Pretty much every film and television production in Hollywood is currently on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, and The Orville is no exception. But just before city- and statewide crackdowns kicked in, Ars Technica had the chance to visit the set and chat with the folks who work the behind-the-scenes magic to bring one of our favorite shows to life. We can’t reveal any specific details about the forthcoming third season as the series moves from Fox to Hulu—because SPOILERS—but we can give you a spoiler-free peek behind the curtain to whet your appetite for S3, whenever it should finally air.
(NOTE: Having said that, there will be a couple of spoilers for S2 below.)
The series is set aboard the USS Orville (ECV-197), an exploratory spaceship in the service of a 25th-century interstellar alliance known as the Planetary Union. Series creator and star Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), who plays Captain Ed Mercer, was a huge fan of Star Trek growing up, particularly The Next Generation, so it’s not surprising that The Orville has embraced a similar sensibility. As I wrote in my S2 review, “This is a smart series that combines humor and witty dialogue with cutting-edge science, ethical musings, the occasional literary reference, and genuine heart.”
The first season introduced us to the characters and their fictional world while developing the central relationships. The second season put those relationships to the test. So what can we expect from the show’s third season after such an ambitious and emotionally powerful S2 finale? Given everything that transpired, there’s naturally going to some as-yet-unspecified fallout for the characters to grapple with in S3.
“All the things we’ve set up in the previous seasons, without naming them—the big and small stories we’ve gone back to more than once—will be obvious to any fans of the show,” executive producer/writer David Goodman told Ars. “We’re expanding the characters and storylines, building on everything we’ve done before.”
While Goodman was understandably tight-lipped about plot specifics, the move to Hulu brings some distinct storytelling advantages, such as not having to hit a specific run time or factor in commercial breaks. “Being on a streaming service allows us to do episodes that are longer than those you have on network TV,” he said. “That gives us a little more time each episode to tell our stories.”
Co-producer/supervising editor Tom Costantino concurred. “We can let the episode breathe, let it be what it is,” he told Ars. “We don’t need to spend days trying to figure out how to cut out an important plot point so we can hit a 43- or 48-minute mark for the network.”
This grander, almost cinematic scale is a bona fide TV trend by now, as sci-fi shows like Game of Thrones, Altered Carbon, and The Mandalorian, to name a few, now have production budgets on par with some films, further blurring the line between the two mediums. This really puts the pressure on the VFX and technological side of things. (Side note: the art department now includes the legendary Doug Drexler, the Emmy Award-winning makeup artist and VFX specialist who has worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica, among others.)
“We’re trying to make eleven 60-plus-minute movies [for S3],” said Costantino. The S2 episode, “Identity Part 2,” was by far the most ambitious of the series to date, featuring a large-scale space battle between the Orville (with last-minute reinforcement from the Krill) against a Kaylon fleet. “That would be one of the smaller episodes this year,” said Goodman. And that translates into even more ambitious and elaborate special effects, and the need for even tighter coordination among the various production teams and vendors.
“Last season, we pulled off the impossible for the [midseason] battle,” VFX producer/co-VFX supervisor Brooke Noska told Ars. “Now we’re trying to do that almost every single episode. And we’re doing more content in less time. Our goal is, you should be able to watch it years later and the shots still hold up.”
In that sense, the show is a victim of its own success. “We backed ourselves into a corner, because it worked,” Costantino joked. “If I was supposed to do a crappy job, you should’ve let me know,” Noska teased back.
Along with other spruced-up designs, the Orville spacecraft is getting a bit of an upgrade for S3. It already has a distinctive design, with three distinct “quantum rings” at the rear. VFX supervisor Brandon Fayette calls it a “very aquatic” look. Lots of different people contributed to that design, which was initially conceived as representing more of a cargo or freight ship—a “Mack truck in space.” As the narrative concept developed, it called for a more sophisticated, regal design for the Orville, eventually developing into a design vocabulary for all the spacecraft featured on the show.
“The Union ships have that kind of Nike ‘swoosh,'” said Fayette. “With the Krill ships, it’s broken or damaged quantum rings, while the Moclan ships are more triple-split, bifurcated rings.” And the Kaylon ships featured in S2 were essentially interconnected modules, linking and unlinking as needed. One memorable shot from the penultimate S2 episode depicted a Kaylon module unlinking from its harness to purse the Orville.
The third season might boast storytelling on a grander scale, but the series will remain unchanged with regard to its central focus on character-driven stories and social issues. The original Star Trek, after all, had a strong social conscience and made waves with the first on-air interracial kiss. In its first two seasons, The Orville dove into gender identity, addiction, bigotry, the pros and cons of social media, superstition versus rationality, and racial tensions and genocide, to name a few.
Human nature, both good and bad, transcends time and space, no matter how much the technology might change. “The show can’t just be fun space action,” said Goodman. “Commenting on current society and social mores—we almost consider that our responsibility. The reason people watch is the characters. Those emotional stories really drive the show.”