Suppose there is a drug which causes you to fall passionately in love with someone you previously disliked and rejected. Once under the influence, you care about nothing but having sex with this person; you ignore your job and all other responsibilities. Would you classify this drug as:
A) An amusing way to get you to relax and explore some new stuff
B) An ingenious way to end a centuries-long blood feud
C) A dangerous chemical substance that deprives you of your ability to consent
This scenario comes from the most recent episode of The Orville, and if you’re having trouble deciding whether A or B is the more horrifying option, don’t worry--they chose both. I love shows that center on a group of bickering people on a spaceship in the future, and I’ll cut new shows a lot of slack when it seems like they don’t quite know yet what they want to be--often, like Farscape, they’ll figure it out somewhere in season two and then be brilliant and weird and beautiful. But I think it’s safe to say at this point that The Orville isn’t going to figure it out.
Sci-fi spends so much time worrying about getting the technology and world-building right, but in the end, your blind spots will date your story far worse than, say, having a fax printed on actual paper coming out of your futuristic wall. And The Orville has blind spots the size of a Jupiter dust storm.
The Orville, in its advertising, promised a return to the optimistic tone of classic sci-fi, the kind that was made back before we became convinced that our society was destined to end in dystopia. In the opening episode, we see a brief glimpse of New York in the future: a shining city with skyscrapers covered in gardens, flying cars buzzing around like honeybees. Somehow, we’ve arrived in a future Earth where the entire world is united under a single government, there’s no sectarian violence or war or poverty, and we’ve taken to the stars.
But one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia, and as the show progresses, I keep asking myself: whose utopia is this? And to whom does this future actually look optimistic?
It’s not really a utopia for, say, Dr. Claire Finn, the only woman of color on this ship. She experiences constant sexual harassment from a male coworker. For months, this green blob guy has been faking illness in order to come to the medical bay and press his romantic suit while she’s trying to do her job. Claire rejects his advances repeatedly, yet she never reports him to HR, even when he flashes a dick at her (he’s made of green goo, so this is apparently humor). Then, in the latest episode where date-rape drugs are used to cement a peace treaty, Claire is also drugged, and we see her, under the influence of the drug, accept and have sex with the green blob guy. The wikipedia summary of the episode describes this as Claire “letting her guard down.”
So, we’ve invented space travel and achieved world peace, but women are still being harassed and assaulted at work, and it’s treated as a joke. That’s the most depressing view of the future I’ve ever heard.
I could go on: incompetent white men are promoted over far more qualified women and people of color. A female security guard isn’t taken seriously and faces constant ribbing about her love life. Charlize Theron comes aboard as a refugee from a crashed ship, and the male characters fall all over themselves ogling her. It’s not that I don’t believe that these things could still happen in the future. But if that’s the future you’re showing us, don’t try to tell me it’s optimistic.
And let’s talk about the aliens. Because many terrible things in our world--blood feuds, religious extremists, dictatorships, exploitation, overt racism--these do still exist in the world of the Orville. But not for humans, who’ve presumably moved past all that. Only in alien races do we see these conflicts. The Navarians and the Bruidians have been fighting for centuries over which race has the right to their planet; the Krill follow their god, Avis, who commands them to wage religious war on other races. The parallels to real-life human conflicts are embarrassingly one-to-one.
But in the world of the Orville, these are problems that happen to other people, not to us. And that is actually an incredibly dangerous mindset. It exonerates us. We’re not involved in these struggles, and we didn’t cause them. We have no responsibility to help solve them, except as benevolent outsiders. It might feel like a simpler, more optimistic world, but ask yourself why it feels so comfortable to dehumanize the people locked in these struggles. And ask yourself what it means that the protagonists can massacre two shiploads of aliens without feeling at all haunted.
It’s like the sci-fi version of “Make America Great Again”--nostalgic pining for a simpler time that wasn’t actually ever simple.
Now, you might wonder why I’m picking on The Orville, when almost everyone already agrees it’s a total misfire. But if The Orville were only guilty of awkward writing and poor characterization, I might still be watching it. Those problems are fixable. But unless the season-finale twist is that they’ve been living in a horrifying dystopia all along, the mindset isn’t so easy to fix. We owe it to the genre that I love to do better. And these problems aren’t unique to the Orville. Speculative fiction gives us the power to imagine anything, yet so often we use that limitless power to create things that are so limited. It’s hard to know what you don’t know, but the chance to try is what makes sci-fi so exciting. As Octavia Butler says, there is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.