So here we are. The very first and thus best episode of Futurama so far, and the beginning of our journey together. See you on the other side!
Welcome to Futuramarama, where I, Matt Waters, will be writing about every single episode of Futurama in order and attempting to determine its ranking. Which means there is literally zero tension in our first recap as it is number one by default. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still have some fun along the way!
Episode: S1E01 | Aired: March 28 1999
Director: Rich Moore & Gregg Vanzo | Writer: David X. Cohen & Matt Groening
Opening Title Gag: ‘In Color’
If you need any proof that the writing staff of Futurama are ridiculously good at what they do, you need look no further than the opening scene. In exactly three minutes, our beloved protagonist, Philip J. Fry, is bested by a video game, heckled by a small boy, sent out for a pizza delivery just before midnight on New Year’s Eve (carrying a box that explicitly informs customers not to tip him), runs into his girlfriend Michelle (with another man) who informs him she left his stuff out on the sidewalk, has his bike stolen, realises the delivery to a seemingly abandoned Applied Cryogenics was the result of a fiendishly clever crank call, sits down alone to start drinking in the new millennium, only to fall backwards into a tube and get frozen for 1,000 years, wherein the Earth is seemingly destroyed twice. What does our emotionally sensitive young hero do upon realising everyone he’s ever known or loved is dead? Celebrates. Welcome to the show!
What does all that tell you? Well, several things. Firstly, it demonstrates how much the staff are able to cram into a short space of time. There’s legitimate pathos to the scene. There are multiple sign gags. There are dangling reference points that will pay off waaaaay down the line. It sets up the entire premise pretty quickly. And most importantly, it gives us all the backstory we really ever need for Fry, who will be the feature player for roughly 85% of episodes. You understand exactly who he is and who he isn’t instantly. And who is he, you might (foolishly) ask? The single greatest character on this show and one of the greatest characters in animation history.
Fry is a perfect blend of Homer and Bart Simpson, merging loveable idiocy and a carefree sense of mischief. He will break your very expensive, one of a kind, prized possession, but later break your heart with his sweet, clumsy gesture of apology. He’s wonderful, he’s voiced to perfection by animation legend Billy West, and he will be your guide for the next 124 episodes and 4 movies. How lucky are you?!
Fry is quickly escorted to a fate assignment session by our first recurring guest character Terry (“WELCOME, TO THE WOOOORLD OF TOMORRROWWW!!!”) where he meets the second member of our regular cast, Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal), who is as beautiful as she is one-eyed.
Leela welcomes Fry to the year 2999 and rewards his vulnerable optimism about being able to make a dignified fresh start by having him strip naked and get on the Probulator, the first of MANY old-school science fiction inspired pieces of wacky technology. One brief torture session later and we learn that Fry has one living relative, a great, great, great (etc.) nephew, Professor Hubert Farnsworth.
Unfortunately things take a turn for the worse for Fry when he learns of this society’s allegedly widespread practice of assigning a permanent career path to everyone and implanting a chip into their palm that confirms as much, which would be fine, if not for the fact he is doomed to remain a delivery boy. This concept is an important albeit almost immediately abandoned plot device which will pay off as the final punch line of the episode, and later make for a wonderful callback in season 2. Keen to prevent history from repeating itself, Fry does the only logical thing and runs away, locking Leela in a stasis tube (but only for five minutes, because he’s a sweetheart) and flees for the alien – literally – streets of New New York.
After just about getting to grips with the pneumatic tube public transport system which takes him across town and past a familiar aquatic organism, Fry heads for a phone booth, clutching the contact information for his distant nephew, unaware he is about to meet his best friend for the first time. Behind him in line is Bender Bending Rodriguez, voiced by John DiMaggio (who will settle into the voice in a few episodes but will sound jarring to you if you’re revisiting the show now), a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, alcoholic bending robot with one of the more famous catch phrases in the show.
Narrowly avoiding death together inside the Suicide Booth – much to Bender’s chagrin – the two decide to go for a beer, where we learn that Bender quit his job as a bender when he found out the girders he was bending were for use in Suicide Booths, and has now endeavoured to take his own life in one instead. Thing is… Fry doesn’t want him to do that because he is currently his only friend in the world. Philip Fry is the sweetest boy.
Leela is hot on their heels though, forcing them to flee into the Head Museum, which, like it sounds, is a museum containing the preserved and somehow functional severed heads of various celebrities and historical figures. Handily, they seem to exclusively be of figures from the 20th Century, including Matt Groening, Dennis Rodman and Leonard Nemoy (voiced by Leonard Nemoy). During the ruckus they smash the jar of a strong contender for best recurring character, Tricky Dick himself, Richard Nixon.
This prompts some good old fashioned police brutality from Smitty and URL (pronounced Earl, of course), which only endears Fry to Leela, who we will learn has a deep-seeded need to protect innocent creatures (for what will become obvious reasons). But it’s not until Smitty says “Keep your big nose out of this, Eyeball” that she snaps and kicks both of their butts with her advanced martial arts training. No one makes fun of Leela’s nose. This distraction is all Fry and Bender need to escape into the sewers of Old New York thanks to the latter’s uncanny ability to bend metal. The feat of strength causes both of Bender’s arms to fall off, but in a moment of true cartoon magic, he reattaches them, leaving Fry and the viewer equally bewildered, which is a rarity.
Fry and Bender’s daring escape doesn’t last long, with Leela cornering them and Fry promptly accepting defeat after lamenting about being alone. Turns out however, that Leela can relate as the planet’s only cycloptic alien. And so through surrender, Fry is humbled, Leela’s pity overwhelms her sense of duty, and the two bond over their isolation, throwing away their career chips. Bless you, Philip Fry.
With nowhere to go and the police on their tail, the trio seek refuge with Professor Hubert Farnsworth as Dick Clark presents New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Year 3000 Edition. Turns out The Professor (Billy West) possesses a truly brilliant scientific mind… albeit a more than slightly senile one. Conveniently though, he designed and built an intergalactic spaceship, which our beloved fugitives could use to escape police capture if not for one insurmountable obstacle…
I feel you, bro.
Fortunately, Bender is able to carry The Professor aboard and they make it off-planet with Leela at the helm, using the cover of the New Year’s fireworks to evade laser fire, winding the episode down in a similar fashion to how it began. But before it ends, there’s the small manner of ensuring Fry & Leela aren’t immediately arrested upon re-entering orbit. The Professor reveals he runs a delivery company to fund his scientific research and needs a new crew due to undisclosed circumstances, offering the trio the original crew’s career chips.
Fry’s dreams have seemingly all come true. He’s in a colourful future full of aliens and robots, he’s got friends, and he’s going to be flying around the universe on a bright green spaceship. But what will his task be on the ship? Yes, you guessed it, a delivery boy. Which ties a nice neat bow on the episode, making good on the dilemma he’s spent the entire episode wrestling with. His response?
* * *
A lot of the reviews at the time of this episode’s original airing talked about how the show wasn’t terribly funny or clever and took too long to get going, but was interesting enough to encourage people to stick with it. I can see why people might think that, given how much time was needed to introduce the show’s characters and concepts, but when you really stop to look at how much they managed to fit into the pilot, I disagree with it moving slowly. I also think a lot of the value of the episode comes in looking back at it after having watched more, because it’s fun to see where the characters came from and how many tiny throwaway elements ended up being monumentally important to the ongoing continuity of the show. For these reasons I’m going to have to put Space Pilot 3000 at…
- Space Pilot 3000
If all you were here for was the ranking, feel free to stop reading. For the rest of you, let’s get into some extra details, shall we?
* * *
While I’m torn between Leela’s officer code being 1.B-D.I. and Bender’s inexplicable ability to re-attach his arms when they fall off, I’ve ultimately got to go with a prime example of Fry’s stupidity:
Alien Language Watch
A famous part of the pilot is the implementation of a mysterious alien language the writers invented, intending it to be an ongoing conundrum that viewers would gradually solve if they paid close attention. Well, turns out the audience for Futurama is pretty smart too, and decoded the entire alphabet from the first episode alone, prompting the creation of a second, tougher version in a later episode. But for now, we’re still on the original version, so let’s get to translating, shall we?
Not only have I watched Futurama more than another show, I’d wager I’ve listened to the commentary tracks for each episode more than I’ve seen most shows. While that may sound a pathetic waste of time (unlike say, creating an entire website devoted to an 18 year old cartoon), I assure you, the Futurama commentaries are both interesting and hilarious. But rather than just taking my word for it or going out and listening to them yourself, I figured I’d glean the highlights from each episode for you all. You’re welcome.
- In an early draft, after being unfrozen, Fry was taken to an auction where The Professor bought him for spare organs (an idea that would somewhat be transplanted (get it) onto Amy).
- Matt Groening wanted to challenge himself by giving Leela one eye and still making her look attractive, while the network were horrified by the size of her nose compared to traditional cartoon heroines. Rich Moore pointed out the difficulties of giving her certain facial expressions, using her hair as a get-around.
- John DiMaggio auditioned for The Professor using his Bender voice, while auditioning for Bender using his URL voice.
- Fry was going to fall off the Statue of Liberty, only for it to be revealed to be animated, putting its hand out to catch him.
- Fry was originally a night watchman at Applies Cryogenics rather than a delivery boy. He was also going to be the captain of the ship at one stage.
- Fox had an existing standards and practices caution notice for the Probulator and all similar devices.
6 – Billy West (Fry, Ipgee, Smitty, The Professor, Richard Nixon, Man with Newspaper)
4 – John DiMaggio (Bender, URL, Mr Panucci, Bike Thief)
3 – Dave Hermann (Terry/Lou/Pneumatic Tube Commuter)
3 – Kath Soucie (Michelle/Rude Kid/Head Museum Feeder)
1 – Tress MacNeille (Suicide Booth)
1 – Katey Sagal (Leela)
Special Guest Stars: Leonard Nemoy (Himself), Dick Clark (Himself)