Futurama: Season One Review
From Matt Groening, the creator of America's number one family in The Simpsons comes his second attempt at a prime-time animated comedy show with Futurama. Sadly Futurama has never been too popular with its backer ‘Fox’ because of the more adult approach of the show (much like the similarly themed Family Guy which as we speak has just been axed). This is an area that has also caused problems with its UK broadcasts, most of which have been censored so it can fit into a specific timeslot. Despite these irritations Futurama has garnered a strong fan base to rival that of The Simpsons which due to an all too obvious drop in quality of recent seasons is no longer seen as the number one animated television show amongst fans, fortunately Futurama is a strong contender to take that crown.
As you will discover in the pilot episode the basic premise is that of a Pizza delivery guy, Fry, who is accidentally cryogenically frozen on New Years Eve 1999, only to be unfrozen 1000 years later, New Years Eve 2999. Fry is whom you might refer to as a simple guy and as such the fact that all of his loved ones are long dead does not bother him too much, instead he embraces this new time period with open arms and a somewhat childish glee as he gets to see and do everything we can only dream of in current times. Of course a television show with just one character is no good so Fry soon meets his companions for the series; Bender is a robot (programmed to bend girders) whose strange tendencies include alcoholism and the desire to 'kill all humans', Professor Farnsworth is actually Fry's nephew (despite the fact he is over 100 years old) and runs a Planet Express Delivery Service to fund his scientific research, while Leela is a one-eyed Alien babe, the only one of her kind on earth who finds some solace in the fact that Fry to is alone in this time period.
Each of the 13 episodes that make up Season One consists of our characters various adventures, most of which are quite 'out of this world' but all of which are solid entertainment thanks to the imagination of the writers and the consistently hilarious dialogue and characterisation. The latter of these is brought to life via the impressive voice cast that is primarily made up of just three talented individuals, Billy West (as Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Doctor Zoidberg, Zapp Brannigan and more!), John DiMaggio (as Bender and other characters) and Katey Sagal (as Leela). Much like The Simpsons another strong point of the show is the always well realised secondary characters, most of whom by the second and third seasons actually become strong enough characters to carry an entire show, but for this season the likes of fellow Planet Express crew members Amy, Dr. Zoidberg and Hermes offer sound backing to the primary casts antics while Zapp Brannigan, the decorated space captain of the time who has a penchant for velour uniforms and Captain Kirk mannerisms offers up some outrageously laugh out loud moments thanks to the sharp dialogue and outstanding voice acting from Billy West!
Futurama quite literally has layer upon layer of jokes and in much the same way as The Simpsons did back in its prime offers constant viewing pleasure no matter how many times you have seen an episode thanks to the sheer attention to detail and various gags on offer. From the huge array of film spoofs (that include Titanic and The Odd Couple) to the fantastic technology spoofs and 'geek' jokes (Bender runs on a 6502 CPU - a joke that certainly had me in fits of laughter!) we also cannot forget the various guest stars and the unique method in which they can appear as themselves (remember, Futurama is set 1000years in the future!) while the obligatory 'Fox Network' jokes are also present!
Another part of Futurama's success comes from the sheer beauty of each episode as we are treated to a quality of 2D animation that is rarely seen outside a Cinema Screen while the addition of seamlessly integrated 3D Animation is just the icing on the cake of what is, in Television terms, a visual tour de force. When these stunning visuals are combined with the quality of writing and voice-acting already present you are left with something special that not only offers a great first time viewing experience but consistently entertaining repeated sittings - which is what this DVD set is all about!
This DVD is a dual-encoded R2/4 release.
Note to Non-UK readers: This set includes English, French and Italian soundtracks for the Episodes, with optional English, French, Italian and Dutch subtitles for the episodes. The menu system is available in English, French and Italian, while the English Language extra features (Commentaries, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes) are available with French and Italian subtitles although the Script and Storyboard features found on Disc 1 are entirely in the English language. There are no Dutch menus or extra feature subtitles.
A superbly designed box set houses three clear Armaray DVD Cases, all of which have original artwork adorning their covers. Each disc's menu system also contains a great selection of original artwork and adopts the quicker to browse Static look rather than taking the Animated Menu approach (although the Chapter Select screens contain animated clips).
The only disappointment with this DVD sets presentation is how much like Fox’s previous Simpsons Season One and Family Guy Season One releases there is no ‘Play All’ option. Instead we are forced to watch an episode, return to and navigate the menus, play another episode and so on…
Presented in its original 4:3 Aspect Ratio the transfer on this DVD is almost perfect bar a couple of minor issues. Before we get into these issues though I should let you know how the prints used are in absolute pristine condition with not a speck of dust or an instance of damage visible while the colours literally jump off the screen with their vibrancy. Detail levels are as high as can be although a few of the busier scenes did tend to lose some of the finer detail you might hope for but these occasions were few and far between (to the point I cannot remember a specific occasion) and are not really a problem. What is a slight problem is the occasionally obvious use of Edge Enhancement and some very slight colour bleed on certain items of clothing. These issues will pass many viewers by and please do not go looking for them but to those who notice these faults this transfer is guilty of them, but fortunately it is kept to a bare minimum and should not ruin your viewing experience.
Fox have strangely only included the original English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Audio on this DVD release when for The Simpsons: Season One they remixed the audio into DD5.1 - a format that Futurama would make far more use of than The Simpsons ever could. Still, the inclusion of the original Audio is the very least we can ask for and Fox have provided and of course with this being such a recent show the Audio tracks are in first class condition. The use of the Pro-Logic Surround Stage is commendable with clear dialogue via the central speaker and good use of effects and music throughout the surround speakers. Also included are French and Italian DD2.0 Audio tracks that are primarily here for the intended audiences but do of course provide some added fun for us English speakers. High quality subtitles are included for all three spoken languages while Dutch subtitles are also available. The only disappointing part of this DVDs Audio/Subtitle features is that none of them can be changed 'on the fly' and instead you have to return to the Episodes Language Menu.
There is a wealth of extra material spread over the 3 DVDs, each of which I shall tackle individually, but first let me tell you about the Audio Commentary from the Cast and Crew that accompanies all 13 episodes. Following on from their Simpsons: Season One experience Fox have taken a similar route and have bundled a minimum of five people in a recording booth for each episode, fortunately for us the results are far better than those found on the Simpsons set (which was by no means bad, just disappointing). Matt Groening (writer and creator), David X. Cohen (writer and executive producer) and Rich Moore (co-director and supervising director) are present for all 13 Audio Commentaries, while voice actor John DiMaggio (Voice of Bender and Other characters) makes 10, and Billy West (Voice of Fry and others) is present for just 3. The rest of the participants, most of which only join us for one or two commentaries are made up of the shows various writers, directors and technical staff. With introductions out of the way you will find that Matt Groening, David X. Cohen and the voice actors tend to dominate the commentaries, while the latter both provide and create an obscene amount of laughter! Each track is filled with interesting stories although strangely with five or more people in the room there are still periods of silence but this is mostly the participants getting caught up in the show which is not as annoying as you might think, as their enthusiasm and laughter becomes quite infectious, creating the experience that you are watching the show with an appreciative audience which for myself only added to the episodes enjoyment. Other highlights include Billy West and John DiMaggio who frequently get into character, while DiMaggio's laugh is near identical to Benders and can be heard throughout most episodes he participates in! I guess my only real gripes on top of the pauses would be the lack of information on certain aspects of the show, a little more info on the other voice actors would have been appreciated (Katey Sagal is barely mentioned for example!) as would a little more general information on what goes into the creation of a Futurama episode. These are minor gripes though for what proved to be a great set of commentaries. Roll on Season 2 and hopefully things will look up for The Simpsons season 2 also.
Disc One offers up the most substantial extra features, most of which are related to the shows pilot episode. First of all we find the Animatic from Space Pilot 3000 which is essentially the episode shown in rough draft, animated storyboard format. At first I was quite disappointed to find they did not offer this as a Multi-Angle presentation with the actual episode so we could switch between the rough draft and the final result but I soon discovered this Animatic is longer and as a result includes around 4-minutes of extended and deleted scenes, all of which make this a great watch (particularly the extended dialogue with Dick Clark) and obviously explains why a Multi-Angle presentation was not possible. The other additions based around the pilot episode are the Space Pilot 3000 Script with Notes from David X. Cohen which totals 94 Screens and allows you to peruse the original script with (like the title says) additional notes from David X. Cohen who points out changes to the dialogue and direction of the show. In a similar vein is the next feature, Space Pilot 3000 Storyboards which totals an incredible 343 Screens and showcases the original storyboards with rough notes and camera/character direction. These two static screen based additions are highly commendable and while they may not appeal to everyone they make for an interesting look that will please the more hardcore fan. The only minor quibble I had with these inclusions was that the text in the storyboards segment was so small I had to get up close and personal with my Television set, which would suggest for casual viewing a 50" set would be a minimum requirement!
The final extra features located on Disc One are 3-minutes of deleted scenes from Episode Two: The Series Has Landed, I Roommate and Loves Labours Lost in Space. All of these scenes were cut for time reasons and are as a result of a high standard, just not high enough to warrant keeping in the episode over the other material.
Disc Two contains just over 3-minutes of extra material in the form of a Futurama Season One Trailer, and Deleted Scenes from My Three Suns and Hell is other Robots. The trailer is actually for this DVD set so its inclusion is for completists sake but welcome none-the-less while the Deleted Scenes are again cut for time and while good, are never missed from the episodes as they are.
Disc Three contains a 5-minute featurette that sees Matt Groening and friends discuss the concept behind Futurama, the look and sound of the episodes (including a brief look at the animation process and the actors reading through the script in character) and their expectations for the series but sadly with just 5-minutes its hardly the in-depth piece I would have liked, but still worth a look. Moving on you will find another Deleted Scene, this time from When Aliens Attack and finally a 64-Screen Image Gallery that includes concept art for the show and its characters, 4 of whom (Fry, Leela, Bender and the Professor) have links to further 1-minute segments of Matt Groening discussing the respective character. The artwork found in the image gallery gives both a great look at the shows progression from concept to completion while the brief segments on each character are again fine but too shallow for my liking.
Rounding off each disc are a selection of Easter Eggs that take the form of spoof Movie Posters from the future and one obscene postcard! They are all fairly easy to find and can be found in similar locations on each disc, with one Easter Egg located on Disc One, four on Disc Two and three on Disc Three they are all worth looking out for.
Here I am, about to write this section of this review when I realised I truly do not have anything bad to say about Futurama. If I had been writing this 2-years ago I would have maybe said that Hermes is not a very well developed character, but then I have seen subsequent seasons where that is no longer the case and although he still remains my least liked character it is hardly cause for complaint! Of course you will either like Futurama or you will not but I believe any fan of other animated television series (be that The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park for example) will find a great deal of entertainment is to be had from this great series while newcomers to the genre could do little wrong than start here.
This DVD release from Fox is a fine effort that although not offering the perfect package does provide the show fully uncut (unlike the butchered Channel 4 broadcasts!) with a decent Audio/Visual experience and a great selection of extras - all at a reasonable price! I think you know what to do...