The Orville is called to Lapovius to broker a peace treaty between the planet’s two warring races, the Bruidians and the Navarians, who both lay claim to the planet.
We are told the two groups have agreed to settle their dispute on the basis of which species’ DNA is found on an ancient artifact. The Orville will be hosting a forensic archaeologist who will conduct tests on the artifact, as well as representatives from the Bruidians and the Navarians, who will attempt peace talks as they await the results of the tests.
For added fun, the forensic archaeologist assigned to the case turns out to be Darulio, the Retepsian with whom Commander Grayson had the affair that ended her marriage with Captain Mercer. Then things get really complicated when the captain, first officer, and Dr. Finn all begin exhibiting unusually amorous, even obsessive behavior.
This episode functions somewhat like an Orville version of Star Trek‘s “The Naked Time” or Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “The Naked Now,” with a backdrop of any number of peace-making episodes.
Of course, in Orville style, “Cupid’s Dagger” is less nuanced in both of those areas, and ends up basically being a “love potion” episode. For the record, I’m not fond of love potion stories, so I approach this episode from a slightly biased perspective.
Rob Lowe’s guest appearance as Darulio is a highlight of the episode, along with further time with the gelatinous Lieutenant Yaphit, portrayed to perfection by Norm MacDonald. The episode also features impressive work by the show’s makeup department.
What’s less enjoyable—and believable—about the episode is that Darulio’s pheromones act less as mere enhancers of sexual attraction and more like mind control, causing the affected crew members to not only “fall in love” with Darulio and Yaphit, but to behave so distantly out of character as to be laughable—if it were actually funny. Which, in my opinion, it largely is not.
Therein lies my problem with this episode. It treats human beings as, essentially, bags of chemicals whose behaviors are entirely dependent upon said chemicals. It’s one thing for a chemical agent to cause a character to have a heightened sexual attraction. It’s far another for it to cause them to abandon their judgment entirely or behave in ways totally out of keeping with their personalities. By the time Dr. Finn is threatening Yaphit with a plasma weapon in the corridor because she hasn’t heard from him in several hours, the believability of the story has gone quite off the rails.
But my issue with this story device is more philosophical than that. The episode reduces everything we are as humans—including our ethics, judgment, and decision making—to the result of chemicals in our bodies. This is particularly bothersome with the notion of “falling in love,” that major life decisions like marriage (cf. the Bruidian and the Navarian leaders at the very predictable conclusion of the episode) are made solely on the basis of strong sexual urges.
However, this causes me to wonder, “Do we really have such shallow motivations when it comes to the pursuit of a spouse in our culture?” And I wonder if at times our society really has fallen that far away from a deeper understanding of what is needed for a healthy marriage. That may, in turn, contribute to our divorce rates.
If the mindset reflected in this episode is believed—that all our decisions on such matters as marriage and family are simply the result of pheromones and hormones working their magic—we are in deep trouble. This idea reduces our human experience to mere chemistry and comes close to freeing us from moral agency, telling us that we are helplessly at the whim of whatever chemically-induced emotion happens to be flooding our brains.
The truth is, we are more than our brain and body chemistry and more than the sum of our DNA. The idea that hormones can change our very goals and morality is unscientific and has been outdated ever since the idea that exposing Hitler to doses of estrogen would turn him into a caring nurturer who would stop pursuing war was abandoned decades ago.
We are, in fact, moral agents who make decisions using reason, past experience, intuition, judgment, and a host of other faculties and resources that stories like this one completely delete from their characters’ makeup. I realize, of course, that The Orville is, ostensibly, a comedic series. But from early in the season, it has not been afraid to confront complex moral and ethical issues and to sincerely explore the philosophical struggles and relationships of its characters.
Granted, this episode can be filed away under the “comedy” heading and perhaps I’m expecting too much of the series in this instance, but earlier episodes have primed me for such. I’m sure there are many people who can laugh at this episode for the silly romp it’s intended to be. But as we’re focused here on the theological implications of these episodes, let’s remember that we are, in fact, more than merely the sum of our biological parts.
This episode can also bring us to a conversation about the difference between love and lust. Love is not mere sexual attraction, nor is sexual attraction lust. Many Christians are so concerned about avoiding the “lust of the flesh” that they feel guilty merely for feeling sexual attraction, for having a sex drive—essentially, for existing as sexual beings. But a libido is biology, not sin. It is healthy, normal, and natural for human beings to experience sexual attraction and arousal. The question of lust comes to what we do with those feelings.
In “Cupid’s Dagger,” Captain Mercer, Commander Grayson, and Dr. Finn all abandon their duties and their sense of ethics in favor of following their sexual desires. They say things about being “in love,” but in reality, they merely pursue actions solely for the satisfaction of their sexual desires. When we care more about the fulfillment of our own desires—and they could be any desires—than living according to love, we are falling into lust. When we objectify and dehumanize, when we ignore our ethics and choose to do what is not beneficial to ourselves or our neighbors, that is when we lust. Lust makes us slaves to our passions, as the characters in this story become.
However, the concept of love is also misapplied in the episode, as characters are depicted making life decisions about whom they will marry solely on the basis of sexual attraction. This is an oversimplification that misrepresents love. Love is a choice we make to put someone else above ourselves. In the case of building a family, it is also the choice to invest our lives with another human being and to make an ongoing commitment to that person.
These decisions should not be based solely on physical desire, but the concept that they are allows us to apply the label “lust” to any relationship of which we do not approve. If someone loves a person we don’t think they should love, we have no problem reducing their relationship to “lust.” This is a form of dehumanization, denying the personal agency involved in making a commitment to another person, solely because we disapprove of that commitment.
“Cupid’s Dagger” is far from a perfect story, but just as we imperfect people can speak to and share truths of Divine perfection, so we can learn from an imperfect story something of those same truths. The things about the story that do not ring true—surely intended as comedy—do not ring true because they do not reflect human nature. But a distorted depiction of human nature can help us to examine the human experience by causing us to ask what is missing or misplaced in the story.
We can put these same observational tools to work in our own lives as we ask what is out of sync with the gospel narrative and with human nature. Only when we can fully understand what it means to be human can we understand what it means to be human to the glory of God.
• • •
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!