"All the World Is Birthday Cake," possibly more than any Orville episode so far, raises serious questions about what this series is trying to do and what the rules of this universe are. This is an episode that has an underlying concept that could really only have worked on TOS — where the rules of engagement did not yet exist for the audience. Meanwhile, it's got the story beats and filming style of TNG — if you ignore all the violence, anyway. And then it has all the problems we associate with Voyager and Enterprise — pointless action and hard-headed aliens holding ridiculously absolute beliefs. The end result is the most heavy-handed episode of this series to date.
It starts out wonderfully, in what appears to be an Orville homage to the Trekkian first contact. The teaser and first act sell the awe of the initial encounter with the Regorians marvelously. But then the ominous foreboding begins (Regorian babies are delivered early for no medical reason, just to keep their birthdates outside a forbidden zone of dates; Claire conveniently gets to stand in an operating room to witness a C-section). Then Grayson casually mentions at a state dinner that her and Bortus' birthdays are next week and out come the armed guards.
It turns out the Regorians, for thousands of years, have relied on astrology for the basis of much of their civilization. If you are born under the bad sign of "Giliac," supposedly indicating you have violent and criminal tendencies, you are banished from society and thrown into a concentration camp. (The Giliac wear jumpsuits with the symbol of their sign identifying them, just in case the Jews-during-WWII allegory was lost on us.) Grayson and Bortus are imprisoned and treated like scum because that's just how this world works.
This episode takes the allegory-via-absurdity approach sometimes employed by TOS. The Regorians, represented primarily through their prefect (John Rubinstein), cannot possibly fathom the idea of not segregating based on astrology. I mean, it doesn't even occur to him that such a thing is possible. He's aghast that the enlightened spacefaring Union could possibly see it otherwise. His world is so consumed with this idea that he simply asks Mercer to leave, wanting no part of such heresy. Naturally, he won't return Grayson and Bortus. He thinks his world can simply impose their views on space aliens (whose astrology would have no relevance to this world's whatsoever, but let's not get into silly details), even though these aliens have superior technology and firepower. (I wonder how this play would've worked out with the Krill.) I get the commentary that there are people so stuck inside their bubble of beliefs that they can't possibly consider alternate viewpoints, but this is ham-handed and forced.
TNG's "First Contact" is a classic of contemplation and subtlety. "All the World Is Birthday Cake" plays like its nasty evil twin. This is an episode that wheels and turns on plot contrivances, forced conflict, stupid violence, thematic inconsistency, and a gross ineptitude on the part of the Planetary Union. The guiding philosophy of the Union for engaging other sentient species appears to be "just wing it." Sure, let's just go down to a planet because they called us — what could go wrong?
Of course, this chill make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy stands only until it doesn't. We get a useless admiral (played by Ted Danson) who tells Mercer he isn't allowed to rescue his people by force because ... reasons. So Grayson and Bortus are collateral damage who spend a month in an internment camp, after which the admiral tells Mercer basically to abandon them. Nice. The idea that the Union would have a policy of answering every call from a world that sends out a signal is highly questionable. The idea they would go down to the planet and make contact without doing any sort of research beforehand is several steps beyond stupid. (Also, this seems contradictory. The Union had people studying the planet in "Majority Rule"; you'd think they'd do something similar before sending down a landing party with zero information about the planet's culture.)
I'll say this: The complete lack of coherence or sensibility around how the Union deals with issues of first contact, diplomacy, and non-interference reveals just how much more well-thought-out the rules of the Trek universe are and how we take them for granted. They become an utter mess when considered superficially as they are here.
Take Grayson and Bortus in the internment camp. We see how awful the Giliac are treated, how the Giliac accept their sorry lot in life because that's just how it is, and we get a childbirth scene in the compound that seems to go on forever (do we really need to see the "Push!" sequence done four times?), before the baby's fate sparks Grayson to say "enough" and decide to break out of the compound in disgust. In their failed escape attempt, Grayson and Bortus kill probably a half-dozen guards (plenty of machine guns and even an explosion to throw a bone to the action fans). This is completely inconsistent with whatever non-conflict or non-interference point Admiral Danson was trying to make. I realize Grayson had no knowledge of the admiral's orders, but that's precisely the point — his orders were dumb and arbitrary, and meanwhile the rules of engagement as a matter of standing policy don't seem to exist.
As for the solution to the problem, consider me extremely skeptical. The new Xeleyan security chief, Lt. Talla Keylai (Jessica Szohr, playing a harder-edged opposite to the sweet and insecure Alara) discovers the Giliac's misfortune goes back three millenniums to when a star vanished from the heavens and was taken as a bad omen. So Mercer's crew decides to "bring back the star" in the hopes of changing the Regorians' world.
So a few things here:
- I am not convinced the geometry of the "mirror" solution they come up with could possibly work given how close the reflector is to the planet. Wouldn't the position of the "star" be way off depending on where from the surface you were looking at it? Even a few hundred miles would have a significant parallax effect, wouldn't it?
- After 3,000 years of persecuting the Giliac, the Regorians are just going to abandon their beliefs because a star magically reappears in the sky? Just like that? And they're going to let Grayson and Bortus go even though they just killed a bunch of people? Really? How very nice and tidy.
- How is it okay for Mercer to interfere in a very major way that affects how the entire planet's society functions, yet using isolated force (it could even have been non-lethal force!) to retrieve the abducted crew members is forbidden? Especially in light of the fact those abducted crew members kill a bunch of people anyway?
Is this nitpicking? I don't think so. This plot does not hold up to even reasonable scrutiny. You could perhaps have gotten away with some of this in the TOS days, because audiences weren't as demanding and the details weren't fussed over. But that was 50 years ago, and The Orville exists in a world where TNG long ago changed the game.
Look, I get this isn't the Trek universe. But The Orville picks and chooses which rules from Trek it decides to employ, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason for how or when it does so. That becomes more of a liability for an episode like "Birthday Cake" that relies so much on its own half-assed spin on Trekkian ideals. This episode makes no sense because the Union's protocols for alien encounters make no sense. If this series isn't going to adhere to any rules, then it shouldn't have gone out of its way to model itself on a universe that's all about rules.
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