Futurama, Season One, Episode Five, “Fear Of A Bot Planet”

Written By: Heather Lombard and Evan Gore
Directed By: Peter Avanzino and Carlos Baeza

From a certain point of view, this is the first ‘real’ episode of Futurama – the crew make a delivery to the Planet O’ The Week with no big structural addition to the scaffolding of the show. Unfortunately, it’s also the first fairly middling episode. There’s a core of a good idea in the concept of a robot civilisation with fervent anti-human politics; this is an early look at how Bender loves both himself and things that remind him of himself, robot versions of human things consistently makes me laugh the exact same way that kid versions of adult things does, Fry and Leela barely managing to pass for robots is pretty great, and the twist of the anti-human prejudice existing to distract from economic problems is a pretty good one, but the thing never quite manages to come alive. I think it’s because there’s not a particular, peculiar point of view driving the jokes forward – comedy thrives on a point of view, and this episode as a whole doesn’t seem to be saying anything specific, and so the jokes don’t build on each other and the energy never really gets going. You can compare it with the opening Blernsball sequence – the joke is basically ‘baseball is boring, what would make it interesting?’, and from there it builds on that concept with jokes like Fry’s attempt to grasp the apparently nonsensical rules (“Except for the word ‘blern’, that was complete gibberish.”) and the characters discussing blernsball history. You can also compare it with All My Circuits, which takes the stance that soap operas are melodramatic and rely on shocking plot twists that don’t meaningfully change the status quo and then mixes in the specific weirdness that robots would bring to soap operas. The robot world threatens to get that interesting – mainly in the sequence parodying old Fifties scifi/horror films – but never quite gets there.

On the other hand, this is something I take in stride with Futurama, a kind of endearing character flaw I tolerate and even enjoy in someone I love, and in this case it’s because the thing I love about them is intimately connected to that flaw. What draws me to this show is its lackadaisical energy – its sense of relaxed effortlessness, as if it were being improvised on the fly before our eyes. The Simpsons is who I want to be; thoughtful, empathetic, idealistic, pragmatic, and always acting with a singular purpose. Futurama is the person I like to spend time with; someone who projects a cheerful, perpetually funny energy that speaks without overthinking every sentence. This means that sometimes they hit this brilliant combination of words and plot points that conveys some deeper truth of the universe, and sometimes they’re either saying something trite or just dribbling nonsense. Futurama is so committed to being funny that I accept the lows of meaning with the highs. It’s worth comparing to Always Sunny, another show I love that lacks Futurama’s wild creativity and has a much more rigid style and sensibility, but is even more committed to ‘just’ being funny, and is pure televisual comfort food for me. Where this episode falls down for me is that it’s not quite there yet in terms of being funny enough to get away with narrative jazz hands.

But it’s pretty close! It has a lot of dry runs for what I think of as classic Futurama gags. I think of this show as being great at finding unnecessarily strange ways of expressing a thought, especially a thought we’ve heard a thousand times before (a cliche, if you will). My favourite example is “Many said I was too extreme when I called for the annihilation of the human species, as well as some of the more cunning monkeys, but after living on Earth, I can tell you that I am, if anything, too merciful!” because that whole ‘cunning monkeys’ section somehow manages to have a punchline come in the middle of a sentence. It’s a funny image on its own, and it makes one wonder which monkeys it was that Bender saw that made him ready to throw them on the pile with humans. There’s also the off-the-cuff line “Sure, why not,” where he’s apparently only got so much energy when lying to the robots. I also love the gag where Fry is told robots don’t have bathrooms, and muses about where they smoke in high school; it’s a really great example of zigging instead of zagging, because it’s one hell of a mental leap to make and yet totally logical in its own absurd way. There’s even a nonverbal example of this kind of gag when the picture of Bender they have is him dressed as a magician for some reason. Even the gag of Bender forgetting to actually deliver the package until the end is a pretty funny cheat to end the plot. Perhaps one way of looking at Futurama is that it remixes our world – including both our real lives and our pop culture – into a comedy. 

Title Card: Featuring gratuitous alien nudity
Cartoon Billboard: A Corny Concerto, 1943

There’s also the great, really weird gag of Hermes’s hologram being taken by a pigeon and him later being seen with bandages, as well as the meta gag of Leela crying “It’s not an easy decision! If only I had two or three minutes to think about it!” before a commercial break.

The title of the episode is a reference to the Public Enemy album Fear Of A Black Planet. The story is based on a Stanislaw Lem short story. Wireless Joe Jackson is a reference to Shoeless Joe Jackson. Chapek 9 is named after Karel Čapek, the Czech playwright credited with coining the term ‘robot’ in his play RUR. There’s a movie in the robot cinema called Buffbot The Human Slayer in reference to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. A robot points to Leela much like how the aliens in the 1978 version of Invaders Of The Body Snatchers do. Bender quotes a space parody of “Ol’ Man River”. Some robot dialogue is lifted from the video game Berserk. The scene with construction robots is a reference to Tetris. The sound indicating the start of the human hunt is the power on sound for the Apple Macintosh. The ending of the horror movie is a reference to The War Of The Worlds. Leela’s New New York Yankees roster contains the name Costanza, in reference to George Costanza of Seinfeld, who worked at the New York Yankees for a few seasons.

Iconic Moments: 2. “Silence!” | “No! It is the bad kind of puppy!”
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