Welcome to Futurama Fridays, a celebration of one of the most interesting and, at times, insightful shows ever animated. To start us off, let’s watch the pilot from the magical year of 1999. Much like Prince told us it would be, it was a year of much celebration, and this series was a worthy impetus for at least some of it.
Just up front: I’m going to go by DVD order, not broadcast order, just like I did with Firefly.
Space. It seems to go on and on forever. But then you get to the end and the gorilla starts throwing barrels at you.
The show starts on December 31, 1999 with pizza delivery boy Philip J. Fry (Billy West) getting what is later revealed to be the all-time low score on the videogame “Monkey Fracas, Jr.” The audience is quickly shown that Fry is a loser as he is yelled at by his boss, dumped by his girlfriend, has his bike stolen, repeatedly chants “I hate my life,” and finds out that his delivery to an “I.C. Wiener” at a cryogenic storage facility was apparently a prank. Fry kicks his feet up and leans his chair back as the world (yes, even the countries in other time zones) counts down to a new millennium, but at the count of 1, he tumbles back into a cryogenic tube and is flash-frozen for 1000 years. During this sequence, there’s a strange shadow in one shot which gained fame because on the DVD commentary, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen both shouted “SECRET!” when it showed up. However, we wouldn’t learn the secret for many years.
Fry wakes up in the year 2999 on December 31st. He quickly realizes he’ll never see his friends or family again, but then celebrates because f*ck those guys. Fry is taken to meet Turanga Leela (Katey “I have persevered” Sagal), a beautiful woman, except for being a cyclops. She informs Fry that he has only one living relative (somehow), Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth (West). She also informs him that, in the future, people are assigned the job to which they are best suited, summarized as “you gotta do what you gotta do.” Unfortunately, Fry’s assigned job is as a delivery boy, something that horrifies him, causing him to flee. Leela tries to chase him, but Fry freezes her in a cryo-tube for long enough to escape.
While wandering around New New York, Fry decides to call Farnsworth. He gets in line for what appears to be a phonebooth and meets the robot Bender Bending Rodriguez (John DiMaggio) who greets him with his catchphrase: “Bite my shiny metal ass.” Yes, that’s the first thing Bender ever says on-screen and it is amazing. Fry and Bender go into the booth together, only for it to be revealed (to Fry, at least) to be a suicide booth. They manage to survive the booth at which point Bender decides not to kill himself immediately and instead invites Fry to get drunk.
Bender reveals that he is a robot designed to bend girders but decided to kill himself after finding out that the girders were used for suicide booths. Fry talks him out of killing himself by saying they’re friends. Leela then finds the pair and chases after them along with police officers Smitty and URL the robot (West and DiMaggio). They end up at the Head Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like: A museum filled with disembodied, preserved, and still-living heads. They are greeted by the head of Leonard Nimoy, in one of the greatest cameos in animated history. Leela comes in behind them, startling Fry into knocking over the head of Richard Nixon (West), who bites him. Smitty and URL try to brutalize Fry, but they insult Leela in the process and she beats the crap out of them.
Fry and Bender run into a barred window and Fry tells Bender to bend the bars. Bender says at first that he isn’t programmed to do that, but Fry tells him that he can do anything. Bender says that’s crap, then is immediately electrocuted by a light socket and changes his mind. He bends the bars, proving that he can break his programming. They escape the Museum and go into the sewer, finding the remains of Old New York. Fry reminisces about the past and for the first time it really hits him that he’s lost everyone he ever knew. Leela finally catches up with them, but she admits that she also knows how it feels to have no one, since she’s an orphan alien.
Fry finally surrenders, but instead of giving him a job chip to make him a delivery boy, Leela removes her own chip. The trio, out of options, go to find Professor Farnsworth at his business Planet Express Delivery. After confirming their blood relation, Farnsworth shows the three his spaceship. The police show up, now led by Richard Nixon’s head, and try to arrest the group. They get into the spaceship to escape, but the police are prepared to shoot them down. Fortunately, they escape as the world counts down to the year 3000 and the police miss them in the fireworks display. The three contemplate what to do about the future, but Farnsworth offers to hire them as package deliverers using his former crew’s career chips (found in a space wasp’s stomach). Fry realizes that he’s now going to be a delivery boy again, but, since it’s on a spaceship, he’s happy.
This episode debuted just before my 12th Birthday. I was already a huge fan of The Simpsons at this point and I was eager to watch Matt Groening’s new series. It did not disappoint. In addition to the characters being entertaining and well-crafted, the show is chock-full of references and sight gags, most of which are freaking hilarious and clever.
This episode set the tone for the rest of the series. It has a certain ridiculous nature most of the time, but when it is necessary to bring on the quiet emotional moments, they can hit hard. When Fry breaks down and gives up, that’s an actual touching scene in an episode that’s basically just a madcap chase with sci-fi elements. When Leela responds that she’s actually just as alone as Fry, it sets up the first hints of their romance that will carry on throughout the series.
It also set the rules for the level of suspension of disbelief that the show will ask of the audience: Sometimes stuff is just going to be subject to the rule of funny. If something is funny enough, it can violate an established continuity of the show. Most notably, Bender’s “programming” is overturned based on him spontaneously getting electrocuted and his arms, though strong enough to bend steel girders, fall off from the effort of bending some iron bars. It’s fine because it’s funny, even if it doesn’t really make sense. It’s similar to The Simpsons in that way, though Futurama doesn’t have the same floating continuity.
The premise isn’t particularly original, but it’s just a way to create an environment filled with fantastic levels of technology and strange creatures so that they can conflict with Fry, who is a contemporary failure. The opening sequence even drives that home, presenting the future as a crazy blend of ridiculous architecture with dense urban population. The sequence famously has over ten times the number of layers of any contemporary cartoon, something that gives it a more futuristic and complex feel which really matches the show.
On a personal level, I should probably say that I might have been influenced somewhat by this episode, as I later got a physics degree in college specializing in cryogenics. Not saying it’s because I want to freeze myself for the future, just saying that I was really sad when I found out how primitive the technology to do so is at present.
Well, that’s it for the first episode. Overall, I give it a solid B as a Futurama episode. It’s not as good as the show will get, but it has a lot of laughs, a lot of references, and even a moment of emotional honesty.
Favorite joke: When Fry is woken in the future, Terry, the cryogenicist (David Herman), says “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!” in a dramatic voice. Aside from the fact that he admits to doing it when waking anyone up, it’s a reference to the 1939 World’s Fair “Futurama” Ride, whose tag line was “welcome to the world of tomorrow.” It was also parodied in the film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which had the “World of the Future Fair,” which was a combination of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. If you put a thing I can connect to Batman in an episode, that’s automatically plus 5 to the score.
See you next week, Meatbags.
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