“A Clone Of My Own” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 4/9/2000)
In which Professor Farnsworth goes to Carousel…
I don’t like Qbert Farnsworth. I feel like I should mention that up front before we talk about what is, among other things, the character’s first episode. Qbert isn’t a major figure in the Futurama universe, but “A Clone Of My Own” is far from his only appearance on the show, and much as I hate to say it, I tend to roll my eyes whenever he pops up. I’m not sure why, exactly. His shtick—whiny, know-it-all belligerence—isn’t inherently awful, especially here, where he spends most of the time pointing out how everything that Professor Farnsworth and the rest of the Planet Express do is impossible and stupid. It’s meta stuff, riffing on some of the fundamental absurdity of the series, and that could be good. And really, it’s not terrible here. It’s just boring.
That’s the main reason I don’t like Qbert episodes, in a nutshell: he’s a boring character, and I don’t care about him. I’d hoped to find some more eloquent critical explanation for this disdain, but I’m not sure I can. Kid characters in a show that’s dominated by adults often suck, but they don’t always. But there’s something about Qbert’s one-note snottiness that fails to be much of anything. He’s a familiar archetype, but there’s nothing of interest to him beyond that archetype, no deeper level than “Pfffft, you suck.” And while it’s certainly more realistic that Farnsworth’s clone isn’t an exact copy of him personality-wise, the two seem so dissimilar that any effort at creating a familial connection between the two falls short. He’s superfluous and bland, and oh how I hate him.
Thankfully, while Qbert does get his character arc in “A Clone Of My Own,” there’s a lot more going on in the episode than just his blathering. The episode kicks off with Farnsworth getting lured back to Mars University; he thinks he’s going to be put up on disciplinary charges, but it’s actually a surprise party to celebrate the professor’s 150th birthday. There are some good gags about Farnsworth’s advanced age and tendency to wander, mentally, but it’s impressive how quickly the show is able to turn around and inspire some sympathy for the old bastard. One minute he’s promising his former colleagues he’ll take them all down with him (even after he’s told that they’re throwing him a party); the next, he’s watching a clip show of his accomplishments, and bemoaning that his life could be summed up so quickly. It’s an unexpected moment of emotional authenticity from one of the show’s most regularly absurd characters, and that moment is necessary to make the rest of the story land at all.
The fact that Farnsworth’s concern over his legacy feels legitimate helps to cover for the fact that it doesn’t really make sense (I mean, he’s invented lots of stuff!), and that it will be forgotten as soon as this episode is over. Futurama can hit you hard in the feelings from time to time, but it can also make what is essentially a throwaway character beat of convenience into something with some heft to it. Not always—there are plenty of episodes of the show where someone will sudden give a damn about something, and it has all the conviction of wet cardboard. But here, seeing Farnsworth depressed about what his life has really meant works well, and helps keep story from bogging down in Qbert’s smooshed up nose.
Another reason to like “A Clone Of My Own:” the Sunset Squad, and the mysterious planet where they take anyone over 160 years old. Honestly, it would’ve been nice to get more information about this place. It’s impressive enough to find out that people in the future can live so long, but the fact that the universe has implanted a system to manage the oldest elderly—a system that works like a gentler, less murder-y version of Logan’s Run—suggests all sorts of interesting possibilities. The only sentient beings we see on the mysterious planet are robots, and apart from a Matrix reference (the Planet Express team finds Farnsworth hooked up to the machine much like Neo was, and we learn later that he was in a simulation of a Florida nursing home) there’s no real explanation as to what’s going on.
Which isn’t to the episode’s detriment, necessarily. Not everything needs an explanation, especially on a show like this which traffics routinely in the surreal and absurd. But the mysterious planet of the really really old folks is, apart from Farnsworth’s depression, the most interesting thing going on here. The big set-piece action scene of Leela, Fry, Bender, and Qbert rescuing Farnsworth from oblivion is a lot of fun, and it’s the sort of thing the show has proven capable of doing quite well; I don’t know if more would’ve been better necessarily, but if there’d been a way to put aside the Qbert storyline altogether, the results could’ve been more consistently entertaining.
As is, Qbert’s boringness is, while far from fatal, still pretty boring. His shift from “This is stupid and doesn’t make any sense” to “Anything is possible!” doesn’t make a lot of sense (unless I misread, his arc resolves by a head injury and, possibly, a large loss of blood), and is a lot less funny and compelling than whatever’s going on with Farnsworth. Frustratingly, while it’s his crisis of spirit that kicks the plot off, he has little to no real involvement in the resolution, turning into a prop as soon as he calls the Sunset Squad to carry him away. While that makes sense in context, it results in a half hour which doesn’t quite know where its heart is.
- Opening caption: “Coming Soon To An Illegal DVD”
- Farnsworth kept Hitler’s brain alive and put in the body of a great white shark. Where’s that episode.
- According to Bender, Zoidberg is Farnsworth’s oldest friend. There is some backstory I would like to watch right there.
- Quick reference to Christopher Pike from Star Trek when Farnsworth’s only surviving former ship captain attends his birthday party.”
- “Fast cars, trendy nightspots, beautiful women: the Professor designed them all.”
- “Blood… thicker… than water.” -Zoidberg, learning things
- “Sounds nice.” “Prepare to be surprised.”
“How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” (Season 2, episode 11; originally aired 4/2/2000)
In which push comes to shoves, and Hermes does what he loves…
Now here’s how to make the most out of a spiritual crisis: cap it off with a peppy musical number. And that musical number just happens to take place in a Kafkaesque warren of meaningless bureaucracy, so much the better. “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” is one of the better episodes of the show’s first two seasons because it hits that hard to reach spot between absolute sincerity and dark satire. On the one hand, Hermes love for all things anal retentive has him working at the behest of a group that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (something which is mentioned on the DVD commentary track for the episode); on the other hand, his love is no less real because of that, and the episode’s big finale, with Hermes singing and sorting his way through a mountain of unfiled tubes, is awesomely joyful. There will be more naked displays of emotion to come in later entries. Here, you can take it as a joke while still feeling happy about the whole thing, and that’s not a bad balance at all.
Also not bad in any way: Nora Dunn, doing guest voice work as Morgan Proctor, Hermes’ replacement at Planet Express. Dunn stays in a monotone for large chunks of her dialogue, only betraying emotion at moments of great passion or concern. It’s funny stuff, and if not as showy as other guest turns on the show, still very well-suited to the task at hand. The sections of the story that have her falling for Fry’s absolutely hideous sloth (There’s yogurt in Fry’s cap. “I can explain. See, it used to be milk, and time makes fools of us all.”) are a little too schematic—she’s turned on because she’s most of her time being in absolute, rigid control, and Fry is the opposite of that, and that’s about as far as it goes. But hey, the episode isn’t really about her, and her affair with Fry is really more an excuse to put Bender in danger so we can have a third act.
The center of things here is Hermes, who finally gets to carry a whole half hour of the show. Okay, he doesn’t carry the whole half hour, and once he leaves for the “resort” planet, his story becomes more of a subplot. He doesn’t really take center stage until the final couple of minutes, when he swoops in to save the day. Still, Hermes is the one who has the arc here, and the whole thing feels like it’s all about him, even if it really isn’t. And that’s important, because it shows how far the series has come. Both of this weeks episode use ensemble characters as the center of their plots, and in both cases, those characters are more than able to withstand the strain. It’s a sign of an increasingly deep cast when you see that an episode is going to focus on someone outside of the main characters, and you don’t immediately feel bored.
“Groove” also manages the neat trick of throwing in a call-back to the show’s pilot in a way that retroactively humanizes what had been one-off characters. In order to get Hermes out of Planet Express, the episode needs a way to get him in trouble with the bureaucrats. And because he’s such an obsessive stickler for rules, that trouble has to come from an external source: in this case, a poker game that ends in a violent beating when the other players discover Bender has been cheating with X-ray glasses.
It’s a decent gag, but what gives it unexpected texture is the fact that the poker game is mostly made up of Leela’s former fellow employees at the cryogenics lab—the “Welcome to the World Of Tomorrow!” guy and her boss and that other dude who I think had a line once. Their brief return (especially the boss) allows the show to reinforce the illusion that the adventures we see are part of a larger, persistent universe. None of these cryo guys are incredibly multifaceted or richly observed, but seeing them in a different context than before makes it seem like they are people with lives, and just that suggestion is enough to make the series feel a little more alive. Even better, it’s a subtle way to lampshade the “career chip” premise that started the series, and has long since been forgotten. Instead of a dystopian nightmare where you’re forced to follow whatever career path science dictates, the chips are just part of some ordinary people’s working lives. The chips themselves aren’t mentioned here, and it’s possible I’m reaching (for the first time ever, of course); but the minor shift in perspective on these particular characters suggests the shift in perspective we’ve seen in the show as a whole. There are some rigid laws which are necessary for plot purposes, but for the most part, it’s just jobs that people leave behind at the end of their shift.
Of course then there’s Hermes, for home work is not so much a career as it is a spiritual calling. I’m a big fan of characters who are passionately invested in seemingly mundane jobs (it’s not precisely the same thing, but one of the reason’s David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is so great is that it finds rich philosophical complexity in the basic concept of tedium itself), and Hermes’ love of management and systems fits that quite nicely. The short subplot of him on the forced labor camp is a microcosm example of the episode’s philosophy as a whole. Hermes devises new ways to make the camp more efficient, a process which doesn’t end the forced labor so much as re-organize it until one poor Australian man is doing all the work himself. The joke is that this one poor bastard gets stuck in a living hell, while at the same time we’re excited to see Hermes putting his skills to the test. It’s a way to satirize a corny plot while still getting a surprising amount of satisfaction out of the resolution.
That carries over to the finale as well, where Hermes succeeds in getting Bender’s brain back and regaining his old job, but at severely reduced pay and a slightly lower bureaucrat grade. There’s triumph in seeing everything go back to normal, but there’s comedy in that “normal” being worse (albeit in a way that will have no later story impact whatsoever) than where we were at the start of the episode. I suppose there may be ways in which “Groove” could’ve been improved (I love the bureaucracy humor so much that I always want more of it), but there are no gaping flaws here, and I love that final song so much that I have to mark this one as a minor classic. It takes an absurd premise and gets the most out of it, and is technically correct in every way—y’know, the best kind of correct.
- Opening caption: “As Foretold By Nostradamus”
- “I’m only anal 78.36 percent of the time!”
- For a bureaucrat, a paid vacation is the worst punishment imaginable.
- Morgan finds a lugnut in Bender’s locker. “Hey, sometimes a guy gets lonely.”
- Central Bureaucracy is such a great location. And the show even throws in an Eye of the Beholder gag.
- Bender doesn’t get a ton to do this episode, but his post memory-wipe “I am Bender. Please insert girder.” always cracks me up.
- “Requisition me a beat.”