The Orville's Latest Episode Shows Seth MacFarlane's Future Is Stuck In The Past

The third episode of The Orville pays homage to Star Trek's love of addressing ethical issues -- this time, about whether an alien society should be able to reassign a child's gender. The episode tries to be sincere, and sometimes succeeds, but it ultimately becomes more about gender stereotypes than actual identity.

Image: Fox

"About a Girl" opens where the previous episode left off, with Bortus (Peter Macon) learning that his egg has hatched into a baby girl. This supposedly only happens once every 75 years for Moclans (we later learn that's not the case, but not in a way that actually affects the plot), and it's considered a defect. So, Bortus and his mate Klyden decide to have their child undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Doctor Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) refuses to perform the procedure, believing that it's wrong to treat female identity as a defect akin to a cleft palate, and both Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane) and Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palacki) support her. However, Bortus argues that it's a cultural decision that outsiders should not be making for his people.

This is where the episode is at its best: focusing on cultural autonomy in the face of something profoundly unethical. Mercer, in a private conversation with Grayson, ponders what they'd do if they had a baby born with a third foot. The normal response would be to remove it, since it goes against human body standards. But would that be seen as unethical to another species that normally has three appendages?

The argument is just because humans view gender one way doesn't mean a traditionally single-gender species has to. It's a question without an easy answer, putting it in line with what can be science fiction's best impulses.

That said, The Orville only tackles the topic only on its most basic level, and there are plenty of missteps that reveal the show didn't fully research the topic it decided to tackle. Characters continually use the phrase "born female," which is a reductive term that oversimplifies a complex issue, and no one is called out on it. The gender spectrum is never addressed, everything is presented as strictly male or female.

We also learn that Klyden was reassigned male at birth, but we never get a sense of his identity as a result of his parents' actions. Klyden speaks as if he's happy with the decision, though mainly in terms of not wanting to be shunned by society; however, he's never asked if he'd have named himself male if his parents hadn't already done so. All in all, while the question may be nuanced, the show didn't actually think through the implications of it in its setting or with its characters.

Most of the episode's headway starts to fall apart once the Tribunal begins. Over the course of the episode, Bortus is convinced that their child should be allowed to name their gender identity in their own time, mainly thanks to a late-night screening of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, which was kind of cute. Since Klyden disagrees, which is an entirely realistic issue of two parents disagreeing about a medical procedure for their child, they decide to head to their home planet and hold a court hearing to decide the fate of their baby.

Since no Moclan will defend Bortus' case, Grayson steps in.

Oddly, Grayson doesn't choose to focus on the right of the child to name their own gender, but rather on why women don't suck as much as Moclans think they do -- even though they have no real proof given they don't let female babies come of age. The Moclans' unsupported derision of women could've been interesting if Grayson had actually pointed it out, showing the hypocrisy behind assuming a gender is weaker without any proof, but she never does.

Instead, she presents examples of aliens doing things that are contradictory to the Moclans' preconceptions, mainly in showing that Alara (Halston Sage) can punch stuff and how stupid men can be through the example of Gordon (Scott Grimes).

Using stale, decades-old "men are idiots" and "women are stronger than you realise" tropes was a major step backwards for the episode. If the show had thought things through, Moclans wouldn't have to be convinced that stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity don't actually exist, because they wouldn't know about them in the first place. Why would those exist in their society? They're a single-gender species. Instead, they could've presented a female Moclan as a complete unknown, with an unknown value because their species never let one grow up.

Then, when an actual female Moclan arrives (as one does at the end of the trial), their response might not have been sexist disgust, but actual shock. It just felt weird for the trial to conclude with a female Moclan having to stand up and defend her existence against misogyny, since that's not the message the episode even started with.

In the end, the Moclans decide to reassign the baby's gender and the crew of the Orville are powerless to stop it. Bortus and Klyden promise to love their child no matter what, with Bortus giving him a Rudolph doll as his first gift. Perhaps this means Bortus will be open to letting their baby name their gender in the future, but I have a feeling it's probably never going to be addressed again.

The Orville clearly took a risk with this episode, discussing an issue MacFarlane is famous for botching in the past.

Frankly, I was surprised that it worked at times, especially given the lack of research into the issue of gender identity. There were things the episode did that surprised and impressed me. But the stereotypically sexist payoff didn't match the promising set-up, turning what could've been a strong conversation about gender identity into a couch gag on Family Guy.

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Comments

    I give congrats to Seth for even taking on the issue of Gender ID.

    Star Trek is now so PC its stupid ! they just do wars with Klingons all the time, Star Trek used to be about issues of our time in a sci fi setting, now its just boring clap trap of PC, look we have a female black captain, we have a female captain, and black guy.. whoopee. Last weeks Orville was good too about a super intelligent species that regards humanity and others of low IQ like ants, so collects them and puts them in a zoo. OrvilleOrville despite is slight strange humour is actually taking on some good ethical issues. Whats Star Trek doing? Nothing its as bland as porridge these days and lost what its become due to the all the PC Bull that has become most TV of today !

    ORVILLE FOR THE WIN!

    Give credit where credit is due OR would you rather more of the block or Hells kitchen ?

    Last edited 24/09/17 8:33 am

      it's a crap show and if he'd spent more than five minutes on the script it wouldn't have hurt anyone

        looks like the block is your quality TV time then ;-)

    A bloody spoiler warning would have been good in that heading!

      It was right there.... not sure how you didnt notice it .

      Last edited 24/09/17 2:08 pm

        Yeah, my bad. Though obviously I missed it, otherwise I wouldn't have mentioned it.

    Thought this episode was great .
    The perception of people can not be changed by a single act even with overwhelming evidence of the contrary.
    Change of perception can only be made by small persistent measures to affect the whole.
    What are we, but the cultural, religious, educated views of our elders?

    While The Orville has been more Star Trek knock-off and less Family Guy in space than I expected, it's NOT a serious show. Your wish to have a deeply detailed and nuanced examination of gender just would not work in this context.

    It still needs a bit of humour and it's way to short to really go into. I think they probably approached the subject about as well as they can in the setting they use. Also bear in mind it's a show that (may) run for a lot of episodes. There's no reason they can't delve into the issue more at a later date.

    And about this "This is where the episode is at its best: focusing on cultural autonomy in the face of something profoundly unethical." By stating that it's profoundly unethical you're inflicted your beliefs on the situation (just like the humans in the show). It's only unethical from *your* viewpoint. Ironically something you point out a paragraph later, "But would that be seen as unethical to another species that normally has three appendages?"

    One could argue that attitude is similar to "white man's burden" where a supposedly more civilized group believes it's their responsibility to "fix" a less civilized one by forcing them to follow the same cultural mores as their own.

    I thought it was great, Star Trek is so bland it woulnt touch this subject with a barge pole due to lefty movement.

    Good on a show with some balls to actaully approach a subject like this.. and it wont go deep into it.. as if you hadnt noticed this is a light hearted sci fi show with family guy type comedy.

    There's a very specific undercurrent in the episode that no one really knows how to address or argue the issue. No one is prepared or really able to understand the other side's point of view. A lot of the episode is about how unsure everyone is. It makes a point that Grayson is unqualified to argue the case in the tribunal.

    The aim of the episode was not to fully explore and have a debate on current gender identity issues on earth. It was differences on cultural beliefs and rights. The difficulty is that we can only see things through our own cultural and political lenses.

    There is no need to complain it doesn't bring in gender spectrum as it's a baby. No one knows what it wants. It's another culture, another civilisation. It seems wrong from our perspective, but that's our perspective.

    The writer misses the point that the "men are idiots" and "women are stronger than you realise" tropes completely fall flat and fail. The episode specifically points out how dumb these tropes are.

    It also may not be the end of exploring the issue in the show.

    You're meant to feel uneasy with the end.

    Getting pretty sick of Giz constantly bagging this show (even before Episode 1 aired, FFS) - maybe adjust your expectations for a show by Seth McFarlane that's clearly meant to be FUN, not fix society or critically examine subjects in any way other than the showrunners deem "deep enough". The episode was fine, even good. If you want anything more than light hearted Star Trek with d*ck jokes, you might just need to find a new show.

      DITTO !!!
      Give the show a bloody go would you ?
      DID YOU JUDGE STAR TREK NEXT GEN AFTER 3 EPISODES ?
      The whole first two seasons of NEXT GEN ARE terrible (bar about 2 episodes)

      Last edited 25/09/17 2:01 pm

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