Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Orville

Do you watch THE ORVILLE? Now that I've caught up with all the episodes to date, I'm still not sure how successful it is at what it tries to do. It begins as an affectionate parody of STAR TREK and gradually becomes more serious, grappling with some delicate issues, exploring character development, and going to a very dark place in the double episode of the past two weeks. As much as I like the show, I wonder whether its funny and serious sides fit together or clash. (Note: There will be spoilers here.)

The jokes sometimes verge on slapstick. For instance, the advanced sentient artificial life-form, Isaac (the Spock or Data character in the cast), gets into the spirit of learning about practical jokes by cutting off a human character's leg (painlessly, in sleep). This incident barely escapes being horrific by the fact that the medical technology of that century is so advanced that the character will have a new leg within days. The pop culture references come almost exclusively from the twentieth century, a detail that doesn't bear scrutiny. Wouldn't the characters show more interest in and awareness of such things from their own era? Most glaring is the Krill (the Klingon equivalent in this universe) deity's name—Avis, the subject of many jokes. Would the average person four hundred years from now have even heard of a twentieth- to twenty-first-century car rental company? Likewise, the incident when Bortus has a change of heart about his female offspring after watching RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER is cute and rather touching, but it takes generous suspension of disbelief to accept that RUDOLPH would become a classic still popular with general audiences four centuries in the future.

Several features of the show similarly seem to follow the "Rule of Funny" with little or no concern for plausibility. For instance, Bortus allegedly belongs to an all-male species (with rare, taboo exceptions) that urinates only once a year and lays eggs. With no indication that the writers thought out the implications of these traits in advance, I can only conclude Bortus's kind must be desert-dwelling reptiles. The brief glimpse of his planet, when he returns home for his annual urination ceremony—obviously inspired by Spock's return to Vulcan in "Amok Time"—shows a desert-like landscape. In the incisive, timely episode about a planet ruled by positive and negative social media votes, a senior crew member gets the landing party in trouble by fooling around with a statue of a cultural heroine. As his own superiors point out, he should have known better, yet the audience has to accept that an experienced officer with a record good enough to justify his assignment to a delicate mission would behave so irresponsibly. Even in the more serious moments, dedicated SF fans may notice weaknesses. In one episode, two members of a first-contact party get sentenced to an internment camp because they were born under the wrong astrological sign. Wouldn't it be obvious to a society advanced enough to attempt communication with interstellar life that constellations look different from different planets, so it's meaningless to assign their astrological signs to inhabitants of a distant solar system? And even if their taboos prevented their accepting the stigmatized visitors, wouldn't it make more sense simply to ban them from the planet? As for the dark, emotionally wrenching double episode about Isaac's world, didn't the builders of the AIs consider the probable consequences of creating potentially sentient robots? If the builders had no qualms about trying to enslave the robots once sentience emerged, why weren't the artificial life forms programmed with the equivalent of the Three Laws to begin with?

I'm very taken with this series, but in my opinion it would be even better if it didn't look as if the writers were making up things as they go along, tossing in anything that seems entertaining at the moment. That said, the balance between silly and plausible appears to be shifting in a favorable direction, and after the final two episodes of the second season, I'll be eagerly waiting for the third.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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