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Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Orville 1-07: Majority Rule (Quick Review)

Episode:7|Writer:Seth MacFarlane|Air Date:26-Oct-2017

Today on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm trying to get some words down about another episode of The Orville as quickly as my brain will go.

The series is back after taking a week off, presumably to give Seth MacFarlane a break to write more episodes, seeing as he's been credited on 6 out of 7 of them so far. Actually, I'm sure he probably he wrote all these scripts before filming even began, seeing as he's the lead actor and kind of needs to be working on set all day when the filming's happening. Though part of me still wants to believe that whenever the rest of the cast were playing around on their phones waiting for the next shot to be set up, he was sitting somewhere quiet with a laptop out, just hammering out these scripts like a machine.

This is a quick review of Minority Rule without my usual recap. There may be some SPOILERS for earlier The Orville episodes beyond this point. There definitely will be for this episode.

I had to go back and double check the names in Minority Rule's opening credits after the first few scenes to make sure I'd gotten my info straight and this is a Seth MacFarlane penned episode, because this isn't quite The Orville I'm used to. In all that time I didn't catch one reference to Ed and Kelly's marriage! But also this is a dark, uncomfortable story that starts with one man getting lobotomised and his friend being shot, and somehow learning that their crime was 'not getting out of a chair for a pregnant woman' doesn't make it any lighter.

Minority Rule is very much a cross between a good social commentary episode of Star Trek, early Sliders and Black Mirror. I mean, I haven't actually seen Black Mirror myself, but I've seen people talk about it on Twitter and I know what Charlie Brooker's like, so I kind of feel like I get it already. With the internet I can put my words in front of whoever wants to read them, so my unsupported opinions are as valid as a Black Mirror fan's actual knowledge... as long as people want to believe them.

The story's all about navigator John LaMarr this week, as he's finally gotten an episode focusing on him! Well, he's in the spotlight for most of it at least. John's pretty much just been Gordon's sidekick up to this point in the series, he's the other guy sitting at the front of the bridge making jokes, so this is our first chance to really see what he's like as a person when he's out of his comfort zone and being tested. I figured we'd get to see some hidden depth and resourcefulness as he has to win over millions of people to save his brain... but nope. He Wesley Crushers himself into a crisis by screwing around on an alien planet before understanding the laws or culture, and then carries on being the dumb comic relief all the way to the lobotomy chair.

The episode also gives Kelly a chance to shine as the away team commander, but she mostly just stands watching over John looking concerned instead. She's a lot better at staying inconspicuous than most, but I was hoping she'd pull a Captain Kirk and she didn't. I don't know what 'pulling a Captain Kirk' entails in this situation, but I'm sure it'd be more interesting to watch. Then again I suppose that's the point, as John and Kelly really can't do anything in this system. Once social media's got you in its sights, there's no defence from the mob. The crew really should've done more research on this planet before they put their foot in it, maybe even sent an anthropology team down first to get an understanding of the culture... oh wait.

They could've at least watched some of their television; that would've been a big help. You'd think that this'd be Gordon's time to put his 20th-century reality TV experience to good use, but he's surprisingly useless. Bortus, on the other hand, is exactly as useless as you'd expect in this situation, and yet he's used perfectly. He has like four or five lines in the episode, but each of them is strategically deployed to steal scenes. The episode made me wait for them though, as it took a while to remember it's a comedy.

For me it wasn't until the scene of everyone denim'd up for their away mission that it started feeling like The Orville. I think it was the "My god, you guys look like unemployed backup dancers," line that did it. The teaser especially, with Lysella waking up and casually voting to doom someone to social correction while on the phone, seemed right out of Doctor Who. But now that I'm thinking about it, that makes perfect sense for this series. The Orville takes place in a fairly sane universe that's closer to Star Trek than to Spaceballs or Red Dwarf, the humour comes from the crew always joking around all the time, so of course a scene without the main cast in it is just going to be played straight.

The series is even closer to Star Trek after this episode, as it introduces a planet that's just like Earth except not quite, shows that the Orville's shuttles have cloaking devices, establishes that the Union doesn't use money, and gives the crew a non-interference directive to follow. Maybe some future Star Trek-style series is going to be about the crew parking their spaceship on primitive alien worlds and blowing the native's minds by showing them the wonders of the universe, but it won't be this one. Non-interference doesn't quite seem like the Orville crew's prime directive though, as Ed actually tries to argue against it. I love that this series likes to get into discussions about this kind of thing, instead of just skipping past the thinking part to get to the drama.

I also love that it'll occasionally put everything else on pause and get the composer to channel James Horner while indulges in a bit of awe and wonder. Science fiction often seems jaded about its setting, but The Orville's not afraid to drop the laughs and have a genuine 'space, fuck yeah!' moment.

Or a moment of terror, like when the crew realises they're on a planet where everyone carries a surveillance device and even wearing the wrong hat here could get them arrested and lobotomised.

Science fiction's great for showing us how new technology might affect us in the future or using alien cultures to say something about a situation we're facing in the present, and this episode does both. It sets up a situation so ridiculous that a character laughs out loud on hearing about it, and then makes it feel painfully believable because we see this kind of thing happen all the time in our present day. And I'm not just talking about China's Social Credit system or apps like Peeple.

This isn't an unbiased examination of a world where social media rules everything though; this episode's out for blood. From the first scene it might as well be flashing "LOOK HOW FUCKED UP THIS IS" on screen in big letters. It doesn't though, as it would obscure all the scenes of people getting downvoted for accidentally spilling a drink on someone, or a little girl being taught how to reward her grandmother for buying her ice cream. In this world, you say thank you by pressing a green button and this record is permanent. The woman who was judged to have done bad things in her 20s is now branded for life, those mistakes will never go away, and if this rating affects what shops will serve her tea, you can imagine how it affects jobs, loans, healthcare... even friendships. Lysella seemed like a nice enough person, she was friendly to Alara after the incident with the hat, but she turned on John in a hurry once his score dropped, because you never really know somebody until a few hundred thousand strangers have cast their opinion on them based on 20 seconds of out of context footage.

I don't think the episode's arguing against the idea of shaming people to discourage dumbass behaviour, as John got shouted at by Kelly when he went too far and Alara would've felt pressure to stop literally pissing all over that guy's culture even without the phone cameras, but social media can multiply that shame way beyond what's reasonable. If the footage of Alara had gone viral too, she could've ended up being harassed, doxed, and maybe even lost her job! Wait, that's the real world I'm thinking of. Online mobs can really screw up a person's life, and it's hardly fair when a lifetime of good deeds means absolutely nothing when measured against 10 million people's uninformed snap judgements on one decision that person made.

As mad as the system is, the situations seemed uncomfortably familiar, especially during the apology tour. John's not the first person I've seen having to defend himself without a lawyer in a court of public opinion, and the talk show hosts had already judged him guilty before he'd even stepped in the door. One of the hosts even walked over and hit his down button before he'd even had a chance to speak! Then they pushed him into revealing he had no idea whose statue it was, so he likely didn't know that what he did would even cause offence, and they used that to crucify him further! Plus how can you ever defend yourself from an accusation that your incredibly important apology on live TV is too rehearsed? The whole scene made me feel sorry for politicians, that's how uncomfortable it was.

The episode doesn't really give you time to read the comments on the feed, but some of them help flesh out the world a little better. Like there's one that complains that they're all wasting time voting on trivial bullshit like John's Goldilocks grind just because it's more interesting than voting on real issues (or the issues that the commenter cares about anyway). Plus there's one about downvoting parking ticket officers, which shows that there's nothing to stop you punishing people for doing their job in this world. The Orville crewmembers never once even threatened to downvote someone, they didn't sacrifice any high ground to give us viewers the satisfaction, but if John had been feeling a little more vindictive he could've likely hit the red arrow on all of those folks who nearly fried his brain, or the cops that arrested him. You take an unpopular job and those permanent downvotes are going to start adding up.

The story doesn't just show that the system's flawed, it also makes it clear it's open to abuse. The first thing our heroes do is buy black market badges preloaded with upvotes (like buying Twitter followers in real life) and the last thing they do is use a bot to spam the feed with fake information to manipulate public opinion (like... doing exactly that in real life). The vote will always be swayed by the people who are too busy, lazy or gullible to actually investigate the things they're seeing on their feed, and this is a really big problem when they're voting to decide if assessments are true, or if a medicine is harmful. When everyone has an equal voice in all matters, the uninformed speak as loud as the experts, and the people who've actually done studies and research are massively outnumbered by the people who've heard that a vaccine causes autism, or that video games make people violent... or that other thing you're thinking of right now.

Though The Orville also demonstrates that sometimes the majority actually has a better idea of what's good for them than the experts. When it comes to products, services and entertainment, the public's opinion is often exactly what you want:

4626.68 people can't be wrong!

Like Krill last week, Majority Rule is an episode featuring people trying to blend in with a culture and making an ass of themselves instead, so the high levels of cringe made me like it more than I enjoyed it, but this is good Orville. In fact, I'd call it pretty decent sci-fi and satire in general; I mean look at all those bloody words I just wrote about the moral and message and suchlike! Plus the location shooting gives it some bonus production value, the guest stars did some great guest starring, and I like the double suit lapels and strange alien tie knots. And it's got rewatch value, as the second time though you can pause to read the comments! Actually, it's probably better not to do that as they keep repeating the same lines.

Also, while I'm complaining about things, how did Lysella know the scientists' address huh? Did one of them accidentally let it slip while ordering coffee or something?

The Orville will return with Into the Fold. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures I'll likely be writing about Discovery's Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.

Thanks for reading! Now go do some commenting maybe while I go tell everyone about my post on Twitter.


  1. Yeah, the Rotten Tomatoes page on "The Orville" really threw me off when I saw them as well. I´d like to thank you for doing these mini reviews, as they were what triggered me to give this series a chance despite all the negative reviews it got for the first three episodes (and also the fact that I am usually not a fan of Family guy or other MacFarlane stuff). It was by episode 4 ("When the stars should appear") when I realized that I actually really like this series... very much in fact. It gives you a sense of discovery and exploration that the newer Trek movies lacked, and deals out some social commentary without being "wacky" or overly moralizing about it. Ok, the modern pop culture references may not be everyone´s cup of tea... but then again, TOS made references to Martin Luther King and other concurrent events as well, so it´s not that off-track with those either.

    1. I'm glad that worked out for you and I didn't inspire you to watch a series you ended up hating.

      I love that we've got basically got two Star Treks airing simultaneously, one serious and introspective, the other fun and about boldly going places. And both way better than your typical Trek first season. The Orville's picked up the 'strange new worlds' sci-fi baton dropped by Stargate that Trek currently doesn't want anything to do with, and I think it's got the potential to do well with it. And then it'll get cancelled by Fox in season 2 because we can't have nice things.