There shouldn't be any mistaking The Orville for a parody now, though I'm sure people still will. Last night's new episode, "About a Girl", is the third written by Seth MacFarlane, making that three more episodes written for The Orville than MacFarlane's written for Family Guy in the past ten years. It presents the kind of issue episode that has been absent from television since Star Trek and while I have one or two quibbles about it I'm mainly excited to see it. The Orville even goes some places Star Trek never dared to go.
The modern trend in television to present season long arcs has led to some wonderful story telling but it makes it difficult to tell the kind of story seen in "About a Girl". Bortus (Peter Macon) and Klyden (Chad Coleman), a couple who belong to an all male species called the Moclan, give birth to an incredibly rare female infant. The mostly human crew of the Orville are shocked when they learn the two wish for the child to undergo a sex change operation.
I was expecting the episode to get more flack for using "gender" and "sex" as synonyms though I haven't seen it yet in nitpicky reviews of the episode. I have seen some anger that these people in the future apparently aren't up on the same sociological literature as some viewers. One could argue that the crew of the Orville ought to be using state of the art terminology but maybe this is an area where a comparison to Star Trek isn't appropriate. The Orville isn't the flagship and it's crewed by at least two people we know to have had troubled careers. So instead of the best minds of the Federation tackling these issues, we have some mostly adequate minds of the Union muddling through.
In this way, the show actually turns some familiar, illogical plot devices of Star Trek into somet more feasible and even thought provoking prompts. It didn't really make a lot of sense that the Enterprise bridge crew were constantly being drafted as lawyers in courtroom episodes, for example. Here, I can believe that Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), with only one year of law training, is the most qualified person available to defend Bortus when he decides he doesn't want to allow his baby to receive a sex change. And we also get some instructive demonstrations of why certain arguments about sexual equality, while satisfying, might not be very effective in getting the point across.
It's satisfying watching Alara (Halston Sage) beat Bortus in a boxing ring and it's funny hearing Gordon (Scott Grimes) on the stand demonstrating that men can be intellectually inferior to women. But virtually all of Kelly and Ed's (Seth MacFarlane) evidence is anecdotal and nearly all of it relies on aliens. No-one who pays attention to this episode will come away thinking men are superior to women, the flaws in Ed and Kelly's arguments are useful to get people to think about what doesn't work when you're engaging with people of an opposite opinion. I really like the fact that what brings Bortus around is watching Rankin/Bass' Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which demonstrates the unexpected power art can have.
The episode is somewhat similar to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Outcast" about a member of a sexless species, the J'naii, who becomes female. The Moclan differ from the J'naii in that everyone is male rather than neither male or female, which should raise a question. How does one define sex or gender in the absence of any other? And of course we find out that the Moclan aren't single sex at all, that the prevalence of male Moclan is at least partially the product of misogyny endemic to the culture. Biological females have been effectively bred out of the populace, something that doesn't seem far-fetched for a technologically advanced misogynist people.
Like "The Outcast", one of the nice things about "About a Girl" is that by recontextualising so much it introduces new ways of thinking about issues and highlighting abstract connexions that might not have even been consciously considered by the writer. It introduces the concept of a basically liberal people allied with a culture that fundamentally rejects more socially liberal values, though at the same time, Bortus and Klyden are a same sex couple in the main cast, something Star Trek hasn't managed to do on television yet, though a same sex couple is apparently forthcoming on Discovery.*
In fact, my only real complaint about the episode is that I wished more time had been spent developing Bortus and Klyden's relationship before getting to this story. The conflicts here would probably have been a lot more interesting portrayed late in a second season. But that's a minor quibble compared to my delight that there's a thought provoking show, willing to engage with issues, that has an enormous number of viewers.
*The relationship between Dax and a former lover's symbiote in a new female body on Deep Space Nine was close but not really the same thing.
Twitter Sonnet #1036
The curling shoe was like a thunder clap.
As winds are bending trees to castle ears.
In just a moment dripped from wooden tap.
The final court arranged a time for beers.
Uncopied eyes arrange around the monk.
A dragging stone arrives atop the game.
The worth of weight was not in how it sunk.
The waiting paint absorbs a shrinking frame.
As sparking space enclosed the ship they watched.
Although the canvas blinked it caught the sight.
Beneath the dime in time to wrench the botched.
In ordered stakes the bet amends the light.
A sign regressed to shell amid the head.
Ideas append the tort remained unsaid.