The Orville As Philosophy

by David Kyle Johnson

The reboot issue of Sci Phi Journal included my essay about what (I think) “Sci Phi” is all about. I argued that philosophers can not only use science fiction to explain philosophy, but that science fiction authors are often doing philosophy by presenting or making philosophical arguments in their works. Since I penned that essay, I have edited two books—one (Exploring The Orville, co-edited with Mike Berry) on Seth MacFarlane’s space adventure The Orville and another (Black Mirror and Philosophy, in William Irwin’s Blackwell series) on Charlie Brooker’s dystopian Black Mirror. Both books try to articulate how these shows are doing philosophy. The following is the first of two articles, one on The Orville and another on Black Mirror that also compares Black Mirror to The Orville. My goal is to give a brief overview of how these two shows do what sci-fi does best.

How The Orville Does Philosophy

The Orville is a space adventure in the same genre of classic/Next Generation Star Trek, where a crew in a ship gets in an adventure every week while exploring the galaxy, learning moral lessons and asking philosophical questions along the way. In fact, The Orville is so similar to Star Trek that the first chapter of my book Exploring The Orville is dedicated to the question of whether or not The Orville “is” Star Trek—and if it is not, what is it? A homage? A rip-off? Fan fiction? Brooke Rudow (the author of that first chapter) argues for the latter, and I agree; regardless, however, it seems that The Orville has filled a gap that was left by Star Trek (and sci-fi in general) as it evolved. As The Orville’s creator Seth MacFarland put it (in the blurb he generously wrote for the back cover of my book),

“I created The Orville because I felt that Hollywood’s science fiction offerings for the 21st century had left a large void when it came to the kind of allegorical, speculative, thoughtful episodic storytelling that I had enjoyed from the genre while growing up. It seemed as though ideas that left the viewer with something to chew on had been replaced by twists, trading intellectual nutrients for quickly burned calories.”

That’s exactly why I fell in love with The Orville, and how the book approaches the series. It recognizes that it is doing philosophy with “allegorical, speculative, thoughtful episodic storytelling,” and then tries to identify and evaluate the arguments it is making or answer the questions it is asking. As, once again, Seth put it:

Exploring The Orville is exactly the kind of response I hoped would emerge from what we were doing. This book identifies and dives deeper into the issues presented in the series, and does so with skill and precision, thanks to a variety of voices offering philosophical analyses and carefully considered takes on the material that in some cases presented a fresh lens even to us, the writers. It’s a fun, invigorating, and inspiring read, providing a better understanding and appreciation of both The Orville and the moral, political, societal, and philosophical issues it addresses. Exploring The Orville is a must read for any Orville fan.

In the book’s introduction, I argue that one of the main ways The Orville does philosophy is by, what I call “cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance” through what Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement.”[1] It presents us a world seemingly so foreign to ours that we are cognitively estranged from it; we bring no pre-conceived notions or biases to it and evaluate it essentially “as it is.” We judge the situations and actions of the characters for what they are. But then we realize that the fictional world is not that different from our own; what happened in the episode is very much like something happening in the real world. And if we realize that the conclusion we drew about the fictional world is different than what we think about what is going on in the real world, we are confronted with cognitive dissonance. If, when you removed your bias, you concluded that X was bad, but you have been saying that the thing or person analogous to X in the real world was good… well, then, there is a very good chance you only like X because of your bias, and you should change your belief.

In The Orville episode “About a Girl,” Lieutenants LaMarr and Malloy cloak bias to create cognitive dissonance in Commander Bortus. Bortus is part of an all-male race, the Moclans; so when his first offspring turns out to be a girl, he and his partner Klyden ask the ship’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Finn, to perform a sex change operation. Finn refuses, but to them, this would be no different than correcting a cleft palette. But when LaMarr and Malloy show Bortus the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” Claymation special, and he sees how something that was first thought to be a defect (Rudolph’s red nose) turned out to be an asset, he changes his mind and fights to let his daughter remain female.

But the episode itself employs the “cloak bias to create cognitive dissidence” approach on its audience. The viewer automatically sides with Bortus, against the Moclans, in thinking that surgically imposing a biological sex on the child is wrong. But then one realizes that this is not too dissimilar to how we humans impose cultured gender roles on children, and that the way Moclans treat women in general is not dissimilar to how we humans treat homosexuals and transexuals. Such realizations can be uncomfortable; if reality were a TV show, we would be the “bad guy.”

The list of episodes that employ this method goes on and on. “If the Stars Should Appear,” in which the crew discovers a bioship headed for destruction, is an allegory for climate change denial. The evidence they are doomed is undeniable, but it is ignored because it is considered heresy and would “destabilize a system that has kept [their society in] order.” “Majority Rule,” about a society ruled by the prevailing opinion on “the master feed,” is an allegory about “trial by Twitter” in which public opinion, rather than a fair trial, can essentially end someone’s life. “Krill” is an episode that focuses on the main villains of the series, the Krill: an alien race of spacefaring religious extremists. They think (because their “Bible,” the Anhkana, tells them so) that only they have moral worth (i.e., only they have souls) and that the entire universe is theirs to use and exploit. All of the worst horrors of Earth’s religions are brought to mind: manifest destiny (the idea that Christians were destined by God to conquer the Americas), the 9/11 attacks, Islamic terror attacks in Europe, the Buddhist mass persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya, Boko Haram’s jihad against girls’ education in Nigeria, environmental exploitation worldwide, the past and present justification of slavery and racism. (I talk about all of this in more detail in the introduction to Exploring The Orville, and there is a chapter dedicated to each one of the above mentioned episodes.)

The Orville’s Philosophical Questions

But the show also raises interesting philosophical questions. If Moclans are a biologically all-male society, in which males can reproduce on their own, then what does it even mean for a biological female to be born within it? We can imagine Moclan females as having features that human females have—like breasts—and see that human actresses have been cast to play them. But biologically, “female” is defined in terms of reproductive role. (Queen bees have no human traits, but we call them female.) So, we are left wondering not only what makes Moclan females biologically female, but how it would even be possible (by definition) for two biological males to reproduce? Could it be that Moclans are only all-male artificially? Maybe all females are changed into biological males at birth and reproduction among Moclans only happens thanks to advances in technology. (Catherine Nolan explores these questions in her chapter.)

One of the most memorable relationships in the series is between Dr. Clare Finn and Isaac, the android from Kaylon. Because he is an android, one genuinely wonders whether he can love Dr. Finn—or, even, whether Finn can truly love him. Unlike Data from Star Trek: TNG who only professes to not feel emotions, Isaac professes to have no feeling at all; he says he is not conscious. But just like Data, whose behavior often indicates that he does have emotion, might Isaac be wrong about their own internal states? Might Isaac be conscious in the same way humans are without knowing it?

If not, perhaps we limit too strictly what it means to be conscious. Not to bring bees into it again, but… We often think that humans are the only animal capable of using language, but bees do a dance in their hive that can indicate the location of nectar to their fellow bees far more accurately than any piece of human language. (And this is not the only kind of communicative dance they do.[2]) Might it be more accurate to say humans are the only ones that use our type of language, but that there are also other types of language? In the same way, even if Isaac isn’t conscious in the same way humans are, might we say he has a different type of consciousness? And if so, should we say the same for robots that we have, or at least one day will, develop? (Mimi Marinucci addresses these issues in her chapter.)

The romantic relationship that frames the series is between Capt. Ed Mercer and his first officer, Commander Kelly Greyson. She is his ex-wife because she cheated on him with an alien named Darulio, but she later helps Ed get command of The Orville (by pulling some strings). Later, we find out that she may have only cheated on Ed because members of Darulio’s race sometimes emits a pheromone that makes them sexually irresistible. Ed and Kelly’s relationship fuels a number of great comedic moments, but also another philosophical question addressed in the book; is nepotism—people getting jobs based on connections or relationships instead of qualifications—always bad? Turns out this is common in the world of The Orville, but everyone seems to just look the other way. (Joe Slater addresses these issues in his chapter.)

And what about Darulio’s pheromone? The crew seems to just look the other way when Darulio seduces Kelly (again), and then Ed, and even uses his pheromone to end a war. But isn’t the pheromone a bit like a date rape drug? If so, why was the crew so nonchalant about its use? (My co-editor Mike Berry addresses these questions, along with those the situation raises about what it means to have free will.)

And then there is the “sophomoric” humor that Ed and Kelly’s relationship lends itself to—along with the humor throughout the series. Is there really a difference between highbrow and lowbrow comedy, and should we really favor the former over the latter? And what does that tell us about how we should enjoy The Orville. (Leigh Rich and Christopher Innes tackle the humor of the series in their chapters.)

This is just a sample; I’ve only tried to give a sense of the kinds of ways that The Orville does philosophy and the kinds of things you will find in the book. But another recent book of mine, on an entirely different series—by another comedy writer Charlie Brooker—takes a similar approach. Next issue, I’ll talk about how the dystopian Black Mirror does philosophy and compare it to The Orville.


[1] Nodelman, Perry. “The Cognitive Estrangement of Darko Suvin,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 5, no. 4, January 1981: 24-27, https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.0.1851.

[2] Grad, Phillip “How Do Bees Communicate? They Dance Bee Dances!” Big Island Bees, 19 May 2010. https://bigislandbees.com/blogs/bee-blog/14137357-bee-dances

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Bio:

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016), and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Pop Culture as Philosophy (forthcoming)Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections (2019), and Exploring The Orville: Essays on Seth MacFarlane’s Space Adventure (2021). (About the latter, Seth MacFarlane himself said it is “a must read for any Orville fan.”) He also maintains two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take) and is currently in talks to do another project for The Great Courses (aka Wondrium).

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