Review: “Primal Urges”
The Orville Season 2, Episode 2 – Aired Thursday, January 3, 2019
Written by Wellesley Wild; Directed by Kevin Hooks
Seth MacFarlane and his fellow producers have often said they hoped The Orville could address contemporary social issues through the lens of science fiction – indeed, McFarlane believes that it must. Harkening back to the tradition of classic Star Trek, the first season of The Orville looked at gender reassignment, social media phenomena, religion, and racial privilege. Like with classic Trek, the results have been mixed. Episodes like “Mad Idolatry” and “About a Girl” explored issues with a surprising degree of nuance, whereas “Majority Rule” and “If the Stars Should Appear” came across with a preachy ham-fistedness.
In “Primal Urges,” writer Wild and director Kevin Hooks explore a surprising and controversial issue – pornography addiction – with sensitivity and intelligence, while simultaneously piling up some ugly dialogue at the expense of one character. The result is a good episode with a dark side that I hope is explored more fully in a future storyline.
While observing the destruction of a planet by its expanding red giant sun – a “stellar incineration”, as Isaac describes it – the crew of the Orville discover that a small group of survivors still exists in caverns beneath the surface of the planet, and mounts a rescue mission to try to save as many as they can.
This scenario results in some absolutely gorgeous shots of the Orville herself, and of the red giant star devouring the planet, though I kept wondering why it seemed the planet was in a far more advanced stage of destruction than the dialogue indicated. Massive chunks of the planet’s surface are seen being pulled into the star’s embrace from the very earliest scenes, to the point where it seemed as though an underground refuge would be impossible to maintain. Regardless, the shots were breathtaking and the FX crew should be enjoying a “day drink” to celebrate.
At the same time, Bortus’ relationship with his mate, Klyden, is also deteriorating. Bortus returns to their quarters late and spends very little time with their child, Topa, claiming the need to work late for one reason or another. In reality, Bortus is spending time in the ship’s Environmental Simulator, The Orville‘s version of TNG’s holodeck, enjoying pornographic simulations of an increasingly fetishistic nature. What starts as straight-up sexual situations quickly becomes BDSM, which then becomes medical fantasy, and finally turns into a Moclan orgy, as Bortus becomes bored with each type of stimulation. As Bortus becomes more distant, Klyden decides to divorce him in the Moclan way, with a knife to the chest. I guess Moclans take “till death us do part” very seriously. After some life-saving surgery and negotiation with Captain Mercer, the two are ordered into to couples counseling with Dr. Finn.
Addiction to holographic fantasies is ground that Star Trek poked its nose into – most notably in the TNG episode, “Hollow Pursuits,” in which Engineer Barclay escaped from his insecurities in fantastic, and somewhat sexual, holodeck programs involving other members of the Enterprise crew. But “Primal Urges” takes advantage of both a more open societal discussion of the effects of pornographic addiction and advances in the understanding of its medical and psychological basis to treat the question in a more forthright manner than TNG could in 1990.
Disclosure: part of my work in real life involves working with (primarily) men who are struggling to free themselves from porn addiction, so this is an issue I have studied in some detail and have a good deal of experience in addressing. From my perspective, this episode gets a lot right about the causes of porn addiction and its cure.
The issue has gained public notoriety in the past five years or so due to the rise in internet porn and the resulting relational and emotional carnage that has resulted. Both religious and non-religious organizations have arisen, including Christian (The Conquer Series, Pure Life Ministries and many others), Mormon (Fight the New Drug), and Muslim (www.productivemuslim.com) approaches, as well as secular ones (like Sexaholics Anonymous and NoFap). A recent set of articles in National Geographic among many others has explored the effects of how addictive behaviors of many kinds – including drugs, porn, and gambling – rewire the human brain to decrease the person’s ability to resist temptation and increase their need for repeated and increased stimulus. The research is not without its controversy, and many question whether there’s a need for scientific research on what some think of as a moral question, but there’s no doubt that this is a sensitive and timely topic. What’s surprising is that The Orville, a show known for its frank approach to sexuality as well as baser bodily functions, would come out so firmly in the “NoFap” camp.
While the couples counseling Dr. Finn offers unfolds at a ridiculous speed, as with most television depictions of counseling, her approach is excellent. Dr. Finn recognizes porn addiction as a disease, and explores the emotional trauma that drives Bortus to self-medicate with pornography. It turns out that he is not as settled over the decision to subject Topa to gender reassignment surgery when she was born female, as is the Moclan custom (“About a Girl”). He remains angry about it, and is resentful towards Klyden. The shame and helplessness he feels have driven him to seek release in pornography. This goes beyond Trek’s depiction of Barclay as shy and anxious, and digs deeper into what psychologists are discovering about the roots of porn addiction. This episode realistically depicts the shame that Bortus feels, his increasing isolation from the other members of the crew, the disgust that some feel toward him when his addiction is revealed, and the powerful effect that non-judgmental acceptance and love can have on reversing the pull of the addiction.
Sadly, this illustrates something I brought up in my review of the second season opening episode, “Ja’loja.” In that episode, Bortus’ journey to his annual urination ceremony comes off as empty and meaningless. There is talk about the need for “release” and “cleansing” on an emotional and spiritual level, as symbolized by the physical act of urination, but there is very little dramatic weight put on this by the screenplay of that episode. Had this episode preceded it, Bortus would have had ample emotional need for release and cleansing, and Klyden’s responses to him would have had far greater emotional heft. Indeed, this episode was intended to air late in the show’s first season. Numerous details hint at this, including the puckering of the uniforms that increased as the first season progressed, the chummier relationship between Ed and Kelly that was destroyed in “Ja’loja” but was normal in the first season, and even the less-detailed head makeup on Dann that was seriously upgraded for the second season. While the episode was shot during the first season (originally intended to be the 12th episode), certain elements were retooled to help it fit better in the second season, including reshoots of scenes involving Topa, who has grown significantly since appearing as a baby in “About a Girl.” But the seams still show, and in my personal head canon, I will place this episode as the season opener, with “Ja’loja” to follow it.
(Editors Note: “Primal Urges” was indeed scheduled to be the first episode aired for season two, then last month “Ja’loja” was moved up in its place.)
Perhaps the most glaringly ugly aspect of this episode is not its depiction of porn addiction, which as Dr. Finn says, should be treated with “care and compassion,” but rather its depiction of the treatment of Isaac, the show’s artificial intelligence character. Isaac is written as a very unlikeable character, expressing himself with no emotion, and no understanding of human emotions, leading him to be tactless and blunt in every interaction. This leads to some very funny lines, such as an exchange between Bortus and Isaac in the shuttle late in the episode, when Bortus opens up about his feelings, and Isaac responds coldly, “I see. It is prudent that you are in therapy. Prepare for landing.”
It is a bold choice to make Isaac unlikeable. Interestingly, though, the show runners have chosen to make every other character (except Dr. Finn) respond to Isaac with ugly insults and rude comments. When Isaac is not around, Kelly says to Ed, “What a dick.” To which Ed responds, “He’s a glorified Speak-n-Spell – screw him.” Later on, Bortus says boldly to Isaac, “I may be a ‘primitive’ organism, but I am happy I am not like you.” Now, Bortus and all Moclans are depicted as uniformly blunt people, such as when Topa pokes at his food and asks, “Papa, can I be all done now?” and Bortus responds, “No, Topa, finish your plokta. Remember, if you do not eat, you will die.” But the treatment of Isaac seems to be uniformly ugly from every character but Dr. Finn. Perhaps this is intentional and will be addressed down the line, but if not, it is a dark approach for modern television.
Wrapping it all up, this episode is an “issue” episode that only briefly gets preachy, and embodies the best of recent research about a sensitive topic. It features some gorgeous effects, some humorous bits, and a dark streak of bigotry toward Isaac that I hope is addressed in the future.
- There is a cool, six-limbed alien character named Unk who hooks Bortus up with the Moclan orgy program – it is an astonishing and excellent alien creature effect.
- The Orville loses a whole lot of hull plates and sustains some major damage in this episode. The sequence is stirring.
- The episode realistically depicts Bortus’ underlying dissatisfaction and shame. “I should have fought harder to keep him female, but there was nothing more I could have done. No-one could have stopped what happened to her except Klyden, and he did not. I resent you, Klyden. I resent what you put our child through, and I don’t know if I can ever move on.”
- “You have worked late every night this week. It is too much. Come home. I have made pudding.” – Klyden
- “I know we’re supposed to be tolerant of alien cultures, but man – there has got to be a limit.” – Kelly, voicing a difference between this show and TNG
- “This is insane – I – I can’t have a normal ship, with normal people? It’s gotta be all stabby?” – Ed, embodying the same limit to toleration
- “Couples counseling helps married people – such as yourselves – discuss and resolve conflicts with the goal of improving your long-term relationship. I am here to guide that process.” “Will we select our own weapons?” – Dr. Finn and Bouts
- “I am ashamed beyond measure, Captain.” “It’s okay, dude, everybody does it sometimes – I went to town on myself this morning – it’s why I look so relaxed right now.” “God, this whole ship is gross.” – Bortus, Gordon, and Kelly. Sadly, I often feel the way Kelly does about the show.
- “I swear to God I’m never looking at porn again.” – LaMarr in the show’s preachiest and most on-the-nose moment
- “I have been a bad mate. I have been disrespectful. Instead of speaking my mind aloud, I have retreated into a fantasy world.” “Dr. Finn says if you talk about it, you get rid of it.” “Klyden, I do not know if I will ever fully be at peace with what happened to Topa. But today, I have witnessed events that – I am very fortunate to have you and Topa in my life, and I do not wish to lose you again.”
- This episode is rated DLSV – for suggestive dialogue, crude language, sexual situations, and violence, and it earns the rating.
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