The Planet Express crew is going to war… for a pack of gum.
Fry (Billy West) and Bender (John DiMaggio) join the military reserves so they can get a 5% military discount on ham-flavored gum. They plan on quitting after buying the gum, but a second after they join, war is declared and they’re drafted. Leela (Katey Sagal) tries to enlist to keep them safe, but the army of the future is men-only, due to Zapp Brannigan’s (West) constant sexual harassment. She signs up anyway as a man named Lee Lemon, who Zapp crushes on.
After getting through basic training, the three are dropped onto planet Spheron I, a planet which Zapp admits has no natural resources or strategic value. It turns out to be populated by living balls. During the first battle, Fry hides, resulting in other members of the platoon being injured, while Bender jumps on a bomb to save the others. Fry is punished by being made Kif’s (Maurice LaMarche) assistant, while Bender is fixed under orders of President Nixon (West).
Bender is sent along with Henry Kissinger’s Head (DiMaggio) to negotiate with the leaders of Spheron, the Brain Balls. However, Leela finds out that Nixon had a bomb put in Bender’s chest which will activate when he says the word “ass.” Leela and Fry steal a helicopter from Zapp, revealing that Lee Lemon is a woman in the process, to Zapp’s relief, and arrive in time to stop Bender from blowing up the planet. The Spherons surrender, revealing that this is their homeworld which Earth has invaded for no real reason, and Fry and Bender leave the military. Being unable to remove the bomb, the Professor changes the codeword, which Bender correctly guesses as “antiquing.” However, he survives the explosion.
This is Futurama’s take on war, specifically the kind of asymmetrical warfare which had been waged during the 90s… and would mostly be waged after this episode aired. We see the Earth Army, composed of professionals with spaceships and laser weapons, attacking the Spherons, whose most sophisticated weapon is a cartoonish bomb. They mostly attack by bouncing on top of the humans, something that doesn’t seem to be lethal (until they’re sent to Zoidberg (West) for their injuries). This war is completely one-sided and, perhaps most depressingly, completely without any merit. In previous episodes, we’d seen Earth on the losing side of this (like “When Aliens Attack”), but now we see humans as the pointless aggressors, stealing another race’s planet for, again, literally no strategic reason.
Much like in Blackadder Goes Forth, this episode also depicts the divide between the soldiers fighting the war and the people who make the decisions to wage it. Nixon is never in danger, nor, really, is Zapp, who at one point even is depicted more worried about his horse being spooked than the men around him being overrun by balls. Even Kif, who ostensibly is subordinate to Zapp, is still more concerned about the fact that his nut bowl isn’t sufficiently mixed than the fact that they’re fighting a war. It’s a common theme, but it’s well represented here.
The depiction of Fry in this episode seems fairly consistent with his development, when he’s a coward who eventually learns to overcome his fear to save his friends. Leela gets a little more development when she uses her disguise as Lee Lemon to find out if Fry has a crush on her, then seems flattered to find out that he does, hinting that she is realizing that she returns his feelings (something she’ll go back and forth on for the rest of the series).
In contrast, we see one of the most out of character moments for Bender in the series, when he jumps on top of a bomb to save others. They do try to couch his self-sacrifice by having him say that he wants a young version of himself on a stamp, but it still seems weird that Bender, of all people/robots, would jump on the grenade. Still, it gave us an easy segue to the M*A*S*H parody that remains one of my favorite short references in the series.
This episode is also crammed with references, from M*A*S*H to Starship Troopers to Star Wars to, well, real life. I’m always on the fence about how they depict Henry Kissinger here, but I suppose that’s because Kissinger is a tough figure. On the one hand, he encouraged the US to commit numerous acts (like carpet-bombing Cambodia, supporting the Bangladeshi genocide, the use of Agent Orange and Napalm in Vietnam) which don’t look great in retrospect. However, he also literally stopped a Nuclear War once by claiming Nixon was too drunk to make any decisions, masterminded the opening of trade between China and the US, and repeatedly lowered tensions between the USSR and the US to avoid the big boom that would end the world. That’s why it’s interesting to see him here, presumably ending a war through diplomacy that he also helped start. Tom Lehrer once said political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but this episode actually uses him to keep it alive. Well done.
It’s not even a close contest. The funniest line in this episode is this exchange:
Leela: You know, Zapp, someone ought to teach you a lesson.
Zapp: If it’s a lesson in love, watch out; I suffer from a very sexy learning disability. What do I call it, Kif?
Only a character as absolutely amazingly crafted as Zapp Brannigan could even hope to make this work. This is like a guy bragging that the fact that he has a lot of STDs is a sign that he’s had sex and therefore you should sleep with him. He’s so confident that he’s being seductive that it’s almost overwhelming. If Kif didn’t sound so despondent when answering, it might even work as a somewhat legitimate pick-up line. Hell, if I can find someone to do it with me, I might even try to figure out a way to use it.
Well, that’s it for this week.
See you next week, meatbags.
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NEXT – Episode 31: The Honking
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