Has ‘Futurama’ Jumped The Space Whale?

I’ve been rewatching the latest set of episodes from Futurama recently, and they’re not bad. They’re funny, if occasionally somewhat simultaneously preachy and dumb in the way only Futurama can be. Whenever the series gets political, it tends to teeter on the verge of becoming strident, yet oddly taking no sides. It’s like watching a political loon have an argument with himself on Reddit.

That tended to happen a lot this season, or at least it felt like it, and I think I finally put my finger on why.

At least once a season, there’s an episode that’s, at root, a great science fiction story. Last season it was The Late Phillip J. Fry, which was like all great time travel stories as much about regret and second chances as about the science. At its best, the series turns out episodes like Godfellas, Mobius Dick, Roswell That Ends Well, or Jurassic Bark, stories that develop the characters while turning SF cliches on their head and being hilarious into the bargain.

This season, we didn’t have that episode. There wasn’t any unequivocally bad episodes, although The Bots and The Bees once again illustrates that gender politics are the show’s Achilles heel. There just wasn’t anything that, well, honestly showed any interest in science fiction, really. Instead it was mostly about the social satire, and the only episode where that really worked was Decision 3012, although the ending may be a bit too cheap and cynical for some.

The closest it really got was Free Will Hunting, about Bender’s desire to break free of his programming. The show can actually deal with serious philosophical and scientific issues in a funny way, and this would seem to be right up their alley, but they rush through anything that might give the episode some depth. And, worse, they dump the ending gag, for some reason, and switch it with something that’s funny but not quite as engaging as what they obviously wanted to end on. After all, the entire point of the episode is that even in the absence of free will, our actions have weight and consequences we’re responsible for. I’m not pulling that out of my ass: One member of the robot council actually says that to Bender’s face. It’s the entire theme of the episode, and they chuck it out the window.

Again, none of the episodes were bad, although some teetered on the preachy, and the show is still good. I’m just hopeful we’ll see at least a little more science fiction when the show returns next year.