Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Thinking robot
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

Should We Love or Hate an Intelligent Robot? Or Care at All?

In Season 3 of Orville that becomes a serious question

The Orville Season 3 was recommended to me by a reader. I recall seeing a large portion of the first season and enjoying it. I had not watched the second season until preparing for this series of reviews. Unfortunately, I must say at the outset that I found myself very disappointed in Season Three, ironically called New Horizons because it only retreads about half of Season Two. This latest season fell far short of my expectations which were based on my memories of the first season. Still, we’re going to take a look at each episode and see where the problems lie.

Before beginning our review of the first episode, a little prologue is required. During the midpoint of the second season the spaceship Orvilles’ robot Isaac, turned out to be a sleeper cell of sorts for the Kaylon. The Kaylon are a race of robots who overthrew their alien masters and slaughtered them. This dark past led the Kaylon to conclude that all biological life forms are fundamentally cruel and must be eliminated. Isaac was sent to the Orville under the pretense of studying humans as the Kaylon debated over joining the Union, the Orville’s equivalent of the Federation in Star Trek. Without going into much detail, the end result was that the Kaylon launched an all-out assault on the Union fleet. But Isaac, because of his loyalty to Dr. Finn’s son Ty, turned on his own race, and played a crucial role in preventing the Union’s destruction. Because of his brave conduct at the eleventh hour, he was reinstated as a high-ranking officer on the Orville and faced no repercussions.

With this set up in my mind, I feel the need to address a crucial point right away. This episode should’ve taken place in Season Two. There is, at least, one other completed story arc at the end of Season Two, and this episode, which kicks off Season Three, revolves around the consequences of the Union’s battle with the Kaylon. The episode does not treat Isaac’s situation as something which is coming to a head, but as a phenomenon the robot has only just noticed.

This made the episode quite difficult to follow in the beginning. Basically, the crew is shunning him. One particular crew member, Charly, a new addition to the Orville, introduces herself to the audience by telling the robot he should feel bad for what he did. Here, the show goes out of its way to make her seem particularly vindictive. At first, she leaves with the rest of her crew members when Isaac attempts to sit with them in the cafeteria. Then she returns, acts like she’s going to be kind to him, then commences to telling the robot about how she lost a friend during the battle and everything is essentially his fault, before storming off in a huff.

Now, if someone has watched the Kaylon battle in Season Two, they know that the claim that Isaac is responsible for the battle is only partially true. So, this isn’t a fair accusation to start with. Furthermore, Isaac is a robot; the impressive fact isn’t that he betrayed the Union under the orders of his government, but the fact that he was able to override his programming to protect Dr. Finn’s child. This simply should not be possible.

Isaac is apparently more than his programming, so the question that should be haunting everyone’s mind is whether there is more to Isaac than metal. But the show doesn’t address this as it should. In a way, it outsmarts itself. It wants the viewer to simply accept the notion that Isaac is more than just programming, despite Isaac’s own insistence to the contrary, and in so doing, demand that Isaac share some degree of responsibility for the attack. But at the same time, it wants the viewer to be sympathetic to Isaac because they know he is a robot and the very fact that he overrode his programming should be impressive. In short, this show has an infuriating habit of picking and choosing when it wants Isaac to be treated as human.

The Orville may be trying to raise interesting questions in the same way Star Trek did, but when it comes to Isaac, the moments when he is meant to be considered a robot and the moments where we are to regard him as a fully sentient being are so arbitrary that it was difficult to decide how to feel about him.

There’s a lot to unpack here so let’s pick up the story after Charly stormed off in a huff. Isaac returns to his workstation to find the word murderer has been spray-painted on the walls. An investigation is launched, and it turns out that Dr. Finn’s eldest son, Marcus, has written the cryptic message. This is significant because the robot and the doctor were seeing each other in the romantic sense before the Kaylon battle. You didn’t misread that. The doctor was dating a toaster, and the entire crew acted like this was normal when they had no reason to do so. In fact, not only does the show play this relationship straight, the show gives it the somber air of a Gregorian Chant. When Marcus, Futurama devoted an episode to robot love, someone forgot to tell Seth MacFarland, the creator of the Orville, that the episode was a joke:

Now, I initially — desperately — wanted to dodge this topic and move on to more writing-oriented critiques. But the relationship between Isaac and Dr. Finn is a major centerpiece for this season, so I must address the matter in detail, and explain why it doesn’t work.

If someone has watched a news channel for more than thirty seconds, it doesn’t take long to realize that old Seth thinks he’s come up with a clever allegory, but, clever or not — and hint (it’s not) — he misses the point of Star Trek, which is supposed to be the show The Orville is paying tribute to.

Star Trek raised questions, played the “what if” game, asked, “Did God really Say?” and so on. The clever thing about Star Trek is that it took two beloved characters and used them as surrogates for various social positions. This strategy has been copied by network television for years since that time, and while Star Trek, as well as most network shows, has a clear bias, and often “straw mans” the positions they don’t like, this tactic has made their pretentious opinions bearable.

Seth MacFarland either doesn’t realize this, is determined to make the viewer see things his way without the aid of a surrogate, or is trying to raise Star Trek-type questions in the worst way possible. I can’t say what he’s trying to do for sure, but we’ll explore the topic further, and why this entire setup is all wrong next time.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Should We Love or Hate an Intelligent Robot? Or Care at All?