“Space Pilot 3000” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 3/28/1999)

In which we welcome you to the world of tomorrow

Everything that’s cool will happen after we’re dead. Right? That’s what a century’s worth of science fiction has taught us. Today, we have smog and clogged cities and planet-wide chaos and systematic prejudice and those Duck Dynasty guys and not a single fucking alien in sight, not a one. But tomorrow? Some metaphorical tomorrow, long after everyone you know and love (including you) has been planted in the cold, dull ground? Tomorrow is going to be magical. Tomorrow will have spaceships and laser fights and distant worlds and galactic federations and yes, goddammit, aliens, finally—tomorrow will have limitless possibilities, tomorrow will fix everything, tomorrow is when we finally stop messing around and get down to the business of solving all of life’s major problems. To paraphrase the White Queen, today we’ll think about getting our act together; tomorrow is when our act together will be got.

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This isn’t true, of course. The idea of a perfect future where everything finally works out wouldn’t be nearly so appealing if deep down, we didn’t realize on some level it was bullshit. What’s great about bullshit, especially the impossible-to-verify kind, is that it can exist free of any sort of logic or common sense or basic understanding of the human condition. We can pretend that on some mystical, unknowable date, everything that’s not okay will finally be okay, not because this will ever happen, but because it’s good to pretend. And it’s fine to have movies and shows full of bright, clear promise, because those fantasies offer, if nothing else, a marvellous blend of escapism and mirror, a way to remove ourselves from the now while at the same time remaining in the embrace of the modern irritants that make that removal so necessary.

Part of the genius of Futurama is the show’s ability to simultaneously grasp the seemingly disparate concepts of fantasy and inevitability. This is a show about a year 3000 when intergalactic travel is possible (and easy), where humans mingle with other species as a part of everyday life, where a boy can have a robot for a best friend and a talking lobster for a doctor. It’s also about a year 3000 when there are suicide booths on every corner; where everyone is assigned a job they’re stuck with for the rest of their life; where lightsabers are just an easier way for the cops to beat the shit out of you; and where everyone is a bit too busy to give a rat’s ass about your personal problems. Strip away the sci-fi trappings and the future Philip J. Fry discovers is, well, not all that different from our today. A little crazier, a little more dangerous, but some things don’t change. People are people, even when they aren’t.

The most striking aspect of watching “Space Pilot 3000” now, 15 years after its debut, is the same as what’s striking about watching the pilot of any long-lived series: figuring out what stuck and what didn’t, and trying to decide if the alchemy that made the show work at its best was already present in the embryonic stages. As far as this one goes, there’s a lot to like in an episode which has to work hard to establish a high concept premise, introduce four major characters, and tell a coherent narrative. That narrative is conventional for a show which, at is best, managed the high-wire act of utter cynicism and deep sincerity without breaking a sweat, and while that conventionality isn’t necessarily bad, you have to dig a little to see the real potential buried here, like the ruins of a city long dead but still teaming with mutant life.

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Philip J. Fry (Billy West) is an average pizza deliveryman (heavy on the average) who, thanks to a prank call, winds up frozen in a cryogenic tube for an entire millennium. The pre-credits sequence does an efficient job of both establishing the tedium of Fry’s 1999 existence (literally everyone he talks to is annoyed with him), and showing the scope of the time that passes as he’s waiting frozen in the tube. One of my favorite touches is the way an entire futuristic civilization arises outside the building’s window, only to be destroyed and replaced, eventually, by the futuristic civilization we’ll come to love as the series’ main setting. (As for why the cryogenics building stays standing in the chaos, well, you can either fan-wank it based on later events, or chalk it up as a subtle nod to the original The Time Machine.)

From there, Fry wakes up and finds himself in a strange new world which also, in some pretty depressing ways, turns out to be like the world he left behind. Technology doesn’t work exactly like it’s supposed to (he gets hit by automatic doors—twice), everyone still gets annoyed when you don’t do what you’re told, and worst of all, his prospects in this grand future are roughly as mediocre as his prospects in his old life. After a session with the probulator, he learns the dismal truth: he’s been assigned the role of delivery boy. Again. And unlike 1999, there doesn’t seem to be any route for advancement. As everyone tells him, in 3000, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” (Well, okay technically most of the episode takes place in the year 2999, but you get what I’m saying.)

Story-wise, Fry’s struggle to escape fate strives for emotional resonance, but really works best as an excuse to get us familiar with the settings and major characters. The career chip is a concept that seems incredibly important in this episode, but will be quickly cast aside as the show progresses, because the possibilities it offers as a plot device don’t make up for its restrictiveness. This kind of Orwellian government control doesn’t really fit the show’s concept of life in the 31st century; it’s too organized, too specifically dystopian, in a way the writers generally work to avoid. There are plenty of Kafka-esque pockets in Futurama, but those usually make their impact known through absurdity, not through the straightforward blandness of a computer dictated career-path.

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Still, this is functional plotting, and the main reason it matters is that it gives Fry something to do, and also puts him in contact with one-eyed Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal), the determined job counselor who ultimately decides to join Fry in his act of bureaucratic rebellion; Bender Bending Rodriguez (John DiMaggio), the alcoholic bending robot who Fry bumps into outside a suicide booth; and Professor Farnsworth (Billy West—get used to seeing that name), Fry’s incredibly old, and very very distant, nephew. All are important figures of the show’s ensemble going forward, with Leela and Bender serving alongside Fry as the central trio of the narrative engine. Other ensemble members will get their chance to shine (one of the pleasures of the series is its expansive and well-developed cast), but Fry, Leela, and Bender, and their various relationships, are the heart. To get nerdy, if you squint, they’re roughly equivalent to the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triangle of classic Star Trek, with Fry as an infinitely doofier Kirk, Leela as the perpetually able (and deservedly frustrated) Spock, and Bender as the cantankerous McCoy’s logical endpoint: a drunken robot with almost no inhibitions who not-so-secretly dreams of destroying anything that isn’t like him.

Of the group, Bender is the furthest from his ultimate characterization in this episode, although that distance is only a matter of degrees. Leela is already her no-nonsense, tough exterior but a soft touch self, pursuing Fry relentlessly even if her heart isn’t really in it, and, once she decides she’s had enough of her old job, she switches allegiances with a pragmatism that will become more relevant in future episodes. Farnsworth comes across as a doddering old scientist with unusual priorities, but there’s enough of a hint of his dark side (like his casual lies about the fate of his previous crew) to suggest more. And Bender is mostly there, but just a trifle fuzzy. The fact that Fry meets him outside of a Suicide Booth is fine, but the reveal that Bender was planning on killing himself because he’d learned he was bending girders for Suicide Booths is, while a funny irony, not really in keeping with the Bender we’d come to know and love. He’s too much a robot sidekick here, and not the glorious psychopath he would one day become.

But that’s pilots, really. Everything’s a little new, everyone’s just figuring themselves out. The most important pieces are already evident: a sharp sense of humor, a love of weirdness (especially nerdy weirdness—Leonard Nimoy’s cameo as the centerpiece of the Head In Jars museum is key), and sentiment with just a dab of poison in it. The punchline of the episode is that after all of Fry’s struggles and speechifying, he winds up as the one thing he never wanted to be again: a delivery boy. And he’s overjoyed, maybe because he’s too dumb to realize the joke’s on him, or maybe because he’s too happy to care. With Fry, you never really know.

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Stray observations:

  • Futurama isn’t an intensely serialized show, but I’ll do my best to avoid discussing any major revelations before they happen in these reviews. (That said: check out the shadow on the wall when Fry gets knocked into the cyrogenic tube. It’s a thing.)
  • The montage of various societies counting down to the new year at the start of the episode is odd, because the editing seems to suggest everyone is in the same time zone. But then, everyone would be counting down to New Year’s Day at their own midnights, so it’s technically realistic, so long as you assume we’re seeing clips from different times. Boy, that’s confusing.
  • The quick appearance of the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons was supposed to be the only in continuity crossover between the two series, although that’ll be changing soon enough. (I guess I should mention Matt Groening is co-creator of Futurama , along with David X. Cohen? Ach, i’m bad at this.)
  • Like any sensible person, I used quotes from this show in my regular life, but I was surprised at how many of them come from the first episode. “Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!” is obvious, but I’d forgotten “Then you’ll be fired.” “”Fine.” “Out of a cannon, into the sun,” comes from here.
  • Bender’s first line: “Bite my shiny metal ass.” Nope, nothing wrong here.
  • Those Suicide Booths are great. And the fact that Fry doesn’t just pop into one, but actually has to wait in line to get in, which means we watch multiple people kill themselves (implicitly), is fantastic. The cartoonish bleakness of it represents a key factor in the show’s outlook, in a way I’ll hopefully get around to describing in future reviews.
  • First appearance of Nixon’s head! Oh yeah, he comes back.
  • “I just wanted to be part of the moment.” “”Hey, he stole my ring!” See, that’s Bender.

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“The Series Has Landed” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 3/4/1999)

In which we go pow, zoom, straight to the moon

“The Series Has Landed” isn’t one of Futurama’s best episodes, but it does have one of my favorite jokes in it. When Fry learns that his first job on the Planet Express delivery team involves a flight to the moon, he’s delighted, as any red-blooded 20th century human would be. The moon, even now, represents the limit of our explorations into space; we’ve sent probes beyond its silent, stony oceans, but it’s still the furthest place we’ve ever been able to stand on. The moon is, thus far, the limit of our experience. This is a depressing thought. (Even more depressing is the fact that we haven’t been back in over forty years.) But it does mean that the moon still retains some mystery to it. In our eyes, it has yet to become commonplace, and it’s not hard to identify with Fry’s enthusiasm.

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But I mentioned a joke, right? Well, Leela has been made captain of the ship, for obvious reasons (there’s a great sight gag of Farnsworth trying to decide who to make captain, and realizing Leela is already doing the job), but Fry asks if he can do the countdown before the ship takes off. Leela, not really getting it, says sure, and Fry starts—only for the trip to be over before he gets past “nine.” Which is funny, but what makes it perfect is his hushed “seven-six-five-four-three-two-one” after the fact. It’s hard for me to explain exactly why I love this bit so much, but it captures something important about Fry’s character: his fundamental optimism, even in the face of all contrary evidence. It’s one of the reasons he and Bender play off each other so well.

The pleasures of the show’s second episode lie mostly in the details. Like a lot of second episodes, the plot serves to re-establish what we learned in the pilot. Instead of running from Leela because he doesn’t want a career chip, here Fry spends most of the half hour desperate to find some romance (in the platonic sense) on the moon, much to Leela’s chagrin. It’s not the same story, but it shares some of the same beats, from Fry getting Leela in trouble, right down to the moment where Fry gives a heartfelt speech that change’s Leela’s irritation to affection. This is a dynamic that will come up again (and again), but the best episodes earn that shift. Here, it’s more conceptual than honest, a moral forced into wacky proceedings that can’t entirely support it. Sagal and West do a fine job selling the moment in the lunar lander, and the animation of the moon’s surface reflecting off of Fry’s helmut is lovely, but the reversal lacks the unexpected gut-punch of later, better storylines.

“The Series Has Landed” is also the first episode of the show to feature a subplot, focusing on intern Amy Wong (Lauren Tom) and her efforts to retrieve the spaceship keys after she inadvertently drops them into a crane game. As subplots go, this is about as linear as Futurama gets, although it leads to the funny sound of Lauren Tom cursing, and a cute resolution in which her mastery of the crane allows her to rescue Fry, Leela, and Bender from the vengeful moon farmer. More importantly, the subplot establishes Amy as a bit of a goofball; not as clumsy as Fry, but charmingly inept in her own way. It’s a nice contrast to the eternally competent Leela, and it helps balance out the show’s dude-heavy ensemble.

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Amy isn’t the only new face we meet this half hour. In addition to some memorable one-off characters (the Crushinator: forever in our hearts), there’s also the rest of the Planet Express team: Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr), the Jamaican accountant; and Dr. John A. Zoidberg (Billy West—see what I mean?), the alien doctor with a limited grasp on human anatomy. Both serve primarily as one-off gags here, but Hermes, Zoidberg, and Amy are all major parts of the series. Amy’s characterization is clear from the get-go, but the writers will eventually double down on Hermes’ love of bureaucracy, and turn Zoidberg into, well, I’m not sure exactly how to describe Zoidberg, but he is perfection.

So, good character introductions, decent (but stolid) plotting—what else is there to recommend this? A dismayingly tacky amusement park on the moon, for one. The idea that a future civilization would grow so inured to the wonders of space travel that a trip to the moon would warrant all the wonder of a shitty Six Flags knock-off is satire so believable it almost isn’t satire; and the writers find plenty of ways to rub the point in. There are the cheap souvenirs (funny how Bender starts singing when he has a magnet on his head), the horrible animatronic entertainers, and misguided efforts at providing an “educational” ride that mistakes Jackie Gleason’s threats in The Honeymooners as a statement of inspirational intent.

There’s also a moon farmer and his three robot daughters (Bender tries to romance the Crushinator), and space alligators in helmets. The show is not hurting for invention. But there’s a strain of conservatism in its storytelling at the start; not political conservatism (it’s doubtful a show with Matt Groening as a co-creator would be politically conservative), but a reluctance to expand the freewheeling inspiration beyond the character design and world-building and into the actual plots. While it would certainly be impressive in the real world to get a chance to fly to the moon, it’s a little unambitious for a second episode when there’s an entire galaxy waiting. That lack of ambition is part of the point, admittedly; the contrast between Fry’s romantic view of space travel, and the tedious reality of it, are the backbone of the story. But like the idea of career chips, it’s a concept too pedantic and simplistic to really deliver.

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Thankfully, things are going to get more interesting soon. Until then, I’ll leave you with my other favorite joke from the episode, a Bender line that shows just how quickly that character had come into focus. After Amy tries, and fails, to get the ship keys back from the crane game, Bender send one of his arms up the prize chute, only to get caught by guards while cheating and thrown out of the park onto the surface of the moon. “I’m gonna build my own park!” he shouts. “With blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the park!” If you can’t find a way to use this quote on a daily basis, you may not be living your best life.

Stray observations:

  • Soon after arriving at the moon, Bender is accosted in the park by a mascot dressed up like the Moon in Georges Melies’ classic silent film, A Trip To The Moon. When the mascot tells Bender he can’t drink in the park, Bender jams his bottle in the Moon’s eye, just like the rocketship that lands on the moon early in the film.
  • “I paid to have it aired during the Super Bowl.” “Wow!” “Not on the same channel, of course.”
  • “I like having her around because she’s the same blood type as me.” Farnsworth on Amy.
  • “Yes. I guess a robot would have ot be crazy to want to be a folk singer.” -Bender (In general, Bender is a whole lot clearer this episode. We also see the lengths he’ll go to to pick a pocket, distracting the group with his dancing head while his body swipes the cash out of Amy’s wallet. The best part is the irritation in his voice when he says “Show’s over.” Bender won’t just rob you. He’ll be annoyed the instant you are no longer giving him what he wants.)
  • “Lander Returned To This Site By The Historical Sticklers Society.” The moon lander that Leela and Fry take shelter in shouldn’t actually be in one complete part; the writers get around this by making fun of anyone who noticed the glitch. Do not try to out-nerd these people.

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