[Editor’s note: Spoilers for “The Orville” Season 1, Episode 3, “About a Girl,” below.]
“The Orville,” now having been on the air for two weeks now, has become a ratings success for Fox, despite negative reviews. There are always a variety of explanations for that sort of discord between the viewing audience and professional critics, but in the case of Seth MacFarlane’s “homage” to the “Star Trek” franchise, the answer might be relatively simple: Critics were able to see three episodes, not just one.
And of the first three episodes, “About a Girl” was by far the most troubling screened by critics, because it exposed just how out of his depth MacFarlane was in trying to find his own take on “Star Trek.”
Theoretically, “The Orville” wouldn’t have been complete without the “Family Guy” creator following in Gene Roddenberry’s footsteps and attempting to tackle Important Issues of the Day in the context of science fiction. For decades, “Trek” has used allegory and metaphor to explore issues relating to racism, sexism, politics, and more, couching these topics in science fiction, in order to make them more palatable for an unsuspecting audience. “About a Girl” is a clear attempt at honoring this tradition, but is so confused in its approach that it might do serious harm to modern understanding of the issues it attempts to explore.
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First things first: “About A Girl” picks up directly after the events of Episode 2, “Command Performance,” in which we saw Bortus (Peter Macon) brood his egg until it hatched at the end, revealing his new baby girl. This is, for the record, a complete reversal on one of MacFarlane’s claims from the TCA press conference, in which he said “the show is not serialized. You can watch episodes out of order and still get a fulfilling viewing experience.” But that’s hardly the biggest problem here.
No, “About a Girl” lives up to its title, but it’s also largely about Bortus and the Moclan race to which he belongs. When Bortus was first introduced in the pilot, he was referred to as a male, but also as the member of a single-gender species.
Conceptually, this was a bit confusing — after all, if a species has only one sex assigned to it, why would it bother to define that in terms of male (versus, presumably, female)? The answer, we then learn, is that it is possible for Bortus’s people to be born female — but culturally this is seen as unacceptable, a birth defect to be corrected in similar fashion to a cleft palate (a direct comparison made in the episode).
Bortus and his partner Klyden (Chad E. Coleman) are initially both committed to going through with the procedure, but this leads to a flurry of debates amongst the crew over whether or not this is right, and whether or not they have the right to cast judgement over another society’s cultural standards, and should women and men be judged on their gender to begin with?
These scenes are certainly more intellectually stimulating than Episode 2’s Kardashians joke, but things take an odd turn when Gordon (Scott Grimes) and LaMarr (J. Lee) show Bortus the 1964 Rankin/Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (perhaps the show’s most jarring use of 20th century pop culture to date). The stop-motion holiday special convinces Bortus that they should not perform the procedure on his daughter, and let her decide what to do when she grows older.
Transgender issues are clearly being invoked here, but the episode also eludes to the growing modern debate surrounding whether or not circumcision is actually a necessary procedure for infant (human) males, though of course the most relevant part of the comparison might perhaps be one thing that that most medical organizations seem to be in agreement about: both parents of a child should be in agreement about the decision.
In “About a Girl,” Bortus’s partner disagrees with him and involves the Moclan government, so the whole crew heads off to the Moclan planet to take this issue to court. There, while the Moclan viewpoint is expressed relatively fairly, the episode’s sympathies are clearly tipped towards Bortus and the Orville crew…and they lose. The baby is surgically changed to male, Bortus and Klyden (their relationship shaken by this disagreement) resolve to love their child no matter what, and the music hits a somber note as the Orville sails through space.
Perhaps the episode’s biggest twist is the reveal that Klyden was also born female (though that opens up the plot hole of “wait, that means Moclan girls are born far more often than every 75 years”), and was glad that his own parents went through with the procedure. Following the surgery he received as a child, Klyden now strictly identifies as male, and while he sees it as “corrective” there’s no discussion as to how that affects how he sees his personal identity (which is unfortunate, because it could have been an opportunity to explore the modern realities of life for many people born intersex).
One of “About a Girl’s” most major missteps is the way in which it confuses basic concepts of gender identity. Per the GLAAD media reference guide, phrases like “born a woman” are “reductive and overly-simplify a very complex subject” — yet the writers see the issue as strictly tied to biology, which is an overly simplified way of using allegory to look at a nuanced issue.
Gender is not simply an issue of “girl parts” versus “boy parts.” Instead, for many people it is a deeply personal question that goes beyond the binary, something that is only now becoming understood by the mainstream.
“Part of the fun of science fiction is to tell stories that have relevance but that exist in the world of make believe, so you don’t necessarily come off preachy if you’ve done your job right,” MacFarlane said at TCAs. “About a Girl” does not, in fact, feel preachy. But that’s because it’s too confused by the issues to really make a point.