"Futurama," the science fiction cartoon, is in the midst of its (putative) last season. (The latest episode, "Calculon's Immortal Soul," airs Wednesday on Comedy Central.) On Saturday it convened what will probably not be its final public panel at Comic-Con, San Diego's world-famous nerd-targeted trade show and fan fair, with the reading of a scene from the upcoming "Last Episode Ever."
A few weeks back I sat down with Matt Groening, who created the series and developed it with David X. Cohen, for a valedictory interview. As usual, more was said than the print feature could contain, and what follows is some of that. (Not including a long, digressive discussion of the brilliance of "Ozzie and Harriet," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Green Acres.")
As we begin, Groening, who also raised the possibilities of a cameo appearance by Jake from Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" (voiced, like the "Futurama" robot reprobate Bender, by John DiMaggio) and a "Futurama"/"Simpsons" crossover episode, has just admitted that he is not well-informed on the subject of "Doctor Who."
Matt Groening: We have "Doctor Who" references on "Futurama," but we have a lot of science fiction references that I don't get; but in the staff we have experts on "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Doctor Who" and "Dungeons and Dragons."
"Futurama" has its own highly invested and knowledgeable fans, to judge by the online commentary.
MG: There's some very thoughtful analysis. One of my favorite episodes was called "The Late Philip J. Fry," in which the Professor invented a time machine which can only go forward in time, and [doofus hero] Fry's got to meet [one-eyed heroine] Leela for a date, but he can't stop in the time machine with the Professor, and they shoot forward 10,000 years and he realizes that Leela and everyone they know is dead. And since they can't go backward they decide to keep going forward in time until a time machine is invented that goes backward. But they go too far, and the world has been completely destroyed. They decide to continue forward to see the end of the universe, which they do -- Bender, the Professor and Fry -- and they crack a beer. And they then they launch and they see the universe begin again, and it turns out it's a loop, everything repeats, and they go back through time. And the professor leans out the window and shoots Hitler, and they keep going, and they're coming in for a landing -- and they overshoot it by 3,000 years and have to go all the way around again. And people who know about time travel realize that there's a paradox -- there are multiple versions of them, so they have to kill their own characters when they return. And fans were very happy that we killed them -- most time travel [fiction] does not acknowledge that there's a double of the characters.
We had another time travel episode, in which they go back in time and Fry ends up doing the classic thing, which is sleeping with his own grandmother, resulting in his mother -- and that's why Fry is uniquely, um, immune to certain things that happen in the future.
So you get analytical letters from fans.
MG: Very analytical. Some are very appreciative, some annoyed at the inconsistencies - because there is inconsistency. How do you get around the universe that's so huge? Originally we planned to have the spaceship powered by the MW drive, which is "magic wand" -- all science fiction has that magic wand where you can travel through galaxies very quickly. And, instead David had a friend who had a theory that you could slow down the speed of light and therefore make things faster. I never understood it, but that's what happens. And the ship is fueled by dark matter, whatever that is. Again David Cohen could explain, as could all the writing staff, except me.
The writers take the science seriously.
MG: We did an episode when they first went to the moon and [there was the question of] where does the sun set when you're on the moon. and we tried to make it geographically and chronologically correct. And every so often we put little signs on there for sticklers, "Lunar excursion model replaced in 2020" -- because it wouldn't be there.
Given the possibilities built into its premise, "Futurama" seems paradoxically more consistent within its world than "The Simpsons."
MG: Well, I always says that "Futurama" is real and "The Simpsons" is fiction.
There was a point in "The Simpsons" early on where you did watch with some investment in the relationships between the characters -- how they were getting along. That's been tossed out.
MG: With "The Simpsons" they used to worry about money -- the characters were scrimping to get by, and Homer actually had to get up in the morning and go to work. And now he's wherever we want him to be for whatever reason at any time. Occasionally we make a joke that he's missing work, but often he's wandering around like Ozzie. And I think that that was one of the reasons for the success of the show, because it was such a traditional sitcom template of the family, so you know where the kids are supposed to be in the morning -- eating breakfast, catching the school bus, going to school -- and where Homer was, at work, and Marge raising Maggie at home. That gave the show a foundation. And after years went by and we're trying to surprise ourselves and the audience, the show got wilder and wilder; I don't think it would have worked if we had just stayed the way it was at the beginning. People loved those original shows, but I don't know if they would have loved it for 25 years.
Because at some point you would have had to account for the fact that 25 years have gone by.
MG: Well, "Futurama" started with Fry getting frozen on New Year's Eve 1999 and waking up 1,000 years later, and then as it's gone forward in time, we're in 3013 now. And on the other hand, the characters haven’t aged!