There had been rumors rolling around the internet that The Orville wouldn’t really have an example of what sort of show it would be until the third episode. Critics were given the first three and, while full reviews didn’t pop up immediately, word was that was the episode when The Orville started to Orville. And now that it’s aired, that’s true, for better or worse. The show had trouble with people when it premiered because everyone thought it was going to be a Star Trek parody. But the jokes weren’t sharp enough, and the joke density too thin for a parody. No, The Orville had revealed itself to be a Star Trek-like show in its own right, that happens to have some (mostly mediocre) jokes. It’s not trying to make fun of Trek, it’s trying to be a funny Trek.
Looking over the episode synopsis, it’s clear that episode three is the turning point:
- “Old Wounds” – The crew of the Orville try to keep an experimental ray that can accelerate time out of the hands of the Krill.
- “Command Performance” – The captain and first officer are trapped in an alien zoo while the head of security struggles with command for the first time.
- “About a Girl” – Lt. Commander Bortus, a member of an all-male species, lays an egg which hatches to reveal his offspring is a female. The crew travel to Bortus’ home planet to fight a court battle to prevent gender reassignment surgery from being performed/inflicted on the infant.
That is a hard turn on that last one. And it doesn’t completely work.
First off, while I like Seth MacFarlane the guy, and love Seth MacFarlane the singer, I do not trust Seth MacFarlane the writer very much. He has a style to his humor which is a weird mix between the “everything is a punchline” of South Park and the “occasional irreverent preachiness” of Ricky Gervais. This can lead to him approaching subjects he feels are important, but not following through with any sort of layered understanding. Let’s take Commander Bortus’ species, the Moclan. They are said to be a single-gender species that are all male. Were this a Trek parody, fine. But that’s not the intent. The purpose of this show has been revealed to tell stories that reflect our society, like much of science fiction. So let’s parse the Moclan and gender. If they are are all one gender, why do they identify as male? That’s not something the humans read into them, that’s the foundation of their society, as shown during the court proceedings on their home-world. Furthermore, how are they all male? They lay eggs, which means that all members of the Moclan produce viable ova. They’re all female. But Bortus also has a mate, which means they don’t self-fertilize. So do the Moclan produce both male and female gametes? Are they a hermaphroditic species? At this point, there’s so much to dig into, it’s clear the writers making them all “male” was supposed to be funny, long-term repercussions be damned.
But for a species where any individual creates both gametes and reproduce in pairs, what does having a female infant mean? This isn’t quibbling over minute details, this is the entire point of the third episode, and deeply affects the character of Bortus. The crew of the Orville do end up tracking down a Moclan woman, who has been secretly publishing works under a male pen name and has become a culture cornerstone. But all the arguments in the episode revolve around the broadest of female stereotypes. Females are weaker. Females are intellectually inferior. Yet the entire time, we don’t know what the Moclan consider the delineation between male and female. The standard Moclan is male, despite having the traits of a female or hermaphroditic species. They also all identify as men. So the main distinction between male and female Moclan seem to be masculine or feminine presentation. So how does this all come down to gender reassignment surgery, which would necessitate a physical aspect to their differences? Everything is muddled here, with part of the writing trying to elicit a transgender metaphor with the rest of the writing relying on intersex issues. It’s a mess.
This brings up another huge problem with About a Girl, which is that misogyny is never discussed in the entire episode. The arguments all focus on the fact that a Moclan female (whatever that means) will have a second class life in Moclan society. We are shown mentally inferior human males, and physically superior Xelayan females as exhibits in the court case. So the real crux that the Orville crew should have brought up is that the limitations aren’t based on what gender this child is, but what Moclans do with individuals of that gender. Of all the varied, though tired and trite, arguments the Moclans make for forcing the infant to become male, they all come down to the fact that Moclans simply don’t want to deal with females, and that their society will go out of its way to make the life of a Moclan female terrible. How is this never discussed? For all the mixed metaphors and indistinct sex and gender issues, they all are built upon a foundation of misogyny, and that common issue is completely ignored! The ill-defined gender issues I can wave away to lazy writing in pursuit of “Men are like this, and women are like that” jokes made at the Moclan’s expense. But to make the point of an episode be about this many disparate gender issues, all revolving around the perceived inferiority of females/women/femininity and never even bring up the underlying issue that could apply to all of these things shows such a distance and disconnect from the subject matter that one wonders why Seth MacFarlane (the sole credited writer) felt comfortable attempting this at all.
This episode could have gone better. For all of its missteps, it acknowledges some big issues. Just without much awareness. Like someone who’s read headlines about current events, but never the articles. Should they should get credit for devoting an episode to gender in society without realizing that there’s a difference between gender, sex, transgender, and intersex? Well, that’s up for debate. There are numerous ways they could have turned this into something far greater. First and foremost, pull in some people with direct experience. Get some trans people on the script for this episode. Or the show, that wouldn’t hurt either. There are also moments within the script that could have become turning points. When the ship scans the planet for female Moclans, rather than finding a single celebrity hiding in the mountains, they could have discovered that their species is much closer to an even split than anyone realized, with their shame perpetuating the surgeries in silence. Or they could have come at it from a different perspective of gender, with the Moclan court declaring Gordon Malloy a female due to his incompetence, or Alara Kitan a male due to her superior strength. That could have framed their understanding of gender as much more subjective, and loaded with explicit value. But none of those things happened, and there’s just no reason for Seth MacFarlane and this episode to take the lead as the prime time discussion on gender, especially when it ends with such a tepid whimper.
As I said, it’s a mess. The two things I’m trying to balance here are The Orville’s intent and execution. This show has lofty intentions. Clearly, it’s trying to be thoughtful on issues. But the execution is severely lacking. This episode tries and fails. Whether you want to focus on the “try” or the “fail” aspect will probably be the deciding factor in whether you make it to episode four.