“A Tale of Two Topas”
The Orville Season 3 (New Horizons), Episode 5 – Debuted Thursday, June 30, 2022
Written and directed by: Seth McFarlane
Hoping to one day become a Union officer, Topa takes Commander Kelly Grayson as his mentor. In the process, his deep unhappiness about something he can’t identify drives him to search for answers–answers that could have explosive consequences for the Planetary Union, the crew of the Orville, and his Moclan parents.
“A Tale of Two Topas” is a heartfelt and heart-breaking collision of key plots and themes from the first two seasons of The Orville. Its message about the importance of living out one’s own personal truth is deeply complicated by the sci-fi scenario that the story requires, which makes for a fascinating exploration that matters for these characters, but sounds an uncertain trumpet in the real-world context of the wider culture. It’s messy, and in that messiness is this episode’s strength and its weakness.
IF YOU DIG SPOILERS, ARCHAEOLOGICALLY, THERE IS A TREASURE-TROVE AHEAD
Belongs in a museum
Of all the plot threads developed during The Orville’s first two seasons, perhaps none was as emotionally-charged and difficult as the “Moclan thread.” In the Moclan culture, the show presented the explosive question of just how far Star Trek-style toleration for differences can extend. Within the diverse and welcoming Planetary Union, the Moclans stood out for their warlike nature, their fierce and uncompromising morality, and of course, the fact that all Moclans are male. Except they aren’t–in episode 102, Bortus lays an egg and must incubate it, and at the end of the episode, when it hatches, inside is a baby girl. In episode 103, Klyden insists that the girl receive gender-reassignment surgery, and when Bortus disagrees (after learning the lesson of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer) the case goes before a Moclan court, which is shocked by the bombshell revelation that the planet’s most famous author is a female named Heveena, a proud and uncompromising woman. The tribunal rules against Bortus, and Topa is surgically-altered to be physiologically male.
Episode 202, “Primal Urges,” highlighted the rift that had grown between Bortus and Klyden over this decision, the shame of which drove Bortus into a pornography addiction. In all of Season two, Topa is played by an eight-year-old boy, Blesson Yates. Episode 207, “Deflectors,” establishes that some Moclan males are attracted primarily to females, including one of Bortus’ former lovers, Locar, who stages his own fake murder to frame Klyden for it, hoping to escape Moclan culture and live in freedom in the galaxy. And in episode 212, “Sanctuary,” the crew of the Orville discovers that Heveena has secretly established a safe haven for Moclan females who want to avoid gender-reassignment surgery, a place for parents to leave their infants. When the colony applies for Union membership, it drives a rift between Moclus and the Planetary Union.
Not the years, but the mileage
Neither Topa nor Klyden has appeared in season three at all until this episode, where Topa is played by female college sophomore Imani Pullum. Topa’s unhappiness and questing for answers leads to his discovery (aided by Commander Grayson and surprisingly by Bortus) that he was born female and surgically altered to appear male. Pullum’s performance here is nothing short of amazing, with her countenance, gestures, voice, and mannerisms Topa’s sadness, hope, and despair, and then after her gender re-reassignment surgery the freedom and happiness of her new life. Beyond that, Pullum is able to portray Topa as somehow male before the surgery and female afterwards, even though the difference in the Moclan makeup is very subtle.
Pullum’s performance would be the highlight of any other episode, were it not for the tour de force duo of Peter Macon as Bortus and Chad Coleman as Klyden. I’ve long said that Coleman has one of the most difficult jobs on television. The Orville is not satisfied with just making Klyden a villain and being done with it; instead, the show writes the character with a point of view that is comprehensible and at times sympathetic, such that even when you can’t agree with him, you can understand where he’s coming from and why he does what he does. In “A Tale of Two Topas,” Klyden is a ball of repressed fury that comes unleashed, is a towering bully who uses force to try to get his way, but is also a self-hating man who has long despaired of ever truly being happy.
Coleman’s performance is only surpassed by Macon, who through the thick Moclan head-and-neck appliances is somehow able to wring some of the deepest emotions out of every line. When Bortus croaks, “I do not know how to help him!” with tears running down his face, it is the episode’s most poignant moment. We also get to hear Bortus sing, which is the other shoe dropping from a gag introduced in episodes 105, “Pria,” and 107, “Majority Rule.” In “A Tale of Two Topas,” Bortus sings selections from 16 different Union cultures (though we only see two, from Earth’s 20th Century, of course) as a diversion from the gender re-reassignment surgery taking place in sickbay. While Macon may never be asked to record a CD, he has a strong voice and is able to carry the tunes off well.
Everybody’s lost except me
Seth MacFarlane’s writing in this episode is strong and complicated, as has so often been the case throughout The Orville’s run. The archaeological dig subplot that at times feels tacked on actually sets up important beats that pay off later–Kelly’s early admiration with the alien beast flying free, Isaac’s ability to open the booby-trapped doors of the temple–presaging his ability to avoid the ethical booby traps later in the episode, and even affording a convenient way for Mercer and Grayson to be chewed out in person by Admiral Howland in the episode’s closing minutes.
Topa begins the episode as a male, on the bridge of a simulated starship, practicing giving commands as its captain. Topa ends the episode on the bridge of the real Orville, giving real commands to its crew. Grayson early on explains the duties of the ship’s first officer to Topa, which include overseeing crew morale and managing cultural clashes. This latter is demonstrated quickly as she helps find a compromise between ensign Bolobar’s religious beliefs and the crew’s need for him to wear pants. But of course, this is put to the test as she has to deal with the difficulties of Moclan cultural differences, and it breaks down when she is attacked by Klyden and has to pin him to the wall.
What is more challenging about the episode–and I think this is to MacFarlane’s credit–is the difficulty in exactly mapping the episode’s moral lessons onto contemporary issues. It is pretty clear that MacFarlane’s intent is to support kids who have gender dysphoria, urging parents to listen to their kids and to let their kids guide them in understanding their identity. But in the context of the show’s sci-fi universe, it’s not that simple. Topa is not just surgically transitioning, he is surgically de-transitioning, which if carried more literally than MacFarlane intended would lead to a very different message. Topa was surgically altered before she could consent to the process, but inside she still connects with her biological sex at birth. Instead of trying to smooth out the details to make the show have a clear teaching point, MacFarlane lets the characters and situations lead the way, which makes the episode stronger and simultaneously less preachy than it otherwise could have been. And when Kelly and Topa revisit the Moclan gender tribunal seen in episode 103, the effect is seamless, inserting new footage of Imani Pullum and Adrienne Palicki into the archival footage from that episode, a la DS9’s “Trials and Tribble-ations,” along with shooting new footage with some of the original actors including Rena Owen (Heveena).
Why did it have to be snakes?
One nitpick that I think has to be noted is that the de-transitioning surgery that Isaac winds up performing for Topa is described as “simple,” is accompanied by tinkling, fairy-tale style music, and is both immediately successful and requires no significant recovery time. This isn’t real life, of course, and The Orville operates in the realm occupied by Star Trek Lower Decks’ ensign Mariner, who quips to Boimler after he’s gummed by the alien spider in LDS 101, “You’re fine, Doc will wave a light over it.” As someone who is currently in my third week of recovery from relatively minor surgery, this plot point definitely felt like a fairy tale.
That Isaac volunteers to perform the surgery, and his later explanation to Dr. Finn about why he volunteered, is another point in MacFarlane’s favor – this decision makes a whole lot of sense, and solves a whole lot of problems that the episode is wise enough to point out as it solves them.
At 75 minutes the longest episode of The Orville ever, this episode felt a little long, but I am not sure what I would have cut from it. Even the aforementioned archaeology subplot has a meaningful place in the episode, and it inspired the header quotes for this review, so I would be ungrateful to complain about it. “A Tale of Two Topas” is probably the best episode of the season so far, and is definitely the meatiest.
- Ed has been writing letters to his daughter Anaya, even though he can’t get them to her on Krill, just in case someday she gets to read them. Aww!
- In the Belkarian faith, to wear clothing on the first day of the month is considered an affront to the work of the Spirit Lord.
- Brosk, a crewmember from an unnamed alien race, always speaks his native language, which is not translated by the ship’s translator, yet everyone understands him. This is also true of Lt. Unk. I am not sure how that works in the world of The Orville.
- This episode adds to my concerns about Commander Grayson’s possible alcoholism, with references to the significant amount of day drinking that her job inspires. Get help, Kelly!
- There’s a great scene shot in front of the Dysonium sphere between Grayson and Topa (used for this review’s header image) that shows the vast improvement in the Engineering set–you would never have shot that scene in front of the old set piece
- Kolp is a green, seaweed-looking Moclan food; Oppsada can be made into a cake called “Kimbok;” the password protecting the files related to Topa’s gender tribunal is Gomaskah488–in episode 103 we learn that a “gomaskah” is a Moclan first date
- Union medical policy recommends reporting someone’s possibly suicide-related comments to a superior officer–this is good practice for those of us not stationed on Union ships, as well.
- After this episode, if I were Commander Grayson, I’d be wary of answering my door chime.
- Imani Pullum’s IMDB biography lists Topa as a “recurring role,” so we may see her again this season.
- The USS Newton is a science vessel in the Union navy.
- It looks like Lt. Dann is just visible in one corridor shot.
- A quick moment between Charly and Gordon hints at a possible future romance.
- Gordon, like most humans, has a horrible allergic reaction to eating a Baliddian Tart, despite the fact that it’s green sprinkles make it look so tasty.
- “Run this over your face for three minutes.” Finn to Malloy, a la Mariner.
- “I don’t do anything half-assed, Lieutenant.” Ensign Charly Burke.
- “I always feel as if there is something wrong with me. But I cannot tell what. Lt. Malloy says many people my age feel this way. Perhaps it is normal.” Topa.
- “It occurs to me that in all the time we have been together, I have never once known you to be uncertain of anything. Tell me, what is it like to be so wise?” “You are mocking me! Do you know how much pain I would have been spared had I not discovered that I was born female? I would never – ever – force our son to endure such a life. I love him with all my heart. Bortus, I would give anything to be ignorant of my beginnings. Topa may never be happy, but unhappiness is better than despair.” Bortus and Klyden.
- “As much as I hate him – as much as I hate his answer – he is your father.” Grayson.
- “It is my understanding that a visit to a crew member’s quarters during off-duty hours can invite speculation regarding intent. If you wish, I will send a ship-wide communique assuring the crew that this was not a romantic or sexual encounter.” Isaac to Grayson.
- “I may appear to be male, but what is inside me still exists. It is why I have felt the way I have for so long. My body has been screaming to me that I am someone else.” Topa
- “We love you for everything that you are… and were.” Bortus to Topa
- “I’m going to use my imagination to pretend that didn’t just happen. And then I’m gonna let go, and you’re gonna get the hell out of my office. And if you ever try to strike an officer again, I’m gonna break your goddamn arm off and mount it on my wall. You hear me?” Grayson after judo-ing Klyden.
- “I am an artificial life form capable of executing complex algorithms demanding extreme physical dexterity. For me, there is no difference between performing surgery, playing a piano concerto, or re-aligning a scanner array. In effect, I can indeed be…a doctor.” Isaac
- “That key is too high!” Bortus to Ty Finn, both of whom brought their “A game.”
- “Have you no room in your heart for tolerance? What inner fulfillment are you enjoying from this devotion to tradition that is so potent it drives you from your family?” Bortus to Klyden.
- “I wish you were never born.” Klyden to Topa.
- “Listen very closely to me. You are perfect.” Bortus to Topa.
- “Look, I don’t want to disrespect your religion, but maybe there’s a sensible compromise between your faith and Union protocol that would satisfy everyone involved.” “What do you suggest?” “Put some pants on, and we’ll call it a day.” Grayson and Bolobar.
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