Final frontier: Comedy meets sci-fi when 'The Orville' premieres on Fox

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Kyla Brewer / TV Media
The cast of "The Orville"

The cast of "The Orville"

When the USS Enterprise embarked on its "five-year" mission in "Star Trek" on NBC in 1966, a series set in space was a novelty. Nowadays, prime time is rife with thrilling intergalactic adventures, almost all of them bleak. Yet, there's a new series on the event horizon that aims to inject a little humor into the sci-fi genre.

Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy") stars as newly minted starship captain Ed Mercer, who assumes command of the USS Orville in the premiere of "The Orville," airing Sunday, Sept. 10, on Fox. The award-winning actor, writer and comedian also created the new live-action comedy, which offers viewers a look at the lighter side of space exploration. 

Much like the original "Star Trek," "The Orville" chronicles the adventures of the crew of a starship as it carries out various missions and encounters all sorts of alien beings, both friend and foe. While the show has also drawn comparisons to the 1999 big-screen comedy "Galaxy Quest" and even MacFarlane's animated hit "Family Guy," it's being billed by many as a spoof of the Star Trek franchise.

In fact, at this summer's Television Critics Association press tour, there was a lot of banter about whether "The Orville" relies too heavily on the Star Trek franchise. Some critics even publicly questioned Fox executive Dana Walden whether she's worried they'll be sued by CBS Television Studios, which holds the Star Trek TV rights. However, while the new Fox series undeniably borrows from the Star Trek franchise, it sets a completely different tone with its sense of humor. During a TCA panel, MacFarlane expressed his appreciation for Star Trek, and explained why he took a lighthearted approach with "The Orville."

"I'm tired of being told everything is going to be grim and dystopian," MacFarlane said. "I miss the hopeful side of science fiction."

Even the new "Star Trek: Discovery," set to premiere on CBS Sept. 24, has a somber, big-screen feel. Set in 2417, "The Orville" offers viewers an alternative to the current dismal trend in science fiction space adventures, and MacFarlane has lined up a talented cast to keep things funny. Adrianne Palicki ("Friday Night Lights") stars as Kelly Grayson, Mercer's ex-wife and new first officer. Their strained relationship often makes for awkward moments among the crew. Mercer's best friend is helmsman Gordon Malloy, played by Scott Grimes ("ER"). "24" alum Penny Johnson Jerald portrays Dr. Claire Finn, one of the Planetary Union's best doctors.

Peter Macon ("Shameless") appears as Lt. Commander Bortus, an alien from a unique single-sex species, while Chad Coleman ("The Walking Dead") can be seen as Klyden, Bortus's mate. Mark Jackson ("The Royal Today") takes on the role of Isaac, an artificial life form from a machine society. The crew also includes navigator John LaMarr (J. Lee, "Family Guy") and inexperienced security officer Alara Kitan (Halston Sage, "How to Rock"). Comedy icon Norm MacDonald ("Saturday Night Live") lends his voice to Yaphit, a gelatinous creature. 

Halston Sage as seen in "The Orville"

Halston Sage as seen in "The Orville"

Larry Joe Campbell ("According to Jim"), Victor Garber ("Alias") and Brian George ("The Big Bang Theory") are set to appear in recurring roles.

MacFarlane and his team have lined up an impressive roster of guest stars for the first season, including Academy Award winner Charlize Theron ("Monster," 2003). In July, MacFarlane announced via Twitter that Holland Taylor ("The Practice") and Jeffrey Tambor ("Transparent") would guest star as well, calling the combination a "perfect storm of comedic genius."

There's just as much talent working behind the scenes of "The Orville." Big-budget Hollywood director Jon Favreau ("Iron Man," 2008) directed the series debut and also serves as an executive producer along with David A. Goodman ("Family Guy"), Jason Clark ("Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey") and Liz Heldons ("Deception"). Brannon Braga is an executive producer of "The Orville," too. Interestingly, he's best known for his work on the Star Trek franchise, having been a key player in three of its four modern series.

Hopefully, other Star Trek producers, stars and fans will see "The Orville" as an homage to the popular series, and welcome it much in the way they received "Galaxy Quest" with open arms. Incidentally, "The Orville" may not be the only comedy headed for the stars. It was recently announced that a television reboot of "Galaxy Quest" is back in the works. Initially announced by Paramount Television in 2015, the project was put on the back burner after the death of Alan Rickman ("Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" 2001), one of the stars of the original film. In August, the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that writer-actor-comedian Paul Scheer had been tapped to write the new Amazon series. While few other details have been confirmed, it looks as if Tim Allen, who also starred in the original, may be available for a TV version of "Galaxy Quest" now that his ABC comedy "Last Man Standing" has been canceled.

As for the crew of the USS Orville, their adventure begins when they are tasked with delivering supplies to a science vessel. What's supposed to be a routine mission takes a dangerous turn when they're ambushed by an alien race known as the Krill, who want them to hand over an experimental device that can cause time to accelerate. Tune in to "The Orville," Sunday, Sept. 10, on Fox to see how it all begins in the first of the two-part premiere, which continues Sept. 17.