MacFarlane is a huge fan of episodic sci-fi, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation, which frequently found humor in the mission-to-mission foibles of its motley crew. But TV doesn’t offer much high-profile space adventure with a lighthearted touch right now, especially with the recent cancellation of Syfy’s Dark Matter. The Expanse on that same network stays true to its literary source material and offers heavy-duty genre drama. Even the highly anticipated CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery is a more grim and gritty war story with lots of phasers and explosions.
Early trailers of The Orville reminded many of beloved 1999 film Galaxy Quest, a comedy starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and the late Alan Rickman about the cast of a Next Generation–like TV series that, through an alien cultural disconnect, gets caught up in an intergalactic war.
MacFarlane has said that the film wasn’t an influence, however.
“The intent of that movie was to be a full-on comedy,” he said during the Television Critic’s Association press tour in August. “As a result, the stakes, in terms of science fiction and the parables of science fiction, weren’t really something that needed to be taken all that seriously.”
Though it also aims for the funny bone, The Orville is something different and more earnest in its space comedy — a brightly colored show about the daily life of a spaceship crew.
Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) gets his last shot at captaining a spaceship when the Orville needs a leader. Only problem is: His ex-wife Kelly Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) has been made his first officer. Between Mercer’s one-liners and quirky crew members (one lays an egg in episode 2), The Orville serves up plenty of jokes, yet the missions are life or death, and both Mercer and the show acknowledge the stakes.
MacFarlane, a tad hoarse from a day of filming (that includes acting and producing) and speaking to reporters, talked to Rotten Tomatoes about the show’s unique tone.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Was acting always your dream when you started out creating animated shows?
Seth MacFarlane: Not necessarily, no. It never was a foregone conclusion that had to be part of it.
RT: Why did you decide you had to star in The Orville?
MacFarlane: A: because it was just too much fun not to, and B: because I really wanted to straddle the tone that was both funny and earnest. It requires a love for comedy and a love for the genre and the willingness to be openly earnest and sincere in a Maria Von Trapp way.
RT: What were some ideas Jon Favreau had that really helped you realize your vision?
MacFarlane: Jon was all about tone. The pilot needed to set a tone that dealt with both the drama and the comedy. There’s really no other director in town who could’ve handled that as well as Jon. Jon is a master of tone. It was nice to be working with someone who had been through the writing/directing/acting gauntlet.
RT: Is there a workplace comedy aspect to The Orville also?
MacFarlane: There is, yeah. That’s what I always loved about the best days of Star Trek was it felt more like people working in an office than a military crew on a ship.
RT: Is Kelly looking out for Ed more than he ever knows?
MacFarlane: I think so. I think they’re both looking out for each other but certainly in the pilot.
RT: Will he start to clue into that?
MacFarlane: We do deal with that in season 1.
RT: Are the Krill your big bad guy?
MacFarlane: One of them.
RT: But are they like your Klingons who are always out there?
MacFalrane: There’s a very specific element to the Krill that I think makes them very unique that is revealed in our sixth episode. They’re different from the Klingons because of this one thing. I can’t tell you what it is, but you find out. It’s a very specific element to their species that allows us to tell very specific stories.
RT: Did you do the designs for the aliens?
MacFarlane: No, that’s all Howard Berger, our makeup designer.
RT: How did it work? You told him what you wanted and he came to you rather than presenting him sketches?
MacFarlane: Here and there. Most of the time I would say, “Come up with a really cool design and let us build a character around it.” It’s worked both ways.
RT: Did you insist on having a full title sequence to introduce each actor and the characters they play, and even printing the title of the episode on screen?
MacFarlane: Yeah, I miss that, and I think it’s good showmanship — the things that shows used to do to respect the viewer and would say, “Hey, somebody took the time to put on a show and this is that show. It’s not just filling an hour of time between commercials on a network.
RT: Does that cut about a minute out of your show?
MacFarlane: We haven’t really had too many problems. We found that our shows have actually been pretty close to length. We lucked out.