“Fear Of A Bot Planet” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 4/20/1999)

In which INTRUDER ALERT INTRUDER ALERT

Vergon 6 from “Love’s Labours Lost In Space” was a generic planet. Sure, it had a wide assortment of bizarre (to Earth eyes) creatures living on it, but there was no central theme to the place, no sense of personality. As Star Trek has taught us, there are two kind of planets: desolate, windswept rocks with a minimum of flora and fauna; and vital civilizations whose uniform politics and philosophy dominate the entire globe. The latter type gave us wonders like the Gangster Planet, the Native American Planet, and the Planet the Was Sort Of Like The Old West, But Also Had Computers. Futurama has covered the desolate rock variety. It was only a matter of time before the Planet Express crew had their first delivery to a theme world.

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And visit they do in “Fear Of A Bot Planet,” although first, it’s time to introduce blernsball, a futuristic version of baseball that, from what we see of it, makes no sense. Which is pretty much the joke: later episodes would add more structure to the game (and make it more baseball-ish), but here, in its first appearance, blernsball mainly serves to remind us just how weird the future is, and how much things have changed for Fry. For once, the contrast between Fry’s lack of knowledge and the maddening frenzy of the year 3000 is played entirely for laughs, as the emotional center of the episode has nothing to do with Fry’s homesickness or his loneliness. Instead, what little pathos we get comes from Bender feeling under-appreciated, a fact that comes out during the game.

Like all great Bender rages, his outburst here is nonsensical and contradictory, a petulance whose illogic doesn’t contradict its sincerity. There are many reasons why Bender is a great character, but one of the most important is his ability to feel aggrieved and slighted for no sensible reason (here, he thinks he’s being taken advantage of, despite the fact that he’s never actually done any work at Planet Express), and still have his complaints come from an authentic, genuinely hurt place. Great comedy needs to be absurd for the audience, but very serious for the character, and while Bender does ultimately decide that humans aren’t really that bad after all (“They’re stupid, putrid cowards.”), there’s never any sense that his early resentment was a put on or a game. When Bender has to decide whether or not to kill his friends at the story’s climax, it’s pretty clear he isn’t going to do it. But there’s just enough of a chance that he might to keep his decision from being a foregone conclusion.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The main draw for “Fear Of A Bot Planet” is Chapek 9, the planet Bender, Leela, and Fry have to deliver a package to. The delivery is a tricky one, because the robot population of Chapek 9 (named for Karl Capek, a Czech writer who invented the word “robot”) hates and fears humans, and has sworn to kill them on sight. Leela sends Bender to do the actual delivery, he gets caught as a “human sympathizer,” and Fry and Leela have to dress up like robots to rescue him. And that’s when the fun begins.

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If Vergon 6 was a generic fluorescent landscape teeming with absurd wildlife, Chapek 9 is a planet dominated by straight lines and grays. The art is strikingly stark throughout, and there’s a sterility to the place that makes its flourishes of absurdity all the more memorable. As Fry and Leela make their way deeper into the city, they pass through a series of loosely connected robot-centric gags, some of which make more sense than others. The Tetris-based construction company riff speaks to a certain shallowness that plagues a fair amount of the joke-writing of the episode. Sometimes, the writers try and figure out a reasonable take on what it might be like to visit a civilization actually run by robots. But for the most part, they’re content to reference human stuff from a slightly different angle.

This would be more frustrating if the jokes (shallow or not) weren’t so fun to watch. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that a planet of robots would make horror movies that look like 1950s B-pictures, but their version of a terrifying human monster (“I will eat and digest you with my system of might organs!”) is so great that “sense” doesn’t matter so much. Chapek 9 is less a coherent system than an excuse for nerdy references and goofy bits. The sharp look of the place and the volume of gags keeps it from becoming stale, but it doesn’t hold up as well as it should; there’s just enough creativity and invention on display to make you wish everyone had tried a little harder. Still, the actual story is solid, with the reveal that the planet’s robot elders (“Silence!”) encourage human hating to distract from their crippling incompetence nicely mirroring the essential absurdity of Bender’s attempt at rebellion.

While the show would go on to create more consistently well-considered worlds, the depth of its cleverness is on fine display. Even better, Fry, Leela, and Bender all behave in consistent, and even somewhat illuminating ways. We’ve seen Fry be well-meaning and kind of stupid before, but his callousness towards Bender when they arrive on Chapek 9 is telling; it’s only a couple of lines, and there’s no cruelty in it, but the exchange shows there’s a downside to Fry’s obliviousness. I already mentioned how the episode gets at Bender’s remarkable ability to be upset at just about anything, and Leela’s willingness to throw Fry to the wolves once they’ve been captured means she isn’t quite the goody two-shoes she appears to be. (Also, she gets the best joke: trying to make a pair of 3-D glasses work over her one eye.) While Futurama’s storytelling is still in its most rudimentary form, it has its central trio down cold.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Featuring Gratuitous Alien Nudity” (Well, most of the robots weren’t wearing clothes.)
  • The robot version of a Voigh-Kampf test: “Which of the following would you most prefer: a. a puppy, b. a pretty flower from your sweetie, or c. a large, properly formatted data file.” (The correct answer is “c”, but “The flower would have also been acceptable.”)
  • Hermes sends a hologram message to the crew while they’re at the blernsball game, and a pigeon pokes the hologram and then flies off with it. (So it isn’t actually a hologram, I guess.) Later, when Hermes is giving the mission briefing, he’s covered in bandages and scrapes. I love how smartly stupid that is. It makes no sense, but in the best possible way.
  • Oh, the package the crew is delivering (which Bender, in all the excitement, fails to deliver until the most narratively convenient moment) is a box of lugnuts, thus ending Chapek 9’s crippling lugnut shortage.
  • After getting caught, Bender manages to make himself a celebrity by doubling down on the locals’ hatred for all things human. It’s a move that will become a central part of his skillset: taking a bad situation and working hard to make it worse.
  • Fry saves the day by pretending he can breathe fire. Remember kids, that’s always an option.
  • In the end, to show they love him, Fry and Leela throw Bender a Robonakuh party. The snapshot of him holding a broken bottle to Fry’s neck, followed by a shot of them all hugging (Fry has a bandage where the bottle cut him), sums up the friendship quite nicely.

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“A Fishful of Dollars” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 4/27/1999)

In which a Fry and his money are soon parted…

Futurama is too expansive to have just one emotional throughline, but in its first season, the majority of its ensemble was too underdeveloped to carry stories. That meant the writers ended up going back to concepts they knew they could rely on as they built up the show’s universe. At this point, the most obvious of those concepts comes from exploring the fall-out of Fry’s thousand year nap. His outsider status grows less important over the course of the series, but for right now, there’s an obligation to deal with the shock and mental unsettlement that could come to anyone who lost nearly everything they knew about the world. This is a comedy series, not a heart-wrenching drama (well, not yet), but there’s a certain base level of psychological realism that’s necessary to tell engaging stories with interesting characters. Fry has suffered a huge change, and while that change was for the better in a lot of ways, there are still some things about the past he’s going to miss.

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That makes sense, right? Or at least something close to sense. Sure, Fry acted delighted in the pilot once he realized what had happened to him, but there’s gotta be some trauma, and hey, if there’s trauma, it would be cool to put Fry in a position where he has to choose between the things he used to love, and embracing the life he’s building in the year 3000. That’s the crux of “A Fishful Of Dollars,” and it’s not hard to understand why the writers decided to go in this direction. While Mom and her Old-Fashioned Robot Oil are important additions to the show’s lore, Fry and his nostalgic longing for the past is more immediately potent material. Just throw in a bit about Leela and Bender feeling slighted and you have yourself an arc, pre-made and ready to roll.

Unfortunately, that arc isn’t very convincing. While it makes sense that Fry would be homesick, he’s never given much sign of missing the life he left, and his sudden swerve into an all out 20th century junkie is forced and unconvincing. Part of the plot has Fry discovering the pitiful amount he’d left behind in his 1999 bank account has ballooned (via interest) to 4.3 billion dollars. It’s completely believable that Fry would spend this money as stupidly as he does, but once he veers into hiding in his new/old apartment, watching Sanford And Son reruns and claiming he has everything he needs, the whole thing loses its effectiveness. Fry turning his back on his friends doesn’t last very long, but the decision still doesn’t fit well with anything else we’ve seen so far, either in this episode or the season to date. In fact, one of the character’s defining characteristics is his unflagging optimism. Maybe if there’d been some sign in the opening scenes that he was feeling depressed or isolated, this might have worked. As is, it’s perilously close to something grafted on because somebody thought there needed to be an emotional pay-off.

“A Fishful Of Dollars” has some potentially fascinating ideas that never really add up to anything. Not that all of them have to, but some of these ideas are so much better than pleasant but unambitious Saturday morning cartoon plot that the episode ends up on that it can’t help but be frustrating to watch. Fry has an ad for underwear beamed into his brain (like all ads in the future are), and decides to go shopping. When his credit card is declined, he goes to the bank, and finds out he’s rich, and then starts spending oodles of money on old crap. One of the things he buys is the world’s last can of sealed anchovies; Fry is an anchovy junkie, and wants to share the fish with his friends. (Zoidberg’s people fished the species into extinction when they arrived on the planet because they loved the taste so much.) It turns out, a single drop of anchovy oil can effectively oil a robot permanently, and if someone found a way to replicate that drop by studying the fish’s DNA, Mom and her Old Fashioned Oil company would be out of business for good. So she comes up with a convoluted plan to bankrupt Fry, and then buy the anchovies back from him.

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Given that Mom comes off as terrifyingly cold-hearted and cunning, this is a pretty stupid plan. Why not just steal the damn anchovies and be done with it? Mom’s three idiot sons Walt, Larry, and Igner, are able to get into Fry’s apartment and knock him unconscious without any trouble at all; surely it would’ve been easier for them to just search the place, instead of enacting a complicated stage play with Pamela Anderson’s head. (Fry’s bank account pin number is the price of a large pizza and a soda at his old job, which he helpfully mentions earlier in the episode.) It’s moderately amusing—Anderson is game, and her line about winning the Oscar for the Baywatch movie isn’t bad—but it’s also haphazard, without any appreciable stakes. Mom is a potentially great villain who’s undone by the script’s need for her to make sloppy choices, and those sloppy choices mean we have a story that’s never all that interesting.

Add that to the fact that Fry’s journey from “desperate to replicate the past” to “happy about the present” rings about as true as the Not At All True Bell, and you have the makings of a fitfully funny, subpar half hour. Even the resolution is lazy: laying on the curb with no money, Fry dreams of Bender and Leela lecturing him on how he was a terrible friend. It’s an ugly, undynamic fantasy that flat out explains the supposed moral of the story. There’s probably a more obvious creative way to say, “Eh, fuck it,” but nothing comes to mind.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “LOADING…”
  • Zoidberg might come off the best here. He’s desperate, inept attempts to avoid questions (“I’m not on trial here!”), and his crazed anchovy eating spree give a good sense of the many facets of the doctor’s character.
  • It’s also maybe not such a great idea to be so fixated on the past this early in the show’s run. We still haven’t completely settled into the year 3000 yet. Give us time before you start dealing with Fry’s old life.
  • In the future, “Baby Got Back” is classical music.
  • That’s a surprisingly sharp joke about “Pepperidge Farm remembers.” You could argue that the satirical jab about the poison of nostalgia fits the larger theme of Fry needing to move on with his life, but eh.

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