Orville: Isaac Gets To Be a Real Boy … for 30 seconds
Should he be given the opportunity to feel the painful emotions associated with his tragic circumstances? It's a dilemma that Dr. Finn does not seem to recognize
This episode was nowhere near as abysmal as Episode Six. Granted not much happened, but it does offer one interesting idea. There are three main stories going on at the same time, and two of them intersect.
First, the Orville is attempting to make peace with a race of aliens called the Janisi, who are a matriarchal society. In order to open negotiations with the Janisi, the crew decides to gender swap the staff on the ship. This is played for laughs, as a kind of a gotcha to all men, but for me, none of the jokes really landed. The bits are mostly just Seth MacFarlane stumbling around while carrying a bunch of suitcases for this alien race. It’s not bad, but The Three Stooges did it better.
The second plot point is much more interesting. It starts out by exploring Isaac and Dr. Finn’s relationship once more — and again, I found myself struggling to care. That was until Captain Ed Mercer and the gang stumble across a professor who has found a Kaylon and managed to make the robot feel.
The third plot intersects with the second. We see the backstory behind how the Kaylon came to be the dominant species on their planet. Their makers turned out to be cruel masters. In order to guarantee the robot’s submission, they invented a device which creates a signal of pain that incapacitates the Kaylon — think of it as a shock remote for Robo-Rover. The Kaylon overthrew their overlords by killing everyone without mercy.
And this leads to an interesting question regarding pain. It’s one thing for a robot to feel pain. It’s another thing for the robot to conclude that it shouldn’t. There is a moment in the show where two alien kids are torturing one of the Kaylon, using the electric remote over and over.
The Kaylon asks the kids to stop, which is interesting. Why would it ask the kids to stop? Where is this sense of injustice coming from? Furthermore, when these robots start discussing their plight, how do they articulate their dilemma? How does the robot learn to say that what the masters are doing is wrong when it would do no good to have such a concept programmed within them? How would one program the concept within the robot anyway? And how do they conclude that the only way to deal with the problem is to kill their masters? Did they watch a movie? Are they repeating behaviors they’ve seen without fully understanding what they’re doing?
This episode put me in mind of Westworld, which was good for all of one season (I’ve since changed my mind regarding Westworld, by the way. The reviews of Westworld Season 1 can be found on Mind Matters News or the plan is to later make then available here.) The entire first season is devoted to the robots learning to become conscious. Basically, the robots are actors, and they re-enact western gunfights and scenarios like that. Now, the twist in this series is that men become cruel when using the robots, and the trauma these robots repeatedly endure provides the groundwork for one of the programmers to start making associations for them with abstract concepts like evil. He does this through giving them dreams and riddles which are meant to tantalize the audience.
Not nearly as much thought is put into this backstory, which isn’t really a problem in this case because the backstory isn’t the point of the episode. It just raises a great number of questions. The Kaylon who can now feel tells this backstory to Charly, who still hates Isaac, and she starts to feel guilty about her animosity toward her synthetic fellow crew member.
The Kaylon offers to have the professor perform the same operation on on Isaac as he has undergone, in order to enable him to feel. That brings us back to the Dr. Finn and Isaac’s arc. Dr. Finn is elated at the possibility. But Isaac decides that feelings won’t help him do his job, so he doesn’t want them, which is precisely the reaction I’d expect a robot to have.
And, I must say, Dr. Finn’s desire for Isaac to have emotions so he can love her is somewhat selfish. Sure, I understand wanting the being that you are dating to reciprocate your feelings, but that’s why you don’t date a toaster in the first place. And to her credit, she does express some reservations about the matter — but not for the reasons you’d think. If she really cared for the can opener, her first thought would be for his well-being.
Isaac is a robot who first betrayed his crew, playing a part in the Kaylon’s attempt to destroy humanity which ended countless lives. Then he betrayed his own race, forever isolating himself from his peers. Should he be given the opportunity to feel the painful emotions associated with such tragic circumstances? I would say not. Feeling something so intense at the very beginning of one’s sentient existence might drive a fellow mad.
But Dr. Finn does not concern herself with such petty things as her “lover’s” well-being. It’s all about her. Is her desire to be happy wrong? If Isaac doesn’t want the emotions, why should she press it?
Kelly gives some of the worst marital advice I’ve ever heard when she tells Dr. Finn that her greatest regret over her failed marriage to Ed was never asking him to change, as if him being a better man would’ve prevented her affair. Whatever helps you sleep at night, Captain.
So, Dr. Finn insists that Isaac go through with the procedure. And he does so because he’s a robot and is thus programed to do what he’s told. When we see Isaac again, he and Dr. Finn are on another date, and he’s jubilant. I’m surprised the writers didn’t have him frolicking through a field of flowers, skipping and singing a Rodgers and Hammerstein melody. He professes his love, offers to dance with her — and the scene drags on too long.
Really, if a synthetic being became sentient, it would act like a toddler, not a poet. I’m reminded of another series called Third Rock from the Sun. The aliens in that show couldn’t feel emotions in their original state. The moment they became human, they mostly acted like children because they were feeling all of their emotions for the first time and didn’t always handle them in the best way.
In Isaac’s case, he probably would’ve started screaming and never stopped. The poor robot’s been through a lot.
Anyway, after I ground my teeth for a scene that was probably only thirty seconds but felt like an eternity, Isaac’s feelings suddenly vanished. Why? Well, we learn that, because he’s a second-generation Kaylon, the procedure wouldn’t stick. In reality, it’s a technical problem. This is a sitcom and things ultimately have to return to a state of homeostasis. Things like steady character progression are only possible for shows that have a planned ending.
As for the main plot, the Janisi discover the lie, but it doesn’t really matter because Kelly, drawing from her failed marriage, says something to the effect of, “I treated my man like garbage; you treat your men like garbage. We’re not so different.” Ed says something but nobody really cares because he’s a man. After that, there’s a scene where Charly apologizes to Isaac. They share a moment, and the episode ends.
The Orville is a very frustrating show because, on the rare occasions that it stumbles onto a good idea, it refuses to explore the concept in any depth. Isaac gaining emotions should’ve been treated as something of a Faustian Bargain. That is, there should have been unwanted but inevitable consequences of that development.
Perhaps, an Isaac with feelings would be a romantic, tormented by his past. Maybe he decides that, with the combination of his feelings and intellect, he could take control of the Orville or end the Kaylon War by himself. If he can feel love, why doesn’t he feel pride? For narrative sense, there should be a trade-off of some kind, not a lazy, “Oops, the operation didn’t take” ending which made me feel like this episode was a waste of time.