Last weekend Fox premiered their sci-fi comedy drama The Orville to strong ratings (see TrekMovie review). In order for Seth MacFarlane to deliver this homage to Star Trek he brought on board a number of Trek vets. Perhaps the most notable is writer and executive producer Brannon Braga who spent over two decades as a writer and producer for three Star Trek TV series and co-wrote two Trek feature films. TrekMovie had a chance to speak with Braga at length about The Orville including its connections to Star Trek. We also talked about Star Trek: Discovery and why it also made sense for him to make Enterprise a prequel.
Speaking the language of Star Trek in The Orville universe
With The Orville, you are creating a new fictional future universe. What can you tell us about the Planetary Union and how much you have mapped out?
It is a future where humanity has got its shit together enough where it can turn its eyes outwards towards space. The Planetary Union is the agency that oversees that. The union is composed of different alien species. As for the more finely detailed specifics, it is one of those things where we don’t have everything figured out. Very much like other shows I have done, the backstory is invented along the way.
Essentially, we have a ship of exploration with characters that are more recognizable than your typical space opera. And that is where the comedy comes from, along with the neurotic foibles and relationships problems. It is kind of like the anti-Star Trek in a sense that in Roddenberry’s universe people had moved past that kind of stuff, but on The Orville, we are close but not quite.
The show uses a lot of the language of Star Trek – like ‘scanning for life signs, captain.’ Is that part of the homage, or a shorthand for telling these kinds of stories?
There is a language of this type of show. The actual nouns and verbs may vary, but the essential language goes way back to Issac Asimov and Amazing Stories, Jules Verne, Star Trek, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars, Alien movies, and the list goes on. Is there another way to depict a crew? Yeah there are variations. The first Alien was great in that it depicted a sort of funky reality that wasn’t so buttoned-down like in the original Star Trek.
The Orville is different with the character dynamics and how there is comedy involved; it is kind of its own thing. But yeah, for the rhythms of this kind of sci-fi show, I like a captain on the bridge with his crew. I think it is a classic, archetypal vibe. And maybe a selfish part of me misses it.
There are a lot of technologies shared between Star Trek and The Orville. Although some of the naming is different, you have replicators, warp, tractor beam, communicators and others. But I noticed one you aren’t using – the transporter. Was that just too Trek?
It is probably the most recognizable technology of Star Trek. We are not out to be Star Trek and we are conscientious of it. The transporter, that is a distinct Roddenberry invention and a brilliant one and we weren’t comfortable doing that. There can be no doubt we are paying tribute to the Star Trek ethos – and others such as The Twilight Zone ethos – but we don’t just want to rip shit off.
The science of comedy
The Orville is supposed to be a lighter show, so how much are you still trying to keep it grounded in real science?
That is a really great question. Yes, we have a futurist on staff as science adviser and writer on the show [Andre Bormanis]. It is imperative for the show to be grounded and believable for the comedy to work. I am not expert in comedy, but if it is all completely unmoored and wacky and no connection to reality, then the comedy has no context. It is all comedy. And that is why this can’t be Spaceballs. It is not just the science we want grounded, but the narrative.
We are going to have some episodes that are more dramatic and some that are more comedic, but there is always something at stake. The physical and emotional stakes are always going to be authentic. And that is what is going to nourish this being an hour-long show.
But does that mean that, like on Star Trek, you will still have moments where the script says “insert tech here?”
No, not at all. You are referencing a dark period. That would happen on Next Gen scripts. It’s not that. In fact, I hated that. To me the technical talk at its best is a kind of poetry. It is rhythmic. It has got to sound right and feel right, even if it doesn’t always make complete sense. But The Orville is far less reliant on that kind of thing.
So no teching the tech? No technobabbling your way out of jeopardy?
No. Not so far.
Although perhaps some of that stuff could be the source of comedy, like if someone actually suggested to “reverse the polarity.”
The show’s sweet spot is between homage and having a bit of fun with archetypes, such as during the pilot when Captain Mercer asked the Krill captain to stand center frame, that is one of the first images that Seth came up with. That is the sweet spot for comedy, because of course that would happen and there are other instances for that kind of thing. So, I think what you are saying about technobabble definitely falls into that category. We have not done it yet, but I am sure we can find a way.
You have said you are not a comedy guy and I know that half the writers on the show are more sci-fi drama writers and half are comedy. So how does that work? Do you write a straight sci-fi script and then they go through for a comedy pass?
No. I had two fears coming into this show. One, could I write this kind of story? And the answer was that I think I am OK in that department. And the other thing was I was terrified that I can’t just be funny on paper. But, the fact is we just break these stories together and the spine of these stories is typically dramatic, but the humor is discussed at length when we break the stories. And the writers are expected to do the drama and the comedy in their scripts. Having said that, there were comedy passes and punch ups on all the scripts, but no I was responsible for my own jokes, a lot of which didn’t make it into the show, because Seth’s sense of humor and sensibilities are the final arbiter on this show.
It’s interesting that when it comes to the characters, Seth’s Captain Mercer isn’t the one delivering all the jokes and he plays it a bit more as a straight man.
I think he is a kind of the straight man, but he has many hilarious moments coming up in the season. They are based in character and situational. The Scott Grimes character, Gordon, is more of the wise-cracking character. But I think it is a smart choice on Seth’s part. He is very generous with the comedy. I don’t think he would have been comfortable giving himself all the best jokes. So, I think the captain as straight man is the perfect way to go.
Allegories and arcs in The Orville
You have talked about The Orville gives you a chance to return to allegorical science fiction storytelling like you did with Star Trek. Would you say every episode has a message?
When I grew up my jam was The Twilight Zone. And when I first got a job on Star Trek the way I approached The Next Generation was as an anthology show with a continuing group of characters. There were other writers like Ron Moore who were interested in exploring the cultures and canon that Star Trek had to offer. So, there are many ways to approach it.
This is just perhaps my view and not the other writers, but for The Orville it is an allegorical show. What is so refreshing and what I had missed is that you can explore an idea, not a case. To me the best allegorical does explore an idea from different angles but it never tries to impart a message. I am always careful not to be preachy.
Were there any ideas or allegories you wanted to do during your time with Star Trek but didn’t that you can now address with The Orville?
I can safely say we left nothing on the table with Star Trek. Every viable idea was used. Certainly, there is a freedom in terms of character conflict and character humor that wasn’t part of Star Trek and that was OK. Some writers would complain that without all the human foibles and pettiness, where is the conflict coming from? My response was “Write for another show, because that is the show Gene created.” But in this case, there is a lot more freedom to do different kinds of things. I don’t want to call them stories we didn’t use, but there is all sorts of stuff you can do on The Orville that you couldn’t do on Star Trek.
Can you give me an example?
There is an episode where The Orville crew finds itself in a situation where they need to destroy an enemy vessel, but they actually take into consideration the thing we never did on Star Trek which was there are families aboard that ship.
Even though this show is structured as stand-alone episodes, is this conflict with the Krill – who we met in the pilot – going somewhere?
Yes. There are seeds being laid in season one that could easily be continue in a really cool way in season two. The Krill are explored more thoroughly as the season goes on and we learn more about what they are all about and how their culture is driven by religious zealotry. They are kind of just scary looking albinos in the pilot. You learn a lot more about them.
No Orville v Discovery rivalry
Seth has said that The Orville is trying to fill a void that Star Trek left behind for optimistic and non-dystopian storytelling. Some people took that as a hit on Star Trek: Discovery.
That is absolutely not true. Seth has been talking about this show for years to me. Every single episode of this first season was written before we had any clue what Discovery was about. We don’t know enough about Discovery to say what it is exactly, so how could it possibly be an insult?
I think Seth was making a more general statement about the state of science fiction, the state of which has been pretty dark for many years with things like Divergence, The Hunger Games, and a host of other books and movies with a dark and twisted vision of what might happen in the future. One of the best of them to me is The Children of Men, which is a brilliant movie, but it is pretty grim. So, I do think there is a void being filled, but Seth was not commenting on Discovery not filling that void. We just don’t know enough about it and he wouldn’t do that anyway. He isn’t going to slam another show, it’s unprofessional.
You must have seen the various things coming for Discovery.
I have seen the trailers.
What is it like for you to watch a Star Trek thing that you have nothing to do with? Is it weird for you?
I had that weirdness come and go a long time ago when J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie came out. It was still fresh enough that I felt a tinge or sting of its absence in my life. With Discovery, I am honestly as excited to see it as any other Star Trek fan. I devour each new trailer the moment it comes out. I am a fan now, I don’t work on the franchise, but I am still a fan.
Prequeling for Enterprise and Discovery
They decided to set Discovery before The Original Series. You and Rick Berman also chose to do a prequel series with Enterprise. You obviously had many different choices, like doing another 24th century show or maybe jump forward to a future century. What were your reasons for jumping back instead of forward? Did you even consider jumping forward?
Of course we did. Rick’s initial inspiration was – and this was still back when the idea of a prequel was still kind of fresh – was to try to do a Star Trek that was kind of closer to you and me. A show where people could wear tennis shoes.
We were always intrigued by the ending of the movie [Star Trek:] First Contact. We often talked about what happened after that? Were Vulcans back then like the Vulcans we had seen on the Star Trek shows? Or were they assholes because they really didn’t believe we were ready, and that always interested us because it was an interesting period in Star Trek history. There were a lot of reasons why we did it.
We also thought it would be fun to go back before all the technology was taken for granted, so like how the transporter is something people would be scared shitless about. It just seemed like a fun place to go. Now we put in this whole thing about the future and the Temporal Cold War. So, we kind of had our cake and ate it too, because we began to deal with things in the 29th century.
In terms of Discovery, from what I understand it takes place between Enterprise and Kirk, so it is more of a splitting of the hair.
Was part of the reasoning to go backwards for a setting, that by the time Voyager was done the technology of Star Trek was approaching magic and if you jumped to another century…
Yeah, what does it mean? Phasers are smaller? The uniforms are tighter. It was hard to imagine at that time what it meant to jump 200 years into the future. Now the technology is not what it is about, it would be about major Star Trek cultural changes. I do think that Roddenberry would say that Star Trek is a forward-thinking show, it is about the future. I am not sure what he would have thought about the prequel. But as you point out having done many, many years of the 24th century, going to the 26th century was hard to wrap my head around.
Second episode airs this Sunday
The second episode of The The Orville will air on Fox this Sunday at 8:00 pm eastern, following an NFL doubleheader. It then moves to its regular Thursday time slot on September 21st at 9 pm.
Here is the latest promo showing what we can expect coming up this season.