Should a Woman Die in Order to Save a Race of Robots?
In The Orville, Episode 9, Charly is confronted with that very choice
In Part 1 of my review of Orville Season Three, Episode 9, Charly and Isaac had invented a doomsday EMP device that can annihilate the robotic Kaylon. Ed doesn’t want to use the device to wipe out the entire robotic species because he thinks they are alive, though why he thinks so is never made clear. But, oh well.
The Union decides to offer the Kaylon a peace treaty, and the robots accept the deal. However, unbeknownst to our heroes — such as they are — one member of the Union decides it would be better to destroy the Kaylon, and hands the device over to the humanoid Moclans and the reptilian Krill, who have recently formed an alliance.
The traitor doesn’t do a very good job covering his tracks, so the Union quickly realizes the situation. Union forces rush to a nearby planet where the Krill and Moclans are attempting to reverse engineer the device. The Union warns the Kaylon of the device, and the robots decide to help them attack the Moclans and Krill.
The Kaylon leader, Kaylon Primary, lands on the Orville and he, Kelly, Isaac, Charly, and Talla form a strike team to assault the facility where the device is stored. Ed and the others participate in a space battle over the planet.
I will say this for the show. The action in this episode is enjoyable, the best part of the series. Nothing particularly significant happens, but I forgot what show I was watching for a while…
While dogfights roar overhead, Kelly and the others sneak into the facility and are gradually separated as they confront the security. Kelly ends up fighting the Krill leader Teleya, while Isaac, Primary, and Charly find the device. Talla sneaks off somewhere so she can save Kelly at the last minute. Then, as Kelly and Talla capture Teleya, Isaac and Charly discover that the Moclans have figured out how to operate the device and are about to use it.
The device can wipe out the Kaylon even from a great distance because it has a quantum core energy source. Once again, the show appeals to Charly’s ability to see in four dimensions. Charly is the only one who can destroy the device by overloading the core, but she will need to stay by the control panel until the fateful operation is completed. She must sacrifice herself to save the robots. I still have no clue what seeing in four dimensions specifically does in this situation. Perhaps it’s just a plot device that shoehorns in an untimely end for the character.
Sad words are spoken, and Charly is left alone to detonate the core. Kelly and the others make a narrow escape, and Charly dies with the device she helped create.
Teleya is thrown into the Orville’s brig, and once Kelly and company enter the bridge, Primary asks the crew why this biological lifeform sacrificed herself to save his species. Here is where I have to pause. This entire scene was meant to be an emotional payoff, but the setup was, unfortunately, poorly done.
In a previous scene where Charly and Captain Ed are talking on a porch, she communicates to him that she believes that they should’ve wiped out the Kaylon. Here was a perfect opportunity for him to say something that would change Charly’s perspective. But, in my view, both of these characters come off as morons: Ed for acting like the robots are alive in the first place and sparing them, and Charly for hating Isaac because he followed the Kaylons’ orders in a previous season — conveniently forgetting the fact that Isaac is a robot, and the act of overriding his programming was an impressive feat. I concede that Charly’s position is more understandable than Ed’s. But, regardless of my personal opinion, this is a moment where two characters from opposing points of view can have an honest conversation and offer different perspectives.
Given that we know Charly is going to die for the can openers, despite her earlier views — and that one of those said machines is going to ask why later — one would think that the writers would’ve allowed Ed the last word. Some final remark, perhaps, that could help alter Charly’s point of view. But he said nothing and when Primary asks why, he remains silent, and the rest of the crew have to explain it to the robot. This was a massive, missed opportunity and a plot hole.
We’ve watched Charly struggle to forgive Isaac throughout the season, and she’s just reached the point where she can work with the robot. That doesn’t mean she’d be willing to sacrifice herself for the entire mechanical race. The character simply isn’t there yet, so she needed a final push, something to alter her perspective. Without such an incentive, it would be nothing for Charly to just say that she can’t stop what’s about to happen, and the Union would be none the wiser. So, why end her own life? And why miss such an obvious opportunity to have Ed — Charly’s opposite in this arc — tell her something profound that he can later quote back to Primary as a reference to his final conversation with her. The writers could then build an arc for Ed where he feels responsible for Charly’s death.
Funnily enough, the crew doesn’t even answer the robot’s question. They tell Primary that what Charly did was good and that humans are not like his makers. But they don’t bother to address the motivations behind Charly’s actions. I suspect the reason for this is that the writers didn’t know why either. It just seemed like a dramatic scene to film.
But why is Charly’s self-sacrifice good? The merit of this decision solely rests on whether or not the robots are sentient in some fashion, a question the show stubbornly refuses to acknowledge, let alone answer. If these robots really are nothing more than machines, then Charly died for no reason. The writers know this, so they demand that the robots are alive while simultaneously refusing to give them any hints of humanity. They want to have their cake and eat it too.
And rest assured, the writers of the Orville are obstinate when it comes to demanding that the robots have no emotions. When Isaac gives his eulogy for Charly, he lists a bunch of facts about her in a particular order, and the combinations of these facts add a certain emotional weight to his speech. But even in this moment — a situation which might imply that the robot has some intuition regarding what is important in life — he prefaces his speech by saying that Dr. Finn “helped” him write it. So, the emotional cues signaled by the robot are in fact initiated by a human, negating the implication that he valued Charly in anyway. It’s infuriating.
I said that this episode is the best one in the series because the action is fast-paced. But the show still maintains its frustratingly ambiguous themes and a tendency for plot holes. In terms of quality, its close to Episode 8 but for different reasons. Episode 8 managed to approximate a morally ambiguous situation. Episode 9 manages to approximate a climatic season finale. Alas, it is not the finale. We have one more episode to go…