The Orville Problem or "Fire Retro Rockets"

One of the criticisms leveled against The Orville is that everyone seems to only ever make cultural references from the "Age of Television," mostly the sort of references a person Seth McFarlane's age would make.  Okay, mostly the sort of references Seth McFarlane always does make.  But it's not just the Orville: it's hard to watch a significant amount of any version of Star Trek or similar shows without seeing someone quoting pre-2017 Terran literature or media, performing pre-2017 Terran music, or assuming that activities popular in the modern day continue largely unaltered into the future (baseball is still pretty much the same game, rather than having mutated as severely as football did in the online novella 17776, for instance).  Sure, there's the occasional 3D chess or Klingon Opera or reference to a 22nd Century non-Terran philosopher, but they tend to stand out as not being the norm.  In some cases they even dive whole-heartedly into reproducing an earlier Terran era as closely as possible (the Space Western subgenre containing Firefly and Galaxy Rangers, or space pirates who say arrrr and have parrot-bots, etc).  Why is the culture so bereft of anything created after the present day?  Why aren't they quoting the great literature of 2301, or the stupid memes of the year the show is set in?

There's two big obstacles standing in the way of using "contemporary to the characters but not the audience" cultural references:

  • It's a lot of work to create an entirely new pop culture in enough detail to feel even a little real.
  • You want your audience to understand the world your story is set in.  

The less time you devote to explaining the new pop culture, the less well the audience can relate.  Novels, especially by authors who have slipped the surly bonds of editorial oversight, can spend a few pages explaining a piece of entertainment a character likes, or a cultural touchstone that will be important later, but TV shows and movies need to work in shorthand.  (There's also the related problem of "If Clark Kent is a fan of Jim Croce, whose cape is he advised not to tug on?" that the CW DC shows grapple with a lot, often making Marvel references because the appropriate DC Universe one is off-limits, or having to never talk about certain non-DC shows because of the shared actor, Malcolm Merlyn doesn't look like Captain Jack Harkness, why do you ask?  While having someone say Captain Dylan Hunt of the Andromeda was like "some sort of Greek god" was funny, it came pretty close to breaking the fourth wall.)
You know you want him.

Sometimes you can get away with just hints of the richer world.  The Fifth Element did a great job of that, selling a world where Ruby Rhod was a sex symbol and a super-rich guy could actually think that shaving half his head and putting clear plastic over it looked good.  But that's worldbuilding on hard mode, and when it fails it fails badly.  And even that movie was rife with "contemporary to the audience" references.

A huge load of side stuff is death to TV pacing, though, so fully fleshing out the fictional world, even if you're guaranteed several seasons in which to do it, requires a lot of shorthand, and spackling over the gaps with unexplained "modern day and before" culture.  Most of the time, the audience obeys the MST3K dictum, recognizing it's just a show and they should really just relax.  But other times it can get pretty blatant, forcing the viewer or reader to notice the problem...and it's almost never actually explained in-universe.

Therefore, for the benefit of you, the reader, I present several prepackaged fanons (or headcanons) to select from in order to help you get past the question of "Why is the 24th Century spaceship captain only ever quoting early 21st Century TV shows?" and its relatives.

1) It's a translation.  Hey, the whole thing is probably a translation if you think about it.  If the show is set several centuries into the future, with all the linguistic drift that's bound to happen even if we don't meet alien races and absorb bits and pieces of their languages, the "English" being spoken by the characters is probably going to be nearly unintelligible.  Yeah, the existence of audiovisual references will slow the drift some, but even people in movies from the 40s speak a little differently than we do now.  So if we're hearing language that's translated to be comprehensible, why not take a step further and assume the translator is translating the cultural character, as per my "Lost and Found in Translation" post?  Captain Ed isn't actually making Seinfeld references, he's quoting from a show produced during his academy years that has similar tone, and the translation just swaps in yadda yadda yadda.

The big advantage of this headcanon is that it explains pretty much everything except cases where it can't possibly be a translation (like culturally specific puns, such as the name of an alien deity being mistaken for a car rental company), and even then you can sort of stretch it to fit.  If a character doesn't get a reference, well, real people fail to get real pop culture references all the time.

Dixon Hill appears courtesy of Memory Alpha
2) Society for Creative Anachronism in Space.  The main cast just happens to be into historical entertainment.  Maybe it was a fad during the time most of them were of an impressionable age, maybe the captain is a big fan and everyone's sucking up to them by playing along.  This isn't something that ever really needs to be confirmed on screen, but it gets harder to use this explanation as the scope of characters making ancient references widens.  But as long as some characters (particularly older or younger than the main cast, or of different backgrounds) fail to get the references, it's a plausible explanation.  Maybe the characters who started the show already knowing each other initially bonded over a shared love of 20th Century kitsch.

In shows with a Holodeck or any of its hazardous relatives, a wider knowledge of the pop culture can be simple safety procedure rather than sucking up to the captain.  "Yeah, we all have to know a little about Harry Potter...Ensign Rice loves that old stuff, and once in a while the Holodeck malfunctions and it helps to know how to cast Expelliarmus."

3) Cultural exchange feedback loops.  This is perhaps a broader version of #2, but it only really works in settings where humanity isn't alone.  The idea is that every time a new world is welcomed into the Federation/Union/Alliance/Gallimaufry (FUAG from here on out), there is a big cultural exchange.  Inevitably, the newcomers to the FUAG like some of the stuff a lot more than the rest, and demand more than the welcome package's sampling.  With a larger market for that particular set of cultural elements, it's worthwhile to try to sell it back home too, and ride the crest of the fad.  Everyone growing up in the years after a new addition to the FUAG will tend to be better versed in the bits of their own cultural heritage that the newbies loved.  This can even work with rivals getting ahold of our culture: once Klingons decided Shakespeare was one of them, a lot of humans probably had to brush up their Shakespeare in order to win arguments in bars.  Humans may also pick up some of the faves from other races, but they'll be a lot more likely to enjoy stuff that humans have already enjoyed in the past.  As long as these feedback loops only happen once a generation or so, you can get an entire ship full of people who grew up on Baroque Harpsichord or Family Guy or 22nd Century zero gravity racquetball (GalWest League rules only, GalEast League is for posers (oh, you're just too much of a philistine to appreciate the subtleties of GalEast), bite me Eastie).
Winning the memetic war can have unforeseen consequences.
4) Memetic Warfare.  This one is very setting-dependent, and the longer a show leaves the question open, the less likely it is to be a valid explanation, but it'd be cool if someday a show used this as the in-story reason.  Not all wars are fought with guns or code hacking.  Some are fought with social hacking, memetic conflicts where the idea is to simply overwrite your enemy's culture with your own, so that you can win the war without firing a shot.  Seem over the top and implausible to you?  Tell that to the Chinese, who did a pretty good job over the centuries of turning their conquerors into culturally Chinese peoples, winning the peace after losing the invasion.  What if it turns out that Television Age pop culture was a particularly effective defensive weapon in a memetic war fought some time before the start of the show?  Learning about Seinfeld would be a part of basic military training, so as to offer protection should the memetic war flare up again.  Okay, this is definitely the weirdest of the four options, but I like it.

P.S. If you read this post's title as if it were the title card to a Rocky & Bullwinkle episode, please report for duty in the memetic war.  Your culture needs you!

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
The Orville Problem or "Fire Retro Rockets" The Orville Problem or "Fire Retro Rockets" Reviewed by Dvandom on Tuesday, November 21, 2017 Rating: 5
Powered by Blogger.