‘The Orville’ takes fans on dramatic and comedic journey through outer space and moral dilemmas
SAN DIEGO — Dolly Parton has traveled into outer space.
Actually, the legendary country singer and actress never had to leave Nashville, where she lives. The set of the spaceship series “The Orville: New Horizons” came to her.
Ms. Parton has been heralded on “The Orville,” streaming on Hulu, as a champion for women’s rights by Heveena (Rena Owen), the leader of the women on Moclus, a male-dominated planet that rejects females. Heveena thought Ms. Parton’s song “9 to 5,” from the movie of the same name, was the perfect inspirational number for her revolution.
For the third season of “The Orville” (all the episodes are available on the Hulu streaming service), Heveena met a holographic representation of Dolly Parton — played by Ms. Parton, of course — in a mountain cabin.
“We built the cabin set and basically cut it in half,” Seth McFarlane, creator, executive producer and star of “The Orville,” told fans this summer in a ballroom at San Diego ComicCon. “So half of it went to Nashville for Dolly, and the other half was in L.A.
“Rena flew to Nashville with us to do her scenes with Dolly. There was only time to do that,” Mr. McFarland said, referring to the camera being pointed at Ms. Parton.
“So we flew back to L.A. to film Rena’s half of the scenes with a double for the back of Dolly’s head,” Mr. McFarland said, referring to the camera being pointed at Ms. Owen. “We essentially blended it together. You’re seeing two actors perform a great distance apart from each other. It’s amazing to see how the scene came together.”
Mr. McFarland, speaking via videoconferencing on a screen, and the cast members and producers in person at San Diego ComicCon talked about the magic of making “The Orville” at the San Diego Convention Center.
The actors noted they often perform in front of green screens and are excited when they get to see the worlds their characters visited.
“The Orville” is a blend of drama and comedy that explores social issues through the lens of sci-fi. Mr. McFarland plays Capt. Ed Mercer of the Orville, a ship from the fleet in the Earth-based Planetary Union of interstellar alliances.
Mr. McFarland explained that he decided to name the ship and the series after Orville Wright when he read David McCullough’s biography about the Wright Brothers.
“The ship is supposed to be a mid-level exploratory ship, no means the flagship of the fleet, far from it. It felt like a good name in context of what I was reading at the time,” Mr. McFarland said. “Since then, it’s become more of a player in this fictional universe.”
Before “The Orville,” Mr. McFarland was known for his comedic movies and his animated shows such as “Family Guy.”
“With the animated shows and comedies I”ve done, it’s all hard work, but it’s something that’s like a reflex muscle to me. I know how to do it,” Mr. McFarland said. “With something like this (‘The Orville’), that’s unchartered territory. The possibility of failure is great. That’s much more exciting to me.”
He added that he has liked the move from the Fox broadcast network to Hulu, where the stories aren’t locked into 43-minute time limits. In fact, some of this season’s episodes exceed an hour.
Mr. McFarland said he listens to fans, and he took their comments into account when the third season this year began with a story about Isaac, the Kaylon robot played by Mark Jackson (who is both the voice of the robot and the actor inside the costume and says his lines on the set first before recording them a second time in post-production).
When the Kaylons decided to attack Earth during the second season, Isaac betrayed his crewmates, but came to realize the Kaylons were wrong. He helped the Planetary Union defeat the Kaylons. But fans pointed out in social media that Isaac shouldn’t simply return to the bridge of “The Orville” as if nothing had happened, Mr. McFarland said.
The first episode of the third season, “Electric Sheep,” deals with Isaac facing resentment from the crew, including the new navigator Charly Burke, played by Anne Winters. Ms. Winters was among the cast members at the ComicCon panel.
Charly loved a woman who died when the Kaylons attacked their ship.
“I came from a ship that didn’t have a Kaylon (in the crew). It’s my first experience with a Kaylon,” Ms. Winters told fans, but added, “She (Charly) grows over the season.”
Mr. Jackson, the English actor playing Isaac, said Isaac’s betraying the Orville crew shifted the character into a new gear.
Initially, “he was the butt of a few jokes, such as Mr. Potato Head,” Mr. Jackson said, referring to a prank that put Mr. Potato Head’s pieces on Isaac’s head without his knowledge. “His betrayal made him quite a serious player in ‘The Orville.’ The rest is history. It’s been quite a journey for Isaac.”
Isaac redeemed himself this season by helping his shipmates, and while he supposedly can’t feel emotions, he has shown signs of empathy and compassion, especially in his romantic relationship with Dr. Claire Finn (Penny Johnson Jerald), the chief medical officer. He’s also become a father figure for the single mother’s sons Marcus (BJ Tanner) and Ty (Kai Wener).
The relationship between Dr. Finn and Isaac grew this season, to a story point that won’t be spoiled here.
At ComicCon, a fan asked Ms. Jerald about her favorite on-screen romance in the sci-fi universe.
“I’m listening, Penny,” Mr. Jackson said before she answered the question. The actors and fans laughed.
Well, no offense to Mr. Jackson, but Ms. Jerald had another character in mind besides Isaac for her favorite love interest. She played the fiancee and eventual wife of Capt. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
“He used to be Hawk,” Ms. Jerald said with a smile, referring to Mr. Brooks’ character on “Spenser: For Hire,” a crime drama series.
Peter Macon, the actor who plays the Orville’s second officer, the very serious Moclan named Bortus, turned out to be one of the funniest actors at the ComicCon panel. And he and Jessica Szohr, the actress playing Talla Keyali, the ship’s strong chief of security, had a story for the fans.
It had to do with the extensive makeup that turns Mr. Macon into an alien.
“I had only just worked begun working with Peter,” Ms. Keyali said as Mr. Macon listened. “I never saw him outside the studio as Brotus. One day, I’m walking, and this guy says, ‘Hi, Jess.’ ”
Ms. Keyali didn’t recognize Mr. Macon.
“I never saw this dude in my life,” she said. “He says, ‘I’m Peter. I’m Bortus.’”
That’s the magic of sci-fi, where humans can be transformed into aliens and even a robot with a girlfriend.