Written by: Ken Keeler
Directed By: Phil Avanzino
Should I say that I already see so many elements of what makes Futurama great, or should I say that the show was always great and it would, with time, lock into its full potential? There are a shocking number of characters and concepts casually thrown into this episode that would go on to become standard parts of the show’s worldbuilding – just in the opening scene, we have the Gelatinous Blob! Later, we have Sal! We have Crushinator! We have Bender’s secret dream of being a folk singer, only emerging when he’s affected by magnets! I find the distinction from The Simpsons’ worldbuilding interesting – on that show, characters have various viewpoints, and the end result is that it feels like a group of living, breathing people who interact with each other and are living their lives even when we aren’t looking at them. The flipside of this approach is that there’s only so many actions a character is capable of; Skinner suddenly embracing punk rock just doesn’t feel right. The Simpsons, of course, compensates for this two ways: by making its characters complex and multi-faceted, even with their third-tier and even fourth-tier characters, and by giving characters specific roles so that their appearance in the plot is logical – you need a character to represent the news, you get Kent Brockman, you need a character in the entertainment industry, you get Krusty. Futurama does have a few characters like that – Morbo has a very Kent-like role, though we haven’t met him yet, and Sal ended up serving as a generic ‘guy who fixes things’ character – but to my eye, Futurama characters are much more limited in their complexity of character but much more flexible in terms of how they can be used, so long as it’s funny. Gelatinous Blob isn’t really a character, but he is an image that can be recycled for laughs the exact same way the show recycles pop culture imagery.
(Oddly enough, I find this resonant with how Seinfeld and 30 Rock use their third- and fourth-tier characters)
Of course, I’m circling the fact that Hermes, Zoidberg, and Amy are all introduced this episode, and I was astounded at how solidly they landed. There’s a few jokes missing – most notably, Zoidberg isn’t desperately poor and miserably lonely yet – but for the most part, the people we see here are the people we’ll be following for the rest of the series. Even Bender seems to have found his rhythm. Tentative theory: whereas The Simpsons painstakingly worked out how characters think, Futurama painstakingly worked out how they want you to feel about the characters, and when you’re willing to lock into that, it’s a great time. I can describe both Bart and Bender as Lovable Rogues, but I call Bart that because he doesn’t fit into his system despite being well-intentioned for the most part, and I call Bender that because he’s an asshole but he’s pitched to be just terrible enough to be funny but not so terrible as to be hard to watch. Most of his behaviour comes from somewhere visibly child-like but taken to an absurd extreme (“Too much work. Let’s burn it and say we dumped it in the sewer.”); like all robot characters, he is afforded a lot of leeway to be bad and childish. Even outside that, the plotting is setting itself apart from The Simpsons and putting down in proto-form what will take delirious life in episodes like “Roswell That Ends Well” or “Three Hundred Big Boys”. On the first episode, beloved commentor Raven Wilder observed that Futurama’s scifi setting lets it swing for the fences in a way that The Simpsons can’t; another aspect of that is that being a scifi lets it cheat its way through plot points – indeed, the fact that it’s a comedy on top of that practically demands that it cheat its way through plots because that only makes it funnier. There’s kind of an A-plot and B-plot going on here, but the relentless Rube Goldberg-esque way things are allowed to play out makes them intersect and combine in interesting ways.
Most of all, though, there’s the strange, specific emotion flowing through this episode. What I associate with the most poignant episodes of Futurama isn’t deep philosophical statements, but a feeling. I think there are multiple interpretations of what people mean when they say ‘deep’ – most people take it to mean a work is making a specific statement, and that’s valuable, but I notice people also sometimes use it to mean that the work conveyed a specific emotion that they felt but never saw expressed; usually, when people use ‘deep’ this way, they don’t seem to realise that’s what they mean and they stumble over trying to put it into words and justify it philosophically. But I think there’s value in art that articulates our emotions and confirms them from the outside, and I think this is largely where the deeper value of Futurama lies. Its meaningful episodes are ones that convey a sense of despair, heartbreak, loneliness, and being a tiny speck in an infinite landscape (as well as occasional joy when it all does work out). This episode starts off that process with a battle between Romance and disillusionment; Fry truly, genuinely believes in the beauty and magic of the Moon, and as a space kid who obsessively read about space travel and the planets and the moon landing… I’m 100% with him. Human beings walked on the moon! People ride rockets into space! My love of scifi is, in part, an extension of my awe at what’s out in space and what can be done in space. At the same time, I can recognise that what is thrilling and romantic and alien to me could become routine and domesticated one day (assuming humanity makes it that far). It makes an emotional sense that the moon could go the way of so many historical sites and become a trashy tourist trap. Even more than that, though, Fry’s relationship with the moon can be seen as a metaphor for anything we romanticise. You may have noticed at some point in the past five years that I have a certain dreamy-eyed way of thinking about the world, and I think anyone like that will know the frustration of both your ideals colliding with reality and of people who genuinely can’t see the magic in the world that you do, or don’t even seek it out in the first place.
Title Card: In hypno-vision
Cartoon Billboard: Baby Bottleneck, 1946
The big early thing that would fall away was the cold opens before the title card. I generally liked these cold opens as scenes, but outside the commercials, they never felt right for the show. The show accidentally predicted the bacon craze with ‘baconated grapefruit’. Originally, Cohen and Groening were genuinely considering having Fry become captain; I side with their belief that it’s funnier to have him as the underdog. Zoidberg’s name was lifted from a video game Cohen worked on that he never finished, and his whole character came from Cohen thinking how funny it was that Dr McCoy on Star Trek worked on non-human patients and how a human might feel if it were the other way. Late in production, the writers realised that the lunar lander would not actually be there, and solved this by putting a sticker inside that it had been returned by the ‘Historical Sticklers Society’.
An AMC Pacer is on display at the park. The Luna Park mascot is a reference to the silent film A Journey To The Moon, with Bender completing the reference with a beer bottle in the eye. The farmer’s moon car is based on the lunar car used in the Apollo missions. The games in the arcade include Mortal Kooperation (in reference to Mortal Kombat), Gender Neutral Pac-Person (in reference to Pac-Man and Mrs Pac-Man) and Dodecapede (in reference to Centipede). The park contains multiple references to Disneyland. The educational ride contains a reference to The Honeymooners. Fry taking the lunar ride off the tracks is almost certainly ripped from Jurassic Park.
Iconic Moments: 2. “We’re whalers on the moon! We carry a harpoon!” | “I’m gonna go build my own theme park! With blackjack and hookers! In fact, forget the park!” I always like to finish people’s reference to this with “Ah, screw the whole thing.”