One of the things Star Trek is maybe best known for is holding up a mirror to us as a society, showing us new ways to look at the human condition by tackling issues of the day, whether by allegory or analogy. It has always reflected the time in which we find ourselves, and The Orville carries on that great tradition from its inspiration, ending up boldly going where no Trek has gone before by directly tacking, of all things, online porn addiction. Blue Alert?
One of the most satisfying changes in The Orville over the first season was seeing it change from ostensibly a sci-fi sitcom or a comedy Star Trek to a drama series with lighter, more humourous moments. And, yes, the occasional dick joke. But the first season did see a number of stories which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Star Trek, such as the episode ‘About A Girl’, which touched on topics such as female genital mutilation and transgenderism.
That story centred around Bortus (Peter Macon) and his life mate Klyden (Chad Coleman), who are both Moclans, a single gender species; however, one female is born roughly every seventy five years, but they normally receive sex reassignment surgery as a baby. Bortus wanted to keep their newborn daughter as a female, but Klyden – who was born female – wants to proceed as per tradition. A tribunal on Moclus determines that the procedure should be carried out, but this causes a rift between Bortus and Klyden, a conflict which sits at the core of this episode.
It’s nice to see that The Orville has placed great stock not only in ongoing character development, but also in continuity and in seeding story threads which are then picked up later on, and this is a perfect example of this approach. The domestic arrangements between Bortus and Klyden have been used as a way of commenting on marriage, particularly in this instance, where we see every sitcom-esque cliche happily trotted out – the ‘not in front of the children’ reason used for stopping an argument; the ‘working late at the office’ excuse for not coming home; and the ‘not tonight, dear, I have a headache’ get-out of avoiding having sex.
All of these are used to great effect here, and it’s a deft twist to see them used in the context of a same-sex relationship, as it helps with positive representation of LGBT couples on screen, and showing that they’re just the same as everyone else. It’s odd that it actually took Star Trek over 50 years to tackle this, and it wasn’t until Discovery – which started in the same year as The Orville – to have its very first gay couple (that is, unless you count them as having apparently ‘outed’ Mr Sulu in Star Trek Beyond).
Bortus has found himself growing apart from Klyden, and spent more and more time retreating into a fantasy world by using holographic simulator programs to satisfy his need for sex. We’ve seen Star Trek tackle Holodeck addiction before, in The Next Generation episode ‘Hollow Pursuits’, and there was a seediness when it came to Quark’s Holosuites in Deep Space Nine, which were essentially just virtual knocking shops for every vice of the flesh. However, Trek did seem to be rather prudish at times when it came to tackling matters of sex, as it’s tended to more often than not veer away from some of the more salacious elements.
While it’s played mostly for comedy here, with all of Bortus’ various fantasies – medical exam; dungeon; camping – on display for the audience to see, it’s also a far more direct and comparatively unflinching look at sexuality and personal proclivities which fall outside the usual missionary position. It’s certainly less of the ‘nod and a wink’ coquettish approach sometimes taken by not just Star Trek, but also other shows of the genre.
Bortus’ interactive porn addiction ends up putting the ship in jeopardy, as a specially written program contains a virus which starts affecting the USS Orville’s systems, just at the point they need to launch a rescue mission for the last survivors of a race hidden deep underground on an ailing world about to be destroyed by an exploding red star. Again, the computer virus isn’t a new plot device, but having a porn virus as the cause is unusual enough to bring to mind another quirky example, when Star Trek: Voyager once had their ship’s systems crippled by cheese (which, in many ways, was a perfect analogy for that particular series). As a sci-fi staple, it had to come up at some point, and how they’ve done it here is a very Orville way of using this trope, always with one eye on the potential for balancing laughs with dramatic tension.
The addiction also puts Bortus in harm’s way, as Klyden ends up plunging a dagger into his chest, all because the Moclan divorce ceremony basically consisting of ritual murder. Bortus survives, and after strong protestations by both parties, Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) orders both of them to attend marriage counselling, which leads to some further opportunities for character humour, as Klyden becomes enthused with the two of them making a ‘fun list’ of activities they can do as a couple, in order to rekindle the spark between them.
It says a lot about Macon and Coleman that they can make two rather deadpan and serious characters not only so likeable, but also sell their relationship so believably and solidly. The festering resentment Bortus holds towards Klyden is also a credible development, and it’s nice to see that the character – even though an alien – is very relatable nonetheless. Having ties back to a powerful and moving episode from the last season also helps to strengthen the story, and it gives extra depth to what’s going on, plus providing a rewarding payoff for regular viewers.
The story arc for Bortus – with his public fall from grace, and all too human-style failings – comes full circle, when he gets a shot at redemption, due to the only two crew members able to withstand all the radiation from the collapsing star being himself and the artificial life form Isaac (Mark Jackson). The discussion between the two of them as they’re flying down to the planet – where Isaac wants to gain a better understanding of sexual desire – could have been between Data and Worf from The Next Generation, but is none the worse for it; in a way, it’s comforting to have characters who are reminiscent of others who are much loved, while still managing to be distinctive enough in their own right as to not seem as though they’re purely parodies. ‘Primal Urges’ also scores highly by having some truly phenomenal VFX throughout, especially during the whole rescue sequence, so it’s constantly surprising that a weekly show can manage to deliver blockbuster-style visuals on a television budget.
The episode kicks things up a further gear when the planet destabilises quicker than expected, meaning that what should have been several round trips to save everyone ends up now with being only enough time for one flight, and there’s only going to be room for a maximum of thirty people on the shuttle, which leads to a dilemma as it means that more than half the population – including children – must be left to die. A lottery is drawn, but it leads to some real heartrending moments, as families end up being separated, knowing that this will be the last time they’ll ever be together. It could have easily descended into schmaltz and mawkishness, but it manages to be perfectly pitched here, and gives Bortus the impetus he needs to get things back on track, as it makes him realise how lucky he is still to have a family back onboard the Orville. For a good ten minutes, you can almost forget you’ve been laughing at bawdy humour, as the drama kicks into overdrive, and is easily as strong as any straight dramatic series.
After a rather slow start, this season of The Orville has managed to regain so much of its lost momentum, and shows that it can easily hold its own against so many other genre shows out there. The only place on TV you can get to see dick jokes and moral quandaries being played out side-by-side, and in perfect balance, which is no mean feat. It’s also hard to find stronger LGBT representation in a contemporary sci-fi show.
Your move, Star Trek: Discovery.
The Orville: Season 2 airs on FOX in the UK every Thursday.