This The Orville review contains spoilers.
The Orville Season 2 Episode 2
The second season of The Orville is already weirdly focused on what Bortus is doing when he’s not performing his duties. Last week, he had to take a giant piss, and this week, he’s struggling with his addiction to the simulation room.
Because the ship is observing a solar system which is about to be engulfed by its sun, the setup of “Primal Urges” vaguely references the original Star Trek episode, “All Our Yesterdays,” in which the Enterprise was trying to get people off the planet Sarpeidon. But the similarity to any classic Trek episode ends there. Instead, this one is all about the dangers of losing yourself in holographic fakery that becomes The Orville version of porn addiction. Basically, the entire episode revolves around Bortus hitting up the simulation room over and over again, which threatens to destroy his relationship with Klyden. And everything that happens as a result of this directly homages Lt. Barclay (Dwight Schultz) and his hologram addiction in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
For those who forgot, in TNG, Barclay was a semi-recurring character who worked in engineering and was nervous and addicted to the holodeck. In “Primal Urges,” The Orville borrows these themes, specifically from the TNG episode “Hollow Pursuit,” but gives the addiction to Bortus. This would be like if The Next Generation gave Worf a hologram addiction problem and not a guy like Barclay. This idea works well on The Orville only because depicting a nerdy, anxious person (Barclay) struggling with porn addiction feels fairly cruel. In “Primal Urges,” the strength of Bortus’ persona is shown in a new light. In other words, masculine, stoic men struggle with porn addiction, too, not just “nerds.”
But, there are problems here. By outright calling it “porn addiction” in the episode, The Orville gets a little on-the-nose. Obviously, the show plays pretty fast-and-loose with 21st-century colloquialisms (so does Star Trek) but the metaphor of an alien messing around with holograms and messing up his relationship is sort of lost when people keep saying “porn” over and over again. This feels like a moment where Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy comedy style collides with a Next Generation moral aesthetic and not in a good way. In other words, the episode feels like it can’t decide if it wants to take this concept seriously at all.
Complicating this is the fact that “Primal Urges” misses what made memorable hologram stories on Star Trek so good. Across TNG, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, in multiple episodes, the question of whether or not the pseudo-A.I of a hologram was a “real” person was floated over and over again. In “Hollow Pursuits,” the crew is more mortified that Barclay’s porn is bespoke and consisting of real people he actually knows in compromising situations. On paper, this is way darker than what “Primal Urges” investigates. Also, because Barclay was a human male, and not an alien, the idea of male sexuality expressing itself in kinky fantasies with holograms was also a little more interesting. With “Primal Urges,” The Orville seems to be leaning on Bortus as its resident alien that allows the show to ask “hard questions” which are really about human behavior.
This flaw is evident in one scene in which Ed and Kelly talk about how hard it is for them to accept aspects of Moclan culture, but the fact is, most everything that happens in this episode (minus the attempted murder of a spouse) is totally things that happen in normal human culture. This makes the episode slightly tone-deaf, only because none of the human characters have to really face porn addiction. In Star Trek, multiple human characters did weird stuff with holograms (*cough cough* Riker!) but at least the show owned it. And though “Primal Urges” was mostly good, it felt both tone deaf to the idea of porn addiction and also sidestepped more interesting questions.
Hopefully next week, The Orville can leave Bortus alone and pick a different character to use as a metaphor for the human condition.