"A Tale of Two Topas" tackles a current-day controversial issue using the classic Star Trek (TNG) style. It does so with heart, feeling, empathy, thoughtfulness, messiness, ugliness, and no shortage of emotional and plotted complication. It's all the more effective because of its straightforward take on the material. This is an episode that demonstrates how properly existing at the vertex where the intellectual and the emotional converge can result in something pretty great.
This episode uses science fiction to just barely put a twist on a current-day issue. In this case, it's the matter of gender identity as seen through Bortus' and Klyden's child, Topa (Imani Pullum) — born female but reassigned male (unknown to him), shortly after birth as a result of the deeply misogynistic Moclan culture. While Topa is shadowing Grayson to learn more about how the crew operates, he reveals to her that he has been feeling "incomplete" and "unhappy"; he has realized there is something wrong deep within himself. In a rather alarming development, Topa goes to Isaac and asks him what it felt like to be dead. Isaac explains that being dead was not unpleasant, because it was merely a state of nothingness. Isaac wisely reports the conversation to Grayson.
From here things get complicated. Grayson can't tell Topa the truth of his identity, because it's not her place to do so. Bortus thinks Topa deserves to know the truth, but Klyden adamantly forbids it. Born female himself, Klyden has been so self-shamed by Moclan culture that he wouldn't wish that fate on Topa, and wants to spare him having to live with that knowledge. When Bortus says Topa is unhappy, Klyden replies, "Unhappiness is better than despair." This reveals a compelling alternative perspective for living in a state of obliviousness.
I appreciated this nod toward the cause of Klyden's bigotry (and self-loathing), but I also feel like the episode missed an opportunity to provide Klyden with a little more shading. Chad L. Coleman plays the part forcefully, but the character is always so angry, hard-headed, and one-note that it sometimes becomes self-defeating. Part of this is admittedly the point — about a man trapped in a particular way of thinking by his own torturously troubled origin — but if there's a weakness to this episode, it's the way it makes Klyden so relentlessly aggressive (going so far as to have him assault Grayson in her office during a fiery argument once Topa has been provided the hints leading him to the truth) when it had a rare opportunity to portray Klyden with more grace and nuance.
On the other hand, this is all consistent with how Klyden and the Moclans at large have always been portrayed. They are absolutely who they are, and Bortus is a relative progressive in comparison. He wants to give Topa the choice of not only learning the truth, but of undoing the surgical procedure that made him male in the first place — something which Klyden of course flatly rejects. The episode smartly uses Topa's accelerated age to make her (I will henceforth refer to Topa as "her") about 12 after only a few years of time, thereby providing a handy ellipsis and framing the issue as a question of personal choice combined with parental guidance. It also represents the culmination of an arc that began in "About a Girl" and progressed in "Deflectors" and "Sanctuary." Topa is certain about her choice, and Bortus grants his parental consent, and Union law states that only one parent needs to give consent in such matters where the minor has made such a choice. Meanwhile, Klyden continues to be Klyden.
But there are also major political considerations here. The Union is fearful that if Dr. Finn performs the gender reversal/reassignment surgery, the Moclans will pull their support from the Union, leaving them that much more vulnerable to the Kaylon — especially in light of the Krill treaty evaporating in last week's "Gently Falling Rain." Admiral Howland (Andi Chapman) orders Mercer not to do the procedure given the extremely high stakes. As a way of hopefully getting around this, Finn offers to Mercer her resignation from Union service to perform the procedure as a civilian — but then Isaac, who is not a Union representative at all, instead agrees to perform the procedure in her place. (As an AI, surgery is no problem for him.) The entire crew maintains plausible deniability by attending a concert that happens at precisely the same time as the surgery. (The concert serves as an excuse for MacFarlane to engage in artistic self-indulgence where it's not really necessary — including with Bortus taking to the stage to sing while Ty plays piano — but I'm willing to go with it given how well this episode works.)
I thought this entire plan was splitting hairs in a way unlikely to satisfy the Moclan government, but the episode has that base covered too: The Moclans are furious, yes, but not furious enough to walk away from the alliance — and the fact that a Kaylon performed the surgery makes them even angrier at the Kaylon while giving the Moclans enough cover to save face given their position. Likewise, the riot act Admiral Howland reads Mercer and Grayson in light of this clever little ploy makes it very clear this was a gamble that just happened to pay off. And even if the admiral is okay with the end result for all involved, she doesn't condone the fast one Ed and Kelly pulled to get here. As a political plot, this is just complicated enough to add some intrigue, but without gumming up the works of the story's main theme. And it works plausibly with all parties in the story without making anyone look stupid. It's a fine line to walk, and the episode does so with aplomb.
For me, the most interestingly difficult, complex, and uncomfortable scene is the one where Klyden confronts Isaac in the medical bay just as he's about to perform the surgery. Klyden is determined to stop what he sees as an atrocity before it happens. Isaac physically overpowers and stops him. As much as I disapprove of Klyden, his bigotry, and his intention to enforce his views upon a child who will be harmed by them, there's a part of me that feels bad for him as a parent stripped of all say regarding what happens to his child. Topa gets the final say in her fate, as she should, but from Klyden's point of view, which is very much in the mainstream of his culture, he is forcibly kicked to the sidelines while others decide Topa's fate. It's powerful how the show demonstrates this crushing helplessness even as it makes Klyden and Moclan culture the villains of the piece.
As with many sci-fi morality plays, there's a certain amount of distance this story holds from its real-world issue because of the specific tweaks around the edges — like the fact that Topa's reassignment is a restoration of her original true nature. To bring this back to the real world, there are a lot of people who do not understand the societal changes happening with regard to the trans movement. Even those who want to be open-minded will understandably resist ideas that challenge long-held mainstream beliefs. Some will react with ugliness, as Klyden does. Others will react with understanding and empathy and acceptance, as Bortus does. The episode does a good job of dramatizing this clash. It ends with Klyden leaving the family and disowning his child, because he cannot accept what she is — and indeed what he himself once was.
Ultimately, "A Tale of Two Topas" is a journey that arrives at its destination through the eyes of its young central character, played as a male and female by Imani Pullum under many prosthetics. It's a touching performance with an arc that advocates for one young person's personal agency. This really is quite a wonderful drama, following the best TNG-era examples, effectively mixing plot and character, with standout writing and performances across the board, and tackled in a traditionally effective and head-on manner. It's the episode of The Orville that shows it can play in the big leagues.
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