First things first: tonight we meet the new Alara, same as the old Alara. Except now she has a side pony! Okay, that’s not entirely fair. From her very first introduction, Lt. Talla Keyali (Jessica Szohr) demonstrates that she’s far more aggressive and confident than Alara was in her role. Arguably, Talla is who Alara would become at the end of her character arc towards self-acceptance. The show also has the good grace to lampshade the similarities by having Kelly point out Ed specifically requested a Xelayan replacement, despite that putting him in danger of being punched in the face. And besides, I like the idea that Xelaya has an entire subculture of women annoyed by the passive-aggressive intellectual snobbery of their home planet who just want to run off to the stars where they can enjoy the simple catharsis of kicking ass.
Having addressed the problem of organized religion with last season’s finale, “Mad Idolatry”, The Orville broadens its criticism to include secular superstition with “All the World is Birthday Cake”. As Kelly and Bortus discuss the possibility of sharing a party for their upcoming birthdays, the ship intercepts a transmission from a pre-space flight planet that just sent its first message in search of alien life. It’s cool to see the whole crew react to the prospect of first contact with such jubilation. Kelly even exclaims it’s what she most wants for her birthday. The ship makes contact and the crew receives a warm welcome.
The first sign of something strange happening is when Dr. Claire tours a local hospital and notices that an abnormally high number of women are all having emergency C-sections, despite, according to her surreptitious scans, both the mother and fetus being perfectly healthy. Only later that evening, when Kelly mentions her and Bortus’ upcoming birthdays, does it become clear why. They are branded as ‘Gilliacs’, which is the term for the astrological sign they would be born under if they were native to Regor 2. By the rules of their astrological calendar, Gilliacs are murderous sociopaths and must be detained before they inevitably do evil. The two are immediately arrested and the remaining crew is hauled off for a truly uncomfortable scene of dental extraction as a medic removes a plug of each crew member’s tooth for detailed birthday analysis. Kelly and Bortus are sent to a Gilliac concentration camp while everyone else returns to the Orville.
The most potentially interesting aspect of the episode occurs as an almost incidental side note. After the month of Gilliac ends, the Prefect goes on camera and heralds in the new month. Anyone born under this sign is fortunate and fated to become a leader or some other wealthy and influential person. Essentially, we learn, the Regorians abuse their astrological beliefs to enforce an incredibly rigid caste system. It’s never brought up as such, and the idea is never explored, but it’s a tantalizing idea that goes far to explain why the Regorians would be so eager to lock up some perfectly friendly aliens.
Yes, this was an episode specifically addressing destructive consequences of superstition, but it ignores a lot of basic human behavior in order to do so. As a rule, I generally don’t get hung up about the science a sci-fi show utilizes to support its narrative, because I’m much more interested in how sci-fi uses its trappings to tell good stories than I am in the structural integrity of those trappings. But here, the details were just too thin to support the premise. Surely, the Regorians would figure that anyone born in a different solar system would be bound by a completely different astrological system than theirs? As the Regorians say, “The stars don’t lie”. And other planets will see different stars. And have different solar cycles, for that matter. Does the whole planet adhere to the same belief system as the nation the crew landed in? I mean, we’ve been sending out signals into space for some time and we can’t even agree if it’s OK to put ketchup on a hot dog, much less what imaginary system of celestial guidance we want to use to completely structure our society. And if a star exploding caused such a massive societal effect that enacted a pogrom against 1/12th of the population, how was the event not printed out on pamphlets in every lobby on the planet instead of being some obscure, potentially unrelated piece of astronomical data Talla had to uncover? As much as I appreciate how The Orville presents its central allegory directly and in good faith, all these unsatisfied questions about the Regorian cosmology suggests a cynical structure kept in place by a ruling class to enforce a power structure they benefit from a lot more strongly than a bunch of earnest but misguided dopes who will stop an execution on a dime the moment a keen-eyed bystander notices a flicker in the night sky. It’s another way in which “All the World is Birthday Cake” resembles “Mad Idolatry”, when the head of the Church of Kelly was ready to up and completely negate a thousand years of institutional faith because Kelly told him it was whack —though that guy did get stabbed in the back for his trouble. I don’t mind The Orville’s sincerity; it remains the show’s greatest strength. But sometimes it flies completely in the face of everything we understand about how humans act. Yes, the Regorians aren’t humans, but they are stand-ins for exploring the human condition.
The whole idea of the separate astrological stations is primarily used to explore the plight of some expecting parents Kelly and Bortus befriend in the camp. When the woman has her baby under the next astrological cycle, she hides her, knowing she’ll be taken by the camp commander and given away. All of this, of course, echoes our current national sin of erecting concentration camps along the border and forcing asylum-seeking families apart. I’m sure this episode was filmed before this exploded as a national crisis and nothing about the storytelling suggests otherwise, so it mostly just stands out as a miserable coincidence.
Aboard the ship, Ted Danson shows up as an admiral for one of The Orville’s famous view screen cameos and tells Ed he can’t keep hanging around to free Kelly and Bortus. With only a day left to save the two before being forced to return to service, John uses the information Talla uncovered about the ancient nova to create a decoy that will fool the Regorians into believing the star has returned and maybe now those Gilliacs are okay folks after all! It’s an odd plan, but the scene where they unfurl a massive solar sail looks really cool. And it works just in time to prevent Kelly and Bortus from being executed for their failed prison escape! So yeah, the central conceit of this whole episode was pretty flimsy, but we did get to watch Kelly kneecap a dude with a sub-machine gun, which is a perfectly serviceable trade-off.
- I love the tidbits of information we learn about the Union’s post-money economy. When Kelly talks about reputation as currency, I’m assuming it’s in a good deed sort of way, and not a bunch of would-be alpha bros trying to constantly one-up each other kind of way.
- Ed made an in-laws joke.
- Also, in best The Orville fashion, it was a good scene where the crew discussed the moral implication of lying to an entire planet about the fake star. The show is good about not letting stuff like that just slip by.
- Speaking of Ted Danson, I can’t wait to catch The Good Place finale tonight.
- I love the shitty birthday banners hanging up on the bridge. I’m glad to know someone in the future held onto a 500 year old desktop publishing program.
- Fashion Corner: I couldn’t tell for certain, but it looks like Isaac may have received a costume upgrade? It looks a little more intricate and may involve a few more hard pieces such as forearm guards.
- Naturally, here’s the last word on Superstition.