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The Orville Tackles (Trans)Gender…Kind of, Maybe, Sort of, Ish?

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.
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Here there be ALL the spoilers, y’all, for both Season 1 Episode 3 of the Orville and for Season 7 episode 12 of Star Trek: Voyager. Read the following at your own risk.

Okay, now that the warnings are over, let’s talk a little about 2001’s “Lineage”. B’Elanna Torres discovers that she’s pregnant, which initially, thrills both Torres and her husband Tom Paris. However, as she grapples with the discovery, she finds herself reflecting on her own difficult childhood, which she blames on her Klingon heritage. She then asks the Doctor to alter the fetus’s genome to remove the Klingon base-pair sequences, which he refuses to do on the grounds that there is no medical need and that doing so will likely change the baby’s personality. She asks Captain Janeway to order him to perform the procedure, and Janeway refuses, in part because Paris disagrees that the alterations are necessary. Torres, at the mercy of her memories and her desperate desire to alter her child so that she can “fit in” with society better than her mother ever did, alters the Doctor’s holomatrix in order to coerce him to perform the procedure, but after a long, difficult talk with Tom, she ultimately concludes that she should not make the alterations to Miral because Paris helps her see that Miral’s Klingon heritage will not rip apart her family the way Torres believed her own had driven her father away.

Flash forward sixteen years to Seth MacFarlane’s homage to Star Trek, The Orville. Bortus (Peter Macon) and his partner Klyden (Chad Coleman) have welcomed a baby into their home only to discover that she is female, which is distinctly taboo in all-male Moclan society. Initially, Bortus and Klyden agree that altering the child to correct her gender is required, and Bortus asks Claire Finn to perform the procedure who refuses because the child is healthy and altering her gender is unethical. Bortus then asks Captain Ed Mercer to order Finn to perform the procedure. Mercer refuses. The crew persuades Bortus that altering the baby’s gender is unnecessary, and he and Klyden come to vociferous disagreement on the issue. Klyden informs Bortus that as someone who was born female, he believes the “corrective procedure” is necessary. Bortus asks for a Tribunal on their home planet, and despite Commander Grayson’s representation and Captain Mercer’s efforts, the Tribunal sides with Klyden. The procedure is performed, and the episode ends somewhat hopefully with Bortus and Klyden determining to give their son the best life they can.

The parallels between the two episodes are fairly obvious, and Voyager carries it off just a touch better. “Lineage” falls in the middle of Voyager’s final season, meaning that viewers have had time not only to get to know Torres but also just how her relationship with her Klingon heritage has shaped her. “About a Girl” is the third episode of the series, and as a result, viewers simply do not have the investment in Bortus and Klyden they would if this took place later. Peter Macon and Chad Coleman bear the most episode’s weight on their shoulders, and they manage to carry the episode enough that I do want to find out how the events of this episode will impact their marriage and their parenting. However, I don’t have the investment in them as a couple that I did for B’Elanna Torres. Also, the script in “About a Girl” tells the story from Mercer’s and later Bortus’s perspective, which is an easier story to tell because the viewer’s sympathies will ostensibly lie with not changing the child’s gender. In “Lineage”, the story is a Torres story and though the viewer understands that what Torres wants for Miral is wrong, the script provides ample opportunity for the viewer to understand Torres’ desperation. We have no such understanding with respect to Klyden, particularly since Moclan society is portrayed as being offensively misogynist, especially in the face of the Tribunal. I believe that not allowing Klyden a greater role in the story is a lost opportunity to shore up some of the story’s weaknesses, not only because it would have been not only a useful way to flesh out the Moclan’s cause in the absence of the Tribunal’s repugnance but also as a way to touch on some of the issues inherent to being born intersex and arbitrarily assigned.

What the episode does do well is make Ed Mercer a bit more likeable. At one point he sits with Grayson and wonders if he is pushing his own value system onto Klyden and Bortus, which is a valid question to not only in terms of the Orville’s universe but also of Star Trek in general. In a rare moment of charity towards its female lead, Grayson mentions that at some point, there has to be a bright line rule of ethics against which acceptance must be measured. Mercer accepts this, and later in the episode, he steps back and asks Grayson to be the child’s Advocate, recognizing his own inadequacy for the task. Mercer also executes the patented Star Trek Deus Ex Machina move—reaching beyond the characters and information he has to find something else. We also start to see more development in the other characters. Malloy and Lamarr also get positive screen time by introducing Bortus to Rudolph, and Malloy even allows Commander Grayson to portray him as an idiot during the tribunal after he turns a shoot-out into a dance-off in the Orville’s holodeck (or whatever non-copyrighted word they’re using). Alara Kitan makes an effort to convince Bortus by kicking the crap out of him in a boxing ring. Claire Finn gets the opportunity to stick to her guns, and the episode lacks most of the heavy-handed MacFarlane humor that was so off-putting in the previous episodes. The show also never plays the relationship between Klyden and Bortus as anything but real and respectful.

I do not mean to imply that the episode does not have its faults. Yaphit’s propositioning of Dr. Finn is uncomfortable and really awful. Mercer grumbles about his marriage, albeit mercifully briefly, and while Rudolph may be a fantastic story for children, I am not persuaded that it would be enough to justify Bortus’s sudden and complete change of heart. Furthermore, the scope of the episode is simply too broad. Bortus and Grayson put Moclan society’s misogyny on trial whereas “Lineage” has a much narrower, more personal focus on Torres’s family. What we saw in the Tribunal makes one wonder whether the Union has standards for entry and if so, whether fairness to a planet’s citizens is part of them. “About a Girl” is clearly an episode that is meant to tackle a relevant issue in an allegorical manner in great Star Trek tradition, but the script seems to be a bit confused. Is the Orville tackling the mistreatment of transgender people in this episode? Maybe? If it is, the writing seems to imply that transgender phobia is equated with generalized misogyny, and while in cases, the issues may be related, but the concept of gender is both more nuanced and broader. In “Lineage”, the issue presented is one of race, which honestly seems to fit this format a bit better.

Lastly, Bortus and the Orville crew lose their case, and the baby is altered. I confess that I find myself struggling with this outcome. In “Lineage”, Torres allows her child to remain unaltered, and while I agree that taking on an entire society’s bias is a massive undertaking, that’s what courts do. That happened in Loving v. Virginia, Obergefell v. Hodges, United States v. Windsor, Lawrence v. Texas, and many other major decisions. What has happened in the intervening sixteen years between Voyager and The Orville, that this show believes in changing that ending? I am glad that the Orville has attempted to grapple with these issues, and of the three so far, I think this is perhaps the best of the episodes. I just find myself wondering if this kind of outcome is really in keeping with MacFarlane’s promise that the Orville is meant to be a break from dystopia. I confess that I watch Star Trek not because I am seeking a reflection of reality but rather because I am looking for a reflection of what reality could be when we are our best selves. Galaxy Quest understands that, but the Orville still seems to be finding its footing.

2 thoughts on “The Orville Tackles (Trans)Gender…Kind of, Maybe, Sort of, Ish?”

  1. Initially, I was also disappointed in the outcome of the episode (that the baby was altered). However, the more I thought about it, I think it showed that there are times one cannot “fight city hall” – but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep trying.

    I also think they did it to set up future episodes (both in Bortus’ & Klyden’s relationship as well as with the Moclan society as a whole).

  2. Jbumi,

    I agree that we’re being set up to see something done with the fall out, or at least, I hope we are.

    I can see that he’s playing with the idea that Picard proposed–that sometimes, no matter if you do everything right, you can still lose. However, this is episode three, which is a bit early to tackle that issue precisely because we haven’t had time to bond with the characters.

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