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Solution to Altered Transmissions


by Matt Zinno

The first picture is of Seth MacFarlane (creator of The Orville) in Star Trek, highlighted and obscured by a question mark.

Besides the story of transmissions being encrypted, the title and flavortext also try several times to suggest that transmissions are happening again, similar to some earlier time but not exactly the same. ("Altered", "again", "seen these before".)

The main set of pictures is Star Trek screenshots. Their order is not identifiable, so it should be concluded that this is the extraction order.

With each picture is a string of letters, which is a Playfair encryption (Flavor mentions "Play … Fair"). If you decrypt with the title of the Star Trek episode, you get a question asking what episode of X has a certain plot, and the plot actually describes the same Star Trek episode. However, it also describes an episode of The Orville.

Find the Orville episode for each Star Trek episode. There have been 26 episodes of The Orville, so each episode translates to a letter. Further flavortext clues relevant to extraction:

The dates don't matter.Stardates and airdates are not part of the puzzle.
or even whether it was spring or summer.When extracting via Orville episode, the season does not matter...
Just get an absolute position.… just the absolute position of the episode within the entire run.

Reading off those letters in the order of the pictures provided will spell FORD CALLED IT BUNK, to which the answer is HISTORY.

Here are the IDs, decryptions, and Orville episodes:

Trek EpisodeTrivia DescriptionOrville Episode TitleOrville Episode #Letter
FACE OF THE ENEMYWhat episode of X has our crew disguised as an enemy raceKRILL6F
PRODIGAL DAUGHTERIn what episode of X does family at home have its own independent dramaHOME15O
IN THEORYThe robot tries dating in what episode of XA HAPPY REFRAIN19R
FOR THE WORLD IS HOLLOW AND I HAVE TOUCHED THE SKYWhat episode of X has aliens who do not know they live on a shiptIF THE STARS SHOULD APPEAR4D
THE OUTCASTWhat episode of X has a trial for gender rightsABOUT A GIRL3C
ENCOUNTER AT FARPOINTWe pick up the brand new first officer en route in what episode of XOLD WOUNDS1A
WHO WATCHES THE WATCHERSOur crew member gets worshipped as a deity in which episode of XMAD IDOLATRY12L
BLINK OF AN EYEWhat episode of X has a planet where time passes quicklyMAD IDOLATRY12L
A MATTER OF TIMEWe meet a mysterious time traveler in which episode of XPRIA5E
THE RETURN OF THE ARCHONSWhich episode of X has aliens with a stagnant cultureIF THE STARS SHOULD APPEAR4D
FASCINATIONPheremones cause trysts in which episode of XCUPIDS DAGGER9I
DESCENTThe robot turns evil in what part one episode of XIDENTITY20T
THE MENAGERIEHumans are a zoo exhibit in what episode of XCOMMAND PERFORMANCE2B
DESCENT PART IIIn what part II episode of X does that robot turn good once moreIDENTITY PT II21U
CONTAGIONWhich episode of X has a computer virusPRIMAL URGES14N
THE LOSSWhat episode of X has two-dimensional spaceNEW DIMENSIONS11K

Note: conveniently enough, ENCOUNTER AT FARPOINT and ENCOUNTER AT FARPOINT, PART I give the same playfair cipher.

Author's Notes

I'm a fan of Star Trek. And I'm a fan of The Orville, which I feel is the heir of episodic Trek-like stories. (Current live-action Trek having moved to season-long storytelling.) And although I think The Orville stands on its own, to someone who knows all the Star Trek plots, I couldn't help but notice parallels when I watch The Orville. I don't fault them; after such a long history, many Star Trek plots are simply common sci-fi tropes at this point, and they're weaving interesting and engaging stories out of those common threads.

I was initially thinking there would be some kind of title indexing for a final extraction, but got a good boost when I noticed that there have been exactly 26 episodes of The Orville, obviously mapping to the alphabet. Then came some worry – just for a puzzle-construction perspective – that The Orville would start season 3 during the constructing year, which would throw off those numbers! Fortunately for the puzzle, if frustrating for fans, it was announced in September that season 3 would come in March, after the Hunt.

This puzzle went through more format changes than most of my puzzles, as we tried to find the right presentation to wrap around the intended revelation. Some drafts clued The Orville not (only) with a picture of Seth MacFarlane in Enterprise, but tried cluing it with screen captures from ENT: "First Flight" and either TNG: "Brothers" or DSC: "Brother". Some provided the plot connections between the two series pictorially, or with a word bank. All of these presentations were too confusing, and then we hit upon the one used here, which depends on first identifying the Star Trek episode pictured.