On first contact competence

In my review of The Orville I cast serious aspersions on the crew’s competence with first contact situations. Specifically, that I didn’t think this was part of the joke of the series.

There is an element in the show which parodies the hyper-competence of the source material (i.e. a Star Trek crew) by showing the Orville crew as a bit more fallible and a bit more human (even when they are not). There’s a nice understated example in season 1 in which the captain asks the head of security to hail somebody and she simply doesn’t do it immediately. It’s not a massively funny gag, just a neat little moment that is both amusing and makes everybody concerned a bit more relatable. In general, the crew are supposed to be good at their jobs (the show is neither Galaxy Quest nor Red Dwarf) but it’s also not a tight ship. I note all that for context but also so that I can dismiss it. When I say the crew are not people who should ever be in charge of first contact with the show, I mean:

  • They are bad at it.
  • They don’t know that they are bad at it.
  • It’s not a running joke of the show.
  • It’s because the writers write it that way unintentionally.

Spoilers follow for various episodes from Season 1 and 2.

I can’t wholly dismiss comedy as a factor in this. For example Episode 7 in Season 1 has an away team on a 21st century human like planet land in hot water when crew member uses a statue to mime a highly sexualised dance, scandalising not only onlookers but wider society as video of his antics go viral. I’ll discount both the incident and the inclusion of LaMarr on the away team as dictated mainly by comedy (at this point LaMarr had been largely shown as comedic – it is later revealed that he is secretly a genius but that’s another story).

The specific incident is comedic but the rest of the episode does not show the crew handling this quasi-human society very adeptly. Unable to get a grasp of the society they eventually reveal to one of the local people that they are aliens and take her aboard the Orville. Why? No good reason is given and the eventual resolution required to save an imprisoned crew member is an obvious one. Still I’ll give that episode a partial pass because of extenuating circumstances (the desire to make a heavy handed satire on internet/social media culture).

I suppose Episode 12 of Season 1 gets a partial pass also. Here first contact is an accident when a shuttle collides with a planet that appears as if from nowhere. 2ic Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) briefly encounters some bronze-age like people when scouting near the crash site. The planet then disappears and days later reappears. It turns out that the planet’s orbit is mainly in another universe where time flows differently. 700 years have passed and in the meantime a cult of Kelly has become the dominant religion. Attempts to fix this only make matters worse. The episode finally makes use of the classic Chrono-Trigger manoeuvre (let your robot travel forward in time the slow way, while you use the short cut). By the show’s own in-universe rules, Kelly’s initial stuff up warranted a verbal warning from HQ — surely the subsequent attempts to manipulate the society’s historical development (particularly when it appears to go badly) warrants a full court martial? Apparently not and all is forgiven when the planet comes around again and is now a highly advanced techno-utopia.

I’ll give that one a partial pass because it was an OKish SF concept. Even so, this is the second first contact that the crew definitely messed up. Of course, first contact STORIES necessarily must have a screw-up otherwise there is no story but in both cases the Orville crew make easily avoided unforced errors that they themselves don’t seem to understand.

I’ll add into the mix Episode 4 of season 1 also. This is more of an edge case in terms of first contact. The Orville encounters a generation ship that is drifting. When they board the ship they discover a society that doesn’t know that they are on a generation ship and live in a mid 20th century sort of society. Most of the mistakes the crew makes are not unreasonable and /or justifiable. However, in a bit of a homage to Asimov’s Nightfall, one of the quirks of this society is that the bio dome they live in is in permanent day time. The stars outside are invisible and they have no idea of an outside universe. So what does the captain do? For no good reason (the generation ship has already been saved from certain doom) he has the outer dome opened so that the population will see night and the night sky for the first time in generations. While I doubt the population would be so traumatised as to burn down what civilisation they have, it is still an act that can only be called ‘reckless’.

Before I get to Season 2, consider the Krill. The Krill are the Romulan/Klingon/Cardassian antagonistic species of the series. Notably they are belligerent because of there Krill supremacist religion that dictates that the universe was made for them and that all other species are soulless animals. Part of the canon of the series is that while most intelligent species become more secular and less superstitious when they attain space travel (also discussed in Episode 12) the Krill have gone the opposite way. The Krill accept no basis for negotiation or peace and are an existential dilemma for the Union (The Orville’s homologue for the Federation). In other words, as part of the background lore for this universe, most civilisations become peaceful secularists when encountering other aliens but some become rampaging murderous fanatics. In other other words: the stakes of first contact in The Orville include accidentally creating a civilisation intent on your death. Every first contact is a potential Genesis of the Daleks.

Unlike the episodes above, Episode 5 of Season 2 is overtly a first contact story. The planet of Regor 2 uses its 21st technology to beam an “is anybody out there?” message to universe. Unluckily for them the message is received by The Orville and apparently the Union higher-ups are cool with that despite the litany of f_ck-ups above. Coincidentally it is the birthday of Commander Grayson and also L. Cmdr Bortus (the Worf homologue). The main characters visit the planet as official representatives of the Union. Doctor Finn visits a modern hospital and is surprised to discover that it has a high number of premature infants and also many apparently medically unnecessary c-sections. What’s going on? At the official dinner all is revealed. The aliens are hyper into astrology to the extent that they lock up everybody born under a given astrological sign which, oops, includes Kelly and Bortus!

So far, so good. Yeah, it’s yet another example of aliens-are-so-superstitious but up to this point The Orville crew haven’t messed up. It’s maybe a bit forced but Kelly giving unintended offence by mentioning her birthday is a reasonable way of showing how first contact would be a delicate manner (although even on modern day Earth, assuming people celebrate birthdays is a cultural mistake: many Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t).

Everything beyond this point is a shit-show. Captain Mercer just flat out tells the leader of Regor 2 that his whole societies beliefs are wrong. True they are wrong but when has “you are wrong” ever worked as an opening gambit in cross cultural diplomacy. Everything up to this point has underlined that the people of Regor 2 are absolutely firm and sincere in their beliefs in astrology. Also, they are adept and knowledgeable about astronomy. So the obvious immediate solution to Captain Mercer getting his crew members back is clear: the positions of the stars relative to Regor 2 is not the same as the position of the stars relative to Earth, so even if Regor 2’s astrological beliefs are 100% true they clearly don’t apply to people born in a different solar system. Nobody things of that, I’m guessing because the writers don’t understand why astrology isn’t true anymore than the people of Regor 2.

The Union (in the form of Ted Danson – leading to speculation that The Orville is actual The Good/Bad Place for somebody) explains that the Orville can’t mount a military rescue mission. Instead, the imprisoned Kelly and Bortus just shoot up their prison a lot and kill numerous guards for reasons that CANNOT POSSIBLY HELP anybody concerned. Back on the Orville the solution they fix upon is to fake a new star to appear in a constellation to hopefully trick the people of Regor 2 into thinking a ‘bad’ astrological sign is now a good one. Although quite how that would work in terms of their cultural beliefs is never established nor the actual change of heart really demonstrated. They are just a bunch of gullible idiots — although gullible idiots who probably have nuclear weapons and are on the verge of space exploration.

But won’t the people of Regor 2 eventually work out the deception? Sure! But we are reassured that by the time they do, they’ll have grown past all that astrology stuff. Um. You know like how the whole society was already at 21st century technology levels and very much had NOT got past astrology and in fact imprisoned maybe a 12th of their population due to astrology and oh, how the Krill (the show’s recurring enemy) has very, very much not got over THEIR superstition and also how even IF the people of Regor 2 had moved on from astrology when they work out the Union actively deceived their whole society, they might still not be very HAPPY about that.

There’s a lot to unpack there — too much really considering this is intended to be a light weight show. Post-Iraq, post-2016 anxiety about foreign election manipulation, post the fact that post-communist Russia is somehow not permanently grateful to the US for winning the Cold War, post-post-post everything that should send up warning flags that if you are doing something for somebody’s own good without their active consent then that’s not good, post-post-post-post everything that should shout a big nope about treating other cultures like they are children who just need schooling.

Too much to pile on The Orville’s slim shoulders I think.

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7 thoughts on “On first contact competence”

  1. So I get that the show is borrowing stuff — from Firefly (the cult of Jane,) Star Trek, Doctor Who, etc., but doesn’t that also mean being really bad at first contact? For instance, in Trek’s A Taste of Armageddon, the Federation ambassador orders Kirk and Spock to destroy the computers that two societies use to simulate a war, executing part of its population as casualties rather than all out bombing attacks. While it’s kind of self-defense since the computers decided the Enterprise crew should be executed as casualties, Kirk and the Federation also justify it as making the societies face the real horror of war so that they will come to peace. But how do they know that’s going to be the case and not instead a massive escalation of deaths in war? The Omega Glory, A Piece of the Action — they are really, really bad at it on Trek. (And Discovery is no exception.)

    It just seems like the usual colonial imperative — they may be bumbling, but their hearts’ are in the right place and their ways are best and the lesser societies will then just end up assimilating to their values, they assume and/or force. Which is certainly something to criticize. But given that The Orville seems to be that the guy just wanted to make a version of classic Trek he could be on, it doesn’t seem like a real surprise.

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    1. Yes, the original series Federation was pretty dodgy and the Discovery was captained by a psycopathic monster. However, TNG aimed for a higher standard of behaviour and I think The Orville is aiming for that vibe but more inclined to adopt the approach of the original enterprise 🙂

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      1. TNG also had some examples of first (or subsequent) contacts handled really badly, too, e.g. the infamous “Wesley Crusher stumbles into a flower bed and gets himself sentenced to death on the planet of the space hippies” episode or the one where Riker is chased by the men in black equivalent of a pre-warp civilisation and has to sleep with a local woman with an alien fetish. Let’s not forget Riker illicitly falling in love with an inhabitant of the planet of the genderless people and trying to rescue/abduct them (Riker is a menace, isn’t he?), the Enterprise crew lecturing a whole colony on reproduction methods (cloning is wrong, wrong, wrong) and subsequently forcing all the women on that and the neighbouring planet of the Irish stereotypes into Handmaid’s Tale type sexual slavery (but cloning it wrong) or the Federation completely missing the existence of a silicon based lifeform on a supposedly empty planet.

        Let’s face it, “first contact goes terribly wrong” is a core trope of Star Trek and related properties. It’s just that we tend to view 1990s Trek (and the original series, for that matter) through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and forget the middling to bad episodes, while we see the flaws of Discovery and The Orville a lot more clearly.

        Though I agree that Seth MacFarlane and the rest of the team behind The Orville probably aren’t aware how terribly bumbling the Orville crew comes across. It seems to me as if the writing team decides “Today we want to talk about social issue X” and come up with a plot to make that happen and don’t particularly care that their characters tend to seem stupid or incompetent, as long as the debate over social issue X has the desired outcome. And at times, every official Star Trek show did the same, hence disasters like “And Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” (it’s about racism, so who cares if the story is stupid?) or Riker and the planet of the genderless people (we’re trying to make a point about LGBT relationships by telling a story about a genderless person who wants to be female and have a heterosexual relationship with Riker).

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  2. I think I see your point. The crew makes bad decisions, because the writers make bad scripts. Otherwise those bad decisions would be part of a larger picture in the episode.

    Thank you for elaborating!

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  3. This kind of reminds me of my history with the show The Walking Dead. The characters were really not bright and so I couldn’t watch it because I simply felt that they deserved to die. (And hey, I’d die in the first wave of a zombie apocalypse, but the fit people who survive in these shows have no such excuse.) But then I decided I would watch it and root for the zombies, which worked well. Then they started making the main characters a little more bright and I was less interested in having some of them die. Then the writers started making them less bright again and gave Jeffrey Dean Morgan some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard, though he gave it his best shot, and I had to go back to rooting for the zombies and wondering if I should stop watching altogether.

    Come to think of it, that’s kind of also my trajectory with Star Trek: Discovery. And at this point, Arrow is hanging in my viewing queue by a thread.

    But I get ya, it’s one thing if the show is going for out and out comic and satire, such as Galaxy Quest’s wonderful engine room of death. Being ridiculously clueless is part of the approach then. But trying to walk the center line between sincere exploration of issues and having the main characters be endearing despite being colonizing imperialists who go around wrecking things, that tends to get writers making forehead slap decisions on these shows.

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    1. Three seasons of The Walking Dead was enough for me. There’s a complete story by the end of Season 3 but it’s also clear that the show can only go into cycles of rinse-and-repeat at that point.

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      1. I barely lasted through season 1 of The Walking Dead, because I disliked the (non-zombie) characters so much. I did tune in to season 2 a few times, saw it hadn’t improved and never watched again. I’ve never even seen Danai Gurira’s or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s characters or Sonequa Martin-Green’s for that matter.

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