The Orville (2017) is a drama-comedy television series that follows the adventures of U.S.S Orville – an exploratory space vessel – and its crew in the 25th century. Drawing heavy inspiration from the Star Trek franchise in its look and tone, the weekly-episodic series features the familiar real-world social commentary, disguised within the topoi of the science-fiction genre, albeit with a comedic twist. Like Star Trek, The Orville prominently features the science-fiction topoi of space travel and alien life. These tropes distinguish the small screen universes as versions of a technocratic future of the real world. Invoking the dual definition of alien, The Orville comments on anthropological aspects of humanity – like speciesism, gender rights and religion – by superimposing them on alien cultures, illustrating the problematic discourse of the human condition in an unfamiliar environment. In this essay, I would refer to three episodes of The Orville – “Command Performance”, “About A Girl”, and “If the Stars Should Appear” – to illustrate the show’s continuation of the Star Trek tradition in satirising the human condition through non-Earth humanoids – Calivons, Moclans and inhabitants of a generation ship – featured in the show, providing an anthropological critique of the 21st century society.
“Command Performance” features the kidnap of U.S.S. Orville’s Captain Ed Mercer and Commander Kelly Grayson and their subsequent imprisonment in a Calivon zoo, run by an alien species that views all technologically behind civilisations as inferior, the same way “a sentient being might view an animal” (“Command Performance”). A critique on speciesism in modern society, the episode favours an ecocentric – or even, xenocentric – perspective over the typically anthropocentric view of humanity. Speciesism refers to the “discrimination in favour of one species, usually human species, over another” (Dictionary.com). While some believe that animals “do not and could not have rights” and animal pain does not have “as much moral weight” as human pain, others equate it with racism and sexism (Lafollette and Shanks 41). Hugh Lafollette and Niall Shanks believe that animal liberationists follow the latter to highlight the “human tendency to unreflectively accept contemporary moral standards” (41). They go on to describe humans as “fallible” and “while most were not evil people, [our ancestors] indisputably did evil things” (Lafollette and Shanks 41). Similarly, the show reflects on this moral error by relating back to the modern society, in which Grayson recalls when “humans imprisoned animals for entertainment”, feeling they “had the right” as the higher species (“Command Performance”). By showing the humans as the animal-equivalent to the Calivons, The Orville exposes the fragility of anthropocentrism in the presence of another higher species, while the alien topos subverts the satirical tone within an uncanny reminder of the real-world parallels.
It is noteworthy of how Alara Kitan, Orville’s Chief of Security, extracts Mercer and Grayson from the zoo. Seeing how the Calivons wanted a “human zoo”, Kitan traded a “very old, very obscure section of Earth’s cultural database” – thousands of hours of real-world reality television – for the kidnapped duo (“Command Performance”). In awe, the Calivon zookeeper regards this ‘reality television” as the best exhibit [they’ve] ever had” (“Command Performance). While largely self-reflective of television’s role as a cultural representation, this satire reveals how the constructed realities within shows like Duck Dynasty and The Bachelor serve as entertainment, like how humans view animals in a zoo. While both creatures in display remain as real as their viewers, their environments are unnatural and reconstructed. Much like how the Calivons mistaken the reality shows as an accurate representation of the human species, the metafictional reference of these shows illustrates the blind acceptance of animal exhibits in zoos to be accurate duplicates of those in the wild.
During the events of “Command Performance”, Orville’s second officer Bortus, a member of the Moclan species, requests for time-off to lay his egg. When his offspring turns out to be a female, it becomes problematic since the Moclans are a single-gendered – all male – species. “About A Girl” details the crew’s struggle against the Moclan culture of requiring all female babies to undergo sex reassignment surgeries to maintain their species’ single gender. When Mercer and Dr. Claire Finn, Orville’s Chief Medical Officer, refuses to authorise any medical procedures on his baby, Bortus points out the “unfairness” in judging his culture by “human standards” (“About A Girl”). Although the episode is obviously a concealed debate on real-world gender and abortion rights, the conflict between the humans and the Moclans reveals a dilemma between respecting or imposing moral standpoints between cultures too. Possibly allegorical of the debate over abortion, gay marriage, transgender and religious rights in modern USA, the clash between human and Moclan cultures raises questions if one should impose his or her culturally-different moral compass on an opposing culture. Although the Moclans’ belief in a mono-gendered society is unacceptable to the Union and human culture, it is not necessarily wrong for the Moclans to follow their traditions. Similarly, it is not necessarily wrong to point out immoral or unethical practices in other cultures too.
The crew’s choice to divert an asteroid hurling towards the planet Elnath 4, saving it in the process, also highlights the episode’s discourse over the ethics of tampering with fate: to save a planet from certain doom, or allow the disaster to happen. Using Rudolph’s red nose – a physical defect that benefited Santa Claus in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) – as a metaphor, Bortus, hopeful of his child’s undetermined future, rejects the sex change and the Moclan culture. Drawing parallels to a nature-nurture binary, a large portion of the custody over the baby’s gender stems from how she would be treated in a Moclan society. Advocate Kagus, representing the Moclan defendants, points to how the unaltered gender would condemn her to “a life of shame” and by the time she is old enough to make sense, the “childhood damage will be done” (“About A Girl”). The Moclans hypothesises that nature – the encompassing Moclan society – would determine the fate of the child by ostracization; the ultimate condemnation of the unnatural abject. However, the Moclans’ justification is thwarted when the humans call on Heveena, a Moclan female, to testify on their behalf. Brought up in seclusion by her parents and eventually becoming the planet’s greatest writer, Heveena’s story enforces the humans’ belief in nurture over nature. As a living proof that a Moclan female can perform just as well in an all-male society, Heveena’s characterisation exists as a reminder of the modern feminist movement and shift towards gender equality in the 21st century.
In “If the Stars Should Appear”, the crew’s encounter with a civilisation stranded in a 2000-year-old derelict generation ship generates a discourse about one of mankind’s oldest beliefs: religion. Orville’s Science and Engineering Officer, Isaac’s curiosity of “the common impulse of biological life-forms to attribute the origin of the universe to an omnipotent being” and the inhabitants’ misrecognition of the derelict ship’s captain, Jahavus Dorahl, as a godlike being questions what humans understand about religion – and the belief in higher beings – found in most civilisations throughout human history (“If the Stars Should Appear”). Stranded for most of their lives, Mercer claims that the inhabitants “evolved and grew until they simply forgot their origins”, while Grayson replies that “even Earth is a little fuzzy on some of its own history” (“If the Stars Should Appear”). The duo’s comments reflect how little modern humans understand religion, given that this belief defies the logic of causation or scientific explanation. Reciprocally, the lack of definitive proof feeds into the belief in omnipotent beings that defies science or logic.
In many ways, the conflict between the crew and the inhabitants parallels Plato’s allegory of the cave: like the freed prisoners freed, Orville’s crew possesses knowledge of the larger universe beyond the derelict ship, yet they struggle to relate their experiences to the closeted inhabitants; likewise, the inhabitants – still chained in their hypothetical cave – refuses to believe Mercer and his crew because of their inexperience. Kemka, the Reformers’ leader, views that people do not “alter their beliefs easily” and that many refuses to “accept an irrefutable truth” because “that truth puts them in the wrong” (“If the Stars Should Appear”). His view does not just reveal how malleable the truth is in people’s faith, but reflects how the truth can shape beliefs too, like how modern society moves past superseded beliefs like flat-earths. While The Orville’s commentary on religion and the understanding of human existence is not representative of how all futuristic science-fiction works view religion, it does hypothesise how humans would view themselves against the vast ambiguity of the beyond, as captured in Dr. Finn’s reiteration of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God” (“If the Stars Should Appear”).
While alien cultures used to subvert human discourse in interstellar science-fiction works like The Orville and Star Trek are not uncommon, the suspension of immediate recognition of a real-world satire helps to emphasise different standpoints to a discourse about the human condition. The technologically-advanced Calivons force the viewers to rethink the speciesist relationship between humans and other animals, while the discourse of the freedom of choice manifests as the single-gendered Moclans, questioning the ethics of imposing one’s morals and ethics upon another’s culture. The human-looking inhabitants on Dorahl’s ship, however, embody the uncertainty in questioning one’s own existence in relation to his or her religion and to the larger universe. Through these three non-Earth humanoids shown in The Orville, the show utilises the science-fiction topoi to deliver poignant social commentaries, while displaying an alternate anthropological reflection of the 21st century society.
Lafollette, Hugh, and Niall Shanks. “The Origin of Speciesism.” Philosophy, vol. 71, no. 275, 1996, pp. 41–61. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3751526.
MacFarlane, Seth, creator. The Orville. Fuzzy Door Productions and Twentieth Century Fox Television, 2017.
“speciesism”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 30 Oct. 2017. Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/speciesism.