At the start of Futurama, Turanga Leela was the straight (wo)man of the show. In the pilot, she's reasonable, helpful and sympathetic, and the only person Fry meets in the future who isn't insane or callous or some combination of the two. (Well, Bender was nice enough, but he's got his own issues.) Fry would fall in love with her over the next few seasons because, well, that's what characters like Fry do on shows like this: they fall for the person who suggests maternity, without being so overtly mothering that it kills all sexual desire. Leela got stuff done, and that's a pretty impressive trait in the year 3000. In any year, really. The rest of the cast was either senile, bureaucratic, ditzy or pathetic. Leela was the one who would always point out how ridiculous the situation was getting, and react in the most reasonable way possible to the craziness.
Over time, though, the straight man characterization gets a little boring. It doesn't leave Leela a lot of room to grow, and considering she's one of the show's main characters, the writers needed to find some way to make her a little crazy in her own right, without wrecking what had already been established. So for a while, Leela was obsessed with finding out where she came from. She assumed she was an alien, but she'd never seen another species quite like her (forgot to mention, but it was a clever touch to make a one-eyed mutant the show's sole non-lunatic), which seemed to mean she was alone in the universe. This yielded some good storylines, until finally, Leela discovered she wasn't an alien after all, but a sewer mutant whose parents had given her up for adoption in order to give her a chance at a life they couldn't provide. So then Leela got a bit obsessed with trying to recreate her childhood. And when she wasn't doing that, she just got a little less responsible than she used to be. She still the rational one, most of the time, but she's less shocked when the others act strangely or behave foolishly, and she's certainly prone to her own mistakes.
Which brings us to "Mobius Dick," tonight's pretty good episode that had Leela sailing the Bermuda Tetrahedron in pursuit of a killer fourth-dimensional white whale. The ep had some structural problems, but there were solid gags throughout, and the plot's basis in character helped hold the weaker jokes together. It's not a classic or anything, but it was solid from start to finish, even if all the pieces didn't fit together quite as snugly as they might have.
The issue here is that the opening segment of the episode, the part that gets us into the story, didn't support the rest of the ep, at least not from a thematic point of view. Which sounds way too over-thinking, I realize, but bear with me for a second. The opening wasn't bad. It had some great jokes, and at least in terms of setting up the basic conflict and and getting the Planet Express crew out the door, it made logical sense. But the focus of the episode is on Leela, and her obsessional nature, and by giving Farnsworth most of the screentime at the start, "Dick" sacrifices an opportunity to re-establish Leela's intensity, to make it resonate better when she starts hunting down the whale. I'm not saying we needed a grand arc of emotional catharsis or anything, but since so much of the story hinges on Leela's obsessions, right down to the actual resolution of the ep, it would've made more sense to get her out front and center from the start. Futurama (much like The Simpsons) has a history of random first acts, and this one is far from random. But since "Dick" is about Leela, and not about the first crew that went missing, Farnsworth's story comes off as vamping for time.
Thankfully, it's entertaining vamping for time, and while I had my problems with "Dick," (heh) it works well enough on the basic levels: the story is coherent and occasionally clever, and there was plenty to laugh at. The ending was great as well, subverting the usual "Let's all learn our lessons" conclusion by having Leela use the obsessional nature that got her into this mess also be her way of getting out of it. Then everyone hacks a beached whale to death. It's the sort of happy ending only Futurama can really pull off, with added bonus of a man returning to his family after decades away, having been transformed into a horrible hunchbacked version of himself. When in doubt, the show still knows how to play dark, and that works to their benefit almost every time.
- This week in geek bait, there were a ton of stranded ships floating in the Bermuda Tetrahedron. I saw the Satellite of Love (from Mystery Science Theater 3000), and Lost's Oceanic 815. What did you see? (Bonus geek bait: when the whale vomits up the contents of its bowels, the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who comes out with the others. This is a little too obvious for me, but what the hell.)
- Zoidberg got some more action this week! This is turning into a banner season for him.
- "I remember it like it was interesting."
- "Captain Lando Tucker, a dedicated young man with no characteristics."
- "That cookie bouquet isn't going to deliver itself."
- "It's Tickle Me Elmo's Fire!"
- "And with that, I have closure."
- "Things look bad enough without having to look closure at them."
- "Holy crap, four dimensional bowels!" "Einstein was right!"
- "So Johnny, are we gonna pick up where we left off?"