Futurama is a television show for nerds. Oh sure, its old cushy slot next to Family Guy on Adult Swim may have attracted a loyal cadre of frat boys and absurdist-loving insomniacs, but the heart of the fanbase will always lay with the poindexters and nerdlingers.
That’s why I was taken aback by the glaring scientific inaccuracies in the most recent episode of Futurama entitled “A Farewell to Arms.” For starters, the Planet Express crew chased after a pair of Fry’s lucky (and only) pants, that have been accidentally tethered to a weather balloon. As the trousers and their pursuers passed into the far reaches of space, the balloon popped. But instead of Fry’s pants floating listlessly in the vacuum of space, they tumbled gracefully back to Earth, managing to land a hop, skip, and a jump from where they were launched, entirely unscathed from their trip back through the planet’s atmosphere.
Even worse, the climax of the episode involved Mars passing so close to Earth that people could jump back and forth from one planet to the other, and suffered no ill effects in the process. There was no catastrophic event or gravitational catastrophe from the two large bodies side-swiping each other. Nor was there any issue with the fantastic speed that the red planet would have to be traveling, likely resulting in a collision that would have devastated much of the globe, let alone the denizens of New New York. The entire exercise prompted me to utter a personally oft-used phrase that was originally coined by Futurama itself – “Windmills do not work that way!”
Now no one wants to be the type of nerds shown in Futurama’s sister show – The Simpsons. These are the dorks who pester the voice of Itchy and Scratchy about the tonal inconsistencies when Itchy plays Scratchy’s ribcage like a xylophone. They’re also the type of no-lifes who prompt a beleaguered Lucy Lawless to note that any time an obsessive fan finds an inconsistency to nitpick on Xena, “a wizard did it.” No art is perfect, and sometimes you should be able to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
But one of the things that made Futurama so beloved by the legions of geeks is the time and attention it put into using genuine math and science. From an explanation of Greenhouse gases that made it into An Inconvenient Truth, to the mathematically complicated brain-switching theorem in “The Prisoner of Benda,” to one-liners like “no fair, you changed the outcome by measuring it!” the show has always ensured that its nerdly shout-outs were accurate. With writers who boast degrees in Physics, Computer Science, and Math, Futurama has always been a show that prides itself on satisfying the glasses-wearing, pocket protector-sporting fans.
Perhaps realism is too much to ask for a show featuring the madcap adventures of a sassy beer-swilling robot, a doomsday device-wielding mad professor, and a Yiddish-ish, Three Stooges-esque crab. (Of course there’s also the delivery boy, the cyclops, the klutz from Mars, and the outer space potato man). It’s also a show that has often struck a balance between its four-eyed, geekly aspirations and its cartoony, anvil-dropping roots. The contents of Bender’s insides seem to change by the episode, Fry has suffered more unfortunate maladies than Wile E. Coyote, and the crew once mistook an enemy spacecraft for the Hubble Telescope (blowing it up in the process).
Still, it’s a little disappointing when the science is not up to snuff. In some ways, Futurama is a victim of its own demographic success. Somehow, I doubt that the producers of Two and a Half Men struggle to make sure they will not receive angry letters from Chemistry Professors. These are the pitfalls of making television by geeks, for geeks. The bad news (or “good news everyone!”) is that they’re stuck with us. In the show’s own words, “An eternity with nerds. It’s the Pasadena Star Trek convention all over again.”