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Futurama: “Mars University”/“When Aliens Attack”

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“Mars University” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 10/3/1999)

In which Fry goes back to school… for a while…

Ah college. [Insert long, skippable paragraph about college life, what it’s like to meet new people, that weird transition stage between being a teenager with adults to take care of you, and being an adult who’s supposed to look out for himself, wait this episode has almost nothing to do with any of that, screw it, I’ll edit this later. Although I probably won’t because it’s almost the holidays and I am so out of here.]

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“Mars University” is good. It has some funny bits, and there’s a talking monkey with a magical science hat that makes him super smart (hence the talking), and Bender reenacts Animal House in an attempt to make his robot fraternity look cool. Professor Farnsworth screams “Nooooo!” at the heavens, and it is a good joke. Fry glares a lot, which is cool. Uh. There’s feces throwing, although it’s implied, and only happens off screen. Maybe that’s for the best, though.

If I seem to be struggling on this one, I am. I’m not sure what to say, and two abortive attempts at an introduction haven’t made the process any easier. I don’t know if it’s just end of the year brain freeze or what, but while this is a basically unobjectionable episode, with good script and some great gags, for the life of me I can’t think of what to say about it. Have I mentioned there’s an Animal House parody storyline? I did? Cool. There’s also a riff on Flowers For Algernon, what with that monkey in the magic hat. While neither of these storylines shows the series at its best, both throw a clever spin on their source material.

Take Bender’s story, the B-plot of the episode. (Gunter, the super-intelligent monkey whose brains make it impossible for him to fit in, would be the A-plot. I’d say Fry’s dream of becoming a college dropout would be the C-plot.) When he learns that his old frat Epsilon Rho Rho (ERR) has fallen on hard times, Bender, a frat legend, decides to step in and kick things up a notch. This means references to a few of Animal House’s more iconic moments, including the robots peeping on a nearby sorority (they’re watching the computer), an authoritarian dean putting the frat on “dodecatuple secret probation,” and summaries of where every character ended up after the end of the episode. Oh, and there’s a twerpy rival fraternity who competes against ERR for college dominance.

This isn’t a one-to-one remake of the movie, but the debt is hard to ignore, in part because a lot of the humor relies on how obvious the references are. This embodies a certain style of Futurama comedy that the show would turn to more and more frequently in later years: the joke that’s so obvious that the obviousness becomes, in effect, the punchline. There are no real stakes in the ERR story. The lame robots of the frat are likable enough, but their frustration at being uncool, and the later concern about being expelled, are never anything more than an excuse to let Bender do his thing. Much of the humor comes from Bender not really giving a shit; he wants to make his frat popular, but not enough to expend any actual effort. The original Animal House wasn’t exactly rife with tension, but it had at least enough rooting interest to sustain itself for an hour and a half. Not so much here. And it’s funny because, well, who gives a shit? The story of slobs vs. snobs is so overdone by now that it takes really sharp writing to make it feel fresh. Instead, “Mars University” heads in the opposite direction and gives us villains from Snooty House.

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Too much of the show’s final, post-Fox years would rely on this comedic approach; when the novelty wears off, the faux-laziness just starts to look like laziness, and that kills the humor. But it works here, in part because it’s contrasted (to an extent) against Gunter’s storyline. The A-plot begins with Farnsworth bringing the whole group to Mars so he can deliver a crate to his office at the university. Fry, learning that his status as a college dropout from the 20th century makes him little more than a high school dropout, decides to enroll so he can quit in a few weeks and regain his former glory. Then he meets the contents of the professor’s create: the monkey with the hat that makes him smart.

So smart, in fact, that he puts Fry to shame on a routine basis. While the storyline eventually shifts over into Algernon territory in the final act, Fry is the central character for the first two-thirds, and his enraged jealousy at getting repeatedly over-shadowed by a monkey provides decent character work and good gags. I don’t know what Gunter was supposed to be getting up to with Chrissy during their study date (although I’m sure there are disturbing pictures of it somewhere on the Internet), but Fry’s insecurity brings out the worst in him; it’s an edge which, while never becoming actively evil, makes him more than just a lovable doofus.

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As for Gunter himself, his struggle between the call of his former life, and the possibilities of human canoodling and career advancement offered by a magic science hat that makes him a genius, is the closest that “Mars University” gets to having an authentic emotional core. And to the show’s credit, his journey from genius to stupid monkey to genius to moderately intelligent monkey is, if not exactly tragic, at least convincingly played out. While the episode gets a lot of material out of the inherent humor of a pair of regular monkeys let loose on a snobby academic soiree (Farnsworth brings Gunter’s parents to the university; he does not give them special hats), Gunter’s horrified embarrassment is as real as Fry’s jealousy—a sincerely unpleasant emotion that helps to generate better jokes. Even with a plot as fundamentally absurd as this one, the writers still manage to find some authenticity. That makes a for a good half-hour of television, even if it’s not one I have a lot to say about.

Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “Transmitido en Martian en SAP”
  • Huh. I guess I did say a lot. Never trust a reviewer, kids.
  • The episode’s darkest gag might be its best: Searching for Gunther, Farnsworth throws a smoke bomb at a tree. A number of animals (including a tiger!) fall out, sleeping. Farnsworth assures Fry and Leela that the animals will be just fine, and the three of them leave right before an elephant falls out of the tree and crushes everything.
  • Another great gag: Fry thinking he can ace 20th Century History, which he can’t. (The class also references another famous college movie, The Paper Chase; John Houseman gave more straightforward version of the “look to your left” speech.)
  • “There’s just no place for me in this world. On the other hand—”—Gunter, trying to reason his way out of suicide before gravity makes the discussion moot.
  • “What’s that they’re flinging at us?” “Oh dear lord!”
  • “I arranged for you to be roommates for a reason. So I’d only have to remember one phone number.”—Farnsworth
  • “Why… why… why didn’t I break his legs?”—Farnsworth, on regret.
  • “There’s no sense letting him go to waste.”—Farnsworth, licking his lips.
  • “Gunter got his MBA and became president of the Fox network.”

“When Aliens Attack” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 11/7/1999)

In which they do, they certainly do…

We’ve seen how the show handles a threat as big as a city; why not see what happens when the whole planet is endangered? “When Aliens Attack” goes big, with an alien invasion that threatens the world. Better still, while the plot is suspenseful (and the stakes are high), the moral is gratifyingly subversive; maybe not exactly tearing apart the system from within or anything, but the “lesson” Fry teaches everyone is that television’s primary value is to avoid challenging anyone at all costs. Rely on the same tired formulas week in and week out, and never push the envelope. It’s the American way!

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I’m getting ahead of myself a little here. Until this episode, Futurama has avoided flashing back to Fry’s life in the past. There have been references, and even a little skit, but no actual scenes set in the 20th century, apart from the ones we saw in the pilot. This makes sense: The writers want to focus on the “present” of the series, and one of the main appeals of setting a story this far into the future is the chance to create strange and inviting new worlds. Constantly jumping back to the relatively familiar modern day runs the risk of bogging down momentum, killing some of the fun.

Yet flashbacks like the one which open “When Aliens Attack” would eventually become the show’s secret weapon, a deftly employed narrative tool that would create impressively rich emotional depth in some Futurama’s best episodes. That’s not the case here, admittedly. The scene of Fry delivering a pizza and beer to a Fox broadcast center, then inadvertently disrupting the broadcast of the season finale of Single Female Lawyer, is not something that’s designed to tug on our heartstrings. This is a purely premise-creating event: Because Fry screws up the show broadcast, the citizens of Omicron Persei 8 (most notably their ruler, Lrrr) are unable to watch the rest of the episode. This infuriates them, so they fly to Earth to demand satisfaction. Since OP8 is 1,000 light years away from Earth, the signal from the broadcast arrived a millennium after it originally aired, and when Lrrr shows up looking for “McNeal” (the name of the lawyer heroine), there is considerable confusion. Everyone assumes he means President McNeal. He does not. Comedy!

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The fact that Fry is responsible for his whole mess is the sort of claustrophobic coincidence that writers love a little too much. It’s cute, but mostly just makes the show’s universe seem smaller. More unfortunate is the decision to reveal Fry’s actions so early in the episode. By opening with him screwing up the broadcast, and then immediately cutting to the aliens being upset by the disruption, the script spoils a twist that it takes the actual characters two-thirds of the story to catch up with. The joke of Zapp Brannigan turning President McNeal over to Lrrr, only to find out they wanted a different McNeal all along, would’ve worked better if we’d been making the same assumptions the characters were. It’s still funny enough (and Lrrr vaporizing the briefly relieved president is great), but the construction is inelegant, and there’s no real reason to put the reveal of Fry’s responsibility in the first act.

The rest of the episode holds up pretty well, though. There’s time for some antics on the beach (which, come to think, might be the reason we see the Omnicrons as early as we do—it let’s us know there’s a threat coming), including Zoidberg demonstrating his knack for scuttling. While Fry is technically at the center of the plot, it’s really more of a group affair, as the scope of the alien assault (they destroy all the monuments on Monument Beach!) means the whole world rises up to defend itself. The second act is taken up with a kick-ass space battle, as Zapp, placed in charge of the planet’s fighting resources, throws everything he has at what turns out to be—the Hubble telescope.

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Even more than the unnecessary cold open, this gag is a clunker, the sort of flat-footed, sloppy joke-writing that’s worth a reflexive chuckle, but makes less and less sense the more you think about it. While it’s clear that Zapp and the others have to fail (because if they actually defeated the Omicronians, the episode wouldn’t have a third act), and while deflating the excitement and scope of the fight sequence with a goofy reveal is well in keeping with the show’s signature style, this punchline is a little too dumb. The ship the Earth defense force was attacking fought back. It was huge. And it looked nothing like the Hubble telescope. (I guess you could argue that the year 3000 might have released a different telescope, with a different design, and the same name, but that just raises more questions than it answers.)

Thankfully, we still have the third act, which features the Planet Express crew putting on an impromptu performance of the final scenes of the Single Female Lawyer episode that Lrrr and his wife are so eager to see. (Oh, and in case you didn’t know, SFL is a decent parody of Ally McBeal, a show that was very popular at the time this episode aired, but which hardly anyone talks about anymore.) When Fry’s script fails to fill the running time (he thought it would take as long to film as it did to write), Leela improvises—and her improvisation nearly ruins everything.

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It’s here where earlier references to Fry’s TV-watching obsession pay off. While he’s the only person alive who remembers Single Female Lawyer enough to mimic it, his true heroism comes in realizing that Lrrr and the others will only be satisfied with a storyline that fails to challenge them on any level. “Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make people feel scared!” he explains, and instead of coming off as a smug indictment of the form, the moment feels at once satirical and weirdly affectionate. Maybe “subversive” isn’t the write word to describe the ending after all. The show’s writers aren’t trying to change the way people approach the medium. They’re just finding humor by acknowledging truths that typically go unspoken. Sure, the last shot shows a city laid to waste by the invaders, in direct contradiction to the usual “and everything was the same in the end” conclusion that Fry is praising, but it’s not like the destruction is going to carry over into next week. As satire goes, this is more of a resigned guffaw than a scream.

Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “Proudly Made On Earth”
  • There’s some great gag construction in the beach sequence, like Hermes and Bender playing “Hide & Seek;” Bender quits mid-game, and Hermes’ head pops up out of the sand three scenes later.
  • “But this is HDTV! It’s got better resolution than the real world!”—Fry
  • Fry and Leela run into a professional beach bully, who dodges Leela’s advances. Leela’s inability to get a date (or hold onto a relationship once she does find someone) is an odd runner. She’s routinely presented as attractive and über-competent, and yet dudes keep leaving her in the dust.
  • Bender has a patriotism circuit that Zapp repeatedly activates to force him to fight alongside the humans. Bender’s frustration every time the circuit turns on is hilarious, and it also raises some potential questions about robot free will, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • “This is turning into one very sexy struggle for the future of the human race.”—Zapp
  • “Stop exploding, you cowards!”—Zapp
  • Bender offers up two different versions of the Single Female Lawyer theme song: “Single female lawyer, fighting for her client, wearing sexy miniskirts and being self-reliant,” and the more succinct, “Single female lawyer, having lots of sex.”
  • The reason there are no remaining copies of Single Female Lawyer is that all media was erased in 2443, during the Second Coming of Jesus.
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Next week: Good news, everyone! You’ve just read the final Futurama classic review of this year. We’ll be back January 8. Happy holidays, and watch out for Robot Santa.

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