Futurama, Season Three, Episode Nineteen, “Roswell That Ends Well”

Written by: J Stewart Burns
Directed by: Rich Moore
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / Essential / MASTERPIECE

Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone on and off the gender spectrum, this is it. This isn’t just a great episode of Futurama and it’s not even the best episode of Futurama, it’s the best a Futurama episode can be. When I say that, I certainly don’t mean that it has to be your favourite episode; there are a few others that are equally as entertaining, some that are more thoughtful or character-driven, many that are more sweet or sad, and quite a few that are more creative in their premise. What I mean is that everything a typical episode of Futurama is trying to be is done here to perfection. “War Is The H Word”, “The Deep South”, “Mars University”, “Fear Of A Bot Planet” – all of these episodes are grasping at what this achieves almost effortlessly. What gets me the most is how every single line in this episode – every single line! – isn’t just hilarious, but capable of being recycled the way we do so many lines from this show and The Simpsons. That is to say, instantly iconic. We could quote the entire script in the comments and we almost certainly will.

One of my favourite things about this episode is that it’s one of the best examples of the show mixing together references from unexpectedly disparate sources with equal mastery of each reference. The premise is obviously lifted from Star Trek – and then beaten into the ground by other scifi series – and mixing in references to the incident at Roswell, New Mexico (as well as contemporary historical references – Truman’s use of ‘bushwa!’ feels very John Swartzwelder) works very well. What really gets me is the whole character of Enis; aside from his name being lifted from a popular limerick, it absolutely tickles me that they threw in extended references to Gomer Pyle. Like, aside from it feeling right that this guy would be related to Fry – even if he isn’t, more on that later – it’s just so hilarious to me that they thought “Okay, we need to fill out the plot with a soldier character. Who would be the best model for a soldier?” and chose a kitschy TV sitcom that I doubt even most of their audience in 2001 had seen, let alone today. They didn’t just pick any old reference – they went out of their way to pick the funniest possible reference, no matter how deep or shallow a cut it is. This is what I love about this show.

But it’s also an episode that, like a Tarantino movie, takes its references somewhere its predecessors never dared to go. This is one of the beautiful contradictions the modernists noted about creative principles; Futurama is so dependent on such a massive database of references – high culture, low culture, philosophy, science – that it can find the untapped gaps inbetween everything. Everybody knows about the ‘kill your own grampa’ cliche and a few people knew of the ‘become your own grampa’ followup cliche, but only Futurama had the guts to follow through on that and have a character actually kill his own grandfather and actually bang his own grandmother to father his own father and fully embrace how gross and weird that is. Even better is the decision to abandon the whole space/time continuum deal and just bust in and take what you want, something that almost comes as a relief after decades of characters so carefully avoiding that. I’ve seen this episode a million times and every single time, “Let’s get the hell out of here already! Screw history!” and the resultant action scene gives me a powerful sense of joyful catharsis. It may be the most aspirational expression of the show’s apathetic emotional grounding. Screw the rules! Take what you want!

And we haven’t even contextualised this within the show’s broader structure! Fry being Mr I’m-My-Own-Grampa is an integral part of the show’s puzzle; we don’t know it yet, but it’s what caused his lack of a Delta brainwave pattern and his superior-yet-inferior brain, and it will go on to drive quite a few plots. Going back to that ‘database’ idea, this is a great example of the show creating its own unique mythology in the gaps between old images and ideas (something the Mass Effect series is good at as well), which is already clever enough before getting to the clever ways it riffs on it later. It’s a really good and really basic demonstration of How To Be Creative. But this same episode also builds so wonderfully on what came before, too. One of my favourite things about it is that every single character gets at least a moment to shine; Fry, by virtue of being at the centre of the weirdest plot turn, comes off as the A-plot, but every single character gets at least one line that brilliantly sums up their character and a great plot to themselves. That’s the thing about the other episodes, even the bad ones – they laid the groundwork for the show’s personal mythology; the running gags, the character motivations. If a nonessential episode is a good day at work where you got everything done, this, more than any other, is the day where everything clicked.

Title Card: Fun for the whole family except for Grandma and Grampa
Cartoon Billboard: “Congo Jazz”, 1930

I absolutely love that the episode kicks off with the characters hanging out to watch a star go supernova – some real slice-of-life stuff. Similarly, I love that the plot is pushed forward by Bender characteristically not wearing a seatbelt. This has exactly one plot hole that always bugged me: where did Leela get the newspaper? Although any contrivance justifies Bender’s reaction to the high school gym renovations. Always loved Zoidberg’s line “What is?”. This episode also contains one of the best examples of the future characters not knowing the past as well as they think. This also has the single funniest gay panic joke, which it achieves partly by the fact that – and I’m far from the first to notice this – it’s not actually a gay panic joke, it’s just self-preservation on Fry’s part. “Yeah, folks say that, but do you ever get the feeling you’re only going with girls cause yer supposda?” is the single funniest way of conveying Enis’s homosexuality; aside from the fact that it’s another great deep dive reference, being something gay men of the time often said in retrospect, there’s something oddly sympathetic about it that makes Fry trying to crush it even funnier – like Enis is going through some genuine soul-searching. Related: I find the bisexual pinup calendar extremely funny.

“Hey, don’t cut that! I need it to speak!”
[sawing intensifies]

As said, the premise lifts heavily from Star Trek and in particular the incident with Bender’s head is taken from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Time’s Arrow”. Fry pushing Enis out of the way of a moving car is a reference to the original series episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, the Time Hole looks like the Bajoran Warp Hole from the Deep Space Nine episode “Emissary”, and it shares much of the plot with the DS9 episode “Little Green Men”. And as said, Enis is lifted heavily from Gomer Pyle; his homosexuality is presumably a reference to Jim Nabors. The title is a reference to All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare. The conspiracy nut’s photos are based on a 1997 photograph taken over Arizona and the hoax “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster. The Hard Croon Cafe is a reference to the Hard Rock Cafe (rock music not existing in 1947).

One of the stores in town is Gil’s Televisual Radios in reference to Simpsons character Gil Gunderson, and one of the clocks that flies past the ship is the Simpsons’ own cat clock. Zoidberg’s tongue resembles the mouth of the xenomorph from the Alien franchise. The ship’s attack on Roswell resembles a scene from Independence Day. The shot of the Professor’s glasses reflecting the wormhole is lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are yet more references to Soylent Green. The drawing of Zoidberg on the missile strongly resembles the classic cartoon Kilroy.

Iconic Moments: “Yes, we tore the universe a new spacehole alright. But it’s clenching shut fast.” | “Don’t do anything that affects anything! Unless it turns out you were supposed to do it, in which case, for the love of god, don’t not do it!” | “But existing is basically all I do!” | “We’ll have to endure the horrible music of the Big Bopper, and then the terrible tragedy of his death!” | “Maybe God loves me?” / “AHAHAHAHA, oh!” | “Killed? In an explosion? No sir, I don’t take solace in the fact that the explosion trigger functioned perfectly.” | “If you come in peace, surrender or be destroyed. If you’re here to make war, we surrender.” / “Both good. The important thing is, I’m meeting new people.” | “Oh, a lesson in ‘not changing history’ from Mr I’m-My-Own-Grampa!” | “Choke on that, causality!” | “What was it like lying in that hole for a thousand years?” / “I was enjoying it until you guys showed up.”
Biggest Laugh: Like “Lemon Of Troy”, I find myself forced to give multiple examples. This is truly a spectacular half hour of comedy and it deserves recognition for that.

This next gag is one of my favourite Futurama gags of all time. I honestly think it should be considered a perfect joke right next to “Four Krustys!”, for absolutely landing a zig where they could have zagged and conveying the pain of Dr Zoidberg hilariously.

Finally:

Next Week: “Godfellas”. “Look Daddy! I’m hugging God! Mmm! Maybe if I hug him real hard, he’ll save us from–“