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Space Pilot 3000

July 1, 2012

Original airdate: March 28, 1999

Written by David X. Cohen and Matt Groening; Directed by Rich Moore and Gregg Vanzo

We begin unsurprisingly at the beginning. “Space Pilot 3000” is a pretty perfectly weighted pilot episode. It’s actually quite amazing how they’re able to set up the characters, plot and entirely alien setting while still being funny. It’s by no means the best episode, but it’s not bad considering the about of exposition required.

The first, and most important, set up is our lead character Philip J. Fry, a stupid, pathetic, lazy 20-something New Yorker stuck in the dead-end job of pizza delivery. Fry is the standard slacker character, the loveable loser in whom we can all in some way see ourselves. He hates his crummy life, yearns for something better, but just doesn’t quite have the smarts or drive to get there. The episode perfectly sets up Fry and his plight throughout the opening act: kids insult him, his girlfriend Michelle has left him (though he doesn’t really realize it), his bike is stolen, his parents and boss are uncaring, his dead end job has forced him to work on New Year’s Eve and the recipient of the pizza he’s meant to deliver isn’t even there. Fry kicks back on a chair with a beer as the clock closes on midnight and dryly salutes “another lousy millennium”. But the millennium everyone outside is ringing in isn’t the one Fry will experience. The destination of his pizza was a building called “Applied Cryogenics”. As the clock strikes midnight, Fry’s chair tips backwards and he falls into a cryogenic chamber, sealing him in for 1000 years.

After a brilliant sped-up montage showing the cycle of construction and destruction that occurs while Fry is frozen, we reach the time period where will spend (most) of the rest of the series. Fry is unfrozen slightly less than 1000 years later, awakening on New Year’s Eve 2999 at some point during the day. Fry quickly realizes this means everyone he knew is dead, and he couldn’t be happier about it.

While Fry is the show’s clear protagonist, we soon meet the other two characters who will form its core trio and who will be pretty equal to Fry in terms of screen time and storylines (and one who will in many ways overtake Fry). First is Leela, the one-eyed “Fate Assignment Officer” at the cryogenics lab. Like Fry she hates her job and seems resigned to her fate, pledging the motto that you “gotta do what you gotta do”.

Fry is understandably horrified when Leela tells him that his permanent career assignment is the very thing he thought he’d escaped: delivery boy. Fry’s sunny optimism is crushed almost as soon as it formed and he flees. What follows is our first look at the future New New York. The whole sequence is animated beautifully with a wonderful tracking shot of an awe-struck Fry followed by the introduction of the Tube Transport System.

And then we meet Bender. The sarcastic, uncaring, crime-loving robot who, for better or worse, became the show’s undoubted star.  He starts out, like Fry and Leela, directionless and alone. In fact he’s so resigned to his fate he’s going to kill himself. Fry meets Bender in the line for a suicide booth (which Fry naturally assumes is a phone booth). What follows still stands as one of the show’s best scenes as the two share a session in the booth, with Fry entirely oblivious to what’s about to happen. The pilot sets up all Bender’s key traits: he’s angry, he lies, he steals, he drinks, he bends and he’s a jerk. And that’s why he’s great.

Fry’s delights of New New York seem short-lived. As a job deserter both Leela and the police are after him. But Leela has doubts about condemning Fry to the fate he so hates. She rescues Fry and Bender from the police, while Bender overcomes his programming to bend them an escape route. In the ruins of Old New York, Fry suddenly feels out of place, knowing that all he knew is gone. Leela catches them up, but quits her job and reveals she doesn’t know who her parents are. She and Fry form a strong bond of mutual loneliness in the series’ first genuinely emotional moment.

After introducing the three main characters and a whole new world, there’s still time to set up what will be the day-to-day of the series. Our three characters are job deserters. What better solution than to mooch of Fry’s only living relative, his great-great-great-etc nephew Professor Hubert Farnsworth? The four escape the police in the Professor’s space ship and to solve their status as fugitives he hires them as the new crew for his package delivery business he runs to fund his research… so Fry ends up with same job he spent the whole episode trying to escape. But this is in space. So he couldn’t be happier about it. That’s why this show’s so great.

The overall theme of the episode then, is a fantastic play on the traditional tropes of science-fiction. Fry is an alienated loser in his own time, yet (at least by the end of the episode) fits right in 1000 years in the future with the aliens, robots and myriad of things that would be horrific to anyone else, winding up with a slightly less crummy job, actual friends and more. We instantly empathise with and relate to Fry and he instantly feels at home in the future. The whole thing feels organic. It’s a perfect recipe for a great TV show.

Trivia and quotes

  • “Do not tip the delivery boy”
  • Even the background characters emphasise how crummy Fry’s life is. The couple at the table in Panucci’s Pizza in the very opening scene shake their heads and look disgusted at Fry as he leaves to make the delivery.
  • “I’d always thought by this point in my life I’d be the one making the crank calls”
  • The two cryogenic workers, one wonderfully overdramatic the other totally uncaring: “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!” vs. “Have a nice future”.
  • The continuity and actual story arcs and progression in Futurama is really wonderful. This is, of course, possible as the series focuses on adults, so time can slowly progress without the whole ‘why don’t Bart and Lisa age?’ issue.
  • This is of course shown way back here in spades, with Nibbler’s shadow under Fry’s chair just before he falls back in to the freezer and the first mention of Leela’s unknown origin – setting up two of the show’s main arcs – not to mention the horrific fate of the Professor’s previous crew (“but that’s not important”)
  • Fry and Leela’s first meeting kind of sets up their later relationship. Fry is instantly attracted to Leela (from behind) and although initially weirded out by her eye, gets over it pretty quickly and becomes basically the only character in the show who doesn’t mind it. And then their touching moment towards the end.
  • “Well at least here you’ll be treated with dignity. Now strip naked and get on the probulator.”
  • After fleeing, Fry traps Leela in a cryogenic chamber but immediately goes back to set the clock to just five minutes. He may be lazy and stupid, but they very carefully make sure not to paint him as a jerk.
  • Blinky!
  • This is the first episode so obviously the voices haven’t settled into what we’re used to. This is most obviously the case with Bender, with John DiMaggio doing a lot lower, gruffer voice.
  • First use of “bite my shiny metal ass” of course.
  • “You are now dead. Thank you for using Stop and Drop, America’s favourite suicide booth since 2008.” I’ll let you decide if this inaccurate prediction is good or bad.
  • Leela’s boss, Ipji, is without doubt my favourite minor recurring character: “Well that’s your job, whether you like it or not. And it’s my job to make sure you do your job whether I like it or not, which I do, very much!”
  • Bender just had to kill himself after he learnt the girders he was bending were being used to make suicide booths.
  • Ah the first appearance of the Head Museum – Leonard Nimoy is always top value as a guest star.
  • Wow they set up a lot in this episode, in the Hall of President’s at the Head Museum, who gets the biggest part? Nixon of course.
  • Police brutality with entirely solid lightsabers is always gold. As is the brilliant “I’m gonna get 24th Century on his ass.”
  • Bender was originally not as destructive as he would become. Only after an electric shocks does his programming alter to allow him to “de-bend”.
  • “It’s up to you to make your own decisions in life. That’s what separates people…and robots, from animals…and animal robots”
  • “From now on I’m going to bend what I want, when I want, who I want!”
  • Bender somehow reattaching both of his arms is a fabulous surreal bit, which also sets up the fact that Bender’s body parts all basically have minds of their own.
  • “No friends”, “I just wanted to be part of the moment”, “Well, that solves the mystery of the missing ring” – Bender is a quick-fire gag machine.
  • Assorted lengths of wire
  • Bender shits his first very literal brick
  • “We have you partially surrounded”
  • The episode marks the first of only two uses of this blog’s name, the Professor’s would-be catchphrase: “Can’t we get away in the ship?/I suppose it is technically possible. Though I am already in my pajamas”. Billy West’s reading always cracks me up.
  • And we close with the thought that the Futurama theme may be my favourite TV theme ever.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Frostillicus permalink
    July 15, 2012 12:28 am

    Nice work! I’ve been reading Mike’s MBWG for most of its existence, and really enjoyed his take on The Simpsons, even now, as he’s onto the Zombie Years. Thankfully, Futurama doesn’t have that same problem, so I’m really looking forward to reading more. Keep up the excellent (ripped off) work!

  2. July 15, 2012 3:42 am

    I remember watching this episode when it premiered and I thought, “Well, that wasn’t very funny, but it was entertaining enough. It’ll last a season or two.”

    In retrospect — and this is a show that benefits a lot from retrospection — this is one of the best pilots ever, and it actually might be one of the funniest episodes, as well as just being a good episode in general. While my feelings haven’t changed regarding the overall “laugh-out-loud” quality of the show (I find individual lines to be clever, but the show is more than just a comedy to me, I watch it as a drama, there is a real exploration into emotions and character depth at times, truely depressing and dark show sometimes — the suicide booth in this episode is one of my favorite things ever and it perfectly illustrates my point). I always tell people I don’t think the show is funny, and they act like I hate the show. I actually think it’s a great show, it just doesn’t make me laugh. (for a show I don’t like any aspect of, check out.. well, many shows.. but South Park comes to mind)

    Getting back to my point, episodes like LUCK OF THE FRYISH and “THE ONE WHERE FRY’S DOG DIES” aren’t episodes I even approach as episodes that contain humor. I mean, it’s like HOMER’S TRIPLE BYPASS; I think it’s one of the best episodes of that show ever, and there are jokes indeed, but I am too emotionally invested in the story. This is hard to do; make powerful and entertaining television that deals with serious topics, but don’t make it corny. To me, they do this by having jokes. I mean, BREAKING BAD started out as a dark comedy, did it not? Bryan Cranston in his underwear with a gun, hahaha! But as the show developed, it got a lot darker. Also see THE SOPRANOS. I don’t even laugh very much at those shows, but I can recognize them as dark comedies. I would almost content that Futurama is a dramedy, and I think calling it “an animated comedy” almost sounds insulting, because it automatically lumps it in with family guy (I won’t capitalize or quote the show because it almost dignifies it, and it’s garbage) and the shows made by that guy that are almost identical except they’re worse. Animation needs to evolve in people’s minds beyond whether it’s funny or not. I mean, the best episodes of HOME MOVIES don’t have hardly any jokes at all. It seems like they are so far ahead of us elsewhere, with MONKEY DUST in the UK (which is almost a dark comedy at times)… or, like, tons of anime in Japan (EVANGELION is the greatest show, ever)…. we’ve had great animated shows here, like the surreal 12 OZ MOUSE and the best-show-ever-contender XAVIER: RENEGADE ANGEL and various high-quality classic MTV shows (THE MAXX, AEON FLUX, etc), but it seems like the people who didn’t like those shows automatically go, “[it’s] retarded. [it’s] not funny.” So, when I talk about Futurama with you, I MIGHT occasionally talk about moments I find funny, but I watch the show for the drama, the depth, and how damn clever it is. It’s a smart show. It’s not just another “funny cartoon”, imo.

    ……Anyway, great review. It’s going to be the start of a beautiful show.

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