Star Trek: Discovery unexpectedly dropped a hilarious reference to Futurama. This was not only the latest wink at modern pop culture by the CBS All-Access series but it also raises the intriguing question of whether Matt Groening's beloved cult sci-fi animated series existed in Star Trek's canon - and how?
Star Trek has a long history of referencing pop culture and in the franchise's timeline, Star Trek's Earth history is more or less identical to the real world's until the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s that birthed Khan Noonien Singh. In the 21st century, World War III decimated civilization with nuclear war, but after First Contact with the Vulcans, humanity rebuilt, ended war, disease, and hunger on Earth, and looked to the stars to explore the galaxy. Yet all throughout, many aspects of culture survived, including books, art, and music. For example, in Star Trek: First Contact, Zephram Cochrane rocked out to Roy Orbison's music, Star Trek: The Next Generation's Commander Data enjoyed cosplaying in the holodeck as Sherlock Holmes, and Star Trek: Voyager's Captain Janeway studied under Leonardo Da Vinci in her holodeck.
Star Trek: Discovery is even more current with their pop culture references. In "An Obol For Charon", Lieutenant Paul Stamets sang touchingly sang a duet of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" with Tilly. In this week's episode, "Project Daedalus", it was Tilly again who dropped a shout out to Futurama. During the starship's mission to confront Section 31 at their forward operating base, Tilly asked for Commander Airiam's help with the decryption program. When Airiam easily solved the puzzle, she remarked, "Now I understand why this was so difficult for you. The key encryptions are constantly changing." To which, Tilly, retorted with a smile, "Good thing you're half-robot" - but she pronounced it as "robut", the way Futurama's Dr. Zoidberg does when referring to Bender.
The Zoidbergian "robut" joke helped get fans more acquainted with a character who'd thus far been mainly identifiable as the "blue robot lady". Of course, the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, "Project Daedalus", ended with Airiam tragically sacrificing her life to save her crewmates, meaning there's unlikely to be any further payoff.
Still, this does leave one big question: how can Tilly be aware of Futurama at all when the animated series did a Star Trek episode in season 4 with the cast of The Original Series?
Futurama's Star Trek Episode
Futurama's Star Trek tribute episode, "Where No Fan Has Gone Before", aired during season 4 in 2002. It's a beloved classic episode chock-full of fan service for Star Trek fans; the cast of The Original Series (minus the late DeForrest Kelley and James Doohan, whose Scotty was replaced by a new character named Welshy) guest starred as themselves, where they met Fry and the Planet Express crew.
In Futurama's 31st century canon, Star Trek became a religion in the 2200s (the same century Star Trek: Discovery occurs in) and after all of its fans were killed in the Star Trek Wars, the 79 episodes of The Original Series and the first six Star Trek movies starring the classic cast were burned, with the few remaining copies banished to the planet Omega 3. Fry, the self-styled "ultimate Star Trek fan", stole the Star Trek actors' heads-in-jars and brought them to Omega 3, where they ran afoul of an obsessive energy being/nerd called Melllvar.
So, how could Tilly have seen Futurama, which has an episode about a TV series she exists in a prequel for that stars actors who play the roles of characters that won't become the crew of the Starship Enterprise until nine years after Star Trek: Discovery season 2? It's possible in Star Trek's canon, Futurama existed but the episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before" simply doesn't. It's also possible that Tilly wasn't referencing anything and, in a fantastic coincidence, she actually pronounces the word "robot" the way Dr. Zoidberg does - after all, Tilly admits she grew up as "a weird kid". But Futurama fans definitely know a Zoidberg shout out when we hear it.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Thursdays @ 8:30pm on CBS All-Access and internationally the next day on Netflix.