Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 16/09/1999.
Futurama eventually completed four full seasons, took a few years off, and is now in the middle of a run of straight-to-video movies. Buy 'em all at the bottom of the page! Or don't.
See that scribble over to the left there? It's probably worth billions by now. Billions, I tell you.
As is usually the case, I acquired it more or less by accident. It happened some time in 1988, as I was browsing in Comic Showcase (formerly of Neal Street, now on Charing Cross Road), London's top sequential art emporium and a haven for the post-literate generation. As well as the usual American imports and 2000 AD reprints that you'd expect, they also occasionally dabble in collections of newspaper strips. (Although with apologies to Paul, his rivals at Gosh! Comics generally have him beaten on that score.)
While shopping for funnybooks, I came across three collections of cartoons by Matt Groening, based on his cult strip Life In Hell. As he'd be the first to admit, Life In Hell was - and still is - a series of hastily drawn doodles in which Groening's gleefully misanthropic worldview is expressed through a cast of characters consisting of a family of rabbits and a pair of fez-wearing homosexuals. The strip works best when taking a large subject and devoting several consecutive episodes to an in-depth analysis of it: these multi-part sequences were the basis for the three books in question, Love Is Hell, Work Is Hell and School Is Hell.
The combination of rampant cynicism and graphic minimalism appealed greatly. (Particularly the latter, because a couple of years earlier I'd been one of the three co-creators of a notoriously minimalist cartoon strip, The Adventures Of Cliff The Lemming, for a newsletter at my workplace. Yes, it took three people - where are you now, Neil and Nick? - to come up with the result you see here.) Anyway, I grabbed all three books off the shelf and took them home for a good chortle. It wasn't until I got them home that I discovered that School Is Hell was a signed copy. It seemed like a moderately cool thing to possess, but at the time I didn't see how owning Matt Groening's autograph would be of any benefit to me.
Of course, he hadn't invented The Simpsons yet. Or rather, he had, having created a series of microscopic cartoon shorts which were used as filler on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. This may come as news to British readers, because when the BBC bought the series, the first thing they did was edit out all of Groening's work on the show, as it was just there to cue up the ad breaks. (And people were surprised when it took the Beeb seven years to acquire The Simpsons for themselves.) Still, once we finally got to see it (even if we had to pay Rupert Murdoch to do it), it was great to see a version of Groening's work on screen: admittedly filtered through a huge creative team, but his cynicism shone through like a ray of death in a sanitised TV world.
Time passes. The world and his concubine see The Simpsons succeed and desperately try to create their own animated shows. Some work - South Park, King Of The Hill, possibly The PJs if it's given time. Many don't - The Critic, Family Dog, Britain's own Stressed Eric. And throughout all this, Matt Groening sits back and waits for the right time to unveil a new series of his own to the world. And as we enter a period when you can use phrases like "millennial zeitgeist" without people gobbing at you in the street for it, the only possible time for Futurama is now.
It's getting harder and harder for TV shows to survive these days. With the threat of cancellation hanging over them if they don't deliver immediately, a series no longer has the luxury of developing its characters over a series or two before hitting full strength. Groening realises this, which is probably why the pre-credits sequence of the first episode of Futurama sets out its stall with ruthless efficiency.
It's New Year's Eve 1999 in New York (the headlines on the papers read "Doomsayers Cautiously Upbeat"). Pizza delivery boy Phillip Fry (Billy West) has a lousy job, no friends, a girlfriend that's just dumped him... things couldn't get any worse, could they? In the dying minutes of 1999, he delivers a pizza to a cryogenic freezing lab ("no power failures since 1997") only to find the place deserted: it's a prank call. Leaning back in a chair to toast the onset of another lousy millennium, he falls into a freezing unit and accidentally locks himself in.
Time passes: New York is destroyed and rebuilt twice while Fry is in suspended animation. He eventually wakes in New New York, New Year's Eve 2999. ("My God... a million years!") He contemplates how everything and everyone he's ever known is now long dead, spends about 1.5 seconds regretting it and then lets out an enormous whoop of triumph. Roll opening titles. The whole damn setup has taken exactly - and I mean exactly - three minutes, and has included dozens of sly little background jokes along the way (reaching a hit rate of one gag per second as we watch the millennium countdown around the world). If a series has ever hit the ground running, it's this one.
Fry's introduction to the world of the 30th century comes via his Fate Assignment Officer, a one-eyed alien (but otherwise damn sexy with it) called Leela (Katey Sagal). Her job is to identify Fry's role in society, as he's not allowed to have any choice in the matter. Somewhat pigged off that after ten centuries of sleep his destiny is still to be a delivery boy, Fry goes on the run: Leela pursues him, but comes to see that the authoritarian line of "You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do" isn't necessarily the best way, and ends up quitting her job and going on the lam with him.
On the way, Fry picks up a robot pal called Bender (John Di Maggio). The character most likely to attain cult status on Futurama, Bender has the enviable gift of making every line of dialogue seem like a catchphrase, even if he only says it once. ("Bite my shiny metal ass!" "Kill all humans..." "Whaddaya mean we, mammal?") A girder-bending robot who's also on the run from his assigned fate, Bender drinks like a fish, swears like a PG-rated trooper and occasionally jacks onto the mains electricity supply for additional kicks. ("Bender, why are you spending so much time in the bathroom? Are you jacking on in there?") You will love him. It's your fate.
The three of them end up with Fry's only living relative, Dr Hubert Farnsworth, and his ethnically balanced team of helpers: Hermes Conrad (Jamaican), Amy Wong (Chinese) and Dr Zoidberg (Crustacean). Together they escape the pursuing Fate Assignment Officers, thus allowing Fry to avoid his assigned task of delivery boy by working for Farnsworth's... er... delivery service, Planet Express, as they explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly deliver packages by 10am the next morning.
Fox TV have been abused mercilessly by Groening and The Simpsons over the years, and can't do a damn thing about it as it's one of their top-rated shows. However, their somewhat shabby treatment of Futurama may be interpreted as some sort of revenge: after an initial launch in primetime on Sunday, it was buried in the hinterlands of Tuesday night programming (in a lump with all of Fox's other inferior animated shows). Eventually they relented, and future episodes will run in the prime Sunday night slot they deserve. But you can see Fox's point: Futurama isn't the happy little family show that The Simpsons was.
Without wishing to ignore the contributions of Groening's collaborators (notably co-developer David X. Cohen), the darker side of its creator's imagination keeps bursting through the zippy high-tech surface. Fry and Bender meet up while inadvertently queueing to use a Stop 'N' Drop Suicide Booth, a street-corner affair that gives you the choice of 'quick and painless' or 'slow and horrible'. Vending machines in certain parts of town will sell you 'Refreshing Crack' (and you wouldn't believe how tetchy people get when they break down). And there's the rather tasteless way in which NNYC's premier airport has been named JFK Jr. (OK, that last one was an accident, as John-John took his fatal flight some time after the first transmission of episode one. See if you can spot the panicky redub that's been imposed on subsequent reruns.)
In the end, Futurama works as both science fiction and comedy because of the central character of Fry. As he's a refugee from the 20th century cast adrift in the 31st, we get to experience all the wonders of the future through his awestruck eyes. But at the same time, he gets to tell his 31st century friends the truth about the 20th century: a truth that has got so mangled over 1000 years of retelling, they think a video clip of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners shouting "One of these days, Alice... Bang! Zoom! Straight to the Moon!" is footage of an early space pioneer. ("That's not an astronaut, it's a TV comedian! And he was just using space travel as a metaphor for beating his wife.")
Best of all, thanks to the advances in 31st century science which allow live human heads to be preserved in jars, Futurama can bring on guest stars from the 20th century to interact with Fry. ("It's a life of quiet dignity," says the head of Leonard Nimoy, as he eats food off the surface of his jar fluid like a goldfish.) As with The Simpsons, celebrities are queueing up to supply guest voices on the show, only to have the piss ripped out of them mercilessly for their trouble. The concept reaches a peak at the end of the first series with Fry attending a concert by the Beastie Boys. "Back in the 20th century, I had all five of your albums," gushes Fry. "That was a thousand years ago," points out Adam Horovitz. "Now we've got seven."
In America, season two of Futurama kicks off on September 26th: while in the UK, we get our first chance to see it properly (i.e. not compressed to buggery via Real Video) on Sky One starting September 21st. (Oh, look, a Tuesday night slot.) Given Matt Groening's track record, I'd like to hope that viewers on Proper Telly won't have to wait several years before it turns up on there too. Groening's certainly come a long way from the scribble he made in the inside cover of a copy of School Is Hell back in August 1987. Although personally, I don't hold out any hopes of The Adventures Of Cliff The Lemming leading to a similar world-dominating role for me. Being a monkey, and all.
The Futurama Archive [dead link] is much better. Go there and download assorted pictures and sounds before Fox's lawyers hit them with Cease And Desist orders, like they did with The Simpsons.
There's Something About Futurama [dead link] does the same sort of thing. That's where I stole the second picture on this page from. Sorry, guys. Lots of good wallpapers and other downloadable goodies.
The Futurama Source [dead link] does too. That's where I stole the third picture. Great collection of screengrabs from all episodes available here.
There's Something About Futurama In The United Kingdom [dead link] is the first UK site dedicated to Futurama, although enthusiasm should be tempered against the webmaster's apparent inability to read a TV guide and work out the correct start date for transmission from the pictures and words therein. Still, early days yet.
Lando's Stinking Hole is an archive of all sorts of stuff of dubious legality. It's mentioned here because they have a fine collection of every Futurama episode to date [dead link] in Real Video format for download, which is how I got to see them before you did. The server can be a little slow at times, but hey, it's British, which has to count for something. Lando's also pretty hot on obtaining South Park episodes [dead link] shortly after transmission in the US.
Simpsons Bout Futurama comes up with an intriguing idea - if the Simpsons took on the Futurama cast in a fight, who would win? - but pisses it away with some rather poor animated files. Still, some of you may get some kind of disturbing erotic thrill from a picture of Marge attacking Leela with her hairdo.
alt.tv.futurama was started up on Usenet around the same time as the first episode, which apparently is unheard of for a TV newsgroup (but was the only way to stop alt.tv.simpsons becoming flooded with off-topic postings). The usual discussion of the show and related matters, notable for containing postings along the lines of "it's not as funny as it used to be" from around episode three onwards.
Life In Hell [dead link] can only muster one real fan site (as opposed to the 386 for The Simpsons and 27 for Futurama listed on Yahoo!), so it probably deserves your support. Some nice scans of terribly old Groening strips, including the much-photocopied How To Kill Eight Hours A Day And Still Keep Your Job [dead link].
[In a desperate attempt to get at least one live link on this page, here's the official site for the first Futurama feature-length DVD, Bender's Big Score.]