Revived Futurama goes philosophical

I have been a fan of Futurama for a long time. It is easily one of my top ten shows of all time. So when Comedy Central revived the series, I was thrilled, but also nervous. There was the chance that Futurama had outlived its sell-by date and would return as a half-hearted shell of the original. Fortunately, quite the opposite has proved true. If anything, the new Futurama has produced some of the series’ best work, albeit extra-nerdy as compared with much of the show’s original incarnation.

In fact, this makes sense. On Comedy Central, you don’t have the same concerns as the big four networks. As a result, more material is on the table and a show like Futurama can be reborn with a wealth of new material at its disposal.

Recently, much of that material has taken its starting point in long-standing discussions within philosophy. Of course, Futurama has toyed with philosophical content in the past.

If you remember the original series, there was an episode in season two called “The Problem with Popplers” where the Planet Express crew discover a seemingly limitless supply of a delicious snack food (which they name popplers) on an alien planet. Billions of popplers are eaten before it comes to light that they are, in fact, baby aliens. As the Earth attempts to dissuade the Omicronians from eating all of humanity in retaliation, the episode turns into a conversation about whether or not sentience matters in the ethics of eating meat. In true Futurama fashion, it avoids preachiness while giving voice to major themes within the actual, real world philosophical debate.

Flash forward to season seven. Two episodes stand out as especially rich in philosophical content.

Free Will Hunting

Bender gets acquitted of crimes in virtue of the fact that he has no free will. While he is normally happy to get away with stuff, here Bender is devastated. If he is not to blame, then neither can he take credit. Either the actions are his or they aren’t: credit and blame are inseparable. Bender wanders off sadly and encounters a series of robot approaches to dealing with determinism which strikingly resemble the ways that human philosophers have attempted to deal with the same conclusion.

There is honestly no obvious way of knowing whether or not our wills are free. If we are determined to think and behave this way or that, then we could be determined to experience our thoughts and behaviour as though they were the results of a free and autonomous will. This is one of the great debates in all of philosophy, reaching back to its very origins in antiquity.

It is also something that you rarely see tackled in this type of context. Futurama deserves tremendous praise for showing how this area of philosophy need not be dry and, in fact, has a healthy amount of comedic potential.

31st Century Fox

Along with the question of free will, the ethics of killing has been a topic of debate within academic circles since the Greeks invented academia, right around the same time they invented democracy. The folks at Futurama, again tapping the intellectual resources of their science fiction universe, give the topic a makeover in this episode.

It begins with a fox hunt. Leela, ever quick to protest, immediately objects. When it turns out that the fox is robotic, she is forced to rethink. “Huh. I guess I’m ok with this after all.” However, now Bender is furious, sending him on a crusade against robot animal cruelty. On the one hand, it is a treatment of the long-standing debate over our treatment of animals. Is the fox hunt cruel? How about egg farms full of caged chickens? What about hunting ducks? Notice how Futurama can broach all of these subjects without causing any revulsion in the viewer, since the images are all of robot animals. We are horrified to see an actual fox torn to shreds by actual dogs, but a robot fox torn to shreds by robot dogs?

And this touches on the basic sentiment behind what is often called “speciesism” (an undeniably awkward term coined by the great philosopher Peter Singer). Just as we tend to feel worse about bad things happening to people than to non-human animals, we feel worse about bad things happening to actual animals than to robotic replicas, however authentic.

If you think about it, Futurama has played with this bias very often. Robots are gruesomely killed on a regular basis. While those same robots are depicted as living rich inner lives and often as having feelings and being sensitive to pain, we seem to be completely fine with watching them get destroyed in the messiest possible ways. However, this is the episode where the folks at Futurama really tackle this head-on, with many hilarious results. It’s easy to forget that we are watching a little thought experiment.

Some other episodes which visit philosophical themes include the Six Million Dollar Mon, Neutopia, and The Prisoner of Benda, just to name a few. Overall, this demonstrates what you can do in today’s multi-tier television universe. The big four networks still need to rely on advertising, and hence need to attract the largest possible number of viewers, thus forcing the “big tent” concerns which drive the constant tension between innovation and marketability.

Cable networks have more latitude. This is where niche programs can thrive, since the economic model allows for success at far lower numbers. Futurama is an undeniable hit for Comedy Central and its new home on cable means that we can expect a whole range of magnificently geeky episodes as long as they decide to keep making it.

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