Futurama, Season One, Episode Twelve, “When Aliens Attack”

Written by: Ken Keeler
Directed by: Brain Sheesley
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

I knew going in that I would call this one essential but I wasn’t sure how I was going to justify that – I usually take subjective emotional responses for granted, so I couldn’t tell from memory how I could explain why this one is a favourite but “Mars University” isn’t even though they’re both really funny. Actually watching it made me see the exact thing I said when I came up with the categorisation system: the show’s baseline is always funny, but sometimes it’s like the stars have aligned and it cooks up a fantastic, imaginative premise that brings everything together. The whole idea of aliens watching thousand year old broadcasts that were projected out into space is an inherently funny one, and it feels like something only Futurama would do – it’s genuine science fiction in that it takes a real-world scientific principle (“Magic. Got it.”) and extrapolates from it, and it does so using cliche scifi tropes. But it’s also obviously a meditation on television itself, and the relationships audiences have had with it. The two most famous lines from this episode are ‘Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared!’ and ‘That’s the secret of all TV: at the end of the episode, everything’s always right back to normal’, because they accurately summarise a certain lazy attitude towards television – both its production and its consumption – that has frustrated people with higher ambitions for the medium since its creation. Of course, dumbing things down for the people in the back row has always been a problem for artists going back to cavemen painting their walls, but the specific qualities of television have generated a unique kind of mediocrity – a ritualistic repetition of actions in which nothing of consequence happens to either character or audience. This does end on a joke that people often note points out that Futurama will gleefully embrace some of that lazy attitude – that is to say, despite what we’re seeing here, things will go back to the way they were next episode – but it’s also a show that genuinely feels consequential. On a basic level, think of how our collective language has been affected by this show – the lines we steal and riff on. But it also explores meaningful truths that resonate long after the show’s original production.

On top of all this, there’s the simple matter that, if funny dialogue can be seen as something technical, then this is a huge step forward in the show’s development. It’s not just a matter of coming up with a funny line – which the show has always been good at – it’s a matter of building, deflating, and perhaps rapidly amping comic tension up again. There’s a lot of great moments in this episode where something that’s already funny turns out to be setup for something even funnier (“Come on Zoidberg, I passed it right to you!”). This is the point where the Zapp that I know and love really comes alive, because his stupidity means the writers can follow him down some utterly bizarre paths; his nonsensical explanation of the importance of bed-making is great, but the best bit is when he declares all aliens to be destroyed on sight, is reminded of Kiff (“Nobody destroy Kiff. Unless you have to.”), and later, after it seems we’ve moved on, he’s reminded of Leela and speaks up for her too. As always, this is something made even better by the voice acting – Billy West declares “Nobody destroy Leela either!” hilariously sharply. This actually is what I meant when I described Futurama as externalising what The Simpsons has in subtext – many jokes on the latter come from characters having thought something through offscreen and come to a strange, funny conclusion, while many jokes on Futurama come from the characters thinking out loud. I suppose this is part of the fun energy of the series – it uses a stabilising status quo and its comedic tone as a vehicle to explore a range of ideas in real time.

Title Card: Proudly made on Earth
Cartoon Billboard: Daffy – The Commando (1943)

Fry causing the disaster with an action back in 1999 is inherently hilarious, and I always love when the show goes back to that time because it’s always grim, gritty, and realistic in an early Simpsons way. Speaking of The Simpsons, the polite applause for McNeal being bagged up and dragged away is very reminiscent of gags on that show (“I warsh mahself with a rag on a stick.”). Interestingly, this episode opens with a very slice-of-life first act with the crew at the beach. As someone who has been writing criticism continuously for five years now and taken awkward stabs at writing fiction, “It took an hour to write! I thought it would take an hour to read!” is painfully, painfully accurate.

“You’re all from different cultures here. Some of you are black. Some of you are white. You’re brown. And you’re silver!”

Single Female Lawyer is a reference to Ally MacBeal, and man, there’s a show that fell off the cultural radar. The title is a parody of When Animals Attack! The initial alien attack contains many references to Independence Day, as does the reveal of the mothership. Fry describes himself as like Uhura of Star Trek, Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager, and Xena of Xena: Warrior Princess, in a deliberate poke in the eye at sexist male scifi fans, and the battle riffs on Star Wars.

Iconic Moments: 4. “We hit that bullseye, the rest of the dominos will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.” / “Ugh.” | “Stop exploding, you cowards!” | “Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared!” | “That’s the secret to all TV: at the end of the episode, everything’s always right back to normal.”
Biggest Laugh: This whole sequence is great, but the bit that gets me most is Fry’s outraged exasperation at the price. “You take her!”