The young Star Trek fan who tried to DIY the bridge of the Enterprise seemed destined to put his stamp on sci-fi. Now, with Fox’s The Orville, Seth MacFarlane — the funny guy behind Family Guy and other hit shows, films and music — blasts off on his own space odyssey.
When you stop and think about it, Seth MacFarlane’s career is like a rainstorm after you wash your car, a missing sock after you do the laundry or a Fast and the Furious sequel. They’re all pretty much inevitable.
Consider his history. As a kid growing up in Connecticut, he loved drawing comic strips, and his Walton Crouton and Friends! appeared in a local paper. That would eventually lead to his creating the long-running Fox hit Family Guy. But one of those early cartoons — in which the main character asks, “Can I have fries with that?” while receiving communion — earned him hate mail from a local priest. Which set the stage for a career creating shows that tick a lot of people off.
And then there’s all the time he spent as a teenager watching his massive collection of Star Trek: The Next Generation videotapes, writing science fiction (including a spec script for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), slipping into his Klingon costume and even building an Enterprise replica from Trek: TNG.
“One summer, I got a bunch of cardboard and paints and Christmas lights and built a replica of the bridge in my sister’s room because she was away for the summer,” recalls MacFarlane, beaming a smile warm enough to melt a Klingon’s heart. “I wasn’t really great with my construction and it all fell down pretty quickly, but I ended up building another one for a class project. Any excuse I can find to shoehorn the Enterprise into something I’m doing...”
Which is why it was inevitable that the man best known for the serious sarcasm of shows like Family Guy and films like Ted has created The Orville, debuting on Fox over two nights, September 10 and 17, after Sunday’s NFL game. Inspired by his lifelong worship of sci-fi, MacFarlane has come up with the most personal project of his career: he not only is the series creator, he is an executive producer, writer and the star.
“This is his Citizen Kane,” says Scott Grimes, a friend of MacFarlane’s and a member of the Orville cast. “It’s the thing he’s wanted to do his whole life. He is doing the show for the audience as well as a teeny bit for himself, but at the end of the day I think he is the audience.”
Adds MacFarlane’s sister Rachael, a voiceover artist also working on The Orville: “When I walked onto the set for the first time, I got so choked up. I could see this was everything he’s always wanted to do. This show is a childhood dream come true for Seth. As a kid, he was never happier than when he was watching episodes of Star Trek, so Orville is what he came to Hollywood to do.”
MacFarlane does seem to be relishing this chance to finally and publicly embrace his inner Trekkie.
“Look at the influence Star Trek had on scientists and engineers because it was such a vivid portrayal of where science can lead us if we’re smart about it and respect it,” he explains eagerly. “Plus, it was fun.
"The thing that I loved was that cynicism was totally out of the picture. There were moments of it in certain characters, but the series’ overall philosophy was just fuck-you earnestness. It was the Julie Andrews of sci-fi. And if you come at me with something earnest and heartfelt, I’ll go on that ride with you.”
That’s an attitude he’s definitely showcasing with The Orville, which the network is billing as a “space adventure series.” Some episodes may be more comedic. Some may be more dramatic. Every week, though, the show — set 400 years in the future — represents MacFarlane’s revival of the optimistic storytelling he discovered in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“I loved the idea behind the stories, that we have figured shit out in the future and the world isn’t going to be like Hunger Games,” he says. “It kind of sucks that people who are the age now that I was when I first saw Star Trek: The Next Generation, they don’t have anything positive like that.
"There’s a lot of dark stuff but nothing that says, ‘Here’s another route you can go.’ That’s what I hope The Orville can do. I hope people will see my love of the genre and respect that.”
Sure, there are gags worked into the intergalactic drama involving the captain of a spaceship (MacFarlane) and a crew that includes his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicki) and his boozy best friend (Grimes). But viewers should not expect the likes of talking babies, alcoholic dogs or foul-mouthed teddy bears.
MacFarlane cautions fans who may be coming “to see Blazing Saddles in space: you’re not going to get what you’re looking for. If you come with an open mind and want to be told a story that treats the audience with respect, maybe you’re getting something out of this that you never expected.”
Think of it as “a space adventure with some comedy,” explains Dana Walden, co-chairman of the Fox Television Group, which is producing The Orville. MacFarlane had shown her the Orville pilot script a little more than a year ago, hoping the company might want to make it for a streaming network.
“Captain Ed [MacFarlane’s character] was definitely free with his f -bombs in the script and it would have been a no-brainer to do for any streaming company,” Walden recalls. “But I felt there was a really broad, fundamental idea at the center of his story that could work for broadcast TV. He was dealing with subject matter that was very much about current issues, and it felt like the kind of show that would create water-cooler buzz, which doesn’t happen as much these days.”
The language was sufficiently cleaned up to satisfy network censors, and MacFarlane focused more intently on what Walden calls “interesting dilemmas.” For instance, one of the Orville’s crewmembers belongs to an alien race that is all male. When two of these aliens have a child together, the baby’s a girl and they have to deal with the prejudice she will face in a culture dominated by men.
But MacFarlane also has the cred to pull off the science part of this fiction. Okay, so he admits he was at best a decent science student in school. Still, his curiosity about the universe led him to watch all the various Star Trek incarnations and work Star Wars into the world of Family Guy.
He also served as an executive producer on Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, the 2014 Fox miniseries with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. And perhaps coolest of all, he made two guest appearances on the Star Trek: Enterprise series, where he befriended executive producer Brannon Braga.
“Seth has been mentioning for several years that he wanted to do Star Trek or a Star Trek–inspired show,” explains Braga, now an executive producer on The Orville (with MacFarlane, David A. Goodman, Jason Clark and Liz Heldens). “He gets excited just talking about the genre, about the kind of sci-fi that shows an optimistic future and not one about children murdering people for food.
"When he showed me his pilot script, I got excited because it was something both familiar and utterly original.”
Read the rest of this article and more in the latest issue of emmy magazine, on newsstands September 19.
Go behind the scenes of emmy ’s cover shoot with Seth MacFarlane at TelevisionAcademy.com/Cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017