Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Futurama is back, as sharp as ever

The world of the 31st century feels even closer to ours

Depending on how you keep count, this is season 8 or 11 of Futurama. After being killed and revived twice, it makes sense that this time the series has some things to say about the state of television, corporate whims, and the meaning (of lack thereof) of death.

For example, episode 1, "The Impossible Stream," makes fun of streaming media and the trend of show revivals. Note how trivial it is to bring Calculon back from robot hell and how Bender shrugs off the death of a TV director, while Fry briefly appears to have died, just to show up unharmed. There's a theme being built towards, but it's not evident in the first viewing.

Episode 2, "Children of a Lesser Bog," resumes the hanging thread of the tadpoles spawned by Kif back in season 4. The bulk of the plot deals with the usual antics of new parenthood, plus a brief legal drama with a disappointingly deflated resolution, but there's also a point at the beginning where Kif's hundreds of tadpoles are eaten by various swamp predators until only three survive. This incident is portrayed as normal in Kif's culture, but one has to wonder about a civilization where this degree of child mortality is acceptable. Again, this is all part of an overarching theme. Earlier in the same episode, Kif intentionally lets a man die as part of a rescue mission.

Episode 3, "How the West Was 1010001," is all about the Bitcoin fad. This one must have been easy to write; Bitcoin is laughable enough in itself. The Planet Express crew visits a town that has reverted to Wild West technology because "mining" consumes all electricity, which provides a believable excuse to call back to the aesthetic of Gold Rush movies. Several minor threads converge in a massive shootout, but the final scene reminds us of all the minds lost to Bitcoin. This is shown for laughs, but it's connected to the growing interest of the season in how we react to huge personal losses. The news of a whole planet being destroyed, with a population of 50 billion, is likewise treated as a minor affair.

Episode 4, "Parasites Regained," goes even more personal: Nibbler's brain is being eaten by worms. In a parody of the Dune movies, our heroes battle armies of microscopic beasts in the desert sands of Nibbler's litterbox. After perhaps too many toilet jokes and a couple mystical visions, the day is saved. Nevermind that Nibbler ate a whole person in broad daylight with no consequence.

Episode 5, "Related to Items You've Viewed," has a thinly disguised Amazon devour the entire universe yet everything stays the same.

Episode 6, "I Know What You Did Next Xmas," is about the, honestly, overdue murder of Robot Santa Claus, who somehow has been allowed to go on a violent rampage every year. As this episode involves time travel, we once again encounter Futurama's established lore that successive restarts of the universe are identical and thus interchangeable. To Professor Farnsworth, to watch whole generations rise and fall seems to be an amusing spectacle.

Episode 7, "Rage Against the Vaccine," is a not very successful parody of the disinformation crisis during the present pandemic (yes, I said present, because it's not over). This episode has the same director as "Children of a Lesser Bog," which may explain why the ending falls a bit flat. Here the plot point to keep in mind is the callousness of negationists whose words literally cost lives.

Episode 8, "Zapp Gets Canceled," hinges on a scheme by the Democratic Order of Planets to trick the natives of a peaceful planet into surrendering their air.

By now you may protest that it's surely a stretch to focus on so many minor deaths when it's already known that Futurama uses a zany, absurdist style of humor. But then we get to the crux of the matter, the weird and experimental Episode 9, "The Prince and the Product," where the season-long theme is finally explored in full: does death matter all that much? Early in the episode, three nameless royal guards in the service of the King of Space are crushed under the Planet Express ship, with no one even commenting on it. A few minutes later, the King coldly sends his son to die in combat, and the Prince's fiancée ends the episode untroubled by his death.

To underscore this theme, the episode is interrupted by three fictional commercials, featuring the Futurama cast as windup dolls, car toys, and rubber ducks. And here the plot applies a much closer focus on the triviality of death. In the first commercial, windup dolls turn out to be able to reincarnate, so it doesn't matter if they lose power. In the second commercial, parts of dismantled cars still retain their consciousness when taken apart. In the third commercial, a war between toys leads to the revelation that toys can reproduce. In each segment, and also at the end of the episode, this idea of the cycle of death and return is expressed via the recurring motif of loop-de-loop acrobatics. The fact that the entire cast of Futurama is involved in each tale of death and return may allude to the diminished impact of each cancellation and un-cancellation of the show. Futurama has already died and come back before. Should we care?

Episode 10, "All the Way Down," gives us the answer, but it's not an easy one. Professor Farnsworth creates a simulation of the universe, including digital versions of everyone in Planet Express. This leads to a snowball of existential questions that results in the show all but stating that the characters of Futurama know they're not real, but that doesn't make their experiences less valuable. They may vanish any moment, or they may remain suspended in infinitely slowed time; that makes no difference from their perspective. What the season treated as a repeated joke, this idea that death doesn't matter, now makes a peculiar kind of sense if seen from the other end: life is what matters. Yours may end now or end in a hundred years, and that doesn't change its worth. You may even discover that your reality only exists in someone's computer, and that doesn't change anything about you.

This resolution is a beautiful callback to the end of the previous season, where time stopped in the whole universe except for Fry and Leela, who got to experience a full lifetime together. This new ending (of what is just the first part of the season) reintroduces the same idea: time appears to prolong in one level of reality while whole generations rise and fall in the next level up. The viewer's circumstances aren't too different. An inconceivable number of deaths are happening right now across the universe. All you have is now.

Futurama will be back. Or not. Enjoy it while it's still with us.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.