Lost in Translations tends to avoid parodies. The nature of a parody means that the original won’t be necessarily recognizable in the final product. There are exceptions; Airplane! is a parody of 70s airplane disaster film while being an adaptation of Zero Hour!, using the original film as a scaffold to hang all the jokes and gags. So why look at The Orville, a gentle parody of Star Trek?
Let’s take a step back before answering that question. Science fiction is known for tackling subjects in the time it was written despite moving the problem to the future. Star Trek is known for this, with episodes like “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” pointing out the insanity inherent in racism and “The Trouble With Tribbles” exploring the dangers of removing a species from its natural habitat. The later Trek series continued in the same vein, exploring issues that appeared in eras they debuted in. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine may have been somewhat prophetic, predicting social issues that came about during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq years after DS9 finished.
Why look at The Orville, then? The Orville, created by Seth MacFarlane, set out to be a gentle parody of Trek, adding a layer of comedy to the proceedings. While the original series had a number of light episodes, such as “The Trouble With Tribbles”, “A Piece of the Action”, and “Shore Leave”, later series had trouble finding the touch needed. The goal of The Orville was to pull back from the grim and gritty direction science fiction was taking and show a bright potential future because and despite of humanity. The series also looks at today’s social issues through the science fiction lens.
The series stars MacFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer, commander of the mid-level exploratory vessel Orville; Adrianne Palicki as Commander Kelly Grayson, first officer and Ed’s ex-wife; Scott Grimes as Lieutenant Gordon Malloy, the ship’s daredevil helmsman and Ed’s best friend, Penny Johnson Jerald as Doctor Claire Finn, the ship’s chief medical officer; Halston Sage as Lieutenant Alara Kitan, the ship’s chief of security who hails from a high gravity world, Peter Macon as Lieutenant Commander Bortus, the second officer who comes from a single sex species, J. Lee as Lieutenant John LaMarr, navigator and, later, chief engineer, and Mark Jackson as Isaac, science officer and an artifical life form on board to study humans. The make up of the crew is more inspired from Star Trek: The Next Generation than from the original Trek. Indeed, the uniforms wouldn’t look out of place on board the USS Enterprise-D.
The Orville herself is a shiny ship, brightly lit, with familiar amenities including the bridge, crew quarters, a lounge, a shuttle bay, even a holodeck. Missing are transporters and a quantum drive replaces the Trek‘s warp drive. The Orville acts as home for the crew during the mission, a base of operations, and a way to get to the adventure, much like the Enterprise in Trek. Uniforms are colour coded by department. Someone unaware of The Orville‘s creation would be wondering why things are different on a Star Trek series.
There are differences. Characters on The Orville are as likely to screw up as people are today.. Little mistakes, major mistakes, it’s what the characters do afterward that counts. The characters are also more likely to use less high-brow entertainment. Where on Star Trek, characters would listen to classical music or read classic literature, Picard’s preferences for Dixon Hill notwithstanding, the crew of the Orville are listening to classic rock, reading popular literature, and enjoying a few drinks in the crew lounge. On The Orville, humanity can reach the stars and still listen to a rocking tune.
The Orville, even with the comedy aspects, does tackle the social issues of today. from cultural differences to social media use. One episode, “Mad Idolatry” examines Trek‘s Prime Directive, the non-interference with pre-warp cultures, and the nature of cultural contamination, with the result being that, while Kelly did influence a young society, the society itself realizes that it didn’t matter who or what happened, the conflicts would have occurred one way or another; Kelly’s portrayal as a god wasn’t a catalyst. Being science fiction and being part comedy allows The Orville to examine the issues, poke and prod them, and present them in a way that the audience can take and mull over. The presentations aren’t heavy-handed, unlike “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, but do leave the audience thinking.
As a parody, The Orville may be doing Star Trek better than current Trek offerings. The series hearkens back to both The Original Series and The Next Generation, with episodes that explore characters while still examining today’s social issues. The series provides a change of pace from grim and gritty, allowing its audience to see a future of hope, much like Star Trek pioneered in.
Lost in Translation hasn’t looked at many parodies in the past, just four. Parodies are unusual cases when it comes to adaptations. Without an original work, a parody couldn’t exist, yet the nature of parodies means that changes happen. The goal of the parody is humour, not accuracy.
There are three of types of parodies. The broadest is the genre or style parody, where the goal is to have fun with a number of works, not just one. A good example of this sort is Blazing Saddles, parodying the Western genre as a whole. Another example is Top Secret!, a parody of both spy movies set during the Second World War and of movies starring Elvis Presley. Genre parodies take the tropes of the genre and twist them around, holding them up in a new light. A successful parody can even shape how future regular films in the genre use the tropes. This sort of parody is generally not an adaptation. No specific work is used as the base; these parodies draw from several works, pulling out common themes.
Narrowing in, the next type of parody does use a specific work, but no specific story from the work. This happens when the original is a series or franchise. Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, The Orville, and Quark all parody Star Trek. Star Wreck and The Orville use The Next Generation as the base while Quark, because it first aired in 1977*, only had the original Trek to work from. All three have different takes on Star Trek; all three have their own plotlines separate from but similar to Trek. Licensing tends to be the issue with these parodies. If not official, the creators don’t have access to likenesses from the original. Details get changed to keep lawyers happy. Once the parody gets going, it also takes on its own life, with characters developing away from the ones they were based on. This sort of parody may explore ideas from the original work, but for humour instead of the original intent. The Trek episode, “The Enemy Within”, where a transporter accident separated Kirk into two beings, one good, one evil, explores the nature of humanity, the yin and yang inherent in all of us. The Quark episode, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ficus”, takes the idea of the characters being separated into good and evil and uses it for humour, with Ficus, the Spock equivalent except being a plant, not affected at all. Ficus was unaffected because, “there are no good or evil plants, there are just plants.” For this type of parody, the focus is humour, not accuracy, but will use themes from the original.
Galaxy Quest falls under this sort of parody, but instead of using Star Trek episodes as the base, it uses the the industry and the fanbase as the source. Again, licensing and likenesses are a key factor. Because Galaxy Quest deals with the life of the actors long after their show was cancelled, care needs to be taken to not say or imply anything that could be misconstrued. At the same time, the movie also took pains to get the fandom right. Galaxy Quest used ideas from Trek‘s fandom to create its own narrative, yet still be a parody of the TV series. In particular, Guy was well aware of the redshirt effect and was desperate to not suffer the same fate. Galaxy Quest is not a typical parody, but still falls under the narrower form.
Finally, there are the parodies that use the original work’s story. These are rare and tend to happen with older works that have fallen into the public domain. Wayne and Shuster’s “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” is a good example here. The sketch takes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and turns it into a film noir mystery. The few parodies that use a work that falls under copyright get around the issue in one of two ways. First, the original work is used as a base, building a new story off it without using it directly. Young Frankenstein uses this method, The other way is to just license the original. Airplane! is the exemplar here, with creators Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker having licensed Zero Hour to use the work’s script to pile on with jokes.
This last type of parody is very close to being an adaptation. The difference here is intent. The main goal of a parody is humour, whether through slapstick or satire. Adding humour doesn’t necessarily mean a work is a parody. Gnomeo and Juliet is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet aimed for a younger audience, using humour to keep the attention of viewers. It’s not a parody, though; the aim wasn’t to spoof the play, just make it accessable to a younger audience. The line between the two can be fine, with Airplane! madly hopping over it, scuffing any trace the line may have had.
The end result is that, no matter what type of parody a work may be, it can’t be held to the same standards as an adaptation. With most adaptations, the effort is to keep to the original, putting in little twists to keep the work fresh, with humour a possible addition but not the focus. Parodies ultimately have a goal that is separate from bringing a work from one medium into another or rebooting a work. Accuracy isn’t as important as the humour. It is unfair to judge a parody by the same standards of other adaptations.
* Quark may have been the first to parody /Star Wars/, with the episode “May the Source Be With You”, given its timing.
The Universal monsters have become iconic since their first appearances. Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) brought the tragic character on screen. Bela Legosi as Dracula (1931) provided the baseline for future cinematic vampires. Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932). Claude Rains as The Invisible Man (1933). Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman (1941). But the most endearing character may have been Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, in the 1931 Frankenstein. Karloff portrayed the Monster as a child, with a wonder about him as he discovers the world around him, turning the character from the vengeful being in Mary Shelley’s novel to a tragic victim hunted down by villagers.
The success of Frankenstein led to sequels, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Classics beget spoofs, much like the Abbott and Costello movie. With a film that has permeated pop culture, further parodies were due. Thus steps in Gene Wilder. Because both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had scared him as a child, Wilder had an idea for a script that rewrote the ending of both movies. He had set it aside when his new agent, Mike Medavoy, suggested that Wilder team up with Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman for a movie, actors that Medavoy also represented. Wilder reworked a scene from his script and submitted it.
The resulting movie, Young Frankenstein (1974), was co-written by Wilder and Mel Brooks, with Brooks directing it. Wilder starred as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced “Fron-ken-steen” as he tried to distance himself from his grandfather Victor. Boyle played the Creature, portraying the Creature with the same child-like approach that Karloff used. Feldman played Igor, pronounced “Eye-gor”, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein’s assistant. Frederick is a famed neurologist, teaching at a university, when he is found by a lawyer for his grandfather’s estate.
Frederich makes the trip to Transylvania, meeting Igor and Inga, played by Teri Garr. Igor takes Frederick and Inga to the Frankenstein castle, which has been maintained by Frau Blucher, played by Cloris Leachman. Blucher is excited for Frederick’s visit; it’s a chance for Victor’s experiment to live again. The movie then follows the beats of the original movie, from the theft of a suitable body for the Creature to raising the body up to be hit by lightning to even the Creature meeting the little girl. All through this, though, are bits of humour, which is the true draw of the film. Young Frankenstein diverges from the original when Frederick makes the decision to take care of the Creature, unlike Victor’s attempts to subjugate his Monster. Frederick’s efforts lead to a song and dance number that goes wrong, leading to angry villages with torches and pitchforks. Even with that, everyone gets a happy ending, from Frederich and Inga to the Creature and Elizabeth, Frederich’s former fiancée played by Madeline Kahn, and even the angry villagers.
The beats aren’t the only factor at play. Young Frankenstein was filmed in black and white, making it an outlier where every other movie being made that decade was in colour. But it’s not just being in black and white that adds to the mood. The credits, the cinematography, the music, all were done in the style of the original movie. Brooks even had the original lab equipment on hand, thanks to Kenneth Strickfaden, who built the equipment for the original movie. Young Frankenstein maintains the mood of the original, thanks to lighting, while still being funny, a difficult task pulled off with style.
Beyond just aesthetics, the cast raised a good movie into a comedy classic. Wilder, Boyle, and Feldman worked well together. Wilder admitted in a bonus feature on the Young Frankenstein DVD that several roles were good until their actors took them, whereupon the roles became great. Kahn was originally thought of as Inga, but she preferred Elizabeth. Garr read for Inga in a German accent. Kenneth Mars took the role of Inspector Kemp and elevated what was written in the script. Leachman as Frau Blucher dominates her scenes. Even Gene Hackman in his role as the Blindman is more than what was written for the scene.
While Young Frankenstein is a parody, it builds off the original, using /Frankenstein/ as the base to hang the jokes on while still keeping the mood. Young Frankenstein works as a sequel of the original as much as it does a parody. The effort put in by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks pays off.
Since the series first aired in 1966, Star Trek has made inroad into not just geek culture but global culture. It is rare to find anyone unfamiliar with the concepts of the series and unable to name at least one Captain. The show’s prominence and tropes also make it ripe for parodies. Each series and movie in the Trek franchise has been fodder for humourists. The franchise even was featured as the first review here at Lost in Translation.
Fan films are getting less expensive to make. With CGI, many effects that would be too expensive to do practically, like crashing a car or blowing up a model starship, now just needs a skilled artist. The camera equipment needed has also fallen in price while becoming digital and smaller. The Canadian low-budget horror movie Manborg was made for around Cdn$1000 and featured extensive green-screening and stop-motion animation. The Four Players used limited sets and CGI in four separate shorts featuring the characters from Super Mario Bros. Today, it is very possible to equal the effects of the big screen with inexpensive software coupled with skill and talent.
Star Wreck started as a series of shorts on YouTube. Five friends in a two-room apartment used blue-screening technology to digitally add the sets needed. Outdoor sets were found in the Finnish outdoors. The sixth, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, received a budget sliightly under 14 000 Euros and a feature-length DVD release. The version watched for this review was the Imperial Edition. Star Wreck followed the exploits of the CPP Potkustartti, or as the subtitles call it, the CPP Kickstart*, her captain, James B. Pirk, and her crew, including Commander Info, an android, and Commander Dwarf, a Plingon. The end of Star Wreck V saw Pirk, Info, and Dwarf stranded on Earth in the early 21st Century, trying not to change the course of history.
In the Pirkinning begins with Pirk drunk and tired of being stuck in a primitive era. He reunites with Info and Dwarf and, armed with the knowledge of where the Vulgar (Vulcan) ship that made first contact is, starts working to build a new Kickstart. Unfortunately, the man who contacted the Vulgars, Johnny Cochbrane (Zefram Cochrane), sold the ship to the Russians. Pirk takes his crew, all two of them, to a Russian nuclear facility and convinces them to overthrow capitalism to bring back the Soviet Union. Among those working at the facility is Sergey Fukov** (Chekov), an ancestor of one of Pirk’s former crewmen. Sergey also worked at Chernobyl, where he had accidentally turned off the wrong cooling unit instead of the unit in his quarters.
With his newly Soviet Russian army, Pirk convinces President Ulyanov to assist in the building of the new CPP Kickstart. With control of the Russian army and the new Kickstart and her sleds (shuttlecraft), Pirk overthrows Ulyanov, declares himself Emperor, invades Europe and then the United States. No country can withstand the invasions, which is sold via propaganda as liberating the invaded nations. The P-Fleet is built, with all vessels having twist drives (warp drives), shove engines (impulse drives), twinklers (phasers), and light balls (photon torpedoes). Too bad the P-Fleet was built by the Russians; the maximum speed the ships can maintain is Twist Factor 2.
Another problem Emperor Pirk faces is the overpopulation of Earth. He sends the P-Fleet out to scout for new worlds to colonize. Most of the close ones aren’t suitable for human life, as the expendable redshirts would attest to if they hadn’t died demonstrating the lack of suitability. However, the CPP Kalinka, commanded by Sergey Fukov, discovers a maggot hole (worm hole) from which an alien ship emerges. Following Pirk’s General Order 3, the instant destruction of any alien vessel, Fukov orders the alien vessel destroyed. After investigating the wreckage, though, it turns out the occupant was human.
The P-Fleet arrives at the maggot hole to investigate and, if needed, to conquer any worlds beyond for colonization. The Kalinka is ordered into the maggot hole, Pirk figuring that the rust bucket and her captain would be no major loss to the P-Fleet. Instead, Fukov reports back that the inside of the maggot hole changes colour. The rest of the fleet enters the hole and spots two larger alien vessels that use a signal to exit. Pirk’s crew figures out what the signal was and uses it to exit as well.
At this point, the breadth of science fiction knowledge of the creators is shown. There’s a space station, the Babel 13 (Babylon 5), sitting near the hopgate (jump gate). When negotiations break down with Commander Jonny Sherrypie (Commander John Sheridan), Pirk orders the P-Fleet to strike. The resulting battle is something that many pre-CGI filmmakers could only dream about. The P-Fleet has the early advantage, with their twinklers and light balls, but once ships like the Backgammon (Agamemnon) get in range, they open fire. The ships from the Trek part of the parody have special effects similar to what was seen in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The Babylon 5 portion, though, use special effects that wouldn’t be out of place on the original series. The resulting scene is one that should be studied as an example of how to get details right.
During the battle, the Excavator, commanded by Psy-Co (Psy Corp) officer Festerbester (Alfred Bester) appears and targets the P-Fleet’s flagship, mainly because Pirk’s ship is the only one with enough light balls to continue the battle. Festerbester is portrayed by the same actor playing Fukov, just as Walter Koenig played both Chekov and Bester. The battle is decided by a twist core split resulting in an explosion that destroys both the Kickstart and the Excavator.
The difficulty in reviewing In the Pirkinning is not just working out how well the parody captures the essence of both Star Trek and Babylon 5, but dealing with watching a foreign language film relying on subtitles. There is a culture gap between Finland and Canada that Star Wreck demonstrates. The treatment of Russians was the first indication of the difference between Finnish and Canadian humour. The subtitles assisted; whenever a Russian spoke, ze subtitles bekame a form of accent as the Russians happily overthrew kapitalism to bring back kommunism. The subtitles for the unintelligible Scottish engineer were just as unintelligible.
It was obvious while watching In the Pirkinning that the cast and crew knew their science fiction, that they had watched both Trek and B5. Sherrypie’s penchant for long-winded speeches, the entire mirror universe vibe of Emperor Pirk’s P-Fleet, the dual role of Fukov and Festerbester, the exploding plasma consoles on the Kickstart all show the level of detail and knowledge. The parody still respects the original works even while poking fun. Only a fan could get both series well enough to parody without being mean-spirited. Some of the details may have been lost in translation***, but, overall, the parody managed to pull together two distinct TV series and keep their tone while adding to the work.
Next week, Daredevil.
* For ease, I will stick to the English translation, mainly to keep the pun of the name.
** Pronounced exactly as you’re thinking.
*** So to speak. *cough*