“About a Girl” Revisited.
Seth MacFarlane’s space series, “The Orville,” began in the fall of 2017 as a quasi-sendup of Star Trek, and I have to admit, the pilot episode, “Old Wounds,” didn’t exactly fire all of my thrusters. In fact, many of the series’ earliest episodes would insert annoying sight gags and groan-worthy one-liners, as if to say “See? We’re not uptight like those guys on Star Trek…we laugh at ourselves.” This attempt at self-punctuating humor often fell flat. But then, the series took an unexpected left turn into greatness with its third episode. “About a Girl” dealt with the the ship’s Moclan Second Officer, Bortus (Peter Macon), his husband Klyden (Chad Coleman), and their newborn daughter, Topa—a daughter born into a brutal males-only society, where occasional female births are viewed as ‘birth defects’ to be quickly ‘corrected’ into males. Bortus resisted changing his newborn daughter’s sex, while his husband Klyden, a traditionalist, insisted. Their dispute eventually took them back to their home planet of Moclus for arbitration. This culminated in a courtroom drama, where baby “Topa” had her fate decided for her–she was to be made male. It was a tough and unexpected ending.
Yes, the show’s awkward jokes were still there, but “About a Girl” took the subject at hand very seriously. This was the episode that hooked me–it made me an “Orville” fan. With it, I was better prepared to endure the occasional dumb jokes, knowing that Seth MacFarlane had the instincts to turn the laughs off when needed. “About a Girl” was easily one of the finest entries in season 1, and its harsh outcome was another way for the series to differentiate itself from 1990s’ feel-good Star Trek–sometimes outcomes weren’t positive. After two seasons, and a three-year hiatus brought on by the COVID pandemic and other challenges, the series has returned this year, rebranded as “The Orville: New Horizons.” This third season is being promoted as the last season, and will only feature ten episodes. The fifth episode, “A Tale of Two Topas” finally revisits that decision made for Topa as a baby, and it was well worth the wait…
“A Tale of Two Topas.”
The story, written & directed by series’ star/producer/cocreator Seth MacFarlane, opens with a deliberately misleading teaser involving an Orville landing party uncovering the secrets of an ancient, Hemblicite temple on a desert planet. The Hemblicites were a largely unknown race who died off roughly 50-70,000 years ago. They had burial customs for their royalty similar to Earth’s ancient Egyptians, with large tombs filled with riches and other treasures for use in the afterlife. Kaylon Science Officer Isaac volunteers to trigger the deadly boobytraps at the entranceway into the tomb, in a sequence directly inspired by the “Indiana Jones” movies. The android even winds up with an arrow in his head, which he effortlessly removes. The Orville’s team then discovers a vast alien treasury, including clues to the biological nature of the mysterious Hemblicites. A Union science vessel, the Newton, is scheduled to arrive and assess the full scope of the discovery within a week.
Note: While this alien archeology discovery makes for a fun teaser for the episode, it ultimately has little bearing on the remaining story, save to add a dose of adventure to what will become a very serious and topical story. While this ‘alien treasure’ story would’ve made for a decent, if routine, aliens-of-the-week story, the real story offers far greater rewards.
Later, aboard Orville, young Topa (Imani Pollum) is practicing tactical training in the ship’s simulator room, playing captain aboard a Moclan starship locked in pitched space battle, similar to Star Trek’s “Kobayashi Maru” no-win scenario. Simulated Kaylon forces destroy Topa’s ship within 7 minutes, causing a frustrated Topa to smash the helm console with his bare hands, causing a nasty gash. A chime sounds on the simulator door, and First Officer Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) walks in dressed in workout gear. Topa ends the simulation, and immediately apologizes for overstaying his allotted simulator time. Kelly dismisses it, and notices that the young Moclan has a keen interest in starship command and tactics. Kelly generously offers to let Topa shadow her for a few duty shifts, in order to gain a better understanding of life as a starship officer. Topa takes her up on the offer.
Reporting to Kelly the following morning, Topa proves an eager study, following Kelly through her morning rounds, including resolving minor interspecies conflicts that sometimes arise within the diverse crew, as we see with Ensign Bolobar, whose race insists on full nudity on the first day of every month. A compromise is amicably & awkwardly reached when Kelly asks that the ensign only wear a pair of pants. A walk through Engineering sees the gelatinous blob crew member Yaphit (the late Norm Macdonald) schmoozing up to his superior Kelly, who quietly mentions that old Earth custom of “ass-kissing” to Topa, who takes it all very seriously.
When Kelly gets the chance to talk with young Topa alone, she asks the Moclan child why he wants to become a Union officer. Topa then confides in Kelly that he is incomplete somehow, and that he has trouble sleeping. He feels he is only a ‘bookmark’ for the person he wishes to be, and he thought that perhaps starship duties would allow him to feel whole somehow. It’s also clear that Topa idolizes Kelly not merely as a First Officer and role model, but for her femininity as well. Despite the surgical alterations done to him after birth, the ‘she’ that Topa was, remains inside–struggling to find her voice. Kelly suspects Topa still identifies as female.
Note: Moclans, of course, age much faster than humans, which (conveniently) explains why Topa is now a teenager, instead of the 8-year old we saw in previous episodes, when Topa was played by young male actor, Blesson Yates.
Kelly brings Topa’s emergent female identification issue to the attention of ship’s doctor and psychiatrist, Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Jerald Johnson), and Captain Ed Mercer (Seth MacFarlane). All three remember the events surrounding Topa’s controversial birth and involuntary gender reassignment on Moclus. Things are even more complicated now, with the Moclans serving as critical Planetary Union allies in the current war with Isaac’s android race, the Kaylons. Claire and Ed suggest that Kelly take this up with Topa’s often-squabbling parents, Bortus (Peter Macon) and Klyden (Chad Coleman) whose differing views over this issue led to Topa’s involuntary surgery on Moclus. The subject of female births and identities remain deep cultural taboos on Moclus, and are not subjects easily broached–particularly since Kelly advocated on Bortus’ behalf for Topa’s right to remain female several years ago.
Note: It’s clear why Kelly’s earlier tour of the ship with Topa including resolving an alien cultural dispute within the crew; the benign cultural dispute of the single-day nudist ensign comically echoed the more serious cultural collision between human and Moclan traditions that led to Topa’s current feelings of gender dysmorphia.
Kelly takes the matter up with Topa’s parents, Bortus and Klyden, and it goes exactly as predicted, with Bortus keeping an open mind to Kelly’s concerns, while traditionalist Klyden is offended by ‘female’ Kelly’s interference–refusing to forgive her role in the arbitration that has since strained he and Bortus’ marriage. Klyden, who was also born female before his reassignment, knows firsthand the pain that Topa might endure when he learns the truth, his argument being that Topa’s current unhappiness is (somehow) better than despair. Klyden forbids Kelly to have any further command training sessions with his son.
Note: As we learned in “About a Girl,” Klyden also bore the Moclan ‘stigma’ of being born female, and that it caused him great pain when he eventually learned the truth. He doesn’t seem to grasp that his son/daughter Topa isn’t living on Moclus, and will not face the same cultural disdain that he suffered as a child. Hopelessly close-minded Klyden is only able to gauge the situation by his own emotional parameters.
Later, in the astrophysics lab, Topa meets with Isaac, and asks the android what it felt like when he committed suicide. Isaac, being an android without any emotion, responds that he didn’t feel anything. The android asks Topa why he wants to know what his death felt like, and Topa meekly responds that he was only curious. Isaac then wisely brings Topa’s question to the attention of Kelly, who decides to take action with or without Klyden’s approval, rather than wait for Topa to attempt suicide.
Meeting Topa in the Mess Hall, Kelly relaxes Topa by reassuring him she’s only offering advice as a friend, not officer training–technically obeying his father’s wishes. She tells Topa that when she’s depressed, she finds solace in a Moclan dessert called “Kimbok,” clearly using the word as a code reference, not wanting to press the matter beyond Klyden’s wishes.
Note: For a mechanical being without emotion, Isaac showed great sensitivity and awareness when he realized that Topa might’ve been contemplating suicide for himself through his inquiries. Never take talk of suicide lightly or kiddingly. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Topa takes the hint. In his quarters, he researches references to Kimbok in the ship’s computer, including a password-protected file called “Kimbok33”, which is then mysteriously unlocked for him remotely. The file details the origins of Topa’s female birth. Topa then angrily confronts her two fathers, with only Bortus telling her the truth. Klyden then tells Topa that the surgical procedure only ‘corrected’ his abnormal birth, but Topa tells his father that no surgery corrected who he is inside.
An enraged Klyden then knocks loudly on Kelly’s office, refusing to use the door chime. Kelly lets him in, and when Klyden accuses her of giving Topa the file, Kelly insists that she only gave Topa a clue about the file’s name, not the password. Refusing to believe Kelly, Klyden then angrily lunges for her, as she quickly and effortlessly pins him to a wall, offering to let him have another try at it through gritted teeth. Silently humiliated at being so easily bested by a mere ‘female’, a seething Klyden backs down.
Note: While this is primarily Topa’s story, it’s also a great Kelly Grayson story as well. As we see in this episode, Kelly is very comfortable kicking Moclan ass, as we saw in S2.12’s “Sanctuary”, where Kelly and others helped defend a colony of Moclan female isolationists from invading Moclan males.
Alone with Kelly, Bortus then tearfully confesses that he gave Topa the password from his bridge console when he noticed that Topa was accessing the file from their quarters. Feeling helpless, Bortus hoped the password would give Topa answers.
When he meets again with role-model Kelly, Topa expresses his wish to meet a Moclan female. Taking Topa to the simulator, Kelly conjures a holographic recording of the trial on Moclus that determined Topa’s fate. During the trial recreation, Topa gets to hear the impassioned testimony of renowned Moclan poet Heveena (Rena Owen), who came out of hiding for the trial, exposing her previously-hidden female nature to speak on baby Topa’s behalf. While not successful, Heveena’s wise words resonate with Topa. Topa declares, unequivocally, that she is female.
Note: In a nicely written touch, the crew immediately switches Topa’s pronouns from ‘he’ to ‘she’–with no hint of awkwardness or embarrassment–following her declaration. For the remainder of this synopsis and summary, I’m doing the same.
Citing Union fleet rules, Ed realizes that consent for reversing Topa’s gender reassignment surgery only requires one parent. However, after conferring with his superior, Admiral Howland (Andi Chapman), Ed learns that Moclan leadership will consider any Planetary Union interference with this private Moclan matter an affront to their alliance–threatening Moclan support for the war against the Kaylons. As far as Planetary Union assistance goes, Topa will have to remain male for the foreseeable future.
Back at the planet’s archeological site, Ed meets with Claire, as they consider their options for Topa. With Planetary Union officers expressly forbidden from reversing Topa’s reassignment surgery, Claire offers to resign her commission as a Union officer, which would free her to perform the operation as a civilian. However, Isaac offers another option. Since he was a part of an exchange between pre-war Kaylon and the Planetary Union, he was never formally commissioned as a Union fleet officer. With details of the procedure downloaded into Isaac’s core memory, he could perform the surgery with impeccable machine-precision–and with no need for Claire to resign. Ed reiterates to Isaac that he can not order him to do this–this decision would be entirely his own. With full understanding, Isaac acknowledges. All that’s needed is a distraction for Isaac to safely perform the procedure without interference, and which would also allow plausible deniability for the crew.
Note: With Isaac’s mechanical precision, he could theoretically do just about any job anywhere on the ship. If downloading instructions could make him a surgeon, then any other such delicate, specialized procedure would be possible, as well. That said, he’d make a lousy psychiatrist, and his command intuition would be dubious at best.
Ed then announces that Orville’s singing-sensation Bortus is offering to give a live concert for the entire crew. Rumors of Bortus’ singing voice have been building ever since his almost-rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” near the end of the first season (S1.9, “Cupid’s Arrow”). Now we finally get to hear Bortus sing, with Finn’s genius young son Ty (Kai Wener) on piano. Bortus then gives a full-throated rendition of Nat King Cole’s tune, “Nature Boy” (read between the lyrics). And he truly makes the song his own…
Note: I once met actor Peter Macon at Pasadena’s IMATS Makeup Trade Show in 2018, and I asked him if we’d ever hear Bortus finish singing “My Heart Will Go On.” He answered “We’ll see.” And for those who are curious, yes, the depth of Bortus’ voice is Macon’s. The talented actor is also an artist and sculptor as well.
Isaac then finds Topa and asks her to follow him into sickbay. Topa, knowing what is happening, shows hesitancy about Isaac performing the procedure, wishing that Dr. Finn were there instead. Isaac asks if she’s having second thoughts about the reversal, but Topa insists she wants to go through with it. As they prepare for the surgery, Klyden storms into sickbay, but is quickly intercepted by the artificial life-form. When the enraged Klyden attempts to force his way past, Isaac firmly grabs his wrist in a vise-like, mechanical grip. With no way to stop the android, a frustrated Klyden is forced to leave sickbay. The surgery is performed flawlessly. The awakened Topa’s features are subtly changed, and her voice is now in a higher register. She looks into a mirror and smiles gratefully. She is whole now.
Note: First the misogynistic Moclan Klyden learns that his ‘son’ Topa is trans female. Then he gets shoved and pinned to a wall by female First Officer Kelly Grayson. Now, he’s overpowered by an android Kaylon–mortal enemies of his people–and forced to leave as this same enemy android changes his “son” back into the girl she was always meant to be. Can’t say I feel even the least bit sad for Klyden’s misfortunes…
Meanwhile, the starship Newton has arrived, and a furious Admiral Howland dresses down Ed and Kelly like a pair of cadets for overruling her orders and allowing Isaac to reverse Topa’s sex. The admiral tells them that Moclus is not pulling out of the Planetary Union, since it was a Kaylon who performed the forbidden surgery, further fueling their already scorching hatred for the android race–a lucky break for the Union fleet. Before leaving, Admiral Howland quietly offers her best wishes for “the Moclan girl,” showing her grudging, off-record approval of their actions…
Note: Angry admirals are as much a cliche to these kinds of space opera shows as the angry police captains in crime melodramas, aren’t they? They always talk tough, and threaten to take away our heroes’ badges, but they always quietly pat them on the back later on, after a job well done.
The situation with Topa’s divided fathers has reached a breaking point, as Klyden packs to leave his family. As Bortus and Topa beg him to stay, he looks into his daughter’s pleading eyes and growls, “I wish you were never born!” before storming out. Bortus then looks at his daughter and asks her to remember very carefully what he is about to say; “You are perfect.”
Note: I truly admire Bortus in this episode. Bortus’ absolute and unconditional love for Topa is the opposite of deadbeat dad Commander Worf’s relationship with his neglected son Alexander in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The brutal Klingon warrior was the clear inspiration for Bortus, yet they couldn’t be further apart in their parenting approaches.
As Claire thanks Isaac for his selfless act, Isaac corrects her; he didn’t perform the surgery for Topa, but rather to improve his standing with the crew, who are justifiably apprehensive and prejudiced against his people. He reasoned that, given Topa’s popularity with the crew, helping her would only increase his likability as well. Logical and honest. Claire then asks Isaac, who doesn’t eat, out to dinner. The android accepts.
Note: It looks like Claire is giving Isaac a second chance as well…?
The final scene sees Topa stepping onto the bridge of the ship, per Kelly’s request, to continue her Union officer command training. Once there, Ed offers her the captain’s chair, where she is allowed to give the order to get underway. “Engage quantum drive,” she says, and the ship flies off to its next assignment.
Summing It Up.
The long-awaited sequel to “About a Girl” came at the right time. “The Orville: New Horizons” now has the maturity to better tell this followup to Topa’s story, as we Topa finally emerging from her chrysalis into the whole person she was meant to be from birth. Yes, it’s left Bortus and Klyden’s marriage in shambles, however, in return Bortus now has a happy young daughter who is complete. It’s also implied that Topa might very well hold the key to a better future for Moclan women, as she begins her new life fearlessly and proudly in the captain’s chair–a metaphor for Topa regaining control of her identity. It’s very fitting that this episode aired in the last days of Pride Month, as it reaffirms (though a sci-fi lens) the happiness everyone deserves in being the person they are on the inside–be it female, male, nonbinary, or any other type of person existing along the broad spectrums of sexuality and gender.
While I very much applaud “Star Trek: Discovery” for its inclusive casting–offering substantive roles for LGBTQ+ persons–it never really tackles the issues facing these diverse communities here on 21st century Earth right now. Using the objectivity of sci-fi metaphor, “The Orville” has done precisely that. In addition to dealing with Topa’s identity crisis, “A Tale of Two Topas” also deals with the adjacent issue of teen suicide, as young Topa asks Isaac what it’s like to be dead. The current bigotry towards trans persons in our society makes many trans youth particularly vulnerable to suicide. Since the artificial life-form Isaac is a character incapable of emotion, he makes an ideal sounding board for the depressed Topa, answering in nonjudgmental parlance, yet showing awareness enough to bring Topa’s pained inquiry to others’ attention. Kelly, Finn, proud papa Bortus, and even Isaac make excellent and supportive allies for Topa. Topa does lose one parent, but she gains an entire ship filled with love and acceptance.
“A Tale of Two Topas” fixes an injustice from the show’s earliest days, but it offers some choice wisdom, too; Bortus’ three words to his daughter Topa should be permanently etched into the brain of any parent with a child who struggles for acceptance in a hostile world: “You are perfect.“
Where To Watch.
“The Orville: New Horizons” is available to stream exclusively on Hulu.com, along with the first two seasons of “The Orville.” While this is, most likely, the final season of this all-too short-lived series, here’s hoping that writer/producer/star Seth MacFarlane will one day revisit this universe with a feature film, or even made-for-streaming movies/spinoffs. Maybe we might see “The Orville: the Motion Picture” someday? I mean, if you’re going to follow Star Trek’s template that closely…