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'The Orville': Seth MacFarlane on Season 3 finale, Norm Macdonald's final voice work & Season 4 hopes
Not even Captain Ed Mercer knows whether or not the show will be renewed.
There's a very good reason why the Season 3 finale of The Orville — subtitled New Horizons for its big streaming move to Hulu — is titled "Future Unknown." Not even creator, star, and executive producer Seth MacFarlane knows whether the show will return for another outing.
Chatting with SYFY WIRE over the phone this past weekend, MacFarlane took us inside the quantum drive of Episode 10, which closed out on a more upbeat note with the wedding of Isaac (Mark Jackson) and Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson). The finale also featured the return of Giorgia Whigham's Lysella, who broaches an important discussion about the Planetary Union's strict policy about not interfering with developing worlds like Sargus 4. While it may look like a comedic parody of Star Trek and other classic sci-fi on the surface, The Orville represents a much bolder approach to the genre.
Head below for our conversation with Captain Ed Mercer...
Can you talk about mapping out the season finale? Did you write it to serve as a potential series finale, but with an open ending just in case?
That's exactly what we did, yeah. You do want to continue to expand the world and, in a perfect scenario, tease what's to come. But we just don't know what's to come. We just haven't gotten a firm answer. The response that you see online is so gratifying and from an isolated standpoint, would seem to be promising, but you just never know whether that translates into something that's actually viable in a business sense. I just really have no idea. You take shows that are critically acclaimed over the years, put them up against audience numbers, and those don't always align. So I really have no idea what's happening. I have made no secret of the fact that I would love to do a Season 4. But I think it's going to be a minute before I find out whether that's in the cards.
At what point did you decide to end the season with Isaac and Claire’s wedding as opposed to something "bigger" like a space battle?
On the one hand, there was just no way — at least this year — that we could top what we did in "Domino." On the other hand, it just seems wonderfully unconventional to do it that way. The strength of this show, despite how much the scope has increased, is still the characters. I think that's why you watch any show. The television landscape is filled right now with offerings that have these massive special effects budgets that can show you just about anything you'd want to see. What used to only be the visual effects territory of movies is now something that you can see on countless TV shows. So you do still have to set yourself apart by avoiding the temptation to let that be your show.
It really does have to be about the people. That’s one of the things that we've always made a real effort to keep in focus: that this is a show about the characters. That’s the nucleus of it. Despite the spectacle, despite the size, it's really about the people. Again, it felt like a way to exhale after the season and just kind of do a little victory lap — at least for ourselves — because we had worked hard and we felt like we had done good work. But also to make sure that as big and as epic as the season had gotten, was to make sure that we could still tell those stories that didn't need any of that. [Stories] that needed nothing but these personalities interacting with each other. And hopefully, that's what we did.
What are some of the concepts or themes you’d like to explore in a potential fourth season?
That's a good question. The construction of this season took so much care and so much thought from all of us in the writers’ room. To allow so many threads to co-exist and to develop and to have forward progression and to intertwine — and in ways that didn't get confusing, but still have relatability to one another — was a lot of fun. We didn't go in with a clear-cut synthesis in our minds of how the season was going to lay out. It was a lot of work to get there. There are plot-lines, and new developments this season that certainly suggest themselves as possible candidates for expansion in a Season 4. We can certainly guess what those would be, they’re pretty obvious. When we sat down to write Season 3, we didn't plan to upend all these alliances and that the Kaylon would now be our allies and the Maclons would now be our enemies.
That just kind of came about through a willingness to not be afraid of f***ing with our own universe and not being too precious about maintaining any kind of cemented consistency in the way that you sometimes feel like you have to do with episodic television (that everything has to return to normal). I think anything should be free to be upended at any time, as long as the characters and the show that you love still feel like that show. It’s interesting, we’ve completely flipped everything, but it's still The Orville. It doesn't change the soul of what that show is.
The show pays homage to classic sci-fi, particularly Star Trek: The Original Series. Where do you look to for inspiration when trying to find the right tone for this project?
Every television series has its inspirations. I've made no secret about the fact that Family Guy was influenced by The Simpsons and obviously, I think every other primetime animated show in the past 30 years could or should say the same. But with each with each season and with each episode, you kind of chart your own course. Tone has always been the real challenge and I think Season 1 was The Orville really finding itself. I think the stories that we did in Season 1 are all still very sound and they’re stories that we could still tell today. Tonally, I would probably execute them just a little bit differently.
I do still maintain that the variance in tone from episode-to-episode is warranted and is, in fact, necessary because that's what life is like. One day, it's your birthday; the next day you have a great vacation; the following day, a family member dies. The tones of each of those days are so radically different. I don't see why a television series shouldn't be the same, it doesn't have to be a consistent flavor every week. What does have to be consistent is the behavior of the characters and their investment in the fact that these are real events. That's what we really locked into and learned by the middle of Season 2, was that it's not a matter of constructing a science fiction story and then adding in a few jokes, which is kind of what we did early on. Everything has to be built from the ground up. And look, I had come out of comedy. I'd never written drama, so I was learning as I went.
With a movie like Ted or A Million Ways to Die in the West, we constructed the story and the stakes and built this paradigm of what the character arcs were going to be and made sure that all worked and then kind of hung jokes on them like Christmas ornaments. That works for a comedy, but maybe not so much for something like this, which is striving for something a little bit bolder. But I think by Season 2, we stopped pressuring ourselves to include so many jokes and let the stories dictate to us where the humor could come. I think it ended up being a lot easier and working a lot better. If you're writing an episode about a wedding being planned, there’s gonna be tons of places that suggest comedy and suggest jokes. If you're writing an episode about Bortus’ daughter being abducted, that's a little tougher. You can't really have people behaving lightly during that, it just doesn't fit the story. So that was really the big learning curve for me. And I think by the time we got to the top of Season 3, we were well-prepared to hit the ground running.
This was Norm MacDonald’s final season as Yaphit. What was it like getting to record his lines for this show?
I think it was David Letterman who said, ‘There’s nobody funnier than Norm Macdonald.’ And I would certainly agree with that. He was a genius and he had this wonderful combination of seeming not to have prepared at all, but really having prepared exquisitely well. And thus, he just makes it look so easy when, in fact, I'm sure he was working his ass off. But he was also just a naturally funny guy. When you have a day of recording voice actors on any show, it can get a little tedious after a while when you have a parade of them coming in one after the other. You just want to get through the day and get done and have a drink and in a lot of cases, the actor will stick around and want to chit-chat for a while and you go along with it. But in the back of your head, you're just like, ‘Can we please just get on to the next one? I'm so tired.' But with Norm, it was different. With Norm, he could stick around for 45 minutes or an hour afterwards, just talking, and I was there for every second of it. He was just an absolute gift and I'm very grateful to have had the chance to be around him as much as I was.
If you are renewed for Season 4, what kind of hurdles can we expect for Lysella as she adjusts to life on the Orville?
Lysella is us, essentially. That's kind of how we looked at her in the world of the series. Lysella is our eyes into this world and in many ways, she represents the wish fulfillment of sci-fi fans wanting to just jump ahead to that magnificent, utopian future that we all long for. I think she'll continue to be that voice. Of course, Giorgia Whigham is a fantastic actress who just played that beautifully, and it certainly didn't hurt that that was an episode that people continue to harken back to whenever I read about the show. "The Majority Rule" was an episode that [fans] really just responded to for a number of [reasons]. But I think it's a color that we haven't really had on on the ship thus far. Certainly people like Gordon [Scott Grimes] have an affinity for the 20th and 21st centuries; he sort of has an attachment to that time period, as he mentioned in Episode 6, but Lysella is different. That's a special situation in which this is a direct fish-out-of-water scenario. In many ways, it forced us to explain our own universe and obviously, our universe has similarities to other sci-fi franchises.
But what started off as a simple, ‘Let’s have her be our eyes into this amusement park and she can kind of take us through it in the finale,’ turned into a real challenge. And we've had to, through Kelly [Adrianne Palicki], really break down and justify the mechanics of our own universe and its political systems and to explain this thing that seems like a meritocracy, but is really something a little different. I think we're still doing that, I think we're still figuring [that out]. We’re not politicians, we're not policymakers — we’re television writers. So we really are guessing in a lot of ways. They’re educated guesses to some degree, but they're still guesses. And to be able to continue to do that through that character is an interesting challenge from a writing standpoint. I'd love to get into that.
Do you think she'll be able to get the Planetary Union to loosen some of their stricter laws in future?
You never know. That's the fun of writing the show ... Hollywood is swimming in reboots and remakes and existing IP that, in many ways, you have to be faithful to. There are a lot of prequels out there — and even shows that aren’t prequels — that still have to adhere to the rules of their universe. This is a universe that we've created, so we’re in its infancy. Any of that could happen.
That's the fun, there's nothing that we have to be beholden to. It's up to us. I could give you a guess, but certainly, at the beginning of Season 3, I would never have thought that that's where these stories were going to wind up. Because you just never know. Even something like "A Tale of Two Topas," which people loved, I had no idea. [I wondered] ‘Is this is gonna bore people? Are they going to be engaged in this character? Are they going to allow us to do this?’ And the reception of that episode was so unbelievably gratifying. I couldn't have told you what people were going to like and dislike this season. We really are just guessing. So I think any twist and turn could come about and I think most of them we probably haven't predicted yet ourselves.
Looking for more sci-fi? Check out Battlestar Galactica, Brave New World, and more streaming on Peacock.