifiable might look like, and it ain't our world!

The following epsiode ("If the Stars Should Appear"), paints a similar strawman out of religious fundamentalists (something that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine handled with much greater finesse). The crew of the Orville literally tell a theocratic dictator that he "knows" his religion is false, and the dictator kind of nods and argues that "Well yeah, but the social order must be maintained". This exchange shows a complete lack of comprehension of actual religious conviction. I don't expect a villain-of-the-week to have nearly the depth and nuance of a character like Kai Winn (who Deep Space Nine had years to develop), but come on...

With a non-serialized format, The Orville likely won't develop a culture or villain as well as Deep Space Nine could.

This is one of the biggest problems with politics today: we just jump to the immediate conclusion that the other side is "just obviously wrong", then we all talk at each other, and never actually talk with each other, or listen to each other's points of view. Very few real-life issues are black-and-white, so when both sides fail to see the rational or nuance in the other positions' point of view, no real solutions can ever be found. We just paint straw men of each other, and the conversations just degrade to angry shouting. Everyone wants to "win" an argument so they can say they are "right", and nobody seems interested in having an actual dialogue or understanding each other's points of view. People on both sides fail to recognize the complexity and nuance that is present in issues ranging from transgender rights, to gun rights/control, to abortion rights, to illegal immigration, to health care, to religion in politics, to sexism and racism, and virtually every other issue that you might care to bring up. Though that doesn't mean that everybody's position on a given issue is equivalent, or that there aren't solutions that aren't "more right" (or at least "less wrong") than another.

The potential is there

Yeah, sure, Star Trek was never perfect about handling issues either, and it often wore its progressive ideology on its sleeve, but at least it used its sci-fi allegories to present some slightly more detailed and nuanced stories. If The Orville wants to be successful (and survive past season 1 or 2), it's going to need to stabilize its tone, decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a serious sci-fi drama, and really work on writing more nuanced plots. After all, it took Next Gen till halfway through its second season before it started to get good.

The show has potential. So far, I really like the characters of Bortus, Isaac, and Alaara. I'm curious to see where the show goes with the supposed "racist" nature of Isaac, because so far, he hasn't come off as anything more than a bit condescending -- and no more than Data did in the early episodes of TNG. I'd love to see a spiritual successor to Star Trek that depicts an optimistic, progressive future for humanity (because so far, Discovery doesn't look like that). And I like the idea of telling stories in a less-serialized format more akin to classic Trek and TNG because I believe that it allows us to visit more exotic places and ideas -- remember, I got all excited when it was rumored that Star Trek: Discovery would be an anthology series. But if all that The Orville is going to do is go to these exotic places and shout poorly-thought-out progressive talking points at regressive straw men before force-feeding pop culture references and dick jokes down their throats, then I'm really not interested.

Leon Rafael
Leon Rafael
07/21/2024 04:26:23 #


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