“The galaxy is full of so many unhappy people. Why ignore something good?”
The Orville has really come into its own this season, thanks in no small part to its focus on the personal relationships of the crew: Claire and Isaac, Kelly and Cassius, and Bortus and Klyden have all had their individual stories, showing the different aspects of being a couple. It’s the last two of these pairings which come to the fore in this week’s episode, as well as giving the newest crew member – Talla Keyali – a bittersweet romantic involvement of her own.
A Moclan engineer boards the USS Orville to carry out an upgrade of the Deflector Screens, and ends up crossing paths with his ex, Bortus. However, he hides a dark and dangerous secret, which he needs to keep from any other Moclans – including Bortus and Klyden – as it could result in life imprisonment for him, and shame for his family. The Orville has used Moclan culture as a means of commenting upon many gender and sexuality issues, such as transgenderism, and this week’s focus is a clever twist on the sort of situation many LGBTQ people have faced in their lives – having to hide their true selves away, for fear of shame, prejudice, and reprisals.
From previous stories, we know Moclans are predominantly an all-male species, with females seen as and aberration and inferior; any Moclans born female end up being surgically altered soon after birth. As a result, it’s seen as an abnormality for any Moclans to be attracted to females, from any race or culture. In fact, it’s such a serious matter for them that even the act of revealing your preference can end up ruining a Moclan’s life, as they face the severest penalties under the law. Locar (Kevin Daniels) is one such Moclan, and he risks everything to admit his attraction to Keyali (Jessica Szohr), despite what that may entail for him.
Star Trek rarely ventures into this sort of area (at least, not as directly); the closest it has really gotten to approaching it would be in The Next Generation episode ‘The Outcast’, where Riker falls for a member of an androgynous race that’s forbidden to have a defined gender identity, nor any sexual encounters, as these are all seen as being perversions; any offenders end up undergoing a treatment that’s effectively a form of brainwashing, in order to make them conform again to the norms of their society. It was a love story against all the odds, one which was almost inevitably set to end up with an unhappy outcome.
The Orville proudly takes the baton from TNG and runs with it, showing how much we’ve developed as a society over the last 20 years, as a very similar story can now be told in a far more direct fashion. TNG‘s main failing in its attempt was not being bold enough by casting an actress in the role of Riker’s love interest – it would have been a brave move to cast a male in that role, but perhaps it would have been just a step too far at that time. Since then, we are far more familiar with seeing LGBTQ couples on our TVs than we perhaps were at that time, so The Orville has a perfect to tell that story now, using a same-sex race as being the convention, and using heterosexuality (or bisexuality) as being the thing to be feared and shunned. It’s the sort of story sci-fi does best – making us think about contemporary societal issues, by showing them to us through a prism.
It’s a very layered story, as we are led to believe Moclans will turn in anyone who they suspect of being different in that way and make sure they face justice. Bortus’ husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman) finds out about Locar’s interest in Keyali, and confronts him about it. However, when the truth comes out and Keyali confronts Bortus (Peter Macon) about the situation, he admits he already knew about Locar’s attraction to females all the way back to when they were a couple. We know that Bortus already has a complex history in that area, as Klyden was born a female, and he’d also had to go through his own child having forcible gender assignment surgery, so it was a logical progression to find that Bortus kept Locar’s secret out of love for him, as Bortus didn’t want to see him destroyed by the revelation coming out.
Things take a very dark turn when Locar vanishes, and all the available evidence points toward Klyden being a murderer. However, as the Chief of Security, Keyali thinks that it’s all too convenient – even though Klyden had the means and the motivation, as well as a prior history of violence on the ship, after his near-fatal stabbing of Bortus as part of a Moclan divorce ceremony in the episode ‘Primal Urges’. Keyali soon realises that Locar has used his technical expertise to fake his own death, and frame Klyden, so that he can escape retribution for his sexuality at the hands of the Moclans.
Having only recently joined the show, we haven’t yet had an episode highlighting Keyali, so this was her time to shine. As nice as it was to see her character given more depth and vulnerability, rather than just being a hard nut badass type, it does feel as though the storyline was originally crafted for the original Chief of Security, Alara Kitan – she was famously unlucky in love, and always bemoaning the fact she was bad at relationships, so this seems as though it was very much her episode, and you can’t quite escape the impression that the scripts had Alara’s name scribbled out rather hastily, and Keyali’s penned in. But that’s overall a minor concern in what is an incredibly strong and powerful story.
The real tragedy is seeing that there’s no happy ending possible here – if Keyali lets Locar get away through her own personal feelings for him, she’s in dereliction of the duty she takes so very seriously; however, if she does her job properly, then she will be condemning Locar to ruination, and a life in prison, simply for a crime of loving the wrong person. On first viewing, the ending of the episode feels unsatisying, as you see a distraught and conflicted Keyali intercut with scenes of Locar being put on trial and sentenced back on Moclus. On a second viewing, however, it’s far easier to see this was, in fact, the only appropriate conclusion – a trite, pat resolution would have been totally the wrong take, and we need to see for ourselves the full tragedy of the situation unfolding, in order to be able to fully appreciate the true injustice, as well as the impossible position Keyali found herself in.
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While all this has been going on, we also have Kelly (Adrianne Palicki) and Cassius’ (Chris Johnson) relationship crumbling, as he starts putting pressure on her to take things to the next level, and even talks of marriage and family. It’s clear the writers are strongly pitching for Kelly and Ed (Seth MacFarlane) to get back together, and this was an inevitable step in that process. You can also tell just how much careful thought and attention is put into every aspect of the show, as the episode’s title – ‘Deflectors’ – refers to far more than just the upgrade of the Orville’s shields; in Kelly’s case, it’s her attempt to deflect any attempts by Cassius to get her to commit more fully. For Locar, it’s his efforts to try and deflect any attention away from his sexuality.
Given that this is generally a very intense and serious episode, it’s good to see The Orville has managed to master balancing out drama with comedy, as we still get a few lighter moments, which don’t detract from the main storyline in any way, and provide some welcome respite. One of these stems from Cassius’ attempts to win Kelly back after she ends things with him, and ends up sending a Katrudian (a giant sentient alien flower) to her quarters – the real unexpected kicker here is finding out that the voice is actually provided by an uncredited (moonlighting?) Bruce Willis. A lovely little touch, and one which adds something extra to the episode when you learn that it’s him.
I don’t usually struggle with reviews, but I have with ‘Deflectors’ – not because there isn’t anything good to say about it (unlike some shows – Curfew, I’m looking at you), but because there’s just so much. In fact, it made me want to do justice to what was a pretty phenomenal piece of television. It demonstrates just how far The Orville has come, and is now compelling regular viewing in its own right, rather than just being a comedy Star Trek. The season is nearly over, sadly, but on this basis, they should easily knock it out of the park for the rest of its current run.
The Orville airs weekly in the UK.