'The Orville' Producers Break Down Series Premiere: "This Is a New Genre"

Brannon Braga and David A. Goodman discuss why the Seth MacFarlane series is more than just 'Star Trek' meets 'Family Guy.'
FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of Seth MacFarlane's The Orville.]

So, that was The Orville.

Anyone beaming aboard Fox's new Seth MacFarlane science fiction series expecting to encounter an easy hybrid between Star Trek and Family Guy were likely left a little bit surprised. Sure, the hourlong pilot episode featured some gags that would be right at home in the American Dad! wheelhouse (Roger the alien could have easily been in bed with Adrianne Palicki's Kelly Grayson for the show's opening gag, in which her extraterrestrial lover prematurely ejaculates from holes in his head), but it doesn't pack a laugh per minute, nor is it aiming to. Instead, The Orville is aiming to tell stories that ride the line between drama and comedy, with an eye toward earnestness, according to executive producers Brannon Braga and David A. Goodman.

"This is not a cynical show," says Braga, who counts numerous iterations of Star Trek among his many credits. (Goodman similarly comes with Trek credentials, having written under Braga on Star Trek: Enterprise.) "It is what it is: a funny show, even when it's being dramatic. That's one of the things I love about it: in the dystopian landscape, and in the dystopian reality of the world at the moment, I would be watching Orville, a little ray of sunshine peeking through."

With that said, The Orville starts from a place of conflict. In the first scene of Sunday's series premiere, protagonist Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) comes home from work and finds his wife in the middle of an affair (the aforementioned vividly described sex scene between Palicki's Kelly Grayson and an excitable purple alien), leading to their divorce. A year later, Mercer becomes captain of an exploratory vessel known as the Orville, staffed by a diverse crew including second officer Bortus (Peter Macon), of the single-sex species the Moclans; Alara Kitan (Halston Sage), a very young but insanely strong security officer; and helmsman Gordon Molloy (Scott Grimes), Mercer's longtime best friend. He's not the only familiar face along for the voyage: Ed's ex-wife comes aboard as first officer, having volunteered for the job. Grayson's role aboard the Orville becomes the big source of drama for the first episode, right alongside an evil group of aliens known as the Krill, which Mercer and Grayson defeat by using a time-manipulation device to grow an ancient redwood tree inside the invaders' ship in the span of three seconds. "Happy Arbor Day," indeed.

Braga and Goodman tell The Hollywood Reporter that they feel The Orville embodies a new genre, one that can't be simply defined as a comedy or a drama. Read the full interview to find out why, to learn more about the show's creative process, and to understand what you're signing up for should you choose to continue on with the first season of Fox and MacFarlane's new starship enterprise.

What do you think was the biggest misconception people may have had about The Orville heading into the series premiere?

Brannon Braga: It's a tricky answer. One might say, well, some people could be coming into this thinking it's an out-and-out comedy. While it is very funny and oftentimes hilarious in my opinion, it's also kind of a drama at its core. When you're doing an hourlong, hopefully for a long time, the stakes have got to be real. One thing I was thinking about a lot lately... and I don't know about you David, but as we were working on it, I just thought to myself, "This is a new genre." I've never seen this. The balance of drama and comedy is unlike anything I've seen in a science fiction show. Hopefully people going in will have an open mind to what it is, because it's its own thing.

David, would you agree with that?

David A. Goodman: It's definitely something new. It's new, and yet it has so many familiar pieces. Comedy has worked in science fiction before in movies. More recently Guardians of the Galaxy, but even Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even in a couple of the Star Trek movies. You can mix these things together and have them work. I think this is really the first time it's been done on television in this specific way. We've definitely pushed the comedy a little further than anything anyone has done before. And I agree completely with what Brannon said. What we have here is really Seth's vision, which is unique to him as a guy who is a fan of the sci-fi genre, but is also so comfortable with comedy and he's the guy who put this formula together and put this team together, with me and Brannon and everyone else to carry it out. It starts inside of Seth's head, and that's the unique genius.

Both of you have history with the Star Trek franchise. What was intriguing to you about the idea of exploring an aesthetically and philosophically similar series, but one that does have more of an outward comedic element to it?

Goodman: I'm a huge Star Trek fan. Before I worked for Brannon, I was a huge fan of Brannon and his work. I had written a few Star Trek books, but for me personally, my resumé was mostly in comedies. To me, the attraction was walking that line, where you're telling these stories that have that jeopardy and those emotional stakes and having the fun of comedic character interaction along the way. 

Braga: David is really the perfect writer for this show. He's actually done both. I've never done comedy. But when I read the pilot that Seth wrote, it was the type of storytelling — the one-hour standalone drama with a beginning, middle and end, that's something of a parable if you get it right and makes the audience think a little bit  it was a kind of storytelling that I missed, dearly. Most of the work I had been doing was serialized. A show like this is kind of a rarity nowadays. Another thing that struck me was, the comedy made it utterly fresh and original and unlike Star Trek in many ways, even in some cases the core of certain stories are ones you couldn't do on Star Trek, because they're based in stuff that only Orville can do. That, to me, is the sign of an original show. Is this a story that can only be told on Orville? Hopefully, I think every episode can do that. It's a form of storytelling I've spent a long time doing, just structurally speaking, and it just feels like the right kind of structure for a show like this.

Goodman: Brannon sells himself a little short. He's a very funny writer when he wants to be. That's been kind of an amazing thing to see, this mix of writers that we have. The staff is half comedy writers and half drama writers by resumé, but everybody does everything. What are the stories that only Orville can tell? Everyone's bringing their A-game to the job. 

I don't imagine there was an episode of Star Trek where a Romulan popped up on the view-screen to say, "Marriage takes work." A scene like that seems to speak to what you're talking about, the moments you feel you can only accomplish on this show?

Braga: That is, for me, probably a crystalline moment on the show. You're in the midst of jeopardy. You're in the midst of the A-story. You have the A-story hitting the emotional epicenter of the show, which is Ed and Kelly. And you have something that's a perfect example of the kind of comedy that works so well on the show, which is when you're engaging an alien on the philosophy of marriage.

Goodman: There are a bunch of moments like that, even right before that moment. The Krill captain is standing off a little to the side, and Seth's character says, "Can you just move over to the center a little bit?" It's such a comment on the genre, because whenever you see a character talking to someone on a view-screen, the person is always directly centered. The idea that someone could be off-center and it would bug Seth's character speaks to the uniqueness of the show. You have character interactions like that all throughout the pilot. You have Gordon trashing Kelly to the rest of the bridge crew, and then later telling her that he built her up. That makes it an even more human moment, that Gordon is doing one thing behind her back and saying another thing to her face. That's something you've never seen on a Star Trek-like show. These are the moments that show that our characters are comedically very human.

Toward the end of the episode, the Orville crew defeats the Krill aliens by making a giant redwood tree grow through the middle of an enemy ship, followed with the one-liner: "Happy Arbor Day." Philosophically, the idea of thrusting a massive redwood tree through an alien spaceship... should we expect some absurdity in the ways in which you plan to resolve these episodes?

Goodman: It's a mix and match. Sometimes our shows end the way the pilot does, with a big funny but also incredible effect — I don't know if "absurd" is the right word, but sort of funny. Then there are episodes that end very dramatically and very darkly. That's the appeal to a show like this. You're never quite sure what you're going to get each week. You have episodes that are full-out comedies, and you have episodes that are full-on drama, where we really don't pull our punches dramatically. There is no cookie cutter to this show. It will keep the audience guessing of what they're going to get every week.

Braga: That was a big part of Seth's vision for the show, and one of the things that I like the most about this sort of storytelling. It's almost anthological in the types of stories it can tell.

In that regard, you brought up serialized storytelling earlier, Brannon. Is there a story arc we should be tracking on The Orville, or is more of a mission-of-the-week format?

Braga: Yes, there will be through-lines. There will be consequences that happen to certain things in earlier episodes. We're not just going to wipe the slate clean. Of course, you have the Ed and Kelly relationship at the epicenter, and that's ongoing. There are standalone stories, but we will carry through the elements to it that narratively make sense.

Goodman: You want to reward your fans who watch the show by laying in changes within your characters or callbacks to previous episodes, but you also want new audience members not to feel left out or feel like they have to play catch-up on previous episodes.

Looking toward the first scene of the series, what kind of conversations were had about how far you could push it with the premature alien ejaculation?

Goodman: That was in Seth's first draft of his script! There were no conversations, in the sense that that's been in there since minute one. All of us who read the script and joined the show, that was the first thing we read. Seth had written that. There were some discussions, I think, about the viscosity of the liquid. (Laughs.) Those conversations were between Seth and [director] Jon Favreau, making sure it was comedic without being disgusting. But otherwise, that has been a big part of the show.

Kelly's adulterer aside, there are several different alien species we're introduced to very quickly in this first episode alone, and one imagines it will only spiral out from here. What goes into tracking the universe of The Orville as it expands?

Braga: When you're helping to make a show, at least for me, it's what we've done. It's just in your DNA. You know what you've done. You know what feels right. You know what doesn't feel right. Largely, it really is to a large degree as you go. Having said that, we have a futurist on staff. We have a great team of production designers, who built a full-scale interior schematic of what The Orville looks like inside, a detailed bible chronicling everything you could possibly think about the show. There was a lot of world-building up front. 

Is there a character or a performance from anyone who we met in the premiere that has particularly spoken out to you over the course of working on the season?

Goodman: I wouldn't want to single out anybody. I think what we found almost immediately is that this entire cast... it's really an incredible cast. There's this ease in writing for them. Adrianne Palicki is such a formidable actress in both comedy and drama. Scott Grimes, on the one hand, is such a great comedian, but he has this drama to all of his characterizations. J. Lee, who is really brand new to television, is a very unique actor in himself. It's so much fun to watch him. I could go on and on about all of them. Peter Macon, who plays Bortus, has really been someone who is one of the most unique alien characters, so there's been a uniqueness to the Bortus stories. There's a great characterization through that makeup. Halston Sage is so much fun to watch and she's having so much fun in this role. With Mark Jackson, we've flown him out from England and we put a bag over his head so you can't see his face, and he's delivering an amazing job physically, making this artificial life form with his face and his mannerisms. At the top of the food chain is Seth, who is in a role that can be kind of thankless, and yet he's bringing the comedy and the drama. I really wouldn't want to leave anybody out... sorry, Brannon, I didn't leave anyone for you.

Braga: I'll do the guest stars.

I was going to say, no love for Justin the Ogre?

Goodman: He's amazing, isn't he? (Laughs.) We'll need to find a way to bring him back.

Braga: For me, personally, it's hard not to gravitate toward the non-human characters. They're such a great lens through which to view human things. It's that rare cast where everybody is pretty great.

What's coming up in the second episode?

Goodman: We're going to revisit the Ed and Kelly dynamics in a great comedic way. They get isolated from the rest of the ship, and then we're going to get a great reveal in Bortus' personal life, and that's going to put Alara in a command situation that she's never been in before, and it's really going to test her. We'll get to see all of these characters in a different light than even in the pilot. We're also going to get into a whole lot of fun with Ed and Kelly and seeing what their relationship is all about and what it used to be like. 

What did you think of The Orville premiere? Sound off in the comments section below.

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