When Bortus' and Klyden's child is unexpectedly born female (something infinitesimally rare), Bortus asks Dr. Finn to perform a sex change to make the baby male so the child can thus lead a "normal" life as a Moclan. Finn refuses on moral grounds, Bortus appeals to Mercer, who also refuses, thus bringing to full boil a debate of gender identity from the Moclan point of view.
"About a Girl" is the best and most interesting episode of The Orville so far, even while it offers further proof — even more so than the first two episodes — that it's the product of a past generation (1967? 1997?) transplanted to 2017, as if through a time machine. This is, for all intents and purposes, a Star Trek episode from another era — or a spiritual step-heir, or something. Is it a good one? Yes, although maybe not a great one.
This is an allegory, certainly, but there are some clear limitations here. One is that human gender identity is more complicated than simply "male parts" or "female parts." But "About a Girl" does not really seem interested in going beyond the binary of the physiology, perhaps out of a need for storytelling simplicity. As a result, we must take this story purely on the Moclan's terms. Those terms are a bit muddled, because even though the story alleges females to be a once-in-75-year aberration, Klyden (Chad Coleman) reveals to Bortus that he — of all coincidences — was also born female and was surgically altered at birth. And later we meet yet another Moclan woman, a famous reclusive author who everyone assumed was a man, and who is key to the story's endgame.
This, along with the pilot's original description of the Moclan as a "single-gendered species" (which we know now is a lie of omission), had me suspecting we were going to get some sort of revelation that the once-in-75-year story is a sham covering some deep societal secret that there are actually Moclan females born all the time. (I was reminded of the DS9 revelation that Trill symbionts were actually much more compatible with Trill hosts than was generally known.) But that revelation never comes. Perhaps it will someday, because either something else is going on here, or the writing is sloppy. (This is still a young series, so I'm willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt.)
The scene where Bortus has an epiphany and changes his mind when Malloy and LaMarr show him Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer demonstrates the tricky tightrope this series walks (in what's shaping up to be a signature trait) between comedy and drama, sincerity and absurdity. And I must say they pulled it off nicely here. The scene is funny and poignant, even if it's fundamentally silly. That a lifetime of societal indoctrination can be reversed in an hour by watching a children's stop-motion animated TV special flies in the face of common sense, but this speaks to the ostensible value of parable storytelling that The Orville itself wants to occupy. The tone somehow works in its "just go with us on this" nature.
Although Bortus changes his mind, Klyden does not, so the second half of "About a Girl" becomes a courtroom episode on the Moclan homeworld, envisioned with VFX here as a global industrial wasteland. Grayson gets her JAG on (after Mercer declines the role, saying Grayson would be better — and perhaps this is an acknowledgement that MacFarlane knows it's wise deferring to Palicki in the meatier acting roles) and she argues as Bortus' lawyer against Klyden and Moclan society over the decision for child's gender.
I was honestly a little disheartened by the shift to the courtroom at first. It's an arena that has been done to death in Trek and everywhere else (including the end of a lot of bad Adam Sandler comedies, which have ruined it for everyone), and if you're going to do it, you'd better have a fresh take on it. I wouldn't call "About a Girl" a particularly fresh or groundbreaking take, but I would call it a solid and sincere one. (This is MacFarlane's attempt to do his "The Measure of a Man"; I wouldn't put it in that pedigree, but I also would say this is closer to that success than the failure of something like, say, "The Outcast.") The format allows the storytellers to make some relatively thoughtful arguments and analogues, although I'm not sure they're all iron-clad. (Included in this episode are moral comparisons to surgeries to fix birth defects like a cleft palate, and at other points the story also brings circumcision and cultural relativism into the discussion.)
The ending is an interesting resolution presented as bittersweet, in which Bortus loses the court decision. (The last-minute revelation with the female author does not suddenly prompt a sea change in Moclan society, which feels, sadly, realistic.) So the child is surgically made to be male against Bortus' wishes — but Bortus understands that the important thing now is accepting and moving forward with Klyden to lovingly raise his son.
Brannon Braga's direction is solid throughout, making for an earnest and thought-provoking hour that hits some good notes. Orville continues to recalibrate the balance between the comedy and drama, and they are getting closer to finding the right formula. But this episode never transcends its roots. This series seems insistent on reliving past Trekkian glories in a retro style, rather than blazing new trails, and this is the Trekkiest outing yet. But let's also be clear that honoring that tradition is a good thing.