[29 August 2005]
Ninety percent of everything is shit.
—Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction writer
Bite my shiny metal ass!
—Bender, notorious robot
I remember when the first Star Wars bomb dropped. Suddenly every movie and TV producer with half a budget was scrambling to crank out a space epic. The next few years saw the airwaves crammed with fluff like Battlestar Galactica (1978), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1977), Disney’s The Black Hole (1979)—anything with laser pistols, a hero who even vaguely resembled Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford, and a cute robot of some kind. As can be expected, such derivative fare was (ahem) universally terrible.
Science fiction has been kicking around for almost two centuries now (if we accept Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein  as the first fully realized example). But movies and tv so often get it wrong. For every The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Forbidden Planet (1956), there are scores of lousy knockoffs, on display on every other episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And now, when we are supposed to be smarter, more literate, and more sophisticated, the majority of on-screen science fiction is ponderous crap like Independence Day (1996), Starship Troopers (1997), and I, Robot (2004). For a dream factory, Hollywood has done a piss-poor job at realizing dreams that don’t involve massive explosions and cardboard characters. And cute robots.
Such is the state of science fiction on television that the best SF show to come out in the last 10 years—Enterprise, my ass—is a goofy half-hour cartoon from the creator of The Simpsons called, of all things, Futurama.
Futurama is the story of Philip Fry (Billy West), a dimwitted pizza delivery boy from the waning 20th century who falls into a cryogenic chamber and lies in suspended animation for a thousand years. Waking up in 3000, he finds himself in a world populated by aliens, robots, people-moving pneumatic tubes, hovercabs, and curbside suicide booths. Soon befriending Leela (Katey Segal), a curvaceous cyclopean space pilot, and Bender (John DiMaggio), an utterly amoral robot with passions for gambling, petty theft, and robot porn (he’d cheerfully stomp C-3PO into an oily smear), Fry goes to work for his descendent, a centegenarian mad scientist named Professor Hubert Farnsworth (West again), as an intrepid interstellar… delivery boy.
In episode after episode, Fry, Leela, Bender deliver to strange new worlds and familiar old ones. All sorts of science fiction tropes pop up—Morlocks in the sewers, Soylent Everything, the nutrient-jar-preserved head of Richard Nixon as President of Earth, the yearly ravages of Santa Claus the bloodthirsty killbot from Neptune. Far from being a unique vision of the future, creator Matt Groening’s universe is everybody‘s vision of the future, embracing cartoons’ anti-logic and the knowledge that, a thousand years from now, we’ll all still be jerks.
Although every bit as smart, subversive, and spank-me funny as Groening’s other TV brain-child, Futurama was not treated so well as The Simpsons. Or Family Guy or King of the Hill, both of which have continued or been revived in primetime. Despite a groundswell of fan protest and two Emmys, Futurama was scheduled for 7pm on Sundays and so, frequently pre-empted by football coverage. Many episodes were never seen by even the show’s most diehard fans until the series was released as DVD boxed sets and rerun on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim.” By that time, however, the series was over, never having achieved the popularity it so richly deserved.
The Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection is a sampler of four of the best episodes of Futurama, culled from each of the show’s four seasons. Several of the show’s creators, including Groening, West, and DiMaggio, gather to offer introductions exclusive to this package, and for the curious, it is a fine introduction to the series.
The Season One episode “Hell is Other Robots” is a terrific introduction to Bender and Futurama‘s irreverent humor, sly social satire, and damn catchy musical numbers. After attending a concert by the heads of the Beastie Boys, Bender gets turned onto the psychedelic pleasures of direct electric current. Hooked on juice, he furtively indulges his new addiction (Leela outside the bathroom door: “Bender, are you jacking on in there?”) until one night he goes too far. Seeking to save himself, Bender rejects his evil ways and embraces the Church of Robotology. Piety makes Bender impossible to live with, however, and Fry and Leela tempt him back into sin. Unfortunately, this breaks his agreement with the church, and a very real Robot Devil (Dan Castellaneta) hauls him off to Robot Hell, which is in New Jersey—who knew?
This episode comes with an animatic (the director’s rough animated cut, which serves as the template for the cel and background artists to follow) of the episode with full-length commentary by cast and creators. Groening reads his initial notes on Bender—“A robot of some kind”—and the world premiere of West’s James Gandolfini impression. It’s funnier than it sounds.
Season Two’s “Anthology of Interest I” (as opposed to “Tales of Wonder” and other grandiose SF titles) is a set of three vignettes, linked by Professor Farnsworth’s “What-If” machine, in which Bender views what would happen if he were gargantuan—it plays out like a viciously good-natured version of Godzilla—the usually levelheaded Leela wishes to be more impulsive, resulting in a methodical killing spree; and Fry asks to see what would happen if he’d never been frozen, with the resulting rip in the fabric of time and space summoning a crack squad of universe-saving rangers, including Stephen Hawking, Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax, and Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols (all voicing themselves), led by team commander Al Gore.
Season Three’s Emmy-winning “Roswell That Ends Well” is a time-travel adventure that sends the crew hurtling back to the year 1947, where Bender and Zoidberg are revealed to be the aliens captured in Roswell, New Mexico, and Fry must stop his soldier grandfather from unwittingly killing himself and erasing Fry’s existence. It’s one of the smarter entries in the series, addressing several classic science fiction themes at once and in half the time as your typical episode of Quantum Leap. “The Sting,” from Season Four, is one of the few episodes to incorporate drama: Fry is killed on a mission but Leela finds herself haunted by dreams that he is still alive, forcing her to ponder their relationship (a romantic thread continues throughout the series), her sanity, and life and death. Weighty stuff, but never a drag.
Defenders of genre fiction, fans, and pop-culture scholars alike, have long maintained that the best exemplars—Dashiell Hammett, Philip K. Dick, Owen Wister, Alfred Bester, Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald, to name a few—were wordsmiths and idea people first. The quality of their work transcended the literary ghettos in which they toiled. Futurama bears a double stigma as both cartoon and science fiction, but deserves better than the short shrift it received from its own network and from viewers in its original run. The Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection is a short but powerful argument in favor of Groening’s dream project and offers the viewer a smarter, funnier, and just plain better show than anything the Sci-Fi Channel can squat and squeeze out.