What an odd choice for your second story, I thought – usually the kind of plot one puts closer to mid-season – along with a shameless plug for PETA. Nevertheless, I enjoyed “Command Performance” for what Seth MacFarlane’s sister allegedly (with affection) called The Orville: “a 100 million dollar fan film, basically”.
Not Living Up To Its Name?
While the post-pilot episode has its charms, I agree with critics who were less than kind to the first two episodes; most felt MacFarlane’s love letter to Star Trek: The Next Generation found its groove with episodes three and four. It turns out I was right, however…“Command Performance” was originally slated to be further in the season (fourth) and swapped with If The Stars Should Appear (one of the most well received). It felt more like an episode four…so in retrospect, they might have stuck with the original order…but it turns out they yielded to test audience feedback. I find this funny, since the episode itself stresses the need to listen to counsel. Apparently, sometimes counsel ought to be ignored.
“Command is all about the balance between inspiring confidence in your leadership and knowing when to trust your people.”
—Doctor Claire Finn
The Bible talks about how much God hates the “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:15-17) and that’s the tonal kink The Orville is still working out in its sophomore voyage: the dynamic falls somewhere between an homage to The Next Generation and the joyous fun of Galaxy Quest, proceeding on impulse power in a neutral zone between the two and seemingly afraid to warp either direction.
Another issue is the idea that it’s the 25th century but pop culture appears to have ceased after the 21st. If it were simply Captain Mercer who was obsessed with Kermit the frog and other icons from our era, it might make sense, but when different crewmembers also name-drop Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dora the Explorer and more, it becomes a laugh followed by a head-scratch. Other sci-fi shows like Farscape gave us story-driven reasons for characters referencing specific earth decades, but here it plays awkwardly.
However, the show has a visual grace that underscores MacFarlane’s love of Trek: while “Discovery” has provided a bold new cinematic style, The Orville looks as though Star Trek television just never ceased. Visually, it’s the evolution we’d expect from The Next Generation to Voyager (and this episode is even directed by Robert Duncan McNeill, AKA Tom Paris) only shifting gears to show us a lesser-known and far less integral ship, with a crew of average Joes. “Star Trek: Underachievers” might have been the title and it’s compelling enough to keep tuning in.
As a fledgling show stepping into a Star Trek-shaped chair, hoping to command ratings while trepidatious that it might not fit, it’s appropriate an early episode gives us a character struggling to hold position in the prime seat. Young Alara Kitan, while eager to prove herself despite her youth as referenced in episode one, fears the responsibility (and what people will think) when she’s told to take the Conn while Captain and Commander visit a damaged ship. Their subsequent abduction leaves Kitan in a precarious position.
“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
– 1 Timothy 4:12
Paul’s instructions to his disciple and leader-in-training are fitting here, as the chief engineer calls her “kid” and others mock her under their breath. Most of us can resonate with Alara’s anxiety and desire to be respected, but above those things to perform in a way that is truly fruitful and provides inspiration and example. Some of us have even self-medicated, as she does, seeking to take the edge off the daunting prospect of failure or humiliation. However, the desire to demonstrate competency leads Kitan into the classic rookie trap that scripture counsels us against.
“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
– Proverbs 15:22
It’s not the first time serialized storytelling or even Star Trek has given us this lesson, but fortunately Alara listens—and grows more quickly—than a Wesley Crusher, and by story’s end the safety of the ship and the rescue of Mercer and Grayson allows her to not only employ the counsel of others, but show her own ingenuity too. I only wish her reversal regarding disobeying the Admiral didn’t play as much like wanting the crew to like her as much as making a “tough call on the field” and being willing to live with the consequences. She risks the dislike (and even dismissal) by the Admiral, but sometimes a commander must be equally disliked by their crew. It would have been more interesting to see a staff split on both decisions, instead of the unanimous “huzzah!” and all hands scurrying to their posts.
Dysfunction on Public Display
“Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find?”
– Proverbs 20:6
Our B-story focuses on the Captain and Commander, continuing to expose to the viewer (and the voyeuristic “superior” citizens of Calivon) to their previous life and marital roller coaster. Here it’s played mostly for humor, but we see first a few tender moments reflecting their best interactions, and then the morning irritations that bring out their worst. Mercer admits “I may have been wrong… maybe things could have been different,” but soon enough they are nit-picking the sounds of eating cereal or having a “German breakfast.” The show never takes us to the reality that in every marriage, the honeymoon phase ends…things deemed cute become cringeworthy and truly deep relationship inevitably involves pain. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken…The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
Mercer went against vows and a biblical view that “love bears all things.” Then again, Grayson torpedoed that axiom when she cheated on him, though she shows some signs of repentance. She wasn’t faithful, but he can make no claims to unfailing love either. From breakfast beers to breaking fidelity, the reality of marriage as work, and about making each other better versus “being in love” might be something The Orville orbits as we see them working side by side and, perhaps, working their way back together.
The Zoo Crew
As a final thought, the episode fires phasers across the bow at zoos in general, as the sentient races so casually disrespected by the Calivon are trapped in little cells, and then our heroes are almost euthanized without a thought. Now despite my inaugural sarcasm about PETA, I do believe in the ethical treatment of animals, but even modern science can detail how human beings are different from other creatures, including self-reflection (exceptions can be made for dolphins, but Douglas Adams already documented this for us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). It’s true that between circuses and old zoo conditions some lessons needed to be learned and repented from, but modern zoo environments provide great habitat, longer lives, health and documented quality of life for many species, so this rang hollow for me. Biblically we’re above the animals with a God-given dominion: one that should be done with the care of a thoughtful and caring steward. When we follow a secular, naturalistic view of simply being another animal we stumble down a slippery slope to all kinds of poor application. The lesson in regard to how the Calivons think other sentient species are inferior has some endemic parallels to what we think of other races and cultures, however. And the final stab at our own culture with its carnal, animalistic interactions called Reality television are a nice indictment of what it looks like to abandon imago Dei for imago me.
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Trektember is an annual series about Star Trek; this year, we’re examining the first seasons of Star Trek: Discovery and The Orville. For more information on this series, click here; or, to read every article from the beginning, click here!