Seth MacFarlane wants to reclaim sci-fi with The Orville

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Sep 8, 2017

Seth MacFarlane is a massive geek, and has woven his love of space, pop culture, and Star Trek into his creative career, front and center. His love of Trek has been especially evident, in the various homage's that he's baked into his shows like Family Guy, and his casting of Trek actors as vocal talent. MacFarlane even played Rivers in two episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, and also recorded an audio commentary with executive producer Brannon Braga for "Cause and Effect" on the Star Trek: The Next Generation Blu-ray set.

So when it came to MacFarlane developing a new comedy for Fox, he naturally turned to the stars for inspiration. The result is a very Trek-like, space-exploration comedy called The Orville. In the series, which debuts Sunday, MacFarlane reunites with Braga post Cosmos, again as fellow executive producers, for a series set 400-years in the future. And again, he's put himself front-and-center, as down-on-his-luck Planetary Union officer, Ed Mercer. After being cheated on by his wife, Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki), Ed let's his career tank, to the point that he's nearly blacklisted. He's given a last chance assignment as Captain of the U.S.S. Orville (ECV-197), which also happens to come with his ex-wife as the First Officer.

At the recent TCA summer press tour, MacFarlane got into the nitty-gritty of why The Orville is a dream come true for him, and how the one-hour comedy will feel both familiar and a bit new to his fellow space TV aficionados.

Trek is the key inspiration for the series, right?

There are many different places that I draw from when I kind of think about this. I mean, there’s The Twilight Zone. There’s Star Trek. I hold a lot of these different franchises in very, very high regard. And, you know, I kind of miss the forward thinking, aspirational, optimistic place in science fiction that Star Trek used to occupy. I think they’ve chosen to go in a different direction, which has worked very well for them in recent years, but what has happened is that it’s left open a space that has been relatively unoccupied for a while in the genre. In the same way that when James Bond kind of moved into a different area than classic James Bond, Iron Man came along and sort of filled that void. So for me, it’s a space that’s waiting to be filled in this day and age when we’re getting a lot of dystopian science fiction, a lot of which is great and very entertaining, but it can’t all be The Hunger Games. It can’t all be the nightmare scenario. I think there’s some space for the aspirational blueprint of what we could do if we get our shit together, and that’s something that’s been missing for me for a while.

Why go with the one-hour format when a sitcom model might be easier with the comedic beats?

If this were a half hour, it would be kind of cut and dry. Because we’re an hour-long show, the [story] has to come first. And it can’t just be gag, gag, gag, gag, gag. There has to be some reality to where the comedy comes from. And if you break down how and where the jokes come, and how they lay out, you’ll notice that there really isn’t anything that exists in the Spaceballs or Family Guy realm. It’s all things that come out of who the characters are, or that adhere to the reality of a science fiction world. Nothing ever goes into that Mel Brooks realm, and that’s by design. So we really do see it as a sci-fi, comedic drama in that we allow ourselves room for levity in ways that a traditional hour long sci-fi show doesn’t. We’re trying to break some new ground here. And whether we’ve succeeded is obviously up to the viewers.

Are the episodes standalone, or is there an exploration arc for the crew?

The show is not serialized. You can watch episodes out of order and still get a fulfilling viewing experience. Again, that’s something that I miss about TV, is that everything expects me to invest in it from day one, and we’ve lost that hour-long beginning, middle, and end, except for the procedurals. So each week, you’re seeing a little movie, and each story is different. And tonally there will be some variance.

Did rebooting Cosmos influence how you approach this show at all?

Yeah, we learned a lot from doing Cosmos. My producer, Jason Clark, who also produces The Orville, is a whiz at figuring out ways to do really high end, really, really beautiful visual work on a TV budget. Brannon and Annie Druyan and the team that put that show together was extraordinary. And yeah, I did kind of hunger for a little bit more of that kind of thing. And certainly the timing of was, to some degree, influenced by what happened with Cosmos, and the success that Cosmos had.

The Orville is a surprisingly practical show in this day and age, which was important to you?

Yes, the production team on this show is doing things that I’ve never seen in the history of network television. The makeup department, the set designers, the VFX and prop designers, costumers. The level of this has been so staggering to me. And I’m a fan of sci-fi, and I’ve watched a lot of sci-fi, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The craftsmanship of the props is extraordinary.

For me, one of the biggest thrills was working with Rob Legato, the model designer, because most spaceship work now is, with some exceptions, done in CGI. I was always fascinated by the craftsmanship of building a model or making a matte painting, things that actually existed. That’s why I always prefer actual sets to CGI environments. And the Orville itself is a physical model built by Rob Legato’s team. And that was really exciting for me to sit there and watch this camera move around the ship the way it did the way they did Star Wars in the ’70s. And I remember thinking, “God, this is probably the last time I’m ever going to see something like this happen.”

The Orville debuts Sept. 10, 2017 on Fox.