LOS ANGELES – The crew aboard this sleek spaceship is on a mission: to prove that their commander, Seth MacFarlane, will steer viewers on a unique, out-of-this world journey in his new series, “The Orville.”
Executive producer Jason Clark certainly makes an enthusiastic case as he leads visitors on a tour of the 20th Century Fox set, getting giddy over food synthesizers, plasma shotguns and mannequins sporting outfits straight out of Bjork’s closet.
“Star Trek: Discovery,” which launches Sunday, looks like it may boldly take Trekkies where they haven’t been before, with a black woman in the central role.
But what’s more compelling than toy weapons and progressive casting is this idea: Sci-fi series are trying to offer a reprieve from a 21st-century planet hurtling closer to, if not extinction, a black hole of cynicism.
“I’m tired of being told that everything is going to be grim and dystopian, and people are going to be murdering each other for food,” MacFarlane said. In his new show, the “Family Guy” creator plays Ed Mercer, a captain less worried about the future of mankind than about sharing the control room with his ex-wife. “I miss the hopeful side of science fiction, which really goes back to the roots of the genre, and that is: What can we achieve if we put our minds to it?”
“Star Trek: Discovery” takes place 10 years before the original series, a time when the Federation is laying the groundwork to form a gentler, kinder universe. CBS hopes the show will attract subscribers to its fledgling new digital channel, where it will fly after Sunday’s premiere on the mother ship.
“I think the defining characteristic of Gene Roddenberry’s work is its optimism,” said the new show’s co-creator, Alex Kurtzman, referring to the “Star Trek” creator. “It’s the belief that we can connect, that species and people around the entire galaxy can figure out a way to exist and that wars, if they have to be fought, can be stopped.”
It may not be a coincidence that the sci-fi genre exploded in the 1960s, a time when civil rights, distrust of Russians and political bickering dominated the headlines. Sound familiar?
“I think we live in troubling times, dark times, and I don’t know how to explain to my children that the world is getting more divisive and groups are being pitted against each other,” said Jason Isaacs, who plays “Star Trek: Discovery’s” Capt. Gabriel Lorca.
“There’s no question that we are part of a story that shows not just how we can all be harmonious in a big Diet Coke effort, but how do you get there?”
Not that either show will reach utopia at light speed.
“Star Trek: Discovery,” which was not made available to critics ahead of time, is expected to orbit around the distrust between Klingons and the Federation that disintegrates into a Cold War.
In an upcoming episode of “The Orville,” a crew member contemplates altering the gender of his newborn to conform with his planet’s standards, triggering a moral debate among his colleagues.
Both series will return frequently to the theme of female leaders battling stereotypes. “Star Trek: Discovery” will be seen largely through the eyes of an officer played by “The Walking Dead’s” Sonequa Martin-Green.
The most compelling twist in Netflix’s 2018 reboot of “Lost in Space” is that the sniveling Dr. Smith will be portrayed by indie-film queen Parker Posey.
“Part of the fun of science fiction is to tell stories that have relevance but that exist in the world of make-believe. That way, if you do it right, you don’t come across as preachy,” MacFarlane said. “If you’re doing a science fiction show and you don’t go to those areas, I don’t think you’re doing your job.”
Of course, there are plenty of shows and films with a much more cynical vision of the future, including “The Walking Dead,” “The Last Ship” and “Westworld.”
In Hulu’s “Future Man,” premiering in November, a world-ranked gamer must take on aliens determined to destroy the world. It’s shepherded by Seth Rogen, who made comedy out of the apocalypse in his 2013 film “This Is the End”
“Even [the 2016 movie] ‘Sausage Party’ has a very apocalyptic theme to it,” Rogen said. “I think from the moment that humanity developed the ability to wipe itself out in essentially seconds, it’s drawn people to it creatively.”
But audiences may be craving a little more optimism, at least at the movies. Big-budget space films with darker themes, such as “Passengers,” “Life” and “Alien: Covenant,” have all disappointed at the box office, while more uplifting sci-fi fare — think “The Martian,” “Arrival,” “Rogue One” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” — has exceeded expectations.
The idea of looking to the stars for comfort rather than chaos may be influencing a growing interest in real science. With North Korea flexing its nuclear muscle and climate change contributing to destructive weather patterns, buying real estate on Mars suddenly doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous investment.
On Wednesday, Hulu announced that “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon was developing a series on the first inhabitants of the Red Planet, starring Sean Penn in his first TV series.
“Some people may have a fascination with space from the time they were kids or more from a sci-fi background,” said NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, who participated in the upcoming documentary “Beyond a Year in Space,” one of a slew of space-related programs airing on PBS this fall. “But there’s definitely those people who think that we need to be furthering our presence because of what we’re doing to this planet and thinking about where we’re going to go next.”
Nobody is rooting for the success of “The Orville” and “Star Trek: Discovery” more than real-life explorers.
“Today, we’re part of a generation that’s seeing SpaceX and other commercial endeavors out to space,” said astronomer Andrea Ghez, who contributed to “Nova: Black Hole Apocalypse,” coming in January to PBS. “And I think about the role that programming can play. I mean, when I was a kid, ‘Star Trek’ was a huge influence. New shows have an enormous impact.”