Futurama occupies a curious place in the history of science fiction media. The animated television show, created by Matt Groening, is both science fiction comedy and science fiction parody. It engages with a rich history of science fiction, representing and reimagining it within its own universe, while at the same time developing its own ideas about science fiction and the future. By doing this it places itself in dialogue with the rich history of science fiction while also securing its place within that history.
Parody and referential comedy are written in to the show’s blood from the beginning. In the opening minutes of the pilot there are jokes related to the way doors function in the original Star Trek series. Fry, the main character, observes that the door he is walking through is just like one from Star Trek, and gets hit by the door as it closes. This joke operates on a couple of different levels. First and foremost, there is the physical comedy. But most of the humor derives from a knowledge or at least base familiarity of Star Trek. There is the basic working knowledge about how those doors work, as well as the meta knowledge, knowing that the doors on the sets were cheaply constructed and at times failed to work properly while filming. Futurama doesn’t just reference the content of the show, but its production and the culture around it.
Futurama engages with science fiction in this way most episodes. In some cases, its a simple reference in the background of a scene, or part of the punchline of a joke. There are times, though, that entire plots or episodes are built upon this concept. Take, for example, the episode “Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences.” A significant portion of the episode is based around faking an alien invasion, done through a broadcast of characters acting out an invasion being narrated by Orson Wells. This is clearly a parody of the War of the Worlds the text and War of the Worlds and the popular mythology surrounding its radio broadcast in 1938. Futurama is interacting with the original piece of science fiction and also with the culture and history surrounding the text.
We can see this trend most clearly in the episode entitled “Where No Fan Has Gone Before.” The episode is, essentially, a love letter to Star Trek, both the show itself and the culture surrounding it. The episode involves the main characters of Futurama being stranded on a planet with the main cast of Star Trek. They are all at the mercy of Melllvar, an energy being and massive Star Trek fan, who forces them into participating in a Star Trek convention. Much of the episode plays out like an episode of Star Trek, and much of the humor comes from the parody.
At the same time, the episode also plays off of the culture around Star Trek itself. There are regular jokes about the set, the acting, the levels of devotion fans have shown the show over the years. Even many of the original Star Trek actors voice themselves in the episode while also voicing their complicated relationship with the series and its history. The episode is very clearly aware of not just the source material, but its legacy as well. It then further draws a relationship between Star Trek and Futurama, indirectly showing how Futurama could not exist without the influence of Star Trek.
Futurama is an intelligent show, and much of its appeal comes from its clever interaction with and interpretation of science fiction. It functions beyond simple parody. Futurama very specifically draws inspiration not just from works of science fiction, but from the history of the genre and culture around it, and by doing so places itself within that legacy. It goes, quite simply, where no science fiction show has gone before.
“Space Pilot 3000,” Futurama, written by Matt Groening, directed by Rich Moore and Greg Vanzo, Twentieth Century Fox, 1999.
“Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences,” Futurama, written by Matt Groening, directed by Crystal Chesney, Twentieth Century Fox, 2010.
“Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” Futurama, written by Matt Groening, directed by Patty Shinagawa, Twentieth Century Fox, 2002.