Since its launch, Futurama has often felt like the forgotten child of Matt Groening. The Simpsons is regarded as a cultural icon, particularly when concerning the classic 90s seasons which defined a generation, but Futurama has never quite reached those heights.
Don’t get me wrong, I love The Simpsons, it’s one of my favourite shows, but it seems unfair that rather than being celebrated Futurama has faced its share of cancellations, the latest one looking to be permanent. I’m hoping to convince you that it’s a show worth saving, even if apparently Comedy Central can’t be swayed.
The show centres on a pizza delivery boy named Fry who is frozen in time in 1999, waking up in the year 2999, to find that the futuristic world is much the same, except that there are now aliens and robots and historic figures live on as heads in jars. He befriends a robot named Bender who loves booze, cigars and women. He also meets Leela, a purple-haired, one-eyed alien who kicks ass. They all come to work at Planet Express, a delivery company owned by Fry’s distant relative Professor Farnsworth, where Fry is once again made a delivery boy.
Much of the first season centres on these three characters, but a larger supporting cast is established as employees of Planet Express. Professor Farnsworth is equal parts genius and demented old man, kind of a cross between Professor Frink and Grandpa Simpson. The incompetent Dr Zoidberg is a terrific character, a lobster-like alien who has no knowledge of human anatomy as well as being ridiculously poor. Hermes is a no-nonsense Jamaican bureaucrat who often chides the crew to follow regulations and enjoys paperwork. Amy is the ditz of the team, despite also being a genius and acting as the Professor’s assistant. The crew work incredibly well together and some of the best episodes feature all of them on missions, coming across weird occurrences.
The future is also home to a great selection of secondary characters, perhaps the greatest being Captain Zapp Brannigan. A role originally written for Phillip Hartman, the voice of classic Simpsons’ characters Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure, before his untimely death. Brannigan is a parody of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. One of the show’s creator’s David X. Cohen stated that he was envisioned with the idea of “What if the real William Shatner was the captain of the Enterprise instead of Kirk?”, Brannigan being a pompous fool who believes himself to be a great womaniser and fantastic military leader. He is always accompanied by his irate second-in-command Kif Kroker who is disgusted by his Captain.
I’ve compiled a list of five episodes which I believe will get anyone into the show:
‘The Day The Earth Stood Stupid’, Season 3, Episode 7
Every once in a while Futurama presents very strong science fiction concepts, one of the best being this episode that introduces a race of floating brains that turn citizens of planets into morons, steal all their knowledge and then blow up the planet. It also introduces the Nibblonians, revealing that Leela’s pet Nibbler is secretly a highly intelligent alien agent hiding undercover on Earth. The Nibblonians are an incredibly adorable race, cuddling up to Leela like kittens while discussing how they are powerful creatures to be feared. When the brains come to Earth, it is established that Fry is immune to their attacks, seemingly because he is already very stupid, leaving him as the planet’s last defender. The episode would almost fit well into the Star Trek universe, but the way the story is subverted makes it a hilarious little outing for the team.
‘Brannigan, Begin Again’, Season 2, Episode 6
As I previously mentioned, Zapp Brannigan is a favourite of mine, and while he plays a role in many of the other episodes listed here, this one centres on him almost exclusively. When he accidentally blows up the headquarters of DOOP (essentially the Federation from Star Trek) Brannigan and Kif are discharged, wandering the streets before being hired by the Professor. Brannigan convinces Fry and Bender that he would make a far better captain than Leela, encouraging them to commit a mutiny. Of course Zapp’s first act is to send them on a suicide mission against The Neutral Planet, a peaceful planet who he mistrusts. The episode really plays on the ridiculousness of Zapp to great effect, exemplifying why he is a terrific character but a terrible captain.
‘The Problem with Popplers’, Season 2, Episode 15
While returning from a mission, the hungry crew land on a foreign planet to look for food, coming across a delicious food which they name ‘Popplers’. When the food proves incredibly popular with the office they decide to sell them, attracting the attention of fast food giant Fishy Joes. But Leela quickly discovers that the Popplers are intelligent, sparking a debate over what food should be eaten, handled in traditional Futurama fashion. While the debate has significant merit, the PETA like side is represented by the ultra-hippy Free Waterfall Junior who believes that no animals should be eaten, even urging a lion to eat tofu. Eventually it is discovered that Popplers are the progeny of a very powerful alien race, creating an international incident. It’s a fun little episode which raises real issues and then takes the piss out of them.
‘The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz’, Season 3, Episode 5
This hilarious episode has a fairly cascading plot which is hard to summarise, Leela becomes disgusted with this week’s mission, which risks the lives of penguins on Pluto by flying dangerously close with an oil tanker in toe. She leaves Planet Express to join Penguins Unlimited while Bender takes over as captain and carries out the mission. The mission goes awry and oil is spilled all over Pluto. When Bender runs off during the clean-up, he is attacked by a whale and reboots in ‘penguin mood’, fully believing himself to be a penguin. Meanwhile, Penguins Unlimited discovers that the oil has made penguins breed to insane levels, “even the males are laying eggs!”, forcing them to cull the animals, placing Leela in a real dilemma. The episode features many incredibly quotable lines, mostly from Free Waterfall Senior – yes, the father of the activist from the Popplers episode, the family show up quite frequently – such as “If your hands get cold, place them between your buttocks, it’s nature’s pocket!”. The Bender as a penguin job also provides a lot of great moments, such as him regurgitating food for baby penguins and teaching the animals his nature – that he’s the best!
‘Less Than Hero’, Season 4, Episode 4
One of the more farfetched episodes of the show, this fantastic instalment sees Fry and Leela gain superpowers after using a miracle cream purchased by Dr Zoidberg. They join up with the already super-strong Bender to form a trio of superheroes: The New Justice Team. The episode does a great job playing around with traditional comic book dynamics within a short timeframe, pitting the team against super-villain The Zookeeper who raises an army of zoo creatures. When The Zookeeper takes Leela’s parents hostage they are forced to turn evil to steal a gem to trade with the villain. It’s a great little adventure that diverts away from the show’s usual surroundings.
These episodes are just a taster of the greatness of Futurama. You may have favourites of your own which I haven’t listed (or even god forbid, hate these episodes!). The show ends in a matter of weeks in America, though the sporadic airing schedule of the show on Sky One probably means that we won’t see the last episode for a year or more. All I can say is check this show out while you still can, buy the DVDs and give Futurama some love!