Seth MacFarlane Discusses “The Orville,” “Star Trek,” and the Struggle to Make Science Fiction Funny – The New Yorker

Seth MacFarlane is most commonly known as the creator—and, in many
cases, the voices—of the animated comedy series “Family Guy,” but he is
also a lifelong science-fiction buff. He produced “Cosmos,” the
2014 reboot of Carl Sagan’s beloved series, and on Sunday will première
a new live-action show, “The Orville,” in which he plays the
captain of a spaceship four hundred years in the future. Earlier this
week, I spoke with MacFarlane about the role of science (and science
fiction) in the modern world. The interview has been edited for length
and clarity.

Carl Sagan had a big effect on me as a kid. Would you say the same?

A lot of us feel that way about him. “Cosmos” was life-changing for me.
I was hooked from a pretty young age. There are surprisingly few great
science communicators, which is always strange to me. One could argue
that there is nothing more interesting than science. It’s the most
interesting thing that’s ever happened to the human race.

Did you ever consider studying science instead of art?

I never seriously considered it, only because I wasn’t any good at math.
I had a natural aptitude for English and for writing. So, I resigned
myself to the fact that I could support others in their endeavors and
maintain a vocal respect for science, even though I wasn’t really cut
out for it myself.

With a few exceptions, sci-fi seems to be pretty devoid of humor,
unless the audience is laughing at campy set design or bad alien
prosthetics. Why do you think that is?

Oftentimes in science fiction, you’re dealing with life-and-death topics
that are so grand and operatic in their size and scope that it’s a hard
thing to weave humor in there without it seeming out of place. “The
Orville” tries to recapture a kind of science fiction that celebrates
human advancement and achievement and intellectual evolution rather than
going for the cheap thrills of the zombie hunt. The inclusion of humor
in “The Orville” is like an experiment.

But what accounts for the grim tone of so much recent (and excellent)
sci-fi—“District 9,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Expanse”? Does
dystopia make for better drama?

I’ve been asking myself this question for a while. Dystopia is good for
drama because you’re starting with a conflict: your villain is the
world. Writers on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
found it very difficult to work within the confines of a world where
everything was going right. They objected to it. But I think that
audiences loved it. They liked to see people who got along, and who
lived in a world that was a blueprint for what we might achieve, rather
than a warning of what might happen to us.

Did you draw on that utopian “Star Trek” vision at all in making “The
Orville”?

It was important to take a cue from Gene Roddenberry that somehow we’ve
gotten past money. Money can’t be a factor. It’s too primitive. I really
love that, in “Star Trek,” reputation becomes the main form of currency
in the absence of money. When you think about it, it’s not the warp
drive, it’s not the transporter, it’s the replicator. We give a little
nod to that in “The Orville.”

Is making science fiction today a form of nostalgia for what could
have been, or what could be, or what we were as kids when we were
watching it?

There absolutely is nostalgia. “The Hunger Games” made hundreds of
millions of dollars and was a huge success. I’m personally a little
weary of that corner of science-fiction storytelling. I’m getting tired
of seeing filthy people running around with guns, fighting for their own
survival, rather than fighting for a cause, for values, for the
advancement of the human race. There’s nothing like that out there. Does
optimism still have meaning for people? It could feel outdated, like a
nineteen-thirties musical that’s devoid of cynicism and is looking at
the world through rose-colored glasses and is oblivious to what’s going
on.

The comparisons between “The Orville” and “Discovery,” the new
addition to the “Star Trek” franchise, were inevitable, especially
because a number of “Star Trek” veterans—writers, actors, directors—are
now working with you. Some Trekkies are angry. What’s your response?

I’ve heard that, and yet I’ve also heard fans echo the desire for a
“Star Trek” where they turn the lights on, where everybody’s not sitting
around in the dark. I don’t know anything about “Discovery.” It looks
very dark and very serious, but that’s the trailer—it could turn out to
be very optimistic. There should be room for both. But it’s been a blast
to work with all these people, to watch Jonathan Frakes and Robert
Duncan McNeill walking around the set. It’s in their blood.

Speaking of economics, “The Orville” is a classic broadcast family
show, whereas “Discovery” is streaming online. Different mediums,
different audiences?

Yes. Typically, people would be able to watch “Star Trek” with their
kids, and the goal of “The Orville” is to have the same kind of reach.
The big difference is that “The Orville” is an episodic show. It adheres
to the old style of storytelling—a brand-new story each week, with a
beginning, middle, and end. The only place where there is still a market
for episodic television is on the networks. At one point, I had
conceived “The Orville” as a show that could be on Netflix or Amazon or
Hulu. But they really wanted the entire series at once, you know, the
chunk of ten or thirteen episodes that have a continuous arc. I didn’t
want to do that. I like the challenge of having to start fresh every
week. Now, production-wise, this is a lot more daunting, because you
can’t reuse things—you have to build new aliens, new locations, new
worlds every single week. But that’s precisely what I always loved about
sci-fi television series. I never knew what I was going to see.

Both comedy and drama have in common that you must excite viewers with
surprise. You surprise them with a laugh or you surprise them with a
story. To me—God, a new adventure every week! That’s inherently
surprising. People don’t know whether they’re going to see an adventure
show, a social allegory, a love story, or a comedy.

Is “The Orville” a show about the present, or about the future?

It’s a balancing act between wanting to explore conflicts that are
relevant to today while at the same time saying to the viewer, This
particular conflict has been resolved. The way you do that is by
putting our people in other worlds. You go to that alien planet where
they’re still sucking oil out of the ground to power themselves while
“we” know we moved beyond that. I always loved that sci-fi trope of the
future person scratching their head in disbelief at something that we do
every day in the twenty-first century. It’s “Gulliver’s Travels.”

What do you think we can discover about ourselves through science
fiction today?

Science fiction is the only genre that really allows you to explore
issues with a point of view without seeming preachy. And, practically
speaking, it is undeniable that shows like the original “Star Trek”
begat a generation of scientists and engineers and astrophysicists. That
spaceship looked like the crowning achievement of mankind. What kid is
going to watch “The Hunger Games” and go, Man, I want to be a
scientist? “The Orville” is part drama, part comedy, but we did go out
of our way to make the ship real and to make it appealing and to make it
look like a place you’d want to be. Even though there are jokes in the
show, it was very important that the world of “The Orville” still be
very real, that you could look at it and go, That seems like a fun
future. I hope that’s where we wind up. That, to me, is the power of
science fiction.

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