In which Welshy’s dead, Jim…
I’ve never really understood fandom. No, that’s not right: I get it as a concept, and I can grasp the appeal of defining yourself, in part, by the art you love. But I’ve never really been able to empathize with the enormous level of emotional investment some people put into a franchise—obsessing over its intricacies, having heated arguments over plot points, making costumes and going to conventions and writing fan fiction when the actual canonized material no longer suits your needs. I’ve loved TV shows before and will again, but at a certain point, I draw the line. Still, I can recognize and respect the passion that goes into such relationships. In a way, there’s something almost noble about it: devoting yourself to an ideal that you can never quite reach.
“Where No Fan Has Gone Before” isn’t precisely a celebration of that devotion. It views fandom, at best, as something people do when they don’t have the wherewithal to build actual, legitimate lives. In this version of the future, Trekkies grow so passionate in their commitment to the original series that they form an actual religion, one that threatens to take over the world. In response, the world gets it shit together, executes all the nerds (dumping them in a volcano, because ha ha virgins), and banishes all the episode tapes and movies to the forbidden planet of Omega 3. (There’s no mention of any other Star Trek franchise apart from a brief Jonathan Frakes gag, which makes sense given who the main guest stars are.)
All of which could come across as pretty mean-spirited if there wasn’t such a clear thread of Trek love running through the episode. The whole point here is to justify bringing together the actors who played the original crew of the starship Enterprise (minus James Doohan, whose agent refused the offer, and DeForest Kelley, for much sadder reasons), and throwing out as many loopy nods to TOS (the original series) as possible within a justifiable narrative framework. Much of the humor comes from jokes about how lame and absurd it is to be fixated on fictional stories, but the humor is not without sympathy, and it’s more than evident that the people working behind the scenes don’t exclude themselves from the mockery. There’s something inherently embarrassing about any pop culture obsession, and one of the ways people deal with the embarrassment is to foreground it, making the jokes about yourself before anyone else can. Self-deprecation used to be one of the key weapons of nerdery, and “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” is a perfect example of how lampooning something can also be the best way to show how much you love it.
The episode also has one of the best in media res gags I’ve seen, and one that still manages to catch me off guard. We open with Zapp Brannigan holding court; Fry is brought in to testify (in the first of what will be many, many, many nods to TOS, Fry’s riding the beeping black box that Commander Pike used in “The Menagerie”), and we get the meat of the story through testimony, albeit with several interruptions. The assumption is that the “trial” is being held after the main events of the plot have already been resolved; but we learn near the end of the half hour that Zapp actually interrupted Leela and the others while they were fleeing from godlike energy being Melllvar’s warship. They’ve been in the middle of a chase throughout the entire framing story.
That’s delightful, and there’s a lot to delight in throughout this half hour, especially if you’re a Trek fan. I can imagine enjoying this if you didn’t know much about TOS, given how ubiquitous Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols have become in popular culture. In addition to playing Spock, Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura, the actors’ public images are arguably as well known as their fictional counterparts. They’re playing “themselves” here, but versions of themselves which fit with what we’ve come to expect from years of documentaries and interviews. Much of the humor comes from the contrast between those “selves”—likable actors who are more than a little uncomfortable about how one role has taken over their lives—and the way the episode’s villain keeps forcing them to relive those roles, much like fans have been doing in the decades since the original show went off the air.
Still, “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” is clearly designed with the Trekkie at heart. That black beeping wheelchair device gets dangerously close to a reference joke, the sort of gag whose only purpose is to reward the viewer for recognizing something, but the script manages to get a few laughs out of the idea by pointing out the device’s absurdity (something which was a problem even in its original appearance), and by and large, the episode makes any nods to TOS both relevant to the story and funny in their own right.
Take Melllvar, the alien responsible for bringing everyone together. Anyone who’s watched enough Trek (Hi!) will be aware that the original series loved godlike energy beings more than just about any other plot point. The creatures would allow for a wide variety of story options (given that their abilities were limitless right up until just before they were defeated) without requiring a lot of complicated science-heavy explanations. Melllvar fits this to a T, and he also captures the whiny, petulant smugness that defined so many of the godlike energy beings that Kirk and the others fought. There’s even a twist on the classic ending of “The Squire Of Gothos”: In that episode’s conclusion, it’s revealed that Trelane, the seemingly all-powerful creature plaguing our heroes, is just an immature child. Here, Melllvar’s mom shows up, but she reveals that Melllvar is actually a 34-year-old adult, living at home and playing with his collection of memorabilia.
In other loving homages, there’s the setting for much of the episode (a wasteland planet that looks like half a dozen planets from TOS), the “Shatner’s log” that opens the episode, the “Arena”-style fight sequence, or Leela’s sudden decision to overload Melllvar with energy. There’s Kirk wooing yet another space babe, this time working his charms on Leela mid-brawl, in a development which only really works when you remember how many bad choices Leela has made regarding confident men in her past. The script works in a few jabs at James Doohan, whose dislike of Shatner was legendary: Welshy, the Scotty replacement who speaks in heavily accented gibberish, dies horribly (and repeatedly) at Melllvar’s, well, hands.
I could, in theory, double the length of this review by listing all the nods and references and what-not throughout, but part of the fun here is in spotting the gags yourself. It’s so much fun, and the guest stars are so game throughout, it’s hard to take the episode’s moral to heart. Sure, it’s probably better to build your own life and not let the affection you had for something as a child dominate your adulthood, but when culture is so willing to cater to that affection, why bother changing? While “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” makes repeated attempts to jab at the neediness, insularity, and fundamental immaturity of a certain kind of fandom, those jabs serve as the spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down. And hey, those of us who’ve spent years of our lives cataloging every episode of various Star Trek series are probably still better than Melllvar. At least some of us got paid for it.
- Opening caption: “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” (hey, it’s the title!)(That last parenthetical was not in the episode.) (Nor was this one or the one before it.)
- DeForest Kelley died in 1999, three years before this episode aired. His animated alter ego makes an appearance here, but remains silent throughout.
- Still sad about Leonard Nimoy dying.
- It warms my heart to see the Planet Express ship with nacelles stuck to the sides.
- “You know what six movies average out to be really good? The first six Star Trek movies.”—Fry (Should I mention here that I’m fairly sure there have been references to Star Trek earlier in the series, and no one got arrested when those references were made? Eh, who cares.)
- “I’m literally angry with rage!”—Fry
- “Another classic science fiction show cancelled before its time.”
- “How can you do a spoken-word version of a rap song?” “He found a way.” Shatner’s take on Eminem is a nod to his infamous music career, most notably his performance of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. It’s a performance Futurama has already parodied once before, but, like with all the greats, it never gets old. Also, Shatner’s album with Ben Folds is quite good.
- Nimoy tries the Spock Nerve Pinch on Bender, which seems ill-advised on a number of levels.
In which it was all a dream… or was it? (Yes.)
It’s fitting that “The Sting” comes after “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” because the plot—Leela gets sucked into an increasingly nightmarish and complicated stretch of consciousness where she can no longer discern between her waking and sleeping hours, and the boundary between the living and the dead blurs beyond all hope of recognition—seems like it could’ve been a Star Trek episode. Probably not TOS, but certainly a mid-to-late season Next Generation entry. It’s more suspenseful than Futurama episodes typically are; the jokes don’t disappear, but the mystery of why Leela keeps dreaming of the apparently dead Fry is surprisingly engaging, and the final twist is both dramatically satisfying and emotionally moving.
There are plenty of good episodes of Futurama, and a solid number of great ones, and most of them have solid stories holding them together. But those stories rarely register as more than a justification for character moments, gags, and, on occasion, gut-wrenching outbursts of sentiment. Take, again, “Where No Fan Has Gone Before:” It’s a legitimately terrific entry in the series for all sorts of reasons, but “suspense” isn’t one of them. While there’s a nominal villain and a struggle to defeat that villain, the struggle doesn’t have much in the way of tension, and the resolution is, while thematically relevant, intentionally perfunctory. Fry just says, “Hey, you should grow up and stop doing this,” and the bad guy does.
That’s not how you make a thrilling narrative. Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t the kind of show that needs a thrilling narrative to be effective. But one of the things that makes “Sting” so distinctive, and so gratifying, is that it actually encourages the audience to care about what happens next. Not just to appreciate the jokes or cry when we find out what happened to Fry’s dog, but to keep watching just so we can see if Leela manages to figure out what’s going on. It makes for a different viewing experience. So much of Futurama is about undercutting narrative expectations for comedy that when the series does go a bit traditional, it’s pleasantly bracing. (This is also why I think the best dramatic moments land as hard as they do. We’re just not prepared for them the way we would be on another show.)
Everything goes to hell when Leela decides to go on the mission that killed Professor Farnsworth’s last Planet Express crew: a trip into the bowels of a space bee honeycomb. For a while, this plays out much as we’ve been led to expect. There’s a goofy plan (they paint Bender to look like a space bee, and he uses the power of dance to communicate with the rest of the hive), and then things take a turn for the disastrous. It’s a bit more disastrous than usual, though, because when the infant queen bee that Leela (idiotically) tried to kidnap goes rogue, it stings Leela. Fry, diving between the bee and its target, gets a stinger in the gut. Then he dies.
Given how much damage Fry has suffered in the past, it’s a surprise to see him taken out so (seemingly) definitively. It’s also doubtful that anyone watching the episode would think he really was dead, given that the show had been on more than three seasons without killing off a major character, and had never shown any inclination towards that kind of violence. That expectation works to the story’s advantage, because Fry’s “death” is one of the central mysteries that needs to be resolved, even if that mystery is entirely on a metal level. Since we know that Fry will have to come back somehow, the suspense comes in seeing just what that “somehow” will be; and the longer the episode holds back resolution, the more interesting that tension becomes.
And hell, if Fry really was going to die, this is probably how it would go down. There’s a funeral, and everyone’s sad, but we still find time for a joke about Fry’s sexual prowess. (Including a nod to that radiator Fry had sex with in “The Lesser Of Two Evils.”) On some shows, fake-out deaths can lead to a lot of tedious filler in which characters’ grief over something that will ultimately turn out to have no impact on their lives eats up too much screentime. Here, though, that awful out-of-body strangeness that grief creates becomes a central part of Leela’s struggle. She knows something is wrong, but she can’t be sure if that wrongness is just her mind’s refusal to accept the loss of a friend or something more.
“The Sting” gets increasingly trippy as it goes on, and the animation is more than up to the challenge. The various dream sequences all come through in loving, eerie detail, and even if the plot wasn’t so engaging, the pull to see what weird, flowing visual comes next would be enough reason to keep watching. One of the many reasons it’s so frustrating that Futurama would be cancelled in season four is how much more inventive and confident the show had become in its final episodes. The direct-to-DVD movies and the Comedy Central seasons have their moments, but there’s a clear disconnect between them and the heights of this season, as though a certain creative impulse, once interrupted, could never be resumed.
Then there’s the ending of “The Sting,” when we learn what’s really going on. It’s not, as twists go, an absolutely devastating shocker, but it is acceptably clever: Fry isn’t dead, but Leela is in a coma, having been hit with a full blast of bee poison when the stinger hit her stomach (Fry still got stuck, but the poison missed him because it was in the tip of the stinger, and, okay, I’m not actually convinced that this makes sense, but I’m willing to roll with it). Fry’s spent the two weeks since the stinging by Leela’s side, talking to her and begging her to wake up. It’s a lovely conclusion to a surprisingly romantic episode, one which, without confirming Fly and Leela as a couple, still manages to convincingly express the depth of their relationships. Both Billy West and Katey Sagal do great voice work here—I especially love the quiet way Fry keeps saying, “Leela, you have to wake up.” All in all, this week’s double feature showcases Futurama at its finest, capable of the absurd and the sweetly moving without breaking a sweat.
- Opening caption: “A By-Product Of The TV Industry”
- Leela: “Bees communicate by dancing.” Fry: “Like my parents! No, that was hitting.”
- “There’s no law against grave-robbing.”
- Another Star Trek reference: The song playing as Fry’s coffin is launched into space sounds an awful lot like “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, much like Spock’s send off in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.
- “Oh, I made myself sad.”—Farnsworth
- The “Don’t Worry, Bee Happy” dance number is catchy and nightmare inducing.
- Briefly resurrecting Fry via royal jelly and couch detritus is a brilliant fake out. Since we know Fry can’t be permanently dead, this is just the sort of crazy, vaguely plausible bullshit you’d expect the writers to use to resurrect him.
- “It got through, Fry. It got through.”—Leela
Next week: Bender provides source material for real world toys in “Bend Her” and “Obsoletely Fabulous.”