After three years in interstellar dry dock, The Orville is finally ready to explore New Horizons. Seth MacFarlane's sci-fi series moves from Fox to Hulu for its third season, which kicks off June 2 with a dramatic, emotional premiere that sets the tone for the adventures to come. And the creator/star confirms to Yahoo Entertainment that Season 3 represents the culmination of the show's evolution from a good-natured Star Trek spoof into its own distinct take on the final frontier. (Watch our video interview with The Orville: New Horizons cast and creators above.)
"Over the course of the series, we were really finding what it was that we wanted to be," MacFarlane says. "We were really striving for this balance between drama and comedy... and in Season 3, we just said: 'Let's lean into the sci-fi stories. Let's tell the stories we want to tell and let the comedy kind of find us.' And it really worked! This is the season where I really feel like we found our tonal groove."
Even back in its earlier, funnier days, The Orville, like Star Trek before it, has never shied away from tackling serious subjects. Over the course of three seasons, MacFarlane and his writers have tackled hot button issues ranging from racism to religious intolerance to euthanasia through a distinctly liberal lens. Trek's own leftward political leanings — represented most recently by Stacey Abrams's cameo on the Season 4 finale of Star Trek: Discovery — was the subject of a recent Fox News opinion column that accused the franchise of indulging in "woke politics."
Naturally, that opinion was immediately ridiculed by sci-fi fans who wondered whether the writer had ever watched an episode of Star Trek before. And The Orville crew is similarly ready to fire back if Fox News decides to come after them for being too woke. "I couldn't care less what Fox News says about something being woke or broke or canceled or whatever," says Penny Johnson Jerald, who plays the titular ship's doctor, Claire Finn. "A lot of stuff is going down right now in life, and you're either on the right side of history or the wrong side of history. If you don't know which side you're on, you at least have to be in the conversation so that you can choose."
"We've been doing that from day one," adds Adrianne Palicki, who plays the Orville's first officer, Kelly Grayson. "So if they were going to write about that, they missed their time! It's a very smart way of having conversations... and they've just gotten more and more intense, because we've been dealing with things happening in this moment in time. And sadly, there's a lot of intense, horrible things happening in the world right now."
Never one to shy away from a Fox News takedown, MacFarlane offers up his own stirring defense of "woke" sci-fi. "The tragedy of Fox News to me is that there actually is a need for a responsible conservative news outlet that isn't bats*** crazy," he says. "[An outlet] that is not extremist, that does not push nationalistic politics. A lot of us on the entertainment side have kind of waved that flag."
"Star Trek has always been progressive," MacFarlane continues. "I guess I was watching a different show when I was watching the re-runs of The Original Series on TV! They were always kind of breaking boundaries and asking audiences to question things that they were comfortable with in a conservative way. I'm not surprised that Fox News is a little out of touch."
The Orville's Season 3 premiere certainly tests the audience's comfort zone with a story that revolves around Isaac (Mark Jackson) — the cybernetic alien who betrayed his fellow crew members in Season 2, before ultimately switching back to their side to aid in the fight against his own species, the Kaylons. Despite playing a key role in their victory, Isaac is still viewed with suspicion by many aboard the ship... suspicion that threatens to boil over into violence.
"I was thinking, are the fans going to accept him back," muses Jerald, whose character has had a turbulent relationship with Isaac over the show's history. "I think that's where the intensity lies. Like, do you accept somebody back in your circle when they have just betrayed you? And so [the premiere] couldn't be any other way. The tone had to be that because that's just the real deal."
According to executive producer, Brannon Braga, the move to Hulu gave the writers additional confidence to really explore that scenario with the emotion it demanded. "It's not something you want to be hasty or flippant about," he explains. "Seth wanted to pick up immediately after the repercussions of Season 2 — the people who suffered tragic losses and the fact that Isaac is still on the ship. It's intense, but it evolved that way. It's where the story took us."
MacFarlane says that the rest of Season 3's episodes follow the same pattern of taking the writers — as well as the audience — on a journey with some unexpected destinations. "One of the things I love about this kind of show is that you can tell any kind of story you want: One week, you can tell a horror story, [another] you can tell an adventure story. It'll fair game with this kind of genre. I don't think I could write a legal drama or a medical drama, because I would be doing the same thing every week. I've got to have the canvas to go where I please."
Behind the scenes, The Orville team bid farewell to one longtime crew member during the production of Season 3. Comedian Norm Macdonald has voiced fan favorite character, Lt. Yaphit, since the show's freshman year and completed recording his dialogue prior to his death from leukemia last September. MacFarlane says that he wasn't aware of Macdonald's illness during their three-season collaboration.
"As I finish the episodes, the emotion that I feel more than anything is gratitude that he left us with all this great stuff," he remarks. "I was very moved by the fact that he had continued to record for us and continued to play this part. As sad as it is, I'm happy there's more Norm yet to come through The Orville."
Asked whether Macdonald's passing means that Yaphit's tenure aboard The Orville will also conclude at the end of Season 3, MacFarlane suggests that fans may not have seen the last of the gelatinous lieutenant. "We do have a plan," he teases. "We would not do Yaphit without Norm, but there is a plan for how we are going to handle it if we are lucky enough to do Season 4." (As of now, a fourth season is up in the air as the cast's contracts have expired.)
That's a plan the rest of the show's producing can't wait to hear more about. Informed of MacFarlane's plans for Yaphit, Braga and his fellow executive producers — David A. Goodman and Jon Cassar — all react with shock and awe. "This is the first I'm hearing of it," Goodman says, laughing. "How exciting — what else can you tell us?" echoes Braga. Talk about your big plot twists.
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo
The Orville: New Horizons premieres Thursday, June 2 on Hulu.