Twenty years ago, the Fox network aired the first season of Futurama, a science-fiction cartoon series which would go on to win multiple Emmys and Annie Awards, created by Matt Groening, the man behind the biggest cartoon series of the 1990s – The Simpsons. Futurama was a project several years in the making, despite having less humble origins than The Simpsons. By the mid-1990s, The Simpsons had been running for several seasons and had become one of the most critically and commercially successful television series of all time. As Groening had created such a successful series for them, it was only natural that Fox would approach him about masterminding something new.
To help him develop a new animated series, Groening enlisted David X. Cohen, a writer and producer on The Simpsons, and the two created a science-fiction series, which they pitched to Fox in 1998. While Fox would commission a thirteen-episode season, Groening would later describe getting Futurama on the air as “by far the worst experience of my grown-up life”, as he had to argue a lot with Fox executives over whether the network would have any creative input. Ultimately, the network executives relented, giving Groening the same independence which he had for The Simpsons, and the series premiered on March 28, 1999 with the episode Space Pilot 3000.
The pilot episode opens with a prologue set in New York City on December 31, 1999. As the clock strikes midnight on the start of a new Millenium, Fry – an immature, dimwitted, 25-year-old pizza delivery boy – is accidentally cryogenically frozen for 1000 years. During that period New York is destroyed by alien invaders (twice), before the technologically advanced New New York is eventually built in its place (the ruins of “Old New York” are later revealed to be in the sewers beneath the city. Fry reawakens as New New York are preparing to welcome in the year 3000.
Along with his new friends, alcoholic robot Bender and cyclops Leela, Fry tracks down his only living relative, centenarian scientist Professor Farnsworth, and the three of them begin working for his intergalactic delivery company – Planet Express. In their new occupations, Fry, Leela and Bender travel the universe and encounter all manner of different races and cultures, sometimes accompanied by Farnsworth or some of their colleagues – intern Amy Wong, anthropomorphic crab Dr. Zoidberg, and company manager Hermes Conrad. All the while, Fry must adjust to life in the 31st Century and come to accept that his perspective on the world is enormously outdated.
With any first season of a television series there is always a degree of pressure. Not only must the season achieve good enough ratings for the network to consider green-lighting future seasons, but it must also lay down the foundations for potential future seasons by establishing characters and its own style. For Groening, Cohen and their creative team, there was likely an even greater sense of pressure as viewers and critics alike would have likely had quite high expectations, following such a successful first decade for The Simpsons.
The challenge was to establish both characters and a style good enough for the network to consider green-lighting a second season, and also appease viewers and critics alike who were fans of the by now well-established The Simpsons. It would have been so easy for Groening, Cohen and their creative team to have recycled the style and character-types of The Simpsons, but in a futuristic setting. Thankfully they chose to create something fresh and original, a series which can be categorised far more easily as a science-fiction series than as a sitcom.
Despite this first season airing in an era where there was a great deal of public concern that the start of the 21st Century would cause all manner of problems with technology, namely the so-called ‘Millennium bug’ causing dates on lazily-programmed computers to revert to 1900, the vision of the future depicted here is one which celebrates technology. Not simply the technology which is used in everyday life, such as holographic messages, wrist communicators, and flying cars, but also in the fact that a fair-sized percentage of New New York’s population are robots.
Aside from primary character Bender, there is URL (a police officer) and Preacherbot, a leader in the religion of Robotology, as well as various background extras over the course of the season. With so much in the way of technological advancement, New New York is a very creative setting, with a lot of care and detail in the design, which evokes the vision of the future brought famously to the big screen in the 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis. While the animators did an excellent job in designing this futuristic city, their creativity and imagination comes through most when the Planet Express crew visit other planets.
In their designs for a variety of different races and cultures, the animators do not just go with your typical alien designs like those found in films such as The Blob and Alien, but come up with some original designs and even design a robot culture in Episode 5 (Fear of a Bot Planet). Possibly the most fresh and original of their alien races comes in Episode 7 (My Three Suns), when the Planet Express crew visit Trisol, whose natives are made entirely out of water. Their design is a brilliantly surreal piece of animation, as their physical form is akin to a gelatinous blob, only more anthropomorphic, while their design also has a wonderful translucent quality so that the viewer is never under any uncertainty as to what they are made of.
The science-fiction elements of the series also come through in the pop culture references, with Space Pilot 3000 alone referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and Logan’s Run, reflecting Groening and Cohen’s well-attested love for the science-fiction genre. Furthermore, Episodes 10 (A Flight to Remember) and 13 (Fry and the Slurm Factory) parody the popular films Titanic and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory respectively, putting a science-fiction spin on these well-known properties.
The screenwriters also utilise the futuristic setting to pen relevant socio-political messages (a prominent trope in science-fiction since the 19th Century), most notably in Episode 8 (A Big Piece of Garbage). In that episode, New New York sees a giant ball of garbage that was blasted into outer space in the 21st Century come back to haunt them. The message of the episode is clearly directed at the viewers of the late-1990s, an era where there was growing concern about human wastefulness which prevails to this day. While several characters take a somewhat cavalier attitude to the ball of garbage, these characters are obviously wrong, and the message is clear – humanity must recycle more and be less wasteful, for it is future generations who will be forced to deal with the consequences.
Despite being more easily categorised as a science-fiction series, there is nevertheless a lot of good humour to Futurama’s first season. Like with most animated series, there are regular slapstick gags, particularly in Space Pilot 3000 while Fry tries to get to grips with the technology of the future, but most of the humour comes from the characters. As a centenarian scientist, many gags centre around Farnsworth’s eccentric nature and moments of senility, while his habit beginning an announcement with “Good news, everyone” went on to become a meme in subsequent years – something the show itself was all too aware of.
There is some darker humour, however, which is quite uncomfortable to watch – namely the jokes surrounding suicide booths in Space Pilot 3000, which naturally raised real concerns with Fox executives when they were negotiating how much input the network would have with the series. They were jokes which felt out of place in 1999, and two decades later feel even more problematic due to increased mental health and suicide awareness in Western culture. Furthermore, there’s the occasional joke that simply hasn’t aged well, like the gaydar jokes in Episode 4 (Love’s Labours Lost in Space), which reflect outdated stereotypes towards which comedy writers were far less sensitive during the 1990s.
As well as its style, Futurama clearly differs from The Simpsons in its characters – not only in the characters’ species, but in their dynamic as well. Rather than a familial dynamic, the series focuses primarily on the rapport between friends and colleagues. The primary dynamic is between the main trio of Fry, Leela and Bender, which is a very well realised one as each character brings something different to it. Fry and Bender quickly become best friends and later roommates in Episode 3 (I, Roommate), with Fry delighted to fulfil a childhood dream of being friends with a robot and Bender, beneath his cynical exterior, delighted to finally have a real friend.
Furthermore, Fry brings out Bender’s more vulnerable and sincere characteristics, although he understands Bender well enough to keep those characteristics a secret from the others. The two frequently get themselves into sticky situations, but Leela is much more level-headed and proves herself to be the voice of reason within the trio. Furthermore, she comes to see that there is value in Fry’s perspective on the universe, namely in how he regards the Moon in Episode 2 (The Series Has Landed). The two start to develop feelings for each other in Episode 10 (A Flight to Remember), which starts an ongoing subplot of romantic tension that would run for the duration of the series.
Despite being his only living relative, Farnsworth has no familial dynamic with Fry (hardly surprising given that he did not learn of Fry’s existence until he was over 140 years old), instead being frequently frustrated by Fry’s immaturity and dimwittedness. Farnsworth, however, primarily serves as the catalyst in a number of self-contained narratives, primarily because the missions which he sends Fry, Leela and Bender on result in them having adventures on distant planets.
Hermes serves as another voice of reason as he tries in vain to maintain order in Planet Express, while Amy brings real energy and enthusiasm to the staff’s dynamic. Zoidberg, however, rounds out the staff’s dynamic by existing primarily as comic relief. Despite being a self-proclaimed expert on humans, Zoidberg makes Dr. Nick from The Simpsons look competent in a number of absurdly brilliant verbal gags, and Fry is left fearful of ever having to be seen by Planet Express’s physician. It was not until later seasons that Amy’s klutzy nature and Zoidberg’s financial struggles and repulsive behaviour and general odour became the most prominent traits of their characters. Nevertheless, the two of them, as well as Hermes and Farnsworth still receive a fair amount of screentime in Season 1.
Best episode: While the season has a generally consistent standard, the best episode is the second one (The Series Has Landed). The episode introduces Amy, Zoidberg and Hermes, while also cementing the dynamic between the central trio of Fry, Leela and Bender, in their antics when they make a delivery to the Moon, along with Amy. There are some good running gags (a particularly relatable one being Amy’s ongoing fight with a crane machine), and the episode also establishes several motifs, most notably Fry’s perspective clashing with that of his friends.
While Fry is incredibly excited to be on the Moon, Leela quickly tires of his childlike wonder – by the year 3000, the Moon is just another tourist attraction, complete with a tacky amusement park. In the first of many such moments, however, Fry shows that there is more depth to him than an immature goof, as he reveals in a tender moment that he had dreamt of being an astronaut as a child, but was unable to due to his lack of academic abilities.
Best concept: When a work of fiction is set in the future it offers the writer(s) a broad scope for fantastical concepts. Futurama boasts multiple original concepts concerning technological advancement, the best of which is that the heads of historical figures and celebrities are preserved and alive in jars. The Simpsons has been renowned for celebrities making guest appearances as themselves since the early-1990s, so in this concept the Futurama screenwriters found a way in which they could create a series set in the year 3000, yet still have recognisable celebrities of the 1990s/2000s make guest appearances as themselves. After all, the first head in a jar that Fry meets is Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy, in his third time voicing himself in a Matt Groening creation.
Verdict: To this day many people continue to debate whether Futurama is better than The Simpsons, with many who prefer the former expressing frustration that The Simpsons has made it to Season 30, whereas Futurama was ultimately cancelled (twice!). However, to compare the two is unfair, as they are very different series, which is established from the very first episode of Futurama, an episode that makes it clear that Futurama is primarily a science-fiction series as opposed to a sitcom like The Simpsons.
With detailed animation and countless clever pop culture references, this season established Futurama as a clever and highly enjoyable science-fiction series, which has some excellent original ideas while also paying homage to classic science-fiction, and conveys some messages which remain relevant today. Ultimately though, the heart of the series is in the characters, particularly within the central trio of Fry, Leela and Bender, whose dynamic is very well realised and has a lot of hidden depth and complexities that are fleshed out over the season’s run.