Past-o-Rama: Space Pilot 3000 / The Series Has Landed

I honestly can’t remember when I first started watching The Simpsons. The first season I know I watched most of when it originally aired was season 11, which started in the fall of 1999. But I know I had to have seen and enjoyed watching reruns for at least a few years before that, because, as a ten-year-old, I was absolutely fucking stoked for the premiere of Futurama in March of 1999. I’m sure it must have been even more exciting for those in their teens and twenties, a brand-new show from the creator of one of the greatest and most influential comedies of all time. It especially felt pretty big from the standpoint of animation, as we had just left the vacuous doldrums of toy commercial cartoons of the 80s into the creator-driven shows of the 90s, and now we’d gone long enough that a famed creator of one show could go off and make a new one. The only other big example I can think of is Mike Judge going from Beavis and Butt-head to King of the Hill two years prior, but that feels much different since the format and style of the two shows is quite different, as well as Judge jumping from MTV to FOX. Futurama premiered after a decade of The Simpsons on the same network, with the same distinct Matt Groening art style, so it was a mystery on how similar this new show would be compared to its predecessor. “Space Pilot 3000” has a lot of heavy lifting to do, since not only do we need to introduce the new cast, but also the future setting, and tell an actual story on top of that, all in just twenty-two minutes. As a pilot, it’s honestly still one of the most effective and successful first episodes I’ve ever seen in terms of what it sets out to do.

In the cold open, we meet Philip J. Fry, an absolute loser of a twenty-something, a lowly delivery boy for a shitty NYC pizza place, with a boss who hates him, a girlfriend who dumps him, and no future prospects to speak of… at least until a prank delivery (OR WAS IT) brings him to a cryogenics lab on New Year’s Eve 1999, and he accidentally gets frozen for a thousand years. It’s funny to look back on is how much of the basis of the show feels born out of excitement/apprehension about the year 2000, Y2K. Sure, it was just another year around the Sun, but the symbolism of entering a new century just seemed immense, like anything and everything was possible. This series is almost like a snarky response to his hyper idealism, leaping us further another thousand years into a fantastical future filled with incredible advancements and nifty gadgets, but is also still kind of shitty. The best gag representative of this is when Fry first runs outside and we get the grand pan of all of the technological wonders of New New York, and we see a floating billboard with a rotating display, but when it flips to a different ad, one of the dividers doesn’t work so it messes up the image. Science-fiction has always been about holding a mirror up to our present, and there are times when this show would satirize current events to mixed results, but the best examples of which were able to blend a “realistic” depiction of an amazingly advanced society, but still plagued by human stupidity.

Shortly after being unfrozen, Fry meets Turanga Leela, a one-eyed “alien” who assigns new future arrivals their lifelong occupations via career chips implanted into their hands. This is the only major aspect of the pilot that feels off compared to the rest of the series, the idea that people rigidly conform to their professions for life. It makes it pretty limited for what your characters can do, so the concept was discarded pretty much immediately, as we’d see characters pick up a myriad of new jobs over time. But for the purposes of this pilot, it really works: Fry emerges in a new world, eager for a fresh new start, but is devastated to find out he’s doomed to be a delivery boy here too. He escapes, with Leela giving chase, and eventually runs into Bender, a sarcastic, hard-drinking robot. He, too, is despondent in his lot in life, eager to end it all in one of New New York’s finest curbside suicide booths, but Fry intervenes, and inadvertently gives his existence new meaning. In this oddly constrictive future, Fry argues that he can design his own future (“That’s what separates people and robots from animals and… animal robots!”) His unrestrained free-thinking finally gets to Leela too, as it gives her the nerve to quit her job, admitting she always had wanted to, but just needed the right push. It’s kind of unique that in this pilot, the three main characters all meet each other, so we’re following their character journeys together from the beginning. They’re immediately such a fun trio, fitting the classic Freudian trio of id (the rambunctious Bender), ego (the everyman Fry), and superego (the pragmatic Leela).

Fry, Leela, and Bender manage to evade the authorities and track down Fry’s only living relative, his great-great-great…great-grandnephew Professor Farnsworth, who hires them to work for his intergalactic delivery business (a little company he whipped up to help fund his research, a point that doesn’t really come up after this.) Not only is this a funny button for the episode, Fry now thrilled to work as a delivery boy, the setting of Planet Express is perfect for this show. First, it firmly establishes Futurama as a workplace sitcom, differentiating it from The Simpson and other animated family shows. But a show about an interstellar UPS means that they have free range to fly off to any wacky world they choose, under the pretense of having a package to haul, where they can get mixed up in a crazy misadventure. Season 1 sees Bender becoming a robot revolutionary and Fry the emperor of a planet, all kicked off by a simple delivery. Sure, there would be plenty of future episodes that barely involved Planet Express functioning as an actual company, but it was a great jumping off point to flesh out the future setting. And they got things kicked off right with the very next episode…

Yes, I know I’m breaking my own rules already, since I said I would be covering nine episodes in this look-back, but “The Series Has Landed” really feels like an extension of the pilot, reinforcing and adding onto everything it set up. In our first act, we round out the rest of the main cast by meeting Fry, Leela and Bender’s new co-workers: the eccentric alien Dr. Zoidberg, the mostly no-nonsense bureaucrat Hermes Conrad (with a deep, boisterous laugh that he would lose shortly after this), and grad student/intern Amy Wong. Having the first delivery mission in the series be to the Moon feels very appropriate; Fry is stunned at the prospect of visiting Earth’s closest celestial body, something he in his time could only have dreamed of doing, but none of the other characters pay it with any regard. Turns out the Moon is only known for Luna Park, a chintzy amusement park, 20th century man’s greatest exploratory achievement reduced to a cheap carnival attraction. Amused by the park’s novelty at first, Fry yearns to go out onto the “real” moon, hijacking a lunar rover ride vehicle and going out onto the surface, much to Leela’s annoyance. Even when things go terribly wrong, the two almost getting stranded, then put into indentured servitude by a kooky moon farmer, Fry is still enraptured by just existing in this crazy future.

With all the place setting business of the pilot done with (as well as this episode’s first act, establishing the rest of the Planet Express crew), the show is free to tell a new story with these characters, starting to flesh them out a bit more (hinting at Bender’s softer side and his yearnings to be a folk singer, Leela cutting loose and singing along with the Whalers on the Moon song.) We also spend a little time with Amy, adding a new flavor to our established trio, as she has a little subplot where she misplaces the ship’s keys, which get lost in an arcade crane game. One other thing to bring up is this show’s usage of CGI, which for network television at the time made it really stand out. It’s mostly used for any flying spaceships, but we’d see entire environments and characters presented in cel-shaded CG, and even almost twenty-five years later, it looks absolutely spectacular. The ending of this episode features the moon farmer riding a giant robotic thrasher, and the Planet Express ship dangling Bender from a mechanical wench, latched onto the lunar module, all of which are CG models, and they’re absolutely seamlessly integrated with the 2D animation.

Fry is the real beating heart of the episode, his enthusiasm clashing with the other characters’, particularly Leela’s, desensitized apathy to the wonders of the future (aka: their present.) The ending gets me every time, where Fry actually manages to get out a somewhat profound explanation of what the Moon means to him (“The moon was like this awesome, romantic, mysterious thing, hanging up there in the sky where you could never reach it, no matter how much you wanted to.”) It’s also the first big Fry-Leela moment, where she finally understands Fry’s awe and warms up to him a bit more. There’s definitely more to be said about the evolution of their relationship, but this early dynamic really makes sense. Fry’s simple-minded optimism definitely has a charm to it, which Leela is understandably receptive to. That paired with the two of them being without family, as established in the pilot, sets the stage for her to really grow on him. I wish they’d kind of held on a little longer to Fry’s season 1 characterization, but over time he quickly became less naive fish-out-of-water and more of just a regular big dope. As time went on, he inevitably had to get desensitized to living in the future, but after that, it almost became a contest to see how low they could sink Fry’s intelligence. It admittedly led to some funny jokes, but sometimes it would go a bit too far, to the point where you’d question why in the hell Leela would be interested in such an absolute moron at all.

Futurama‘s first season premiered on FOX to mostly positive acclaim, and as far as I can tell, good ratings. Running its first two episodes Sunday at 8:30, following The Simpsons, the latter seven episodes were moved to Tuesdays at 8:30, pairing it with King of the Hill. I guess they were trying to diversify their animated programming over two nights of the week, but it just seems like an absolute no-brainer that you’d pair The Simpsons and Futurama together as an hour-long block. The final four episodes of production season 1 would air at the start of the second season in the fall of 1999, where the show was back on Sundays at 8:30. At least for now. I was still faithfully watching, but a monkey wrench would soon be thrown into Futurama‘s spokes, playing an instrumental role in its ultimate doom on television. A monkey wrench by the name of Malcolm… But more on that later.

4 thoughts on “Past-o-Rama: Space Pilot 3000 / The Series Has Landed

  1. Even though Futurama never gets “bad”, Season 1 might be my favorite era of the show. At that point the characterization and worldbuilding hadn’t gone off in a million directions yet, so the whole setting felt really satisfying and focused.

    Come to think of it, I feel like Futurama would actually benefit more than The Simpsons from cutting a bunch of the weaker episodes out of every season. The fewer concepts the writers throw onto the 31st century, the more each one feels like an important aspect of that great setting. So pruning the ones that don’t work so well would really enhance what’s left in my opinion. It would bring back some of that Season 1 cohesion to the later classic episodes.

      1. My hot take is that the entirety of Futurama is similar in quality to Scully-era Simpsons, humor-wise, though plot-wise it’s often (not always) more akin to classic Simpsons. FOX era is a bit better than Scully-era Simpsons and Comedy Central era is a bit worse. But it’s not the dramatic difference some people claim.

        To me the best part of Futurama is when it treats its setting and world as a fleshed-out place, because that core concept is so good. But remove that setting and the show is entirely … a bit above-average. The main Comedy Central change was that they stopped developing the 31st century setting altogether; Futurama’s flaws then were the same as its flaws on FOX, it was just more obvious when its setting lost its sense of wonder.

  2. Strangely enough I remember Fry being one of the major elements that people weren’t sold on to begin with. A lot of commentators in 1999/2000 felt that he was kind of a weak lead, basically a Gen-X variation on the Homer Simpson archetype. As perhaps was inevitable, since they were going for a similar kind of “everyman” vibe, with Fry being the audience proxy figure for the first couple of seasons.

    Personally I never got back into Futurama following its initial cancellation (by the time it was revived, this fickle heart of mine had accepted it as gone and moved on), so I can’t comment on how low his intelligence sunk later down the line, but he did always have his moments of extreme obtuseness – the scene in “My Three Suns”, for example, where he tells Leela his version of The Ant and The Grasshopper, feels highly reminiscent of the kind of behaviour you’d have expected from Homer at the time. I’ll agree that in the beginning this was balanced out by more of a sweet naivety, as he discovered the “wonders” of the 31st century for the first time.

    People seemed to have warmed up to Fry by the time the Fry/Leela thread kicked into full swing but, eh, I never really dug that aspect of the series. That sure is one platonic view from where I’m standing.

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