Ramas of Future Past

Ramas of Future Past

Futurama returns to the airwaves! Or does it?

Take THAT, grim specter of death!

I feel that we, as a collection of overthinkers (and what’s more, a collection of giant dorks) have been a little remiss in not adressing the Futurama situation more fully before now.  Just to refresh everyone’s memory:  Futurama was a show that ran on Fox from 1999 to 2003, which combined the humor of cruelty with brilliant, affectionate parodies of classic science fiction setups.  There were plenty of dorky sight gags (like Olde Fortran Malt Liquor) and moments of random goofiness (“All hail the Hypno-Toad!”), but there was also a rigorously worked out sense of continuity, and the writers took a perverse glee in playing on the viewer’s heartstrings every now and again.  It was widely beloved fervently beloved by its all too limited audience.

After its cancellation, Futurama lurched into a strange half-life, with four direct to DVD movies.  These were less fervently beloved, but certainly had their moments.  And then, in 2010, we started getting brand spanking new episodes of the series on Comedy Central.  The rebooted show is still finding its feet, to be sure, but for the most part the new episodes blend right in with the old episodes.  Which is great!  If Overthinking It was a review site, we could pretty much call it a day.  But we’re not, so we can’t, and really, the goodness of the new episodes was never the interesting question (or at least not the only interesting question).  Personally, I’m more interested in their ontological status.

Whenever a defunct franchise is resuscitated, there’s always a lingering doubt as to whether it’s really the same franchise, as opposed to some shoddy impostor. This also seems to be what interests the show’s own writers.  In the opening minutes of “Rebirth,” the first of the new episodes, we learn that the entire crew (bar Fry and the Professor) have been horribly killed in a spaceship collision.  The professor revives them in a giant vat of stem cells.  This is meant to be unproblematic, in-show:  they were dead, now they’re alive.  But Leela doesn’t make it, leading (through a series of wacky adventures) to her consciousness being duplicated and downloaded into a robot body.  This is problematic.  Is the robot Leela?  If not, who is she/it?  Does Fry love her?  If not, who does he love?  And so on.

True to form, the writers are exploring a classic speculative-fiction premise.  I don’t know where it originates, but I came across it first in William Gibson’s Count Zero and (especially) Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson not being one for sugar-coated happy endings, we’re told in these books that you can not cheat death this way.  If you copy yourself into a computer, the copy may live on, but it’s not you:  you are still dead, and anyone who thinks it is you is deluded.  Gibson underlines this point by having his AI duplicates act all weird and inhuman, but even without that touch I find his logic convincing (which is perhaps why, for me, the ending of Avatar feels like a creepy Twilight-Zone scenario).

While it would be possible to see this as just another sci-fi plot (turned on its head, as Futurama’s plots so often are, by the third act reveal that Fry, too, is a robot duplicate), it’s also a fairly on-the-nose allegory for the show itself.  It looks like Futurama:  the animation’s the same as it ever was.  It quacks like Futurama:  they brought back the original voice actors.  Is it Futurama?  I’m not so sure.  Futurama… that show died (or ended, rather).  The movies, while nice, never felt like the show.  The new episodes come closer, but at least so far I still find myself holding them apart in my mind as something which is like the show, but not really the show.  It’s not that I don’t accept them as canon, exactly, but it’s something like that.  Futurama to me had a particular beginning, middle, and end, and these new episodes are not part of that structure.  They’re a replacement – an eerily good replacement, perhaps, but a replacement nonetheless.

Personally, I’m a little disappointed that the writers didn’t stick to their guns and have Fry and Leela stay robots for the duration of the whole new series.  There’s a lot of comedic potential in coming to terms with life as a robot, plus I think it would have been hilarious if the Planet Express break room was updated to include old-school Leela’s comatose body stashed away in a life-support bed in the corner.  (I may be a little twisted.)  But more to the point, bringing back the biological versions of each character just in time for the final bow feels both self-congratulatory and sycophantic:  “See guys, it IS exactly the same show you know and love!  Nothing has changed!  Nothing!” This same eager-to-please quality to the writing, interestingly enough, is what always kept the movies from really working for me (I love Hedonism-bot as much as the next guy, but he does not need to be showing up this often!), and it’s not something that we saw in the writing of the original show at all.  Old-school Futurama, lest we forget, was content to end one episode with an extended montage of the hero’s dog dying of loneliness and old age.  So maybe the rebooted show has changed after all.  Futurama has shown us that it can still be funny, whether it can still be brutal remains to be seen. Without brutality, it will never again be truly great.

But in the mean time, new-school Futurama will serve.  As Robo-Fry puts it, late in the episode, “I love Leela.  Any Leela.”

6 Comments on “Ramas of Future Past”

  1. Lear #

    Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to figure out why one of the most brutally funny shows just wasn’t sitting well with me anymore. Oh, and thanks for the reminder of one of the saddest endings I’ve ever seen, be it in television or film….’scuse me, I need to go give my dog some attention now


  2. richies^ghost #

    You’re not alone in thinking it the ending of ‘Jurassic Bark’ to be brutally and sad – I always got a bit misty eyed at that one, up until the first movie came out and the writers changed it so that Fry’s duplicate was with Seymour the whole time. Since then, I actually feel a little whimsical for the brutality, the original rawness of the ending. Whilst I loved that movie for its multiple in-house references, plot-hole fillers, and nostalgic moments, changing the context of the Jurassic Bark ending was a little too bittersweet.

    So too I find the new episodes and the other three movies, which seemed more like drawn out episodes than actual movies. They’re bittersweet in that whilst they give more of what I loved, it’s not what I love. Perhaps I’ve fallen into the trap of watching the originals too many times and become a ‘coin-o-sir’ with a hefty dose of confirmation bias, but I can’t help noticing where new offerings fail to be true to form.

    The form that struck me most was that of Billy West, voice of Fry, the Professor, Zoidberg, and quite a few others, and of Jo DiMaggio (Bender and others). Their voice acting over the original series changed, became more refined I suppose, in noticeable ways; Fry in the first episode sounds very different from the last, though is still recognizable as Fry. A deviation from form isn’t a bad thing in itself unless it’s the form itself that is considered good – though there is deviation in the original series, it was gradual, acceptable, and whose development resulted in the goodness of the form, as occurs when growing with a friend.

    The new episodes however are a shock due to a period of absence where the cast and crew of Futurama have obviously matured beyond what the original series. Time has passed and there are notable differences that are more pronounced due to familiarity with the old series. Humans have a tendency to bias recollections in favour of current perceptions, however in a world where we can watch a DVD as many times as we please, a current perception and a recollection can be markedly similar. In light of this, the new episodes seem markedly dissimilar to my recollections.

    This shock goes beyond voice acting, and into writing. It almost seems as if I’ve missed several seasons where events occurred, relationships developed, and dynamics changed. Now ex-machina moment seems more forgivable and less subtle, with sly self ribbing not required. To contrast, an episode where Bender gains possession of mansion whose haunting turned out to be due to a faulty modem in a robot graveyard seems a lot less like a last minute plot device than Fry popping out of stem cell ooze, in a scene reminiscent of Ace Venture popping out of a mechanical rhinoceros. One was well done with its absurdity pointed out with a simple yet funny joke, whereas the other seems absurd to the point of being a complicated and unfunny joke itself.

    What really gets me is the relationship of Fry and Leela. I was never one to hunger for their kisses or intimacies in voyeuristic fashion, and actually found the brutal torment of their division to be truer to form. This is in terms of the shows development as well as office relationships I’ve encountered. The smash-cut of their wedding and divorce in ‘Time keeps on slippin’ (another brutal ending, where stars collapse into a black hole along with Fry’s chances with Leela) typifies this struggle. This is where the new episodes have left me most puzzled, as whilst I realise their relationship has progressed into a more loving stage, it seems to have sped markedly from a tender hand holding to open expression of feelings and physicality.

    Such changes may be true to life but they are not true to the show, especially given the characters don’t react to these changes. Truer would be less self congratulation and more self flagellation (you just read that in preacher-bots voice, I know it) which would hopefully result in greater self awareness. So Stokes, you say that the eagerness to please prevented the movies to ring true; this observation rings true with me, as do those of sycophancy. Whilst I enjoyed this in the first movie due to it being well thought out and executed, later offerings have lacked this intelligence and execution. I think that things have changed, and can only muse at the reasons.

    I imagine the writers’ musings over the years have led to these new dynamics, and that they seem as natural to them as they are as unnatural to me. I also imagine this time this have given them a few seasons worth or excellent material, and hope they manage to overcome their collective joygasm and stay true to the form that demanded their return. As with any good friend, not seen in some time yet suddenly back on the scene, I think I owe them a generous chance at proving themselves. If they fail in this chance and fail to captivate me with what they’ve become, there is always a new future to pursue; such is the Futurama’s legacy, as well as its premise.


    • dewfish #

      These are the moments when I wish the website “jumptheshark.com” was still around. (By the way, “jumptheshark.com” jumped the shark when they merged with TV Guide). They would have called Fry and Leela’s relationship the the “they did it” moment that ruined the show.

      I don’t think anyone wants to admit it (especially after years of clamoring for Futurama to come back), but you can’t go home again. The only question now is when will it be considered that Futurama jumped the shark? Was coming back in and of itself the beginning of the end, or is it going to be death by a thousand inconsistencies? By the tone of these posts, there is already blood in the water.


  3. Chris #

    The comparison to somebody dying and then being resurrected in a different method isn’t really apt here. Futurama’s plight is much more akin to a coma (like in The Sting) that anything. You wouldn’t say that somebody who has come out of a coma is not the same person, I presume. It would take some getting used to them being back to their old state, and conversely take time for them to find their feet, but after that it is the same as it ever was.

    This is still Futurama. It’s still a continuation of the show and the movies. Same characters, same setting, same comedic voice since Matt Groening and David X. Cohen are still running the show and they still have the a lot of the same writers. It hasn’t quite been up to snuff yet. I felt that the second and third episodes, while both good, are the two worst episodes in the show’s history. However, I felt the latest episode (the Robosexual one) was great, and it shows that Futurama can, and perhaps will, still be a tremendous show. Even if it isn’t, it is still definitively Futurama.


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Stokes, you could have called this article “Rendezvous with ‘Rama” and you didn’t? Does someone need their nerd card revoked?

    I’m still a little skeptical about this new season. The robosexuality episode that just aired made me laugh (which is more than I can say about the other new episodes or the movies), but it also seemed to operate in a more cartoonish universe than I’m used to seeing from Futurama. Even though the world of Futurama is crazy, it’s always had an internal logic. Plus, whenever that logic was undermined, a character in the show would always comment upon it. For example, in “The Farnsworth Parabox,” everyone was continually mentioning how weird the whole episode was. In “Godfellas,” Leela says that Fry’s finding Bender was “by a large margin, the most unlikely thing that has ever happened.” In the Lost City of Atlanta episode, Bender smokes a cigar and burns down Zoidberg’s seashell house–underwater. It’s a funny joke that I would never have accepted had Hermes not spent a significant portion of the episode perplexed about it. (“That only raises further questions!”)

    In the robosexuality episode, a bunch of similarly cartoonish things occurred, but they were accepted as normal. SEE: Hermes turning into a clown and sneezing balloons. Hermes contracting a virus that turns him into a clown makes no sense, even within the universe of Futurama. Please, someone mention that it’s weird! Leela, you’re the straight man! Isn’t that what you’re there for?

    The episode was also cartoonish in that, the second I saw Amy and Bender in bed together, I knew the episode would end with Amy back with Kif. The whole thing smelled of reset button. Futurama’s always been pretty episodic, but romantic relationships among the main characters have always had some continuity. Amy and Fry’s decision to have sex subtlely affected their relationship. Leela’s decision to boink Zapp Branigan is still affecting their relationship in more obvious ways. When Amy and Kif got together, they stayed together for a long time. Dr. Farnsworth’s past relationship with Mom has been referenced several times in the show. And, of course, you have the continuing epic of Fry and Leela.

    This week, I got the impression that Amy and Bender got together only because the writers wanted to do a gay marriage episode. So they forced Amy and Bender together, knowing they’d break up and restore the status quo at the end of the episode. I highly doubt they’re ever going to mention this relationship again. It’s very late-era Simpsons (or “Family Guy-esque”).

    Speaking of Family Guy, when it returned after being canceled, it also turned much more cartoonish–so cartoonish, in fact, that a lot of people stopped watching. (This is also why a lot of people stopped watching Scrubs around its fifth season.) As funny as the robosexuality episode was, I hope that Futurama doesn’t continue down this path.


  5. rtpoe #

    At least with Futurama (and Family Guy), there’s a definite break point dividing the series.

    In the case of a show like The Simpsons, it’s a case of The Ship of Theseus….

    (hmm…. is that an idea for an essay?)


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