The Orville, and My Commentary On Its Social Commentary

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to actually get a blog post out the door. I’ve got a number of started drafts in my queue here in WordPress, but I’ve never managed to circle back to any of them. Recently, my life got overtaken by a server migration, and although it worked out as smoothly as a server migration is going to go, it was far from perfect, and I managed to learn that, in 2017, VMWare still doesn’t support drives with 4K sectors, and the QNAP OpenVPN module doesn’t seem to do split tunnel VPN. I also managed to handle the little victories, like finally managing to correctly configure a Raspberry Pi as a print server, and quickly learned that my stance that “graphics don’t have to be that good for a game to be fun” apparently has a base minimum, as a number of my original-Playstation games definitely have not aged well after I tried getting them running on a 1080p TV. On the personal side of things, I got to see my sister’s family twice in the same month, which was nice. I also have managed to retain a rhythm of washing my dishes in the morning, rather than turning it into a battle of endurance to get through a full sink.

Now that I’ve caught you up, let’s discuss the topic discussed in the headline.

I’m quite happy that The Orville is on the air. I watched the first two hours of Star Trek: Discovery, and was ‘meh’ at best about it. Two broadcast hours used to attempt to convince me to subscribe to CBS All Access to continue watching the series…and I get Klingons who don’t look like Klingons, who fight because they’re Klingons and for little other reason, a metric ton of backstory on a single character but about 90 seconds of screen time for half the supporting cast who all seemed a whole lot more interesting, and cinematography from someone who went to the Michael Bay school of lens flares. Discovery may do well with the critics, but Orville is far better liked by audiences, and both shows demonstrate a highly measurable difference between the two. Supposedly, Discovery has gotten better as the episodes progressed, but since I can’t set my DVR to record them or get episodes on iTunes or Amazon, I couldn’t say.

For real now, I’m getting on topic.

As Star Trek has always done, The Orville takes its turn having episodes where social commentary is made. Two in particular have stood out to me this season. The first was “Majority Rule”, the seventh episode of the season where people upvote or downvote things they like or don’t like, to the point where sufficiently high downvotes can be cause for the cafe to refuse service, and doing an outlandish thing that goes viral is a criminal offense (with innocence and guilt, of course, being determined in the court of public opinion). There was a lot to unpack in this episode. My first set of questions had to do with how the society got to that point – what did they do before the badges? Before “The Feed”? How did the society calculate upvotes and downvotes before it was possible to automate it? How is it clear that a badge’s owner is the person wearing the badge? Next, what are the protocols for giving upvotes and downvotes? How frequently can a person receive an upvote or downvote from the same person? There’s only so much that can be covered in a 44-minute episode, but those questions remained in my mind.
However, I think there were even deeper points to be had in that episode. It was possible to be arrested for not wearing one’s badge. Who does the arresting, and if it’s a pure democracy, what set of laws are there to enforce? The real people in power, however, are the news anchors. I’m certain there were a dozen other things that happened that day of similar offense to that society, but they chose one thing to show the video to everyone. Who picks which stories get that sort of publicity? Because that person is the one with the power.
Additionally, it was abundantly clear how the mob mentality quickly became a part of the problem, and the challenges with basing the court of public opinion on what everyone else has already said. Conversely, the proposal that a voice must be ‘earned’ sounds right at face value, but fails at the next level in that the decision of whether a person has earned a voice is determined either by being appointed or elected, so it’s not quite the contrast it sets out to be. Finally, at the end when they flooded the feed with good news, it was said that nobody fact checks what’s on the feed. Hopefully, that one is self explanatory.

 

The other episode with its social commentary was the season finale, where Kelly becomes a deity to a planet in the bronze age, but which experiences rapid acceleration of time to the point where it is in the quantum age by the end of the episode. It’s clear that Christianity is the core target of the commentary where the planet’s evolution past religion is both positive and inevitable, as well as unsurprising.
I submit, however, that it’s riddled with plotholes. The child falls without anyone seeing that it happened. No one sees the injury, and no one sees the healing. For the next 700 years, the entire planet’s religion is based upon a single girl’s story for which there are no witnesses and no further contact with Kelly by anyone, and the belief system is the basis of the society? The belief in Kelly becomes exclusive, with no unbelievers shown to war with, yet people kill each other?
The Old Testament narrative has no shortage of examples of people having encounters with God, with witnesses. From the burning bush and the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to seeing Canaan from a distance, Exodus is filled with miracle after miracle, and the Israelites winning more battles than anyone, with fewer numbers. Throughout the Old Testament, this is the case, and it’s the reason the belief system spent thousands of years being the bedrock of Judaism and Christianity. The “Kelly sees everything and is going to get you” line is intended to resonate with the Christian belief in God’s omnipresence, but that belief stems from God being creator; Kelly did no such thing and there was no basis for a Bronze Age society to attribute a healing to a single girl and also enshrining her as an omnipresent creator. Props to the priest who was willing to let the people decide, but from the moment that convincing a single priest was possible, it was obvious that wasn’t going to go anywhere. It was at that point that I felt the commentary went from exploration to heavy-handedness and persuasiveness at a level even Roddenberry didn’t have in Star Trek.
The reason Christianity is still believed is because there are still personal encounters with God, there are still miracles that take place, and there are prophecies verified to be true hundreds of years after they were written. I understand that not every reader shares these beliefs, and that’s to be expected, but it’s these core tenets upon which the basis of Christianity lives. The end run around all of them makes the parallel fall flat. A 44-minute episode lacks the time to delve into these things in detail, and I can understand that what they were going for was to see the situation through the eyes of Kelly who felt responsible for all the problems of the society. The ending with the statement that the society would eventually grow out of it as some sort of message of hope, I would argue, was also a core goal. Ultimately, the episode attempts to make parallels to Christianity while also basing the whole thing on the unsubstantiated claims of a single child. This setup makes the commentary feel more like a heavy handed fist rattling from McFarlane than encouraging introspection by those who still adhere to such belief systems. By contrast, this sort of commentary was done better in the episode of Star Trek: Voyager “Distant Origin”.

 

Overall, I’m continuing to look forward to season 2, and am glad it got renewed. Though I think McFarlane’s social commentary tends to toe the line for the sorts of commentary acceptable in current Hollywood (and by extension doesn’t seem to feel very risky or controversial as Star Trek was), The Orville is at its best when it blends its space exploration with humor and effective storytelling.

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