Review: “All the World is Birthday Cake”
The Orville Season 2, Episode 5 – Aired Thursday, January 24, 2019
Written by Seth MacFarlane
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
When the Orville receives a transmission from a previously unknown species, the crew is delighted to make first contact. Meanwhile, new security chief Lt. Talla Keyali joins the crew.
“All the World is Birthday Cake” works when it’s exploring the adventure of first contact, but muddles around in a confused daze when it comes to portraying the conflict with the alien culture. The dazzling joy that opens the episode is worth the price of admission, but don’t think too hard about the conclusion, or you might strain your brain.
Warning: Don’t go all Giliac on me if below this line you find SPOILERS!
SAGGITARIUS: THE ARCHER
“All the World Is Birthday Cake” opens on what turns out to be the initiation of a SETI-like program on an alien world. What at first seems ominous and dark turns out to be a risky decision of the leaders of what we will learn to call Regor 2 to trigger a broadcast into space, with the message “Is anyone out there?” It is a teaser filled with wonder and hope and the drive for exploration, and it ignited the passions of this Trek fan’s heart.
After the opening credits, we join the Orville as they receive the transmission, and when the crew realizes the import of the broadcast, they immediately begin to prep the ship for first contact. The camera work becomes sprightly, the music swells with strings and horns, characters cheer, smiles break out on every face, and the ship springs into action. You really get the sense that this is what these people live for – making contact with new cultures and new civilizations.
It’s hard to stress just how awesome this whole first part of this episode is. Star Trek has always expressed a deep and profound joy at the idea of first contact with a new alien species. The TNG episode “First Contact” outlined the Federation’s procedures regarding first contact, and many episodes of every Trek series have focused on new encounters with alien races. But while Picard and company displayed a mature, intellectual approach to making contact, in this episode, The Orville shows delight in the idea, and that was very cool. Great credit for this surely goes both to writer Seth MacFarlane and director Robert Duncan McNeill, well known to Trek fans as Tom Paris in Star Trek: Voyager, who returns to The Orville for his second time behind the camera.
The crew land on Regor 2, in a quadrangle that will look immediately familiar to Trek fans as the grounds of Starfleet Academy from the 2009 Star Trek movie, and in front of a building that appeared in the Voyager episode “Random Thoughts.” The quad is packed with extras as Ed and Kelly engage in playful banter, handshakes are exchanged, and tours of the Regorian capital city are begun.
It’s fun to watch Bortus try to appear impressed with Regorian technology as they proudly show him their SETI broadcast array (Bortus: “It’s nice.”). It’s even more fun to note that new crew member Lt. Talla Keyali is even less adept than Bortus at hiding her feelings.
TAURUS: THE BULL
While this part of the plot unfolds, we get to meet The Orville’s new chief of security, Lt. Talla Keyali, played by Jessica Szohr. Talla is Xeleyan, like Halston Sage’s Alara Kitan, and possesses the Xeleyan super-strength gained from growing up on a high-gravity world. She displays this strength in a fun sequence at a state dinner with the Regorians, displaying a bit of a sense of humor, as well.
We meet Talla when Captain Mercer does a “welcome aboard” interview that borrows a number of beats from Captain Picard’s first meeting with Commander William Riker in TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint.” In that episode, Picard tests Riker by asking him about his refusal to allow his previous captain to beam down on an away mission to Altair III. Riker stated that he prioritized preserving his captain’s life over obeying the captain’s order to let him join the away team. In this episode, Ed Mercer questions Talla about an incident in which she punched her captain in the face, knocking him out cold, in a bid to obtain emergency assistance from a fiercely matriarchal alien race. In Riker’s case, the test was of the officer’s integrity. In Keyali’s case, the test is about her quick thinking and response to threats.
Later, when an unexpected conflict with the Regorians’ religion lands Mercer, Keyali, and Finn in a holding cell, the Xeleyan again utilizes both her strength and her sense of humor in protecting her captain. And near the end of the episode, it is an idea from Lt. Keyali that leads to the resolution of the crisis. All in all, it is a solid introduction to the character.
CAPRICORN: THE GOAT
This episode also gives us a more detailed look at the Planetary Union’s approach to first contact, and how it differs from Star Trek’s protocol. Starfleet’s approach is methodical, involving extended clandestine study of societies that have developed warp drive leading to high-level diplomatic efforts. The Planetary Union’s policy is quite different. In part due to a more exuberant nature, and in part due to concern over a society making first contact with unfriendly species like the Krill, the Planetary Union jumps at the first opportunity that presents itself. “When a planet reaches out into space, as you have, whether by ship or by transmitted message, that’s when we permit ourselves to make our presence known,” Ed explains to the First Prefect. “You asked if there was anyone out there. It’s Union policy to answer.”
It is fun to debate which approach shows more wisdom, but it’s not clear to me which is better. While the Federation approach seems more measured, we have seen even with careful consideration, trouble can still happen. And the galactic politics of The Orville could be quite different with potential dangerous rivals jumping in, creating the need for more haste.
SCORPIO: THE SCORPION
All of that works so well, it seems a shame to talk about the things that don’t, but that’s just what has to happen when we get to the main conflict of the story. During a tour of a Regorian obstetrics ward, Dr. Finn notices that the Regorians are performing unnecessary emergency C-sections to deliver babies that are dangerously premature. She is told that this is to prevent them from being born “Giliacs,” people prone to violence and extreme destructive behavior. Later, at the state dinner, the First Prefect reacts in alarm upon hearing that it is nearly Kelly’s birthday, and Bortus’ as well, immediately ordering their incarceration. It turns out that this is a planet governed by a very strict belief in astrology, and those born under the sign of “Giliac” are considered dangerous malcontents and are placed in concentration camps for their entire lives for the good of society.
This is all alarming and well played, but when the diplomatic efforts to retrieve Kelly and Bortus begin, all sorts of holes are skipped by in the plot, making the aliens who had earlier seemed hopeful and adventurous now seem backward and naive. Creating straw man aliens as a way to make the heroes seem more intelligent and advanced is a kind of lazy writing trope that The Orville has previously avoided and is disappointing to see. There’s no reason given, for instance, for why the Regorians wouldn’t release Kelly and Bortus into Captain Mercer’s custody, with a requirement to take them off-planet. Instead, the First Prefect becomes immediately hostile and implacable and rebuffs any attempts at negotiation.
Worse yet is the solution devised by the Orville’s crew. They contrive to light up a new, fake star in the Giliac constellation, using a satellite with a reflective sail to simulate the light of a new star. The effects work here is impressive, though the Orville’s shuttle doesn’t look any less like a fake CGI minivan when it has what looks like a cartop carrier attached to it. There is some dialogue about how the solar sail is equipped with technology designed to fool any planetary scanners into reading the light in the sky as a star, but there is no mention of the fact that it’s easy to distinguish between objects in near orbit and objects that are far off in space, using simple triangulation. We routinely determine the distance of objects from Earth with great precision. Surely a people who base their whole way of life on the relative positions of the planets and stars and have ringed their own planet with satellites designed for the sole purpose of determining the precise position of those objects would not be fooled by a light in low orbit of their planet, no matter what spectra of light it’s giving off. The whole idea just seems ill thought out and unlikely.
The business in the concentration camp plays out with no subtlety and very little actual suspense. During a prison break attempt, Kelly and Bortus blithely shoot – and presumably kill – a handful of security guards each, and while there’s an excellent scene at the end of the episode discussing the morality of lying to an entire planet, there’s not even a hand waved at the advisability of killing a large number of people in an attempt to circumvent their unjust laws. While I believe an argument could be made that their actions were justifiable, I would have at least liked to have seen a nod to the question.
The whole thing wraps up way too quickly. The new star appears in the sky, and the prison guards and the Warden immediately halt the execution of the prisoners who had just killed half a dozen of their comrades, and whom they were in the process of summarily executing. Suddenly we are on the bridge of the Orville having a joint birthday party for Kelly and Bortus, and we hear that though next to no time has passed, the entire Regorian religion has changed, all the Giliac camps have been emptied, children have been returned to their parents, and light has dawned. It’s all far too quick and passed over with scant lines of dialogue. What this means is that none of that was really the point of the episode. But if not that, then what was the point of the episode? What was this episode about? Religion? No, the episode doesn’t care enough about the Regorian religion enough to invest it with any consistency or feeling. Extremism? If so, then the extent of the show’s message is, “extremism is bad, huh?” And how does the B-story, the introduction of Jessica Szohr’s character, connect with any of these possible themes? It’s a puzzle, and one that can’t be easily solved.
YOUR HOROSCOPE FOR TODAY
“All the World is Birthday Cake” is a well-directed episode whose first half is so delightful that it makes one willing to overlook the shortcomings and inconsistencies of the second half.
- The title of this episode is apparently taken from the song “It’s All Too Much” by the Beatles
- Regorian astrological signs include Panaji, Corobahn, Valeigh, Wasanda, and Giliac.
- On Moclus, astrology is known as Da’Klaya.
- Xeleyans don’t have an appendix
- Ted Danson has a cameo as Union Admiral Perry
- Modernism of the week: Gordon and Lamarr make a Jib Jab video of Kelly and Bortus dancing to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”
- The month of Giliac lasts for 30 days – then why are some of the c-sections Dr. Finn observes being done “months” early? That makes no sense!
- Would the Regorians call a surgical birth a “c-section”? “C” there is short for “Caesarean section,” and refers to the myth that Julius Caesar was born in this way. Also, wouldn’t the c-section Dr. Finn observes be a scheduled c-section, rather than an emergency?
- “What’s going to happen when the Regorians find out that the star is fake?” “We just lied to an entire planet, and I don’t know what the ethics of that mean. But that lie meant freedom for an entire portion of the population, so the short answer is, I don’t know.” Talla and Ed
- There’s a fun discussion on the Bridge about a possible joint birthday party for Kelly and Bortus, given the proximity of their birthdays, but Bortus isn’t having it: “I prefer my birthday to be my day.”
- “You know, we could make up fake names, they wouldn’t know.” “Why would we do that?” “I don’t know, I always hated my name, I just figured this is one of those times when you could pick your own name. I could be Chad, you could be Maxine…” Ed and Kelly bantering
- “On behalf of the people of our world, welcome to Regor 2.” “On behalf of the Planetary Union, welcome to the galaxy.” First Prefect and Ed
- “In the vast emptiness of the universe, we have found a fullness of cultural diversity. And when a first contact unfolds like this, the cosmos becomes a living, breathing organism. So that within that emptiness, we become a way for the universe to know itself. We are honored to know Regor 2.” “Wow, that was pretty good.” “Thanks, I plagiarized it from like nine different things.” J. Michael Straczynski must be delighted that his Babylon 5 cosmology is alive and well 400 years from now.
- “So [your culture] really is a utopia. No societal burdens.” “I mean, we still have, like, in-laws, and things like that, but we’ve come a long way. We believe that everybody deserves a chance at happiness. We believe that we all do better when we all do better.” Science Prefect and Ed.
- “The stars don’t lie.” A common Regorian saying, apparently.
- “Look at you. People from another world. But still Giliac trash, no matter where you’re from.” – Regorian Warden
- “Our weapons are hundreds of years more advanced than theirs! Why can’t we just-” “That’s exactly why we can’t. We have to find another way.” Cassius and Ed
- “Bortus, you have a kid, any suggestions?” “Will there be an egg?” Kelly and Bortus
- “You know, you have my pity.” “Your wife has mine.” Warden and Kelly. Not Kelly’s best comeback, ever.
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