I saw something recently that had a surprisingly refreshing point of view to it in regards to how humans are frequently depicted in sci-fi and many fantasy stories. It was, even more surprisingly, the season finale for The Orville.
A few thoughts, and SPOILERS for that particular episode, below.
While I am still not completely sure why I am watching The Orville, it did do something that was both anti-climactic and refreshing at the same time. For the finale, the ship and its crew encountered a strange planet that came into phase with the show’s universe every few days, but during the time it was somewhere else, 700 years would pass in an alternate dimension.
As a few members of the Orville‘s crew were exploring the planet’s surface, First Officer Kelly Grayson spotted a young girl injure herself. The society had bronze age level technology by then, and she knew the girl could die if not treated. As it was, Kelly had some medical equipment on her, so she broke that series’ version of the Prime Directive to heal the girl, being spotted and calming the girl (who of course spoke English) by, among other things, telling the child her name. Kelly and the others departed and when the planet came back into phase, the society had advanced to a medieval setting and Kelly was worshipped as a god. Seeing awful things done in her name, Kelly tried to fix things unsuccessfully, and during a phase when the planet was sitting at what would be the viewer’s current time, the crew’s artificial member Issac, who could do the 700 years just fine, volunteered to go down and fix the problems Kelly had inadvertently caused through an act of healing.
And then the weirdest thing happened for a sci-fi show. After Issac returned, well, the planet had advanced beyond the Orville and the Kelly-worship was long over. What had Issac done?
It turned out he didn’t do a damn thing.
As explained by the two emissaries from the planet who returned Issac to the Orville, the Kelly-worship was just a necessary step in any culture’s evolution. If it hadn’t been Kelly, the people would have found something else. As time went on, the religion thing just…stopped on its own. Heck, the emissaries aren’t even mad about Kelly’s interference. Ultimately, all Kelly did was play a key role in the evolution of a society through sheer dumb luck.
I found that refreshing. Why?
Well, think about it. The Orville takes its storybeats and whatnot from various versions of Star Trek. There is at least one episode of Next Generation where Captain Picard is stuck in the same sort of situation, but the episode goes very differently as the crew of the Enterprise eventually explains that Picard is no real god and fixes the society that way. That’s a bit more like it. The mostly-human crew of the Enterprise are benevolent and advanced, with the wise captain needed to fix a whole society because of some minor mishaps caused by the crew, well, of course the crew can do it by episode’s end.
Or consider the end of a really awful movie: Green Lantern.
There are hundreds if not thousands of Green Lanterns. The giant gas cloud that is Parallax has mowed down all kinds of Green Lanterns, but movie hero Hal Jordan figures out how to beat him. Why? Well, the most basic reason is he’s the movie’s protagonist We expect him to do that. But the other answer is given by a voiceover from another Green Lantern that Hal brought something special to the game: he was human.
Fantasy does this too. Gandalf suggests Men can replace Elves as the guardian race or whatever in The Lord of the Rings.
Um, OK. What exactly does that mean?
I mean, I know why that happens on Star Trek: it’s the budget. When the best aliens are often just forehead ridges and maybe something with the ears, it made sense for the humans to be so numerous. Roddenberry’s humans had evolved past conflict, but they often visited worlds that looked like past Earth time periods that hadn’t.
But this happens all the time. Something bad has been going on, but then some humans find it and figure out how to fix it.
But think about it: why do superhero universes often suggest humans are the only beings in the universe who can gain superpowers? You might have an alien race that has special abilities, but if the entire race has that trait, it’s not really a superpower, is it?
So, The Orville turned that on its ear by showing the humans…accomplish nothing at all in the grand scheme of things.