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Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Orville 1-03: About a Girl (Quick Review)

Episode:3|Writer:Seth MacFarlane|Air Date:21-Sep-2017

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures I've got another quick The Orville review for you. It's not my fault this is coming so soon after my last one, they put two episodes out in the same week.

About a Girl is the third episode in a row to be credited to creator Seth MacFarlane, so it's starting to seem like he has a whole lot of Star Trek stories stored up in his head that he's eager to get through. There was another writer involved, Brannon Braga, but this time he was the director. The guy's written more Trek than anyone else on the planet, but this is the first time I've ever seen something he's directed, so I hope he doesn't suck at it.

Unlike most of my reviews, I'm writing this up in hurry, with no screencap recap and a negligible amount of proof-reading. But there will be SPOILERS, so don't go any further if you don't already know how it ends. Unless you don't care, then you can do what you like!

I already knew going in that About a Girl was going to be a bit more serious and Star Trek than the first two episodes and that it was going to be about the ethics of imposing a sex change operation on a baby, which seems like a minefield of a topic for even the most educated and thoughtful writer. This, on the other hand, was written by Seth MacFarlane, the guy who rose to fame by making a carbon copy of The Simpsons, except more offensive. I also knew going in that critics who received review copies of the first three episodes of The Orville universally panned the series, which is strange as those first two episodes were watchable enough. Seemed like the clues were pointing towards this episode being the one that tipped the balance and turned reviewers off, and that got me curious about how bad it was going to be.

So I started watching the episode and at first it seemed pretty reasonable. The different characters had different viewpoints and made good arguments to defend their position, people acted fairly maturely between all the dick jokes and the comedy helped paper over the absurdity rather than draw attention to it. It seemed pretty reasonable by the middle as well, and by the end. But now that I've had time to time to think about it... the episode still seems pretty reasonable to me. I dunno, maybe I'll have to wait and look back at it in 20 years to really understand what made the critics turn on it so savagely.

I mean I get that gender and sex is a complicated and sensitive topic these days, and the episode only really tackles it on a 'girls are totally as capable as guys, you guys' level, but personally I found that forgivable because a: I, like Gordon, am an idiot and b: that's not really what it's about. Bortus's kid may have well been born gay, or darker skinned, or left-handed, or anything else that would make them stand out from the norm. It's about a homogenous group saying 'we cannot allow diversity because it would be cruel to the child, due to people being jerks about it'. And they do have a point, the kid probably wouldn't have had an easy time on their homeworld, but there is an alternative solution and that's to stop being jerks about it. The crew of The Orville aren't paragons, but they accepted a female Moclan on the ship without a second thought, just like they accepted Klyden being transgender without blinking. Sure they probably would've made some inappropriate jokes about her at some point, but there's no discrimination in their society and that seems to work out just fine for them.

There's two scenes in the episode that left me scratching my head due to the apparent pointlessness of them, but they're starting to seem more relevant in retrospect. The first is The Orville crew using a cutting beam to slice up an asteroid that's on its way to ruin someone's day... which they accomplish without a hitch. Though MacFarlane just had to throw in another reference to the captain's divorce by giving Kelly the line "Well we couldn't save a marriage but we just saved a planet."

Then later there's a scene where the shuttle's flying through the smog over the weapons factories on the ultra-industrialised Moclan homeworld and they're hit by stray explosions, which are either part of a weapons test or a subtle threat to not rock the boat. So in the first scene you've got the happy diverse crew of The Orville using their weapons to save a world, and then in the second you've got the miserable homogenous Moclans using their weapons to wreck their own. Signs are definitely hinting that their entirely masculine culture has led them down the wrong path. On the other hand, you've got the female author who found success in a world of men, perhaps because her gender (and alternative cave-dwelling lifestyle) gave her a different perspective that made her stand out from the crowd, even when they weren't aware she was different.

Though despite the clash of cultures and opinions (and the episode's clear bias towards The Orville crew) I don't think any of the characters come away as unsympathetic. Klyden never backs down about getting his daughter a sex change and he neglected to mention to his husband that he's transgender himself, but I could always see where he was coming from. Bortus definitely doesn't appreciate his mate not telling him about the surgery, and I can see where he's coming from too, but he's only hurt by the secrecy. Seems that being transgender isn't an issue in the Union, even in Moclan society. In fact, sex change surgery is apparently so good now that Bortus was able to have a kid with someone born as the opposite sex! It's interesting though that both Klyden and his daughter were born female, even though female children are supposed to be so rare that only one is born every 75 years. Plus he didn't even learn about his surgery until he was examined by an alien doctor. There's a strong hint there that a lot more female children are born on this world than they want to admit, but the episode's happy enough to just leave it there and not draw attention to it.

See, look at how much the episode's got me writing about the issues it brings up! That proves it can't be that bad. Plus it doesn't just bring up issues, it has the characters discuss them like sensible compassionate intelligent people! There's something so comforting and enjoyable about reasonable people making sane arguments and trying to help each other out. Ed and Kelly in particular get a chance to shine here, with Ed actually coming across like a thoughtful confident commander and Kelly giving it her all in a job she knows she's not qualified to do. On the other hand, there's Gordon and John, who figure that the best way to change Bortus's mind is to get drunk and watch a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon together. This comes after Alara's unsuccessful attempt to talk him around with punching, so the rule of three means it's not going to work either... but then it does, leading to the best line of the episode: "Hey, he just left his baby with two drunk dudes."

This is something that Next Gen would've never tried to get away with (not in the serious A plot anyway), but The Orville kind of pulls it off because it's dumb enough to be funny, while also secretly being smart. For one thing, it shows that Bortus was never exposed to this moral as a child, it's entirely new to him, and parables are a proven delivery system for moral lessons. For another, it's meta as fuck. Everyone watching this episode of childish fantasy allegory is just like Bortus watching his reindeer. Also, it sets up the tragic and heartwarming ending where he puts the reindeer toy in his new son's crib and promises to give him a good life, whoever he becomes.

Oh plus the episode looked as expensive as the last two, the story took some interesting turns, there's decent acting from everyone, putting a court full of people in Moclan makeup put Next Gen's forehead aliens to shame just like Babylon 5 always used to, and it turns out that Brannon Braga ain't a bad director!

Honestly, my first impression of this episode is that I liked it more than Command Performance, which I liked more than Old Wounds. If the series carries on like this I'll have to upgrade The Orville from 'I'll keep watching until it's good' status to 'I'll keep watching because it's good'. Sure half a third of the jokes still aren't landing for me, but even when it's not laugh out loud funny it's still fun; it doesn't make me cringe. And to look at it another way, here's the third episodes of each of the Star Trek spin-offs for comparison: A Man Alone, Time and Again, Strange New World... Code of Honor. By my reckoning, The Orville is actually genuinely beating Trek at its own game here.

So at this point I'm really starting to wonder what's up with those early reviews. Because it isn't just me that likes these episodes, look at the difference between the audience scores and the critics scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic:

I'm a guy writing about television on a blog so I'm not about to start complaining about actual reviewers, I just find this kind of interesting. Anyway ignore them, trust me instead!

The Orville might return on the site with If the Stars Should Appear, or it might not. Depends how I feel after watching it. Either way the next review on Sci-Fi Adventures will be... Star Trek related. That's as much as I want to commit to at this point.

Consider yourself invited to leave a comment in the box below.


  1. For a moment, I thought that was the logo of the new Star Trek series and my heart sank.

    1. Sorry, but it was the best Photoshop job I could do in the 5 minutes I had left.

      Though your heart might sink even further when you learn where the text came from.