Futurama, Season Three, Episode Five, “The Birdbot Of Ice-Catraz”

Written by: Dan Vebber
Directed by: James Purdum
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

This is another one of my favourites – there’s something almost comforting about a solid, reliably entertaining episode that doesn’t reach any spectacular highs but also doesn’t botch anything. There is something of an interesting message here too, and one that comes from the half-assed thinking-out-loud approach to thematics that this show deals in to boot. This is, obviously, an environmentalism episode, with the arc being based around Leela setting out to help the penguins and finding herself having to kill them. It’s actually really great for not taking a stance not out of apathy, but because it can see multiple perspectives; at the same time, it’s seeing multiple perspectives without being wishy-washy and non-committal about it. There is a sense that the episode is honestly trying to work out the right thing here, or at least takes Leela’s conflict over the situation seriously – starting with the premise that killing penguins is inherently wrong, Leela is willing to believe that killing them is the least-worst solution to their overpopulation, but she also recognises that if that killing is done by people who enjoy killing penguins, they’re probably not going to try very hard to avoid killing penguins they don’t have to. Of course, there’s also a big fat dollop of ‘enjoying killing penguins is wrong and I don’t want you to enjoy the feeling’. I also enjoy the cynicism of the ending, in which not only did humans (plus a robot) cause the natural disaster in the first place, their cleanup effort only served to make things even worse. Not a nice conclusion, perhaps, but definitely one that reflects reality.

But there’s more to this episode than Leela. This is a rare case of Bender pushing Fry too far; the one thing in this galaxy Fry has thought through is his idea of a good friend, and abusing him when you’ve gained the slightest bit of power over him is not that. There’s room to read him as jealous of Bender for gaining the captain’s jacket over him, but I suspect if Bender had been all about beer and naptime, Fry wouldn’t have been all that bothered. At the same time, we can see him choose not to abandon Bender when the tables are turned – just because you have been a bad friend to him doesn’t mean he’ll be a bad friend to you. This is one of the things that makes him very sympathetic as a character. Interestingly, this episode also delves into what makes Bender sympathetic when he feels so hurt by Fry’s rejection that he soberly crashes the tanker. I suspect the whole reason ‘we’ ‘let’ Bender get away with his childish antics is that they have equally childish consequences; compare Bender to, say, Peter Griffin, who has all of Bender’s destructiveness and selfishness – more, perhaps – but whose moments of regret and hurt feel both infrequent and insincere. Bender is something of a fantasy figure for our selfish and most indulgent impulses, and really the fact that he suffers from hurt feelings on top of it is also part of the fantasy – perhaps that’s how we justify it, pointing to this as a way of understanding why we don’t act like Bender.

Title Card: Now With Chucklelin
Cartoon Billboard: “Bubbles”, 1922

Veteran voice actor Phil Hendrie guest stars as Free Waterfall Sr, which surprised me – all these years I registered that as a Dave Herman performance. It’s so great, conveying what a sincere dork he is. I could swear we heard Bender’s “It’s not like it’s the only one we’ve got” line in an earlier episode. If we haven’t, it’s one of my favourite Bender lines – it’s funny in part because despite being horribly on-the-nose, it’s also 100% true for Bender. “To avoid the tollbooth” is one of the great plot-moving jokes on Futurama, something that justifies the plot going in the exact direction it does while also exaggerating a particular quirk of human nature. The finglonger makes a triumphant return. “Why do we have to resort to nonviolence?” is, perhaps, the purest Leela line, and her exasperated reaction to the oncoming wave of oil is a perfect distillation of her appeal. Zoidberg’s obsequiousness to all captains is a hilarious new note for him. 

There are two perfect gags in this episode, ones that I would put aside “Four Krustys!” – the reveal of the Hyperchicken Lawyer in jail, and Fry responding to Zoidberg’s admission of eating penguin eggs with “You ate most of them!” I absolutely love the penguin montage music – surf guitar technically shouldn’t fit into the aesthetic of Antarctica, but somehow it does.

“Well, Fry. Or should I say, Captain Fry? No, I shouldn’t, because Bender is the new captain.”

The episode is a parody of the nickname of Robert Franklin Stroud, the ‘birdman of Alcatraz’. The Juan Valdez combines the Exxon Valdez with Juan Valdez, mascot of Colombian coffee (hence “rich, Colombian dark matter”). Free Waterfall Sr holds a sign saying “Free Chilly Willy!”. When Bender falls, he imitates R2-D2 in a scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Penguins Unlimited is loosely based on Ducks Unlimited. Bender drops a reference to Winston Churchhill’s “We will fight them on the beaches!” speech. Bender sings “Greenland Whale Fisheries”, a traditional sea shanty. Leela refers to Fry and Zoidberg as “kong donkeys” in a clear reference to Donkey Kong.

Iconic Moments: The elaborate Oreo machine. | “This man is overgasped!” | “Oh, right, they can swim. It’s all comin’ back to me now.” I have had many moments where I thought something with this exact cadence.
Biggest Laugh: I’ve also had more than one moment that felt like this.

Next Week: “Bendless Love”. “It’s that guy you are!”