I have a few things to say about last night’s new Futurama episode, “Leela and the Genestalk,” so I figured a post would be in order. I have to wonder how many other people are still even watching the show, though; I’ve seen a lot of “eh, might as well let it die” comments on the Internet. As I indicated earlier this week, I agree that this season has been rather weak overall, but it’s definitely had its moments. I don’t think this most recent episode was particularly great, but it did relate to a few issues I have about the show. The first regards the show as a means of discussing controversial topics in the present. This is a tradition within science fiction, but I think there have been times when Futurama took on such things in a way that didn’t really respect the setting. In “Genestalk,” we see some of this in Leela’s knee-jerk reaction against genetic engineering. Mind you, references to this in past episodes have been a little vague. It’s frequently mentioned that Leela and Amy suggest most men in their time use genetic engineering to enlarge their penises, while the Professor dismisses Fry’s suggestion that Guenter the monkey is genetically engineered as “preposterous science-fiction mumbo-jumbo.”
Neither is necessarily reflective of the actual state of genetic engineering, however, as Leela and Amy’s comments could have just been plain old insults, and the Professor could simply be referring to the use of that technique to make a money smart rather than genetic engineering in general. Besides, we all know he’s a senile, amoral crackpot who often likes to do things in unnecessarily convoluted ways just because he can. And later, Guenter goes to live on a planet of genetically modified primates. Also, what are the Professor’s atomic supermen if not genetically engineered?
Leela didn’t have any adverse reaction to them that we could see, and they were simply created to win a basketball game. It kind of feels like Leela’s attitude was reflective of twenty-first century rather than thirty-first century thinking just to make a point, and I can’t help but see that as somewhat lazy. I’ve had that reaction to other episodes as well. “A Clockwork Origin” is one such example, as I find it somewhat unlikely that Creationism will survive another thousand years, at least not as we know it today with even the basic idea that humans and apes are closely related species being so frequently challenged. Maybe that’s just optimism on my part, though. Similarly, when the show deals with sexism, it often implies that the state of women’s rights is even worse in the future (at least now the votes of male and female Supreme Court members count the same), and while it’s certainly possible that society regressed on this point, shouldn’t they at least give some indication why? It wouldn’t even have to be anything major, just a line like, “That invasion of Phyllis Schlafly clones in the twenty-fourth century really did a number on feminism,” only hopefully funnier than that. But maybe my feelings on these things are affected more by my own political and (lack of) religious beliefs than by bad writing. Nonetheless, I feel that episodes like “Decision 3012” and “Proposition Infinity,” which adapted current debates into ones that could occur in a sci-fi setting (immigrants from other planets instead of immigrants from other countries, human-robot marriage instead of gay marriage, etc.), worked better as social commentary than the ones that imply absolutely no social progress has been in an entire millennium. Yeah, I know I said in my review of “Decision 3012” that it was a little TOO heavy on the mockery of current events, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea wasn’t sound. Getting back to “Genestalk,” I found it interesting that it largely seemed to come out in favor of genetic engineering, pointing out how it can be used to increase food supplies and cure diseases. On the other hand, it was made pretty clear that Mom was mostly in it for the money. I addressed this topic before, and while I’m no fan of Monsanto (parodied in the show as Momsanto), I’m also quick to point out that their shady business practices don’t automatically make genetic modification a bad thing in and of itself. And maybe I’m exaggerating its Pro-GMO stance anyway. I’ve seen fans mention that they thought “I Dated a Robot” was intended to oppose Napster, while I didn’t see any particular message to that one, other than the general one that a lot of people are hypocrites (e.g., the crew talking Fry into dating a robot and then taking the exact opposite position after he gets serious about it, Bender being opposed to humans dating robots, but then dating a human (well, a human head) at the end, Lucy Liu saying that her identity is all she has only to mention in the same sentence that she also owns the world’s largest gold nugget).
The other issue I wanted to mention is how weird it is when a show that’s supposed to be set in our world parodies a story pretty much everyone knows, and no one even acknowledges the connection. Futurama has done other sorts of takes on this in the past. In “A Flight to Remember,” when the Professor mentions that the crew will be vacationing on the Titanic, they’re presented as not seeing anything amiss when the audience would expect them to. This reaction becomes even more absurd when you consider that the later episode “The Mutants Are Revolting” reveals a Land Titanic that met a similar fate on the streets of New New York in the early thirtieth century.
I guess any ship with that name must be doomed. In “Near-Death Wish,” on the other hand, a reference to The Matrix spawned a rather lengthy discussion about how the movie’s plot made no sense but someone decided to copy its ideas anyway. The reactions are pretty much exact opposites, but both acknowledge the cultural reference at least should be familiar in-universe, while “Genestalk” didn’t do this at all. Then again, maybe the story of Jack and the Beanstalk will become a lot more obscure in the next thousand years. I did appreciate that we received a payoff for the Professor naming the Planet Express ship Bessie, which seemed totally random when it happened in “2D Blacktop.” I guess it’s sort of like how Nibbler’s shadow and Leela’s parents showed up many episodes before we learned their relevance, albeit on a much smaller scale. I do find it odd that the Professor would be willing to sell his ship to pay for Leela’s surgery, though, and I have to wonder how they got it back after the events of the episode. (At least, I assume it will appear at some point in the last few episodes without explanation, but I don’t know for sure.) I saw a suggestion on the Internet that Bender stole it back, or maybe the salesman obtained Mom’s beans illegally and the trade was declared null and void. I also have to wonder if there was any joke in the scene of Fry and Bender sharing a jetpack beyond it just looking amusing. Seems to me that they could have tied this into the ship-trading bit by having Fry mention that he traded his jetpack for something stupid, so they only had one between them.