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.
4 Comments Add yours
I agree – The Orville is clever and imaginative. They’ve done a great job “sci-fi”ing some interesting issues.
But – like most people it seems – they get it way wrong when it comes to sex/porn additiction. Bortus is not addicted to porn, he is coping (poorly) with a strain in his marriage. If he had decided to (actually) work late instead of indulging in porn, he wouldn’t have been diagnosed with any disease. If he shoved his face in a bowl of ice cream (like Klyden was off-handedly reported to have been doing) he wouldn’t have been a food addict (with a disgusting, shameful disease).
He felt betrayed by Klyden’s choice regarding the sex re-assignment of their child – a betrayal that rocked his world, distanced him from his spouse and made him feel empty inside. A traumatic emotional experience that can come from any number of experiences. People then have to cope. And people cope more or less destructively and with various methods.
(It’s worth noting that the people on shows like “My 600lb Life” are often treated like they are addicted to food, when it doesn’t take long to discover they’ve had severe trauma in their lives and the food is the coping mechanism. They are no more food addicts than Bortus is a porn addict.)
Again, if he decided to pour himself into work, the effect would have been similar – preventing him from having to face Klyden. The work, if found enjoyable, would have served to “fill the void” he was experiencing. Food can do the same thing and various foods generate a biochemical response that is pleasurable. Some people work out excessively – toking on the “runner’s high”. Neither food, nor exercise carry the stigma of sex.
Drugs and alcohol do a similar number, but both of them create a real altered state and biochemical changes that generate actual urges that can only be satisfied with the foreign substance. Sex introduces no foreign substance.
Think of this scenario – soldier home from war, won’t touch his wife, can’t work, spends all his time with porn. Is porn the problem? Or is it the PTSD? Porn is the coping mechanism and is better viewed as a symptom. Is his behaviour an issue, yes – but it’s not a disease. He has an psychological injury – the PTSD. Treat that and the porn issues will resolve. Focus on the porn and you merely shame the person all the while ignoring a truly serious issue.
Bortus’s behaviour was problematic, no question. He shirked his work duties and the computer simulation’s virus “almost destroyed the ship”. The second one – what if someone had installed some banal simulation that was happened to have a virus on it – Sherlock Holmes to pull from TNG. The software virus wasn’t directly caused by the porn, but because porn viewing is looked down on and marginalized, it pushes it into a space that makes it vulnerable to this type of abuse.
Your article references Barclay’s addiction from TNG – why is his less bad because it doesn’t involve sex? If Bortus, all other factors the same, was viewing the same simulations as Barclay was, how is the problem any different? The marriage issues remain the same (Barclay had his own psychological and emotional issues and could easily have chosen porn – but definitely not on TNG…). Do we really think that Bortus’s issues necessitated a sexual outlet? I don’t think so, but maybe we as a culture believe it.
Why is sex such a special case in so many circumstances? Why are we so freaked out by it?
Notice, though, that the treatment we viewed was couples therapy addressing the real problems. It’s like there’s some perverse desire in our culture to demonize sexual behaviour that falls outside of a very narrow range of acceptable parameters. Unfortunately, real sex/porn addiction therapy often involves treating the patient like some perverted monster.
We in West are so messed up over sex. It’s both everywhere and taboo. We have this schism where it’s this terrible, dirty thing we should never do, unless we’re married or in love and then it’s this beautiful, spiritual experience. It’s elevated to an unrealistic level and placed in the centre of our romantic relationships with a degree of power and responsibility that it simply can not live up to.
I’m sure my comments will spark many in return. I know how complex this is on both sides. My issue is how irrationally we look at issues around sex. How society has so completely “made up it’s mind” that anyone challenging our tightly held beliefs is treated like they are saying we can do anything we want sexually with no consequences or costs. Which I hope you realize I am NOT saying.
Dr. David Ley has a great book – The Myth of Sex Addiction – that talks at length about this issue from a reasoned, objective, scientific view point. But because the topic is sex, his message has a very hard time getting through to most people – he was interviewed by Katy Couric and she excoriated him. I thought she looked ignorant and she clearly wasn’t listening to him, only to her preconceived notions coming from a closed mind.
Thank you for your article. I hope you can take something from my comments.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for the thoughtful, intelligent reply.
Just to be clear; when I referred to Barclay’s fantasies as more “chaste”, that was meant only as a description of Barclay’s more G-rated holodeck conjurings (swordplay, revenge fantasies, etc), not an indictment of Bortus’ scenarios. I meant no judgment whatsoever.
I was impressed that the show dealt with sex addiction at all. That usually tends to freak people out because of its inherently intimate and personal nature. We’re not yet mature enough in Western culture to deal with it openly and honestly. We can talk about food, alcohol and other means of drowning our pains, but sex is still taboo, and for no good reason. Maybe someday…?
Your comment was very insightful and much appreciated. Thank you!