Yesterday's Futurama revealed Dr. Zoidberg and the Professor's secret history, a shocking tale involving murder pacts, alien Yetis, and some perfectly innocent covert biological weapons research. It also highlighted just how tricky continuity can be on a show like Futurama.
"Tip of the Zoidberg" follows two parallel storylines, both centered on the hitherto largely unexplored relationship between Professor Farnsworth and Doctor Zoidberg. One story flashes back to 2927 to show their first meeting, as Mom sends them on a mission of dubious legality to capture a Tritonian yeti and extract its natural poisons. The mission goes wrong when the Professor and Mom's Marines get infected with hypermalaria, an incurable virus native to the methane swamps of Triton that can kill instantly...or remain dormant for decades.
Decades into the future, the Planet Express Crew get particularly butchered in Dr. Zoidberg's latest series of botched operations. They demand the Professor fire Zoidberg, but he refuses to for reasons that he refuses to discuss. Later, the Professor reveals to Zoidberg that he is finally showing the symptoms of hypermalaria, and it is time for Zoidberg to make good on a promise he made all those years ago: he must kill the Professor. Zoidberg agrees, but he proves just as bad at assassination as he is at being a doctor. The crew decides to take on the job, but then Zoidberg makes a shocking, yeti-related discovery.
Futurama has always had a fairly loose approach to continuity - if a particular story or even a particular joke demands we learn something major about a character's past that we didn't know before and doesn't necessarily fit with what we did know, then so be it. Between this episode and "Möbius Dick" a few weeks back, we're learning an awful lot about Zoidberg that seems at least superficially to jar with his previous history - he's apparently well over 90 years old, he's on a first name basis with Mom, and he's secretly the Professor's best friend.
Now, none of that is impossible to reconcile with what we've seen before - the main episode I have a hard time making fit with what we've learned this season is "Why Must I Be A Crustacean in Love?", as it now appears Zoidberg didn't return to his home planet to mate until he was well into his 70s or 80s, but I suppose his species might just have centuries-long lifespans. (Hell, the denouement of that episode seems a bit hard to fit with the existence of elderly lobsters in other episodes, but what the hey.)
There's also, I think, a question of the episode's larger reality. Previous episodes have seen some serious levels of bodily maiming - Fry has variously lost his arm, both hands, and his head, and that's just what I can recall from memory - and everyone seems to bounce back just fine. And as zany as the whole opening Zoidberg mutilation sequence was (though I wasn't a huge fan of Fry's various cartoon-inspired maladies), at a certain point it seems to ask a bit too much of one's suspension of disbelief. At least when Fry and Hermes got decapitated, it seemed like more than an annoyance, you know?
I suspect I'm being a bit too harsh here, and perhaps I'm slicing these distinctions too fine. Indeed, it may not even be fair to compare the logic of one specific episode - or even one specific scene - to that of another. But this episode left me a bit cold, and I think part of it is that this doesn't quite feel like the Futurama universe I've come to know over the last decade. I don't mean that in a nostalgic sense either. I just mean that a world depicted here strikes me, on some instinctual level, as off, somehow.
Since this is a comedy show, in the end, the jokes should be able to trump that feeling. The thing is, I wouldn't consider this one of the show's especially funny episodes. This is an episode driven more by story and emotion - any of the episodes that feature parallel storytelling tend to fall into that category - as well as some truly spectacular visuals. The Murdolator is a truly epic Rube Goldberg machine, another fine example of the gorgeous animation that's been seen during the show's run on Comedy Central.
But I keep going back to the story, which really is meant to be the crux of this episode, and I can't quite get into it. On a certain level, I think my love and knowledge of the show might be working against me a little - for instance, I couldn't quite put aside the fact that the Professor should be 90 years old in the 2927 sequences, and I feel like he probably should have been depicted as a bit older. That's absolutely a pointless nitpick, but it's the sort of thing that juts out when the story as a whole feels fundamentally apart from what we've come to know about Dr. Zoidberg and the Professor.
As I've said, there's a perfectly decent argument to be made that these critiques are illegitimate, that I need to set aside any past expectations and just focus on what is presented in this particular episode. Indeed, I actually think that's probably correct, at least in the case of the surgery sequence - the laws of physics are flexible in Futurama to allow for something so completely out there. But I struggle with that logic when applied to the emotional story, because for that to work I have to care about the Professor and Zoidberg, and surely that must to some extent depend on my previous experiences with them in earlier episodes.
What I'm saying, basically, is that "Tip of the Zoidberg" didn't really work for me, and yet I feel like it really should have. This episode left me cold, but I doubt that that will be a universal reaction - hell, I really hope it isn't, because I think there's a lot here to enjoy, particularly on the animation front. Maybe I just need a bit more time to wrap my mind around the thought of Dr. Zoidberg as a centenarian who may or may not be Mom's secret lover. To be fair, that's not the sort of thing that's easily comprehended.