Futurama reveals why space whales are not to be trifled with

Yesterday's awesome Futurama gave us the Moby Dick send-up that all the kids have been clamoring for, as an increasingly deranged Leela hunted a four-dimensional space whale in a half-hour full of crazy ideas, great lines, and sci-fi shout-outs galore.

"Möbius Dick" finds the Professor marking the fiftieth anniversary of his very first Planet Express crew, who were mysteriously lost in a strange cosmic anomaly known as the Bermuda Tetrahedron, with only one survivor: an amnesiac, suddenly white-haired Dr. Zoidberg. The crew is sent to pick up a statue commemorating the dead, and they are forced to head into the Bermuda Tetrahedron on the return trip, where they encounter a giant, four-dimensional space whale.

Futurama reveals why space whales are not to be trifled with

The space whale makes short order of the statue and the ship's engines, forcing the crew to hoist the solar sails and seek vengeance on their space whale foe. At least, that becomes Leela's all-consuming obsession, as she becomes a harsh martinet constantly threatening to marry off any crew members who disobey her. The hunt brings nothing but disaster, until the crew finds themselves swallowed by the space whale, where a few more surprises are in store.

This is easily my favorite episode of this current batch of Futurama episodes. While I've enjoyed a lot of this season's episodes, the fact is that you don't need the Futurama setup to do a cop show or a pastiche of children's TV or a mafia witness protection story. Sure, those episodes all took on some sci-fi trappings from their 31st century setting, but the fact is that all of those could be reworked relatively easily for a far more grounded television show.

Futurama reveals why space whales are not to be trifled with

On the other hand, there's simply no other show that would build an episode around a four-dimensional space whale that feeds on human ambition and whose bowels exist in temporal stasis. Indeed, most shows wouldn't have the guts to do an extended Moby Dick pastiche. I talk a lot in these recaps about big ideas as something I look for in Futurama, and "Möbius Dick" had that in spades. It's kind of hard to take a jaunt into the fourth dimension and not expand one's mind a little bit.

Indeed, the whole thing taps into the notion that space is full of wonders beyond our comprehension, that even in a universe where all aliens speak English (even if they don't know their "its" from their "it's") there can still be things that are strange and unknowable. In that respect, "Möbius Dick" reminds me of the likes of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or certain Doctor Who stories, in particular the criminally underrated Peter Davison story "Enlightenment." Or maybe I'm just reminded of whales and sailing ships in space.

Futurama reveals why space whales are not to be trifled with

Speaking of other science fiction, this episode was a veritable gold mine for people looking to spot references and homages. The spaceship graveyard had a bunch of shout-outs to famous sci-fi spaceships mixed in among the debris - I spotted the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey and an Oceanic Airlines plane from Lost, just to get thing started - and the Fourth Doctor makes his second appearance in as many weeks when he's among those to walk out of the space whale at the end.

I should also probably point out that this episode was very funny. I've always liked the idea that the 2900s are a weird reflection of the 1900s, and it's fun to see the Futurama version of square-jawed, space pioneering heroes - particularly that dashing young robot Lifter. What's also great is that a lot of the jokes feel like they have some connection to the characters saying them - Fry wishes they hadn't come to the spaceship graveyard at night, Bender is out to catch some giant diamonds in a net, the Professor gets angry over people reading things into his recollections, and Amy has Serengeti flashbacks and explains that giraffes are essentially land space whales. And let's not forget Bender's mutiny, in which he impersonated a pair of treacherous crewmen, both of whom were apparently working on Fry's orders.

Futurama reveals why space whales are not to be trifled with

I need to single out two people as the stars of this episode. The first, unsurprisingly, is Katey Sagal, who if anything has stepped up her game of late as the voice of Leela. She does a great descent into madness, and her frenzied self-conversation when she makes herself her own crew is a comic highlight of the episode. She also gets across some sense of an actual human motivation behind all this insanity, conveying Leela's all-consuming ambition while also speaking like a crusty old captain straight out of a defining work of 19th century fiction.

The second person to be commended is Christopher Tyng, the show's longtime music composer. A big reason why I feel comfortable talking about the headier aspects of this episode is that the music is so sweeping and epic. It's a haunting score that does a lot of the heavy lifting in selling the Bermuda Tetrahedron as a strange, unearthly place and the space whale as an otherworldly opponent. This might actually be the finest score I've ever heard in a Futurama episode - certainly, this one really jumped out at me as a huge part of the episode's success.

"Möbius Dick" is the first episode of this new run of episodes that I would say really rivals last year's "The Late Philip J. Fry" and "The Prisoner of Benda." I suspect I may like it a bit more than others simply because it hits so many of my sweet spots as a viewer, but I'd say by any measure that this is a superior half hour of science fiction. And, after so many weeks of the show arguably playing down its more futuristic aspects, it's pretty damn awesome to watch something so cosmic in scope.