The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s warm homage to the Star Trek franchise, delighted viewers with the interstellar adventures of the crew aboard the titular starship. As the series gears up for its season 2 premiere on Sunday night, Ars sat down with writer/producer and science advisor Andre Bormanis to talk about some of the science behind our favorite episodes in the first season.
(Some spoilers for season 1 below.)
The Orville had a rocky start, at least in terms of critical reception, garnering just a 19 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes when it debuted. Viewers begged to differ: they gave the freshman series a 91 percent favorable rating, won over by its skillful mix of humor and drama. That’s a tough balance to pull off, but The Orville does so more often than not. This is a smart series that combines slapstick humor and witty dialogue with cutting-edge science and the odd literary reference. (In one episode, the Orville visits a two-dimensional world, complete with an allusion to Edwin Abbot’s satirical allegory, Flatland.)
Series creator and star MacFarlane (The Family Guy, Cosmos), who plays Captain Ed Mercer, was a huge fan of Star Trek growing up, particularly The Next Generation (where Bormanis got his start), as well as The Twilight Zone and the original Cosmos series hosted by the late Carl Sagan. “He’s grounded in that kind of science and storytelling, and very much wants to preserve those standards,” said Bormanis.
Sometimes the science is real, like a diagram of a DNA molecule or the spectrum for a red giant star that appears on the ship’s graphical display in an upcoming episode in season 2. Other times, it’s necessary to invent plausible-sounding science-fictional concepts and technologies, hopefully making them sufficiently plausible to the more scientifically literate viewers. “I see it as part of a long tradition of science fiction storytelling, pioneered by people like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Robert A. Heinlein—writers who wanted to bring real science and engineering credibility to their stories,” said Bormanis.
On the set
A means of interstellar travel is the first scientific challenge any show like The Orville faces. Star Trek has its warp drive; MacFarlane opted for a “quantum drive” to power his fictional starship. Bormanis was initially stumped as to how such a thing might work, given that quantum mechanics governs the subatomic realm, and the Orville is an enormous craft moving faster than the speed of light. But he reasoned that physics would likely have advanced sufficiently by the 25th century to include a grand unified theory, at long last uniting all four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity).
“In my mind, the premise [behind the quantum drive] is that we’ve finally learned how to manipulate space-time at the quantum level, and that has led to the ability to travel faster than the speed of light,” said Bormanis. “Whether that’s in a little space-time bubble so you’re not violating special relativity, like the Alcubierre drive, I have no idea. Nobody has any idea how a ship like the Orville could be built. It’s going to require development of new physical principles and new technologies, and we don’t have the language to describe that today.”
One thing you won’t see on The Orville is a transporter, Star Trek’s iconic means of teleportation.
As for what the ship uses for a primary power source, MacFarlane initially wondered if thorium would work, a radioactive element used in certain newer nuclear reactor designs instead of uranium. But thorium couldn’t produce anywhere near the energy the Orville would require. So Bormanis came up with his own fictional heavy element, dysonium (named in honor of physicist Freeman Dyson), something with an atomic weight in the 130-135 range—well above the transuranic elements in the period table.
The high atomic number would make dysonium (if it existed) relatively stable, and its decay would liberate incredibly high energies in Bormanis’ vision. Perhaps there could even be a kernel inside the shell of neutrons and protons with that elusive negative mass required to power something like the Alcubierre warp drive. (Perhaps it could even be in a fluid phase, like the “negative mass” fluid recently created by physicists at Washington State University.)
One thing you won’t see on The Orville is a transporter, Star Trek‘s iconic means of teleportation. According to Bormanis, the writers on the original Star Trek invented the transporter because they didn’t have the special effects budget to show shuttle craft landing on an alien world every week—plus it kept the narrative pace humming along. “Seth felt it was asking enough of the audience to believe in faster-than-light travel,” he said. “And I always wondered why there were fat people in the future, when you could program the transporter to leave 25 pounds of excess belly fat on the pad when you beam somewhere.” (A futuristic form of liposuction should be possible, since teleportation would require the ability to take someone apart and reassemble them at the atomic level.)
Season 2 sneak peek
There’s plenty of biology as well as physics to be found on The Orville. In the pilot, Ed walks in on Kelly hooking up with a blue Retepsian alien named Darulio (Rob Lowe), effectively ending their marriage. Later in the season (“Cupid’s Dagger”), Darulio is back on the Orville in his archaeologist capacity—and he just happens to be in the middle of his species’ mating cycle.
For that episode, Bormanis came up with the idea that Retepsians exude a powerful sex pheromone during such times, transferred by touch—with some comical results. (In one I-Cant-Believe-They-Went-There moment, Chief Medical Officer Claire Finn gets it on with Yaphit, a green gelatinous creature who serves as an engineer on board the Orville. That image is seared into my brain, and Penny Johnson Jerald deserves a special award for artistic bravery for leaning into the moment with gusto.)
Bormanis even worked in a spot of evolutionary theory for that episode. Two warring alien species, the Navarians and Bruidians, have been at loggerheads for centuries over which race has the best claim to their shared planet. Darulio’s pheromones help ease tensions between the two ambassadors (temporarily). But his DNA analysis of ancient fossils reveals the races share a common ancestor. “One can certainly imagine a scenario in which a humanoid species goes out and colonizes planets throughout the galaxy, and after a hundred thousand years, you’d start to see some pretty significant differences,” said Bormanis.
“It’s hard to find a really good original time travel story.”
MacFarlane’s interest in exploring social issues through science fiction also features heavily in the series. Gender identity issues are front and center in “About a Girl,” when Lieutentant Commander Bortus (Peter Macon) and his mate Klyden (Chad Coleman) give birth to a daughter—a rare occurrence for a race exclusively composed of males—and must decide whether she should undergo sex reassignment therapy, lest she become an outcast on their home planet. (A follow-up episode originally intended for season 1 will air instead during season 2.)
One of Bormanis’ favorite episodes in that regard is “Majority Rule,” when Kelly leads an undercover exploratory team to find two missing archaeologists on an Earth-like planet that bears a strong resemblance to our culture today. The twist is that everything is decided by public upvotes on their version of social media: laws, nutritional advice, scientific “facts,” and so forth. One crew member immediately runs afoul of a viral shaming campaign, for which the penalty of not getting enough upvotes is a lobotomy.
The Orville has yet to explore one of the most classic tropes of science fiction: time travel and alternate timelines, in the tradition of TNG episodes like “Cause and Effect,” or the Q-centric two-part series finale “All Good Things.” The writers are interested in the prospect, of course. The problem, says Bormanis, is that by this point, almost every possible twist on time travel has already been done. “It’s hard to find a really good original time travel story,” he said. “You have to find a new approach to it that hasn’t been done on other science fiction shows, and that’s pretty much an impossible task at this point.”
Season 2 of The Orville debuts Sunday, December 30, on FOX.