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Monday 26 April 2004


"Hey Sexy Mama, Wanna Kill All Humans?":
Looking Backwards at Futurama, The Greatest SF Show You've Never Seen

by Lucius Cook

"I've loved science fiction ever since I was a little kid, mainly from looking at the covers of science-fiction magazines and books, and I've read quite extensively as an adult. About three or four years ago, I decided to reacquaint myself with literary science-fiction and I went back and read everything from H.G. Wells to the new guys, Neal Stephenson and Rudy Rucker and those guys, and what I was surprised to find was that I'd read so much of it...

"But a lot of my old favorites I thought really held up, I liked [Robert] Heinlein and [Philip K.] Dick and Cordwainer Smith and Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley -- the funny guys, the guys who have a sense of humor."

--Matt Groening, interviewed by Brian Doherty in Mother Jones (March/April 1999)

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Towards the end of a decade of unprecedented social and technological change, a major television network greenlights a show about life in the future. The show's creator, a proven success with a previous hit, channels his enthusiasm for science fiction into the project, assembling a creative staff of like-minded individuals. When the series hits the airwaves, it's met with critical acclaim and respectable if not astronomical ratings. But after a season or two, malaise sets in: the network doesn't really get the show and bumps it to a dead-end timeslot, where it's mostly ignored when it isn't pre-empted by other programming. After seventy-odd episodes, the show is ignominiously cancelled and heads straight to syndication, where it immediately discovers a new and larger following.

Star Trek, right? Nope, it's Matt Groening's Futurama, though the parallels with Gene Roddenberry's velour-clad space opera are hard to miss (harder, in fact, than those between Futurama and Groening's first show, The Simpsons, bug-eyed characters with overbites aside). Both Futurama and the Star Trek franchises reinterpret time-tested SF themes for a mainstream audience, but where the latter often ends up looking silly in spite of its ambitions and naïve in its execution of genre tropes, Futurama frequently manages to be intelligent and even profound in spite of its goofy cartoon vision of the future. More than just a funny show, it's one of the smartest and most assured genre series ever produced, with a solid grasp not only on the conventions of SF but one that employs them with an easy familiarity. In terms of sensibility, it's almost without precedent: an SF show that's accessible to everybody, yet at heart a show for fans, created by fans.

Futurama takes as its jumping-off point one of SF's oldest plot devices: the sleeper awakes. The show's main character is Philip J. Fry, a twentysomething slacker naïf from late 20th Century New York City (essentially a slimmer, younger, and somewhat brighter version of Groening's prototypical Everyslob Homer J. Simpson) who despairs of his dead-end pizza delivery job and unfaithful girlfriend. Things start to look up when Fry is accidentally frozen in suspended animation following a mishap involving a crank order from a cryogenics lab on New Year's Eve, 1999. Exactly one thousand years later, Fry awakens to a (New) New York at once radically changed and strangely familiar: Earth is now part of an intergalactic federation, aliens and robots are commonplace, and spacecraft and air cars fill the skies. Yet even in the year 3000, most folks still watch television (including Battle of the Network Space Krakens, the top-rated Mass Hypnosis Hour, and All My Circuits, a robot soap opera with a "token" human character), surf the Internet (which swarms with pop-up ads that physically attack your online avatar, a danger not anticipated by Gibson or Stephenson), and dread the coming of the holiday season (albeit now because of an overzealous Santa-bot that exterminates the naughty with extreme prejudice every Xmas Eve). It's the future as it might have been envisioned by Alfred Bester or Frederik Pohl, if they'd grown up as Southern California mallrats.

In the course of thawing out, Fry meets Leela, his government-appointed "Fate Assignment Officer." A striking alien woman whose career and romantic ambitions have been thwarted by her single Cyclopean eye, Leela possesses superior piloting and martial arts skills despite her apparent lack of depth perception. Much to her dismay, Leela ends up pursuing Fry when he refuses to accept his scientifically-mandated job for life as a delivery boy. On the run, Fry hides in a Suicide Booth line (longer than usual on New Year's Eve), where he befriends Bender, a maladjusted constructor robot with a penchant for cheap booze, petty theft, and even pettier insults ("Bite my shiny metal ass!"). After an extended chase through the city, Leela decides to quit her job and joins forces with Fry and Bender. Together, the trio tracks down Fry's sole surviving relative, his exponentially great-grandnephew Dr. Hubert Farnsworth, an elderly mad scientist who supports his dream of breeding an army of atomic supermen by running an intergalactic courier service, Planet Express. Short of employees following a run-in with a giant space wasp, the Doctor hires Fry, Bender, and Leela as his new crew, thereby exposing them to adventure and unimaginable mortal peril on a semi-weekly basis.

If The Simpsons is essentially about family, Futurama is fundamentally a workplace sitcom, centering on the tension between responsibility and leisure. The irony in Futurama is that for Fry, unlike his underpaid and dangerously overworked comrades, the tension doesn't exist. A recurring motif in the earlier shows is Fry's innocent, Candide-like joy in interacting with his strange new world; the fact that Bender is a borderline sociopath and ex-felon doesn't detract from Fry's bliss at fulfilling his childhood dream of having a robot for his best friend. Even in the face of certain death, Fry rejoices in living out his sci-fi fantasies; flying against an invading alien fleet, Fry marvels at being a space hero, "like Lieutenant Uhura... or Captain Janeway!" (You can tell it's the future because Star Wars has been all but forgotten.) Leela stands in contrast as the sole voice of reason on the series, serving to deflate Fry's media-influenced notions about the future. When Fry asks Leela upon meeting her if her race has conquered the Earth, she curtly replies, "No, I just work here." The relationship between Fry and Leela neatly encapsulates the overall tone of the series; we're constantly shown bizarre or amazing things, only to be reminded how blasé and boring they are in the context of the characters' daily lives. When Fry requests to see the Edge of The Universe (where tourists can peer through a telescope at their country and western paraphernalia-clad doppelgangers waving back at them from the cosmos' sole alternative universe), one of the other characters remarks, "It's funny — you live in the Universe, but you never do these things until someone comes to visit!"

Despite an overly familiar matrix (ship, crew, mission) Futurama is much looser and far less formula-driven than other space-bound series such as Firefly or Enterprise. As with The Simpsons, the cartoon format provides the writers with infinitely more creative freedom than a live action series; the stories often have an epic scope, ranging from distant pleasure planets to the seedy dens of cyberspace, from the depths of Fry's GI tract to the pits of Robot Hell (located conveniently just outside of Atlantic City), all gorgeously realized with a seamless mix of cel animation and CGI models. Futurama's genre pedigree is most apparent in its visual design, which owes more to the classic era of SF illustration than post-2001 genre films, whether it's the Art Deco cityscapes that recall Frank R. Paul more than Blade Runner, or the Bonestell-influenced landscapes of alien worlds, or the Schomburgian aesthetic of Bender and his metallic brethren. But while Futurama would stand apart on the strength of its visuals alone, what's truly unique about the series is the writers' dedication to exploring ideas, rather than simply using SF elements as a pretext for standard action-adventure stories redressed in genre stage decoration. Most of the episodes boast at least one truly novel visual conceit or idea: Klein's Ale (the only beer sold in Klein bottles); the M.C. Escher-designed house that Fry and Bender visit while apartment hunting ("I'm not sure we wanna pay for a dimension we're never gonna use," quips Fry); Bender's most terrifying nightmare (he dreams he sees an Arabic numeral "2"); celebrity-persona androids who remind their users to complete their EULAs before initiating foreplay; sports announcers who use Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to alter the outcomes of horse races ("Checking the electron microscope... And the winner is three, in a quantum finish!").

Where Futurama succeeds as SF is the way the writers develop and explore their story ideas in a self-consistent and intelligent manner. In "A Fishful of Dollars," Fry uses his new-found billions (accrued from interest earned on the ninety-three cents in his bank account during his millennium-long slumber) to purchase an ultra-rare can of sardines, but must contend with the evil industrialist Mom, who seeks to splice the now-extinct fish's oil-producing gene into millions of Third World orphans, enabling her to corner the market in cheaply produced robot lubricant. (There's also a subplot about broadcasting commercials into dreams, a practice legally sanctioned by the FCC.) Mom reappears later in "Mother's Day," in which she triggers a global robot uprising, leading to the near-collapse of civilization as common household appliances and random tchotchkes revolt against their carbon-based masters. In addition to a Sheckleyan killer toaster and a sinister talking sink disposal ("Hey, someone dropped a shiny diamond ring down here!"), the episode also features a rogue greeting card spouting Marxist-Leninist slogans ("The bourgeois human is a virus on the hard drive of the working robot!"). "When Aliens Attack" introduces a race of alien conquerors who enjoy 20th Century Earth television (they live exactly one thousand light years away from Earth, on Omicron Persei VII, so it's all new to them). When the Omicronians lose the signal while watching the season finale of their favorite program, Unmarried Female Lawyer, they invade Earth and threaten the planet with destruction unless the episode (long since lost) is re-broadcast. In "Time Keeps On Slipping," the crew becomes caught in a chronosynclastic infundibulum, and must engage in a Nivenesque act of stellar engineering to prevent the universe from collapsing in on itself. In the "Microcosmic God" homage "Godfellas," Bender, adrift in space, discovers a race of tiny humanoids evolving on his chest who worship him as a deity. Godhood is pretty sweet, as Bender's followers devote generations of their infinitesimally short lives to fearing his wrath and brewing alcohol for his fuel cells, but it ends quickly when a religious schism breaks out between the civilization on his chest and a breakaway faction growing on his backside, culminating in a full-scale (albeit microscopic) nuclear war. (The episode also references Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" with its monastery-cum-observatory, though the Futurama version boasts a full-service karaoke bar.) In "Roswell That Ends Well," which earned the series' sole Emmy for comedy writing, the crew is accidentally blasted back to 1947 New Mexico, where Fry ends up violating the Grandfather Paradox with brutal impunity and ends up having to resolve the issue in a fashion that owes more to Heinlein than Back to the Future.

Despite Futurama's creativity and spunk, it's not without flaws. The supporting cast, unlike that of The Simpsons or even South Park, is sketchy at best; with the exceptions of Zoidberg, the crustacean company doctor with a dubious understanding of human anatomy, and Zapp Brannigan, a paunchy captain with a yen for one-eyed lady space pilots and a terrible singing voice, most of the secondary characters are forgettable and two-dimensional. The show's ventures into movie parody are mixed at best; the Armageddon and Animal House episodes grate with over-familiarity, though the Matrix-inspired show about a virtual retirement community whose residents are forcibly jacked into a simulacra of Palm Springs is inspired, as is the Nebula-nominated "Where No Fan Has Gone Before," in which the original Trek cast (voiced by the actual actors, with the exception of the late DeForrest Kelley) are resurrected and forced to play their characters for the pleasure of a race of alien fanboys. The show also stumbles when the characters are straightjacketed into situations that seem too earthbound and sitcom-ish, as in the two Hollywood-based episodes, or the episodes revolving around Martian sorority girl and Planet Express intern Amy Wong. Also, some of the story ideas in the later episodes — Leela becomes a professional athlete! The characters become miraculously young! Fry and Leela develop superpowers! — reflect a growing creative ennui and a softening of the keen satirical focus of the first couple of seasons.

Still, Futurama stands as one of the finest shows to come out of the genre programming explosion of the 1990s, along with Buffy, The X-Files, and Babylon 5. While a Trek-sized revival seems a remote possibility for now, the show is readily available on video and cable/satellite; Volumes One through Three are out on DVD in the US (though thanks to a quiddity of marketing, all four box sets are for sale in the UK and other Region 2 markets), and the entire series airs Sunday through Thursday on the Cartoon Network at 11:00 PM EST, as part of the channel's nightly "Adult Swim" lineup. Skeptics and holdouts owe it to themselves to check it out: Futurama was clearly conceived by people who had SF literature in their hearts and minds, and it deserves to find a place in the hearts and minds of fans who'll get all the jokes.

Lucius Cook is a graduate of Tulane and The University of Chicago. Although he now lives within a mile of the mighty Mississippi, he still dreams of the green hills of Northern California.

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