Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
time-concept-hi-res-digitally-generated-image-stockpack-adobe-stock
Time concept. Hi-res digitally generated image.
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

The Orville, Season 3, Shows Its Authoritarian Side

This time travel episode is distinctly authoritarian in a way I’ve never seen before

Last time, we discussed how The Orville, Season 3, Episode 6, crossed into some truly disturbing territory, not just by showing a terrible event, but in a very subtle and manipulative way, advocating for it. This week, we’re going into the details.

To recap, the Union sent the Orville to drop off a time travel device at a lab because they were worried that the Kaylon or Krill might try to use it to wipe out the Union in the distant past, something they consider a horrible crime.

We discussed how the writers ignored a gigantic plot hole in order to contrive a tragedy for Gordon, who was sent into the past as a result of this attack. The Orville crew used the device to travel back in time to retrieve Gordon, but they ran out of fuel and are now about ten years off from their initial destination. Rather than waiting to replenish their fuel so they could reach the proper date and grab Gordon before he’d started a family — a factual and ethical dilemma they’ve conveniently ignored for reasons we’ll see shortly — Ed decides to grab Gordon in their current location in time.

There is also a b-plot I shall completely ignore. It involves Charly and Isaac going to grab the fuel needed for the Orville. Along the way, Charly talks to Isaac about his betrayal which initiated the battle with the Kaylon. However, attributing motive and moral culpability to a robot is like blaming a toaster for burning bread. But I’ve beaten this dead horse to a pulp in previous reviews, so I’ll just skip this plotline altogether.

Ed and Kelly go to Earth in the year 2025 to retrieve Gordon, who — surprise, surprise — has started a new life for himself after ten years exiled in the past. The surprising part of all this isn’t that Gordon now has a wife, a child, and a little baby on the way, but the fact that Kelly and Ed are shocked and chagrined by this turn of events. They shouldn’t be. They’ve already read Gordon’s obituary. They should already know he has a family, and again, the moral dilemma this raises is astounding. But ignoring those questions for the present, at the very least, one would think the easier and less traumatic thing to do would be to wait for the needed fuel and repairs then travel to the correct date. Why treat the repairs of the ship as a ticking clock trope when you literally have a time travel device on board!

But the cold fact is the writers want this confrontation between Ed and Gordon because they have a subtle message they wish to convey to the audience, and the way they try to manipulate the viewer into agreeing with them is sick.

After reuniting with Ed and Kelly, Gordon takes them to meet his family and then explains to them that he will not be returning to the Orville because he values his family more. He is in effect putting his family before his career, and that is an important detail to remember. Ed and Kelly leave in a huff and return with Talla, who threatens to take him by force.

And here comes the second cruel plot hole in this episode. During this confrontation, Ed receives a call informing him that Charly and Isaac have returned with the fuel. He then informs Gordon that they are returning to the proper year to retrieve him before he can start his family. He is in effect telling Gordon, “I’m going to kill your wife and children, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Either this was a scene of pure cruelty for its own sake, or it was a piece of writing so stupid that it’s beyond comprehension. We already know that the question of killing a family on an alternate timeline is the moral dilemma. Now, Kelly and Ed have seen this family firsthand. So, again, the less traumatic thing to do would be to return to the Orville and wait for Charly and Isaac to return with the fuel, but they intentionally go back to Gordon’s house. Why?

Because it wasn’t stupidity at all. The writers wanted Gordon to make a choice. To intentionally murder his own family in order to return to work for the Orville. Bear in mind, they’ve already established that they consider changing the timeline an act of war. The Union leader said as much during an earlier scene in the episode. So, they know what they’re doing, and they know Gordon understands the gravity of that choice, but they try to force him to make it anyway. Then, when he doesn’t make the choice they want, they take that choice from him and do it right in front of his face.

So, they return to 2015 and grab Gordon before he can start his family, and here is where the episode becomes truly malicious. They bring Gordon back. Ed and Kelly act reticent about their deed, but we’re not about to have the final conversation yet. To have that final conversation about what just happened would’ve added a degree of moral ambiguity to the episode. But the writers want you to know which choice is the correct choice to make, and here’s how they do it.

The time machine is broken after this second jump, and for a moment, the crew doesn’t know how they’re going to get back. Then LaMarr makes up some cockamamie explanation about how the ship can fly into the future but not the past. All they have to do is shut down some gravity shield and fly into space at near lightspeed. This will automatically bring them into the future. Now, science aside, why do this? Because guess who helps fly the ship… Gordon. Guess who would be the one to undo the timeline and kill his own family: Gordon.

In effect, this is a narrative ritualistic killing. It’s like when a mobster asks a man to kill something precious to him to prove his loyalty. The only distinction in this case, is that the purpose of this scene is to make the viewer okay with what’s happening. The writers think that if you sit there while Gordon tells the ship to take them home, you’ll magically become okay with that.

This might work for some, but my stomach twisted in knots. I’ve watched some pretty violent and controversial media over the years, but I can’t remember the last time I felt this revolted watching a scene, despite its innocent-looking tone. In fact, the space adventure music and the overall mood of the scene is the reason I felt sick. The mood shouldn’t be so joyous when a man is killing his family and doesn’t even realize it.

To make matters worse, the discussion over wiping out a man’s entire family is almost completely ignored. The closest thing we get is during the final conversation of the episode where Ed, sounding somewhat remorseful, says, “two children will never be born.” But that legitimate response is negated by Gordon essentially telling him it’s okay. He becomes an advocate for the deed and shows no hesitation or remorse over it. He even goes as far as to ask, “How could I have been so selfish!” And that brings us to an even more important matter, why?

Why do this? Why have such an episode? Or perhaps, a better way to phrase the question would be, “What was the message? What are the writers trying to tell us? They have no interest in being morally ambiguous like Star Trek, so what are they trying to say?

We can answer that question by answering Gordon’s. Why was he being selfish? Think about that. Why would Gordon call himself selfish? What was he choosing over the Orville? The answer, family. He chose his family over his duty, and that made him selfish. Kelly confirms this when she says with a dour look on her face, “Family changes a man.” She does not mean this in a good way.

In Star Trek, both Captain Kirk and Picard understood that there was a spirit behind the law and that spirit was more important than the law itself. There were principles which the law was supposed to represent. And over and over again, whenever they came into conflict with the Federation, they found inventive ways to work around the regulations to uphold those principles to the best of their ability.

Not Captain Ed Mercer. To Mercer — and the writers — the law, the Union, is god, and what it says goes. Period. There is no why. The reason no ethical questions are asked about the nature of life and whether or not it should be snuffed out in the name of Union regulations is because such a conversation doesn’t matter. What the Union says goes.

Sure, there is some debate, in the form of Ed accusing Gordon of playing god — and after all, how dare he! Playing god is the Union’s job. The show admits that the Union doesn’t understand time travel, so they’d have no reason to infer that Gordon’s decisions would amount to anything more than few extra people living in the galaxy. But it doesn’t matter because the Union said it, and orders must be obeyed.

The Orville, Season Three, is distinctly authoritarian in a way I’ve never seen before. Star Trek in its various iterations often put principles in conflict with the regulations, namely through questions over the prime directive, but a debate was more often than not had over each situation. But the Orville always favors the Union, (except in the case of a kid getting a gender reassignment surgery, of course.) One must always give up own individual good for the good of the collective. There is no Spock-and- Kirk dynamic to balance the debate between these points of view. The collective is truth. Assimilate or die!

Gordon was selfish because he had the audacity to build a family. This episode was not about the ethical questions over time travel. How dare he wish for a family! That made him selfish! After all, how can a man show complete devotion to a communist . . . I mean, a collective form of government like the Union if there’s some other force like a family ruling over his conscience?

That’s why they had Gordon end the timeline where his family existed. He needed to kill something precious to him, to preserve his loyalty to his government, his duty. That’s the Union’s prime directive. Duty above family, above everything. Just like any other authoritarian regime.

And guess what. They want you to feel the same way. Ask yourself this: Why would the writers go to the trouble of showing Gordon smile after he’d driven the ship which snuffed out his family and his future if they didn’t want you to smile too?

Here are my previous reflections on Episode 6 of The Orville, Season 3: The moral conundrums of time travel: What if killing a person’s past wipes out a whole family? Surely there is a difference between describing an event and advocating for it. We explore this issue in Episode 6 of Season 3.


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.

The Orville, Season 3, Shows Its Authoritarian Side