“Welcome to the War of Tomorrow”

How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.

A scene from Futurama

Still courtesy of Fox

This piece is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. For more information on the event, visit the New America website; for more on Hieroglyph, visit the website of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph.

George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, those who cannot foresee the future are condemned to create it. No one famous wrote that, but I fervently believe it. That’s because as one of the writers of the animated TV series Futurama over the course of 14 years (and two millennia), I was condemned to both foresee and create the future (for entertainment purposes only).

Futurama was “the other show” created by The Simpsons Matt Groening and run by David X. Cohen (like Santayana, a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon), who hired a writing staff with a curriculum vitae worthy of the task: It included three Ph.D.s, seven master’s degrees, and more than a half-century of Harvard education. We were easily the most overeducated cartoon writers in history, earning critical acclaim, multiple Emmy awards, and a worldwide nerd fan base, but we weren’t smart enough to figure out how to avoid cancellation (three times).

The creation of Futurama’s mythos (as they call it in academia) and backstory (as they call it in Hollywood) encompassed science fiction and science fact in almost equal measure. The show was, at its core, a parody of sci-fi conventions (mostly the literary ones but, sometimes, the ones that take place in big halls with fat guys in Klingon armor). Yet we tried very hard to be scientifically and mathematically accurate at all times. It was one of the preoccupations of David X. and the other science-minded writers (along with bidding on eBay auctions, playing video games, and experimenting with 3-D printing). Fortunately, accuracy was easy for the math scholars among us—two had published papers that earned them Erdös numbers of 3 and 4, something about which only math scholars would care. This gave the rest of us time to check our eBay auctions, play video games, and experiment with 3-D printing.

In addition to math and science concerns, public policy considerations also came into play in devising our plots. The key was creating scenarios that were relatable to our audience. After all, we were creating a world where a unified Earth government was run by Richard Nixon’s disembodied head in a jar, in tandem with a megalomaniacal corporate overlord in the guise of a benevolent maternal figure named “Mom.” As I said, relatable. We tried for social commentary through topicality, as in our episodes about robot/human marriage equality (called “Proposition Infinity”) or genetically modified food (“Leela and the Genestalk”), or one of several climate change episodes featuring the real voice of Al Gore (sometimes with a body, sometimes without). We also tried to achieve meaning through universal themes like addiction (to electricity in “Hell Is Other Robots” and space honey in “The Sting”); aging and elder care (“A Clone of My Own”); and animal rights (both biological, as in “The Birdbot of Ice-catraz and mechanical, as in “31st Century Fox”). And these were just the issues that began with the letter A. Often we took on concepts that were topical at the time but remain relevant—like the mass zombification that results from the release of a new iPhone (as true for the 6 Plus today as it was for the 3GS in 2009 when we produced “Attack of the Killer App”).

Among the more profound ideas we visited several times was asymmetrical warfare, a hot topic in the worlds of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Typically, lopsided battles would result from alien encounters wherein Planet Earth found itself on the weak end of the power spectrum, like whenever the bellicose inhabitants of Omicron Persei 8 would invade (provoked by their displeasure with Earth television reception in When Aliens Attack”; accidental devouring of Omicronian babies in “The Problem With Popplers”; and their ruler Lrrr’s midlife crisis in “Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences”). But there was a contrary example—in which Earthicans were the overpowering force—in the episode “War Is the H-Word.” There, a battalion of Earth soldiers (led by Commander in Chief Nixon himself) traveled a quadrillion miles to defend Earthican values against an army of “Brain Balls” only to have the recruits discover (after much death and destruction) that the battlefield planet was actually the Brain Ball homeworld and we were the invading horde.

In developing the ethos of warfare that informed “War Is the H-Word,” it helped that the writers were largely children of the 1970s and had a dread of protracted conflicts like Vietnam—so much so that Nixon’s fear of the conflict “going all-quagmire” propelled him to ask Henry Kissinger’s head to negotiate a peace accord—but not without an accompanying Nixonian dirty trick. Yet we were more significantly influenced by popular culture than by geopolitical history. The physical motif of the Brain Ball planet was reminiscent of Starship Troopers; there was an extended M.A.S.H. homage; and we had both a Star Wars–inspired view of warfare (as combat between imperial forces and rebels) and a Star Trek–style depiction of villainous adversaries outwitted by the Man on the White Horse (not Captain Kirk but the ingloriously incompetent Zapp Brannigan).

Among Brannigan’s many inadequacies as strategic master and commander was his tendency to use soldiers as cannon fodder. This penchant manifested itself in connection with the most topical form of real life weaponry—autonomous drones. In the episode “Fun on a Bun,” Brannigan used unmanned drones to fight freshly unfrozen Neanderthals who armed themselves with sticks, rocks, and saber tooth tigers. Unfortunately, Brannigan’s drones actually contained human soldiers (solely for the purpose of ballast), and they all fell from the sky to a fiery doom when his remote controller was stepped on by a woolly mammoth.

Earlier in the show’s history (Season 1’s “Love’s Labours Lost in Space,” to be exact), we learned that Brannigan’s notoriety was earned by overcoming a hoard of rampaging “Killbots.” Once he’d learned that the Killbots had a preset “kill limit,” he sent wave after wave of his own men against them until the limit was reached and the Killbots shut down.  

Killbots reappeared later in the series, but they were more inclined to go paddle-boating rather than even watch violent behavior (in “Obsoletely Fabulous”) or they operated at such an inefficient level that they annihilated one another (one’s fear of “getting fired” caused another one to open fire on it in “Lethal Inspection”).

Looking back, it would seem that the overarching theme of Futurama’s take on asymmetrical warfare was the futility of it all. Bear in mind, however, the motivations of real-world military strategists and sci-fi cartoon writers are not identical. After all, we just did what we thought would be funny. And as dark as our humor was, there were times when we resisted the urge to “go for the laugh.” For instance, there was a line in the original Killbot sequence that explained how peaceful Killbots could easily be reset to return them to their deadly status. That scene was deleted from the episode because even we weren’t that nihilistic. Still, there is a belligerent sentiment that remains in that episode: “We can always make more Killbots.” And so we can. But only if it would get a laugh. Too bad military strategists can’t say the same thing.