As The Orville’s stock continues to rise, it’s increasingly clear that this ‘dramedy’ sci-fi series from star/creator Seth MacFarlane is rapidly eclipsing Star Trek: Discovery in the hearts and minds of some (if not many) fans. Personally, I hate to stoke competition (why not enjoy them both?) but if I had to say which series offers fans more Trek bang for their buck? I’d have to concede that point to The Orville.
The Orville is confidently tackling the kind of stories and issues that a modern Star Trek should be doing right now.
**** PLANET-SIZED SPOILERS!! ****
This week’s installment, “Primal Urges”, deals with the timely topic of internet (i.e. ‘simulator’) porn addiction, which threatens the same-sex marriage of Bortus (Peter Macon) and his husband Klyden (Chad Coleman). Despite the fact its couched in sci-fi terminology and settings, the emotions dealt with are very real, as many couples/families can no doubt relate to this scenario.
Ever since Klyden (through tribunal in last season’s “About a Girl”) forced Bortus to consent to having their baby girl Topa converted to male (a female birth is considered a ‘birth defect’ in the mostly all-male Moclan species), their marriage has suffered; and Bortus is seeking affection in the ship’s holographic simulator room, with increasingly wild sexual scenarios. Bortus lies to both his family and shipmates to cover his simulated-sex addiction.
Following Moclan tradition, Klyden stabs Bortus and nearly kills him, but for the skills of Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) whose quick ministrations save his life.
Bortus chooses not to file charges against his mate, and they choose to try to save their marriage via mandated counseling, ordered by Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) and once again delivered by Dr. Finn. Finn awakens Klyden to the fact that his mate is seeking affections elsewhere because he still resents him for not siding with him during Topa’s mandated gender reassignment. It’s a long road ahead for these two, and the emotions are very real; despite the severe alien makeups and deadpan delivery of the two aliens.
In therapy, Bortus promises Klyden he will try to do better, as does Klyden to Bortus. It’s a promise Bortus soon breaks when he solicits a new porn simulation involving multiple partners from a seedy alien crewman (a terrific piece of makeup FX work). The bootleg piece of porn includes a virus (a situation common to those who follow increasingly shady porn sites online) that begins to cause cascading malfunctions in the ship’s software, including its food replicators. Helmsman Gordon Malloy (Scott Grimes) orders a pizza for lunch and gets what looks like a steaming pile of poop.
Meanwhile, the ship is observing a planet being pulled apart by its dying star. They also discover there are 75 surviving life-forms awaiting their fate beneath their dying planet’s crumbling surface. Deciding to rescue the planet’s survivors, Ed coordinates with his senior staff to attempt a rescue mission and bring them back to the ship.
Engineer John LeMarr (J. Lee) reinforces a shuttle to withstand the harsh conditions of the dying star’s energy, but it’s determined that the shuttle’s occupants will still be subject to very high radiation levels. The only two aboard who can handle it are the android science officer Isaac (Mark Jackson) and, of course, Bortus…whose resilient Moclan physiology can better stand the high radiation.
En route to the planet, Bortus and Isaac share an uncomfortable exchange in the shuttle, as the tactless-by-design android asks Bortus to relate what a porn addiction feels like. What follows is perhaps the best monologue dealing with addiction (of any kind) I’ve yet heard in a major science fiction series to date. A tribute both to writers MacFarlane & Wellesley Wild, and (of course) Peter Macon’s intense delivery.
What follows is a genuinely hair-raising rescue operation to the planet’s underground access port. Once inside, Bortus and Isaac meet the 75 survivors, including the planet’s leader Minister Theece (Lesley Fera, in a memorable supporting performance). Isaac receives word from the ship that the planet is breaking up faster than predicted, cutting their rescue time in half. They only have time and space aboard their shuttle to rescue 30 of the survivors. A hasty lottery is drawn up and immediately implemented. Theece is forced to say goodbye to her husband and child as the leader opts to stay behind, refusing to disobey the lottery’s mandate. Bortus is struck by the family’s courage in the face of imminent death. The 30 survivors are safely taken back to the ship, but the Orville’s helm control is compromised by the porn virus, and the ship begins to spiral into the dying sun.
With Isaac, John and affable alien crewman Dann (Mike Henry) working desperately to purge the virus from the simulator (and the ship), the Orville barely escapes in time using its quantum drive. Afterward, we see parts of the outer hull were badly scorched by their close proximity to the star.
As Dr. Finn checks Bortus for radiation exposure, Capt. Mercer dresses down Bortus for his irresponsible behavior in compromising the ship’s safety, as well as his dereliction of duty to feed his porn addiction. Bortus offers his resignation but Mercer refuses it, citing Bortus’ valor in rescuing the planet’s survivors at the risk to his own life.
After his post-mission physical sees him in good health, Bortus is in his quarters talking to Klyden. Bortus tells him that while he still has ongoing issues with what Klyden did to their child, he also realizes how fortunate he is to have them in his life.
Once again, a Bortus-centered episode knocks it out of the park. This character is one of the best conduits for the writers to speak on so many current topics; same-sex marriage (which is treated as matter-of-factly as it should be), toxic masculinity (the brutal Moclan culture), parenthood, marriage and now, porn addiction. Issues such as toxic masculinity and porn addiction are precisely the kind of topics that a new Star Trek series should be addressing.
While the subject of porn addiction is the show’s main story, there is also much action and emotion mined from the show’s genuinely hair-raising rescue of the crumbling planet’s survivors. There is a human cost, as we see people forced to stay behind and die with their world… and, for once, we see actual damage to the ship itself afterward; something we rarely saw in Star Trek. This is a B-story that doesn’t feel tacked on, and it serves to remind us that there is still a healthy dose of science fiction mixed in with the family drama. Its message of salvaging and remembering that what is most important resonates well with Bortus’ A-story.
Speaking of drama, Bortus’ monologue to Isaac relating what his porn addiction feels like offers a sympathetic window into both the intense pleasure and aching emptiness that comes with such a condition. Despite his dereliction of duty and neglect of Klyden, Bortus is never truly unsympathetic.
I can’t recall any science fiction series where a main character openly battled a porn addiction, and this episode deals with the topic without reservation, even calling it by name. There was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Hollow Pursuits” which dealt with a character’s addiction to the ship’s holodeck, but “Lt. Reginald Barclay” (Dwight Schultz) was ancillary to the main cast. His addiction was also far more chaste than Bortus’ more openly brazen sexual fantasies.
Despite the comedic potential of a subject like porn addiction in a dramedy series such as The Orville, it isn’t laughed at nearly as much as one would expect, despite the puerile natures of characters like Lt. Malloy and Commander LeMarr. The subject is handled with surprising sensitivity and insightfulness.
The Orville is not just good science fiction/comedy, it’s also rapidly evolving into groundbreaking drama as well. I’d go so far as to say that “Primal Urges” might be the show’s finest hour to date, both in topical relevance and in execution.