The Orville Season 2, Episode 12 – Aired Thursday, April 11, 2019
Written by Joe Menosky
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
This season’s exploration of the limits of tolerance between people who believe widely different things comes front and center, as Captain Mercer and the Orville become embroiled in a controversy involving rights for renegade female Moclans. The episode features The Orville’s signature blend of even-handed, detailed argumentation, awesome visual effects, and a realistically untidy ending, and is wonderfully directed by Jonathan Frakes. Not everything works, but what does work is well worth seeing.
Warning: My traditional values tell me to warn people who like to avoid SPOILERS—they are abundant below this point!
Service and devotion
After the close battle with the Kaylon in “Identity, Part Two,” the Union Admiralty has arranged for top Moclan engineers to work on upgrading the weaponry on the USS Orville and all Union vessels of Explorer-class and above. In exchange for these upgrades, Captain Mercer and his crew are assigned “taxi” duties, transporting a Moclan researcher and his mate to their next assignment. While Mercer bristles at the mundane nature of the duty, he is delighted for the increase in his ship’s firepower.
The lead-up of this episode feels a lot like “Deflectors,” a Moclan-heavy episode earlier in the season when the Orville’s defensive systems were upgraded by a Moclan engineer whose attraction to females made him a “pervert” to other Moclans. The fact that the two researchers, Toren and Korick, have a strong desire for privacy only increases the resemblance, and when they open one of their cases in their quarters to reveal a glowy box of mysteriousness, the air of suspense is intensified. What are these guys up to?
This episode features a lot of gorgeous shots for ship nerds like me to enjoy, starting with a swooping tour of a Union space station. It also includes shots of a Moclan battlecruiser, a smaller Moclan ship, and more shuttles entering and exiting landing bays than probably any episode of any space show, ever. It is to director Jonathan Frakes’ credit that none of these shuttle scenes feel redundant or repetitive.
That man is out to get me
After the credits sequence, we look in on the Orville’s school, where the lone Moclan student, Topa, is squabbling with human girl Olivia over who has the right to which building blocks. Their teacher, played by the delightful Marina Sirtis, intervenes when Topa shoves Olivia out of the way, yelling, “I don’t share with females—my Papa says females are weak!” to which Olivia sensibly retorts, “Well, your Papa is stupid! Now give it back!”
Later, at a parent meeting with Bortus and Klyden, Sirtis’ character shows that she is as even-tempered as her predecessor, Cassius, by insisting that regardless of whether or not Topa was provoked, his response crossed the line of propriety. In their quarters, Bortus and Klyden argue. Klyden has taught Topa traditional Moclan values—esteeming males far above females in value. Bortus cannot understand how Klyden’s time aboard the Orville has not broadened his perspective more. Klyden cannot understand how Bortus can feel that he alone is right, and the whole of Moclan society is wrong. And both of them are still angry about the incident surrounding Topa’s forced gender-reassignment surgery in “About a Girl.”
We know that Klyden was born female and surgically altered to become a male, and that Topa endured the same. “If it were up to you, our son would still be female!” Klyden charges. This is, of course, true. Perhaps Klyden is so sensitive about this question because of his own gender-reassignment. Does he fear that Bortus’ growing distance from him stems from the fact that he was born female but was altered to become male?
These issues become central to the episode’s plot when Bortus discovers that Toren and Korick’s mysterious glowy box contains a newborn Moclan girl in stasis. The researchers claim to be her parents and, wanting their daughter Mersa to be allowed to remain female, they have escaped Moclus and are traveling to Retepsia (the home planet of season one’s recurring character Darulio) for asylum. Bortus agrees not to inform Captain Mercer and to allow them to go on their way, but not before bringing Topa to see Mersa in stasis. “Look at her, Topa. She is not so different from you or I.”
In and among this plot thread lurks the difficult question of Moclan reproductive biology. Moclans were originally established to be an “all-male” species, though they consistently show a tendency to establish families in married pairs of men. It is not clear if both parents contribute biologically to the genetic makeup of their child, but it is clear that one male parent lays an egg and sits on it for 21 days until it hatches. We now know that the Moclan species has females, an occurrence which at first was said to happen only once every 75 years or so, a fact that was called into question by the revelation that Klyden was born female, and so was Topa, and eventually by the revelation of Heveena, a female Moclan renegade poet (“About a Girl”). It is difficult to imagine an evolutionary path that leads to a species where one gender is completely unnecessary to reproduction and yet there are two genders. It is difficult to imagine an evolutionary system in which the egg-laying parent is the only one to contribute genetic material to their offspring, yet they mate in pairs. What, exactly IS Moclan mating, if not a reproductive sharing of genetic material? It feels as though Moclans are not established as a science fiction species, but rather as a vague tool for discussing human social issues. The more we learn about Moclans, the more this seems to be the case.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the way this show discusses human social issues, and there will be more on that below, but the Moclans as a science fiction concept make less and less sense as more is established about their biology.
The traffic starts jumpin’
When Topa accidentally spills the beans about Mersa to Klyden (did I really just write that sentence?), Klyden goes straight to Mercer with the news, and Bortus is called on the carpet. What follows is a shockingly sensible scene where Grayson, Keyali, Finn, and Mercer rake Bortus over the coals for not asking follow-up questions of Toren and Korick. The real possibility exists that Mersa was not their child, but was kidnapped for some reason, but Bortus believed their story immediately, probably because of his own feelings on the matter. As I said, this is entirely sensible, and it is understandable why Captain Mercer would want to chase down the runaway researchers to try to verify their story.
Enter Isaac, who in this episode detects power fluctuations, scans for masked ion signatures, and tracks stealthy Moclan vessels. He exists as a bridge functionary, does his duty, and advances the plot, but otherwise does not serve as an actual character here, just as he hasn’t since “Identity, Part 2.” In an episode that uses the threat of the Kaylon as a driving impulse for keeping peace with the Moclans, there is no attempt to include the one Kaylon they have with them on board the ship in the discussion at all. There could have been a scene in which Isaac reinforces the Kaylon threat in some way, but the show seems allergic to following up on the events of “Identity, Parts 1 and 2” when it comes to Isaac.
Isaac tracks the Moclans to a class-6 absorption nebula (which is a real thing) that showcases, again, how truly lovely the visual FX are in this show. Inside the nebula is a K-type star (also a real thing) that has three planets impossibly close to each other.
On the innermost planet is a colony of Moclans, and when Mercer, Grayson, Keyali, and Bortus land in yet another shuttle, they discover that they are almost all female Moclans – over 6000 of them – led by Heveena, the renegade poet from “About a Girl.” The Moclan women on this planet appear to be well-armed, and look and move a lot like General Okoye’s troops in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Heveena and her people are hiding out in this colony out of fear the Moclan government will find them, bring them back to Moclus, force them to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and then throw them in prison for life. She trusts Mercer’s discretion, but not his entire crew (cough-GORDON!-cough), so she begins to order an evacuation until Mercer suggests an alternative: petitioning the Union Council for admission as a separate state. This would bring the Union’s protection over the colony. Heveena agrees.
While the Orville stays in orbit of the planet as protection, Mercer and Heveena take a shuttle toward Earth. En route, Heveena asks about human women and the art that they make. In keeping with The Orville’s fascination with contemporary pop culture, and especially music, the first work of art Heveena comes across is Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5.” Heveena immediately understands all of the song’s chronologically- and culturally-rooted references completely, and adopts it as the anthem of her revolution.
One of the quirks of The Orville, and it is characteristic of the entire run of the show thus far, is its embrace of popular culture— vs. “high” art—as a source of wisdom and insight. Where Star Trek shows might reference Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Mozart, The Orville looks to Dolly Parton, Billy Joel, and Kermit the Frog. This may be an aspect of creator Seth Macfarlane’s vision of The Orville as more of a blue-collar ship than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Enterprise-D.
The blood starts pumpin’
The second half of the episode cuts between diplomatic discussions on Earth and events surrounding the colony planet. As Union admirals and then Council members discuss admitting the colony as a member, the Moclans send a battlecruiser to enforce their interests in the nebula.
One of the things The Orville does very well is present difficult arguments as genuine differences between intelligent people with very distinct points of view. The discussions in the Council, between admirals, and even with the Moclans, are all fascinating to watch, and arguments progress from A to B to C in logical ways, without feeling pre-digested. These mostly seem like people trying to argue very different points of view, rather than actors reciting lines given to them by screenwriters. And that’s a function both of the acting and the writing.
It helps that all of the admirals are characters we’ve met before, played by Ted Danson, Ron Canada, Kelly Hu, and Victor Garber, and the Council members are played by F. Murray Abraham (as the Xeleyan Council Chairman) and Tony Todd (as the head Moclan Ambassador).
One of the things The Orville does not do well is explaining how the Union itself functions, and this discussion makes the question very muddy indeed. Discussions among “The Union” seem to be between the group of human admirals—is “The Union” sometimes a reference to Earth? Is Earth a military dictatorship?—while the Union Council is made up of representatives from many worlds. What is the relationship between the military and the government in this show? Star Trek was able to get away with using the United Nations as templates for how the Federation operated and to treat Starfleet like a UN peacekeeping force, made up of members from many nations. They could do this because they just followed the pattern we are familiar with, and the audience accepted it because of its familiarity. But the politics of the Union aren’t nearly as straightforward.
Heveena makes her case to the Union Council, praising its diversity, and ending with an extended quote from “9 to 5,” delivered as a stirring call of acceptance. The Moclans are intractable and threaten to withdraw from the Union, taking their much-needed weapons manufacturing capabilities with them. And when it seems the tide of the Council is turning against them, the Moclans order their battle cruiser to land shuttles to start capturing and relocating the colonists.
Mercer officially orders Grayson not to intervene, while unofficially telling her to intervene. Possibly sparing others from breaking with official orders, Kelly and Bortus go to the planet alone, to take on four shuttles worth of Moclan soldiers. This unbalanced fight gives the two of them the chance to relive their exciting prison break from “All the World is Birthday Cake.” Unfortunately, because our crew have to be the ones who save the day, the Moclan Dora Milaje who earlier in the episode seemed well-armed and competent are now easily under the thumb of the newly arrived male Moclan soldiers, and it is not until Kelly and Bortus show up and start shooting that they gain the courage to rise up and defend themselves. The episode sets the running gun battle, intercut with a simultaneous space battle between the Orville and the Moclan cruiser, to the rousing strains of—you guessed it—Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” I know that this worked for a lot of people, but it didn’t for me. What I was impressed with was the space battle, which was intelligible, intelligent, and exciting. The digital FX people obviously recovered quickly from the exhausting work involved in “Identity, Part 2.”
You never get the credit
In the nick of time, Mercer saves the day with a pithy quip to the Moclans about their vulnerability to Kaylon invasion if they choose to go it alone, and Admiral Halsey proposes an excellent compromise solution. It is a genuine compromise, in that nobody really gets everything they want, but everybody gets enough of what they want that they don’t feel like they fully lost. Again, it’s a savvy piece of writing, and it points to another thing The Orville generally does very well – the endings of its episodes are seldom pat, easy, and cut-and-dried. Like in real life, victories are rarely total, and ambiguity is the name of the game.
Did I miss anything? Oh, yes – while Mercer and the Admirals are debating the limits of tolerance when it comes to the Moclans, Bortus and Klyden have it out in the Orville’s mess hall in front of Commander Grayson. Both of these scenes are well-written and powerfully played.
A fat promotion
Bottom line? It’s a fascinating episode, with intelligent arguments that give due respect to all sides, while digging deeply into the question of the limits of tolerance, the season’s major theme. The action is great, the writing is solid, and the performances are strong. The guest stars are a sparkling constellation: Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Tony Todd, and the assorted admirals. What doesn’t work for me are the niggling questions the show always leaves behind—unanswered questions about Moclan biology, the repercussions of Isaac’s betrayal of the Union, and the political organization of the Union itself—and the show’s strange embrace of today’s pop culture as the wisdom of the ages. Regardless of all that, “Sanctuary” is well worth watching.
- It hasn’t exactly been established yet on the show how the class rankings of starships in the Union military works, but the USS Orville has been described as an “Exploratory-class” ship in previous episodes, which might be the same as this episode’s “Explorer Class.”
- Reference is made to a USS Burnell, perhaps named after the Irish astrophysicist?
- While not stated explicitly, it appears Marina Sirtis’ character replaced Kelly’s former boyfriend Cassius as the teacher on board the USS Orville, which leaves open the possibility of her returning.
- A story directed by Jonathan Frakes about a small colony inside a nebula that is under threat from powerful space ships, starring Marina Sirtis and F. Murray Abraham could be seen as a leaner, more efficient Star Trek: Insurrection.
- There is outstanding camera work on the bridge of the Orville during the space battle. Frakes has been on both sides of that kind of scene, a lot of times, and he adds creativity to that experience.
- The episode ends as it began, with Topa and Olivia building with blocks, but now Topa is playing well with the girl. It’s a nice bookend to the story.
- “Perhaps when Topa is grown, Moclus will not be so…intolerant.” “Who are you to question our core beliefs? You are only one Moclan. What makes the rest of our society wrong, and your perverse vision, right? If it were up to you, our son would still be female!” Bortus and Klyden.
- “But there are no Moclan females.” “Only a few are born every generation. Some people fear them. That is why her parents have chosen to conceal her. Look at her, Topa. She is not so different from you or I.” Topa and Bortus.
- “How do you know they were telling the truth?” “If you had called me, I could have run a DNA scan to see if they were really the parents.” Kelly and Finn. I guess Finn’s line implies that both male parents contribute genetic material to their child. How in the heck does that work?
- “There are over 300 people aboard your vessel—that is over 300 ways to expose us.” Heveena is no fool.
- “Every revolution begins with a single act of defiance.” “One of yours?” “Actually, I don’t know who said it.” An online search shows many quotations of this line, all of them attributed to “anonymous.” Heveena must have read it somewhere online.
- “She speaks with the might of a hundred soldiers! This is the voice of our revolution!” Heveena on Dolly Parton
- “As I look upon all of the exquisite diversity in this great hall, I am reminded that most of us share something in common. Over the course of history, there have been people on nearly every planet who were, at one time or another, oppressed—by those who were stronger, or greater in numbers, for reasons that now seem insignificant to us. The history of moral progress can be measured by the expansion of fundamental rights to those who have been denied them. We ask only to be included in that expanding circle of justice.” Heveena’s opening speech is stirring.
- “Look, I understand what’s at stake! I’m just saying that if we are not willing to stand up for the values that this Union was founded on, what exactly are we defending?” Mercer to the Admirals.
- “You did not bother to greet Commander Grayson. And you have not acknowledged her presence since you have been standing here. You rarely leave our quarters or socialize with the crew. You cling to traditions that serve no useful purpose. Your mind remains closed. And you wish to raise our child to embrace this ignorance!” Bortus to Klyden.
- “Ambassador, the Moclans and the Krill can’t stop the Kaylon alone – and you know it. Moclus would be destroyed. But that little planet inside the nebula might just be insignificant enough to fly under the radar. And if that happens, the only Moclans left in the galaxy would be female. But hey – you’d still be a single-sex species.” Mercer zings it out of the park.
- “Captain, do you suppose Dolly Parton would be proud of us?” “Oh, yeah.” Heveena and Mercer.
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