The Spool / TV
The Orville Review: “All the World is Birthday Cake” Sees the Crew Battling Astrology-Based Prejudice
The Orville crew butt heads with a world that shuns people based on their Zodiac sign, in a premise straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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A first-contact situation turns dangerous as the Orville contends with a world that imprisons those with the wrong star sign, in an episode that crackles with old-school Trek energy.


This piece was originally posted on Alcohollywood

Seeking out new life and new civilizations was always Star Trek‘s bread and butter; the tense first-contact episode is a dime a dozen in all of that franchise’s various incarnations, all of them perfect examples for some good old-fashioned social allegory. While it looks like Discovery is at least gesturing toward that sense of exploration in its second season, The Orville‘s mission statement has always been to emulate Trek‘s zeal for exploring the unknown. In many ways, “All the World is Birthday Cake” feels ripped from the TNG playbook – it falls apart under a moment’s thought, but The Orville‘s newly refined sincerity and well-meaning idealism help see it through.

Like the United Federation of Planets, The Orville‘s Planetary Union lives for the opportunity to meet new species and expand their knowledge of this universe. When a mysterious planet in the Gamma Valorum system sends a radio transmission to the stars – “Is anyone out there?” – the ship picks it up and the crew excitedly warps (sorry, quantum…s?) to the planet immediately to make First Contact. “This is it, this is what we signed up for!” Gordon (Scott Grimes) exclaims. It’s moments like these where The Orville‘s true charms come through: even in an idealistic show like The Next Generation, the stuffy crew of the Enterprise would treat such an opportunity with a bemused optimism. The Orville‘s crew, however, has no such pretensions – they’re hype about the prospect of meeting new worlds, each department cheering and applauding, gathering instruments to take down to the planet. Seth MacFarlane wrote this episode, and it’s great to see his concept of the excessive casualization of space travel extend to letting his crew of well-meaning goobers get hella jazzed about their jobs.

When they get to the planet (which the inhabitants call Regor II), they find what appears to be a benevolent civilization of people roughly at our stage of development. However, right from the start, there are clues that something sinister lurks behind the beautifully-landscaped courtyards and ornate dining halls of Regoriansociety: Dr. Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald) keys into Regorian medicine’s curiously high rate of premature C-sectioned babies. It’s only when Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) lets slip that both she and Cmdr. Bortus (Peter Macon) have birthdays coming up that the First Prefect (guest star John Rubinstein) has them arrested by force, burying all hope of a peaceful first contact situation.

In a twist straight out of OG Trek, it turns out that Regorian culture is predicated upon a millennia-old prejudice based upon astrological signs: people born “Jelliacs” are thought to be savage, inferior and more prone to violence. As a result, doctors try to deliver babies early outside of that month, or else they’re sent away to labor camps. Imagine being put in a concentration camp for being a Scorpio (which, let’s be honest, is a real Scorpio move), and that’s the Regorian approach to social order.

It’s an inelegant allegory, with plot holes you could drive a starship through: why don’t couples just try to avoid Jelliac due dates? Why do they need to imprison Kelly and Bortus for being Jelliacs when they can just send them back to the Orville like everyone else? But like even some Trek premises, “Birthday Cake”‘s conceit is there to straightforwardly explore the arbitrary nature of Otherism and prejudice. The rules are supposed to feel nonsensical, because, well, they are. After all, is your birth sign more of a valid excuse to be treated like a criminal than your skin color or gender identity?

Thus, the conflict for the rest of the episode is established: how do the crew of The Orville get Kelly and Bortus out of the camp while still providing the possibility for diplomatic relations? According to Admiral Perry (Ted Danson!), they can’t just go in guns blazing and rescue their missing crew: “We’re not the Krill,” he explains.

That leaves the crew to come up with other solutions, while Capt. Mercer (MacFarlane) tries to talk reason into the First Prefect, arguing for the arbitrary nature of their astrology-based belief system. “We look for patterns in the natural world,” he explains, “but sometimes a star is just a star.” But for the First Prefect, this belief is enough, to the point where he’d rather the Union just go away and “forget about Rigor II.” Sure, it’s a bullheaded position, but you try running a xenophobic, isolationist world that gives its planet second billing in its own solar system.

Born under a bad sign as official state policy.

Kelly Greyson (Adrianne Palicki)

While the Orville tries to settle the planet’s conflicts in macro, much of “Birthday Cake” follows Kelly and Bortus’ time in the Jelliac camp, planning their escape and forging a friendship with a Jelliac couple, Rokal (Niko Nicotera) and the pregnant Ukania (Jennifer Landon). These guest stars really shine in their few scenes, especially as Kelly and Bortus help them through the later stages of Ukania’s pregnancy – Kelly even delivers her baby. What follows is heartbreaking, and surprisingly effective for The Orville: Rokal makes the hard decision to let the guards find their baby during a tense inspection. Since she was born in a star sign associated with leadership, she’ll have every advantage, he argues; Landon’s pain and anguish as her baby is ripped from her arms, with the guard assuring her that she’ll “have a blessed life,” is an astonishingly dramatic moment for a show that started as a space-based sitcom.

Of course, the crew figures out the source of Regor II’s anti-Jelliac prejudice: turns out one of the stars in its associated constellation went supernova and turned into a black hole 3,000 years ago. The Regorians saw that as a sign that Jelliacs were undesirable, and formed their society around that. To that end, Gordon, Isaac (Mark Jackson) and LaMarr (J Lee) figure out a solution – launch a solar sail that will reflect the light from the sun onto Regor II in such a way that it makes the star look like it’s reappeared. Lo and behold, it works, just in time to save Kelly and Bortus from execution by firing squad for a botched escape attempt.

It’s a beautiful sequence – like the rest of The Orville‘s second season, its effects and musical score are top-notch, as we watch the shuttle unfurl a gloriously golden solar sail and adjust it to just the right position – but it’s a disappointingly pat resolution to an entire society’s problems. Sure, many of Earth’s own prejudices may have resulted from ancient dogmas, but since then we’ve internalized and changed them to the point where they exist even in our secular society. Regor II’s civilization is still deeply religious, but a single star in the sky isn’t going to instantly undo generations of socialized prejudice and indifference. In a world where being called a racist is considered just as much a crime as actually doing something racist, our deeply-coded worldviews are going to need a lot more to change them than a ‘miraculous’ star in the sky appearing out of thin air.

For what it’s worth, the crew of the Orville recognizes this: when new security officer Talla Keylai (Jessica Szohr) asks Ed, “what happens when they realize the star is fake?” all Captain Mercer can muster is the faint hope that, by the time they do, their civilization will have advanced enough to have addressed these prejudices already. A flimsy answer, to be sure, but at least it acknowledges the imperfections of the Trek model of swooping in and saving alien planets’ societal ills every week. The Orville may move on to a new planet and a new problem next week, but that solar sail will still be there, a big Band-Aid on the bigoted cruelty of an entire planet. One hopes that Regor II’s wound will be healed by the time it peels off.

Random thoughts:

  • In addition to holding up as its own episode, “Birthday Cake” had to do the heavy lifting of introducing Halston Sage’s replacement to the crew. For what it’s worth, Szhor does an admirable job fitting into the existing ensemble; she’s Xelayan too (so they can keep using the scripts they likely wrote for Alara without doing too much rewriting), but Talla is an older security officer who’s confident, brash, and more than willing to punch people in the stomach if she needs to. Having her be the one to make the constellation breakthrough was a nifty way of giving her something important to do in the episode, and prove herself as an equal member of the crew. Here’s hoping we see more of her.
  • Bortus is right: joint birthday parties suck, and he’s having none of it. “We will be having separate celebrations.” Even when he caves on account of their life-or-death experience, it’s a lame affair on the bridge of all places (why not the mess hall?).
  • During their conference with Admiral Ted Danson cameo, he references the time they didn’t go in guns blazing to take Bortus’ child away from Moclus before his forced gender reassignment in “About a Girl”. “Some people say we should have,” Mercer admits. I love that the running tension of Topa’s surgery, and the emotional effect it’s had on the whole crew, is carrying through from episode to episode, even in throwaway exchanges like this.
  • Sure, Kelly and Bortus’ escape attempt from the camp was ultimately fruitless and more than a little cheap, but it allowed Palicki a great showcase for the fighting skills she honed on shows like Agents of SHIELD.
  • The Trek pedigree is strong with this episode, as well, given that it was directed by Tom Paris himself, Robert Duncan McNeill.
The Orville, “All the World Is Birthday Cake” Trailer