“The Orville” continues to explore Star Trek-style allegory but with its own unique brand of humor, and this week was another quality entry that managed that delicate juggling act, delivering scathing commentary on international gender inequality with…Dolly Parton.
Capt. Ed Mercer (writer/creator/producer/star Seth MacFarlane) and his first and second officers, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) and Bortus (Peter Macon, are in conference with Admiral Halsey (Victor Garber) on the ship’s latest “taxi” assignment; transporting two Moclan scientists a ride as a favor for the Moclan government in furnishing the Union fleet with massive weapons and shielding upgrades. The scientists arrive and are escorted to their quarters, along with their considerable luggage, by Security Chief Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr).
Bortus’ son Topa gets in trouble for shoving a female classmate. He and his mate Klyden have a conference with the new ship’s teacher (played by Star Trek: The Next Generation vet Marina Sirtis).
Klyden, the more conservative of the two Moclans, suggest the teacher separate male and female students, while the more open-minded Bortus apologizes for their son’s behavior. Bortus is then interrupted by a call from the bridge informing him of an unauthorized power tap in the visitor’s quarters. Bortus is sent to investigate, demanding that the two open their oversized luggage…which turns out to be a stasis unit housing their daughter (!). This is a problem since Moclan females are forcibly subjected to gender reassignment surgery shortly after birth to ‘correct’ their ‘birth defect’ of being female. Feeling sympathetic, since Topa was also born female, he concocts an excuse for the power drain and keeps the visitors’ secret.
Later on, he takes Topa to see the female baby, in the hopes of opening his son’s eyes to the fact that there is nothing wrong with being born female…despite Moclan cultural conditioning. Soon, the visitors depart, thanking Bortus and Talla for their ‘hospitality.’ Bortus is then summoned to a meeting in the captain’s office, where he learns that Topa was forced to tell his other ‘papa’ Klyden about the baby female. Mercer is worried that Bortus may have unknowingly been complicit in a kidnapping. They set a course to find the ship, a course which leads them to a secret planet within a nebula; a planet filled with Moclan women!
Bortus, Mercer and Kelly take a shuttle down to the surface and are captured, until they meet with their leader, the famed Moclan poet in exile, Haveena (Rena Owen), last seen during Topa’s gender reassignment trial in S1.3’s “About a Girl.” Haveena tells the Orville officers that more Moclan females are born than is commonly known, and many of them were smuggled off of Moclus via a network to her colony (not unlike the Underground Railroad of blacks seeking freedom from the South in pre-Civil War United States). Mercer agrees to take her before the Planetary Union to plead her case for the colony’s recognition as a sovereign body, free from fear of Moclan persecution and forced gender reassignment.
Ed takes Haveena on a shuttle, and during the long trip to Earth, she becomes enamored with the music of Dolly Parton, specifically her song “9 to 5” (“she speaks with the might of a hundred soldiers!”). Once again, the show uses contemporary music for a bit of humor as well as social context (such as the use of Billy Joel’s “Always a Woman” earlier this year). In front of assembled Planetary Union delegates in New York, Haveena pleads her case in front of a hostile Moclan leader (Tony Todd, another Star Trek veteran) and others, including the Planetary Union chairman (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham, no less!). The Moclan leader is not having any of it.
Meanwhile, Kelly Grayson is in charge of the ship within the nebula, with orders to guard the colony until they receive word from the Planetary Union council. A hostile Moclan battle cruiser enters the nebula, and Kelly warns them off until a decision is reached.
Back on Earth, things rapidly heat up at the Planetary Union council as the Moclan delegation threatens to withdraw from the Planetary Union entirely if the Union concedes to the colony’s warped ‘agenda’ (another term that feminist and LGBTQ rights advocates hear all too often; as if basic human rights are some kind of scheme…).
Ed meets with fleet Admirals Halsey (Garber), Perry (Ted Danson of “Cheers”), Tucker (Ron Canada) and Ozawa (Kelly Hu, of “X-Men 2”) at Planetary Union fleet HQ. He takes them to task on the issue of the Union’s over-dependence on Moclus for weapons’ manufacturing (an analogy of America’s dependence on less-than-savory international alliances for oil and energy). The admirals tell Mercer that old excuse, “It’s complicated”, but Ed isn’t convinced.
Back in the nebula, Bortus and Kelly are having a drink in the mess hall, which Klyden angrily interrupts. As the mates argue, a call comes from the bridge; the Moclan battle cruiser is launching shuttles towards the colony, in an attempt to forcibly remove the females and take them back to Moclus for gender reassignment, as well as imprisonment. This is the final straw. Kelly is going down to meet them in a shuttle, but Bortus insists on joining her. He assures Kelly he’ll have no issue firing on fellow Moclans. Kelly leaves Talla in command until they return.
Talla is immediately tested as Kelly’s shuttle is immediately ensnared in a Moclan tractor beam until Talla disobeys orders and fires on the Moclan’s tractor beam emitter. The two ships get into a hell of a dogfight, as Kelly and Bortus land on the surface of the colony and fire upon the Moclan soldiers.
Ed makes a final case before the Planetary Union, warning the Moclans that if they leave the Union, they (and maybe the Krill) will have to face the threat of the Kaylons without the rest of the Union fleet. Ed says that if Moclus falls, the female colony might be the only surviving Moclans in the universe…preserving a ‘single gender species.’
That’s the argument that makes the case for both a ceasefire and a compromise; the colony is to be left in peace, but the ‘underground railroad’ from Moclus will end immediately, leaving the colony’s numbers at their present levels…as well as leaving any other female Moclans born on their home planet to face forced Moclan gender reassignment. It’s an ugly compromise, but Haveena thanks Ed and his crew, preferring to believe that she and her colonists have won the day.
As things settle back to something approaching normal life on the ship, Bortus looks in on his son during school, and beams a broad smile as Topa is seen smiling and sharing toys with a girl classmate. The tolerance and acceptance is passing onto a new generation of Moclans.
A commentary on today.
The issue of gender inequality is an ongoing one, and it won’t be corrected by a single episode of a sci-fi TV series to be sure. However, raising public awareness of the issue through continued pop culture spotlighting of it is always a good thing. It’s hard to believe as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve seen both tremendous opportunities for women (the new US congress, for example), as well as a savage curtailing of freedoms for women as well (increasing attacks on women’s basic reproductive rights, the ongoing pay gap).
There is also the underlying issue of the Planetary Union (a metaphor for the United States and NATO) and its over-reliance on Moclan weapons, a clear metaphor for US dependence upon foreign energy, including alliances with nations whose treatment of its citizens (especially women or LGBTQ citizens) is often brutal and cruel by our standards. “Sanctuary” offers no clear answers; only a compromise. As imperfect a solution as any in our own world today, but at least the episode has the hutzpah to address the problem, however metaphorically.
Jonathan Frakes is gonna be your Number One.
The episode was directed by longtime Star Trek writer Joe Menosky and directed by none other than “Number One” himself, Jonathan Frakes, who not only got a new assignment for former costar Marina Sirtis as the ship’s educator, but also assembled a few other high profile guest stars as well, including F. Murray Abraham (Salieri of “Amadeus”) and Tony Todd (Star Trek, Candyman), as well as frequent Orville guest stars Ted Danson, Victor Garber and Kelly Hu.
Summing it up.
“Sanctuary” is part of an ongoing arc about Moclan intolerance that began back in S1’s “About a Girl” and has been continued in other episodes such as “Primal Urges” and “Deflectors.” The latest hits a boiling point in the difficulties of reconciling that intolerance within the Planetary Union’s mission statement of inclusivity… a clearer commentary on current American life is hard to find, however metaphorically veiled. Once again, this increasingly must-see TV series continues tackling the kinds of issues that a current Star Trek series should be dealing with, but curiously isn’t. Yes, “The Orville” is very derivative of Star Trek; Seth MacFarlane admits as much… but more importantly, “The Orville” eschews much of the self-reverence that permeates modern Star Trek, and gets back to the business of telling the kinds of stories that Star Trek has always done best. Here’s hoping its voyages, with their delightful combination of social commentary and humor, continue at quantum speed.