As a series, 'Futurama' managed to do what precious few programs have – that is: get better with age. In what now constitutes the show's final season (second time's the charm) 'Futurama: Volume 8' continues the futuristic, space faring, robot populated adventures of the Rip Van Winkle-esque Philip J. Fry, and his surrogate family of 31st century denizens that includes the lovely mutant Leela, his robotic best friend/lightning rod for trouble, Bender, and the rest of the employees of the intergalactic delivery company, Planet Express.
Because the show has never had a central plot, or an essential driving narrative that required some form of closure, the final season wound up being free to pursue any and all storylines it wanted. Sure, the writers could have found a way for Fry to return to his own time (which they did, technically, in the surprisingly affecting 'Game of Tones'), but getting characters from a specific and predetermined point A to point B isn't really what 'Futurama' was all about. That's not to say it didn't want something for any of its characters, either; there was some sense of resolution in the final two episodes, 'Stench and Stenchability' – which saw unlucky in love humanoid crustacean Dr. Zoidberg zero-in on the unlikeliest of mates – and the touching 'Meanwhile' – which drove the series to the edge of a strangely Vonnegut-esque conclusion, before affording it and its characters a poignantly meta opportunity that spoke to the show's own experience with second chances.
There are rumors swirling that creator and executive producer Matt Groening continues to shop 'Futurama' around to other networks, but if this does in fact wind up being the end, then the show certainly went out on a 13-episode high note. The episode list that comprises Volume 8 revolves around the same typically irreverent style of humor that made the series (and it's big brother 'The Simpsons') such a much-loved program. Again, like it's long-running television sibling, 'Futurama' mixes social satire with surrealism, biting cynicism with surprising tenderness, and slaps it on a package that has the freedom to do whatever it wants. Now, it's not like being grounded in the present has ever stopped 'The Simpsons' from doing the same, but setting the program in the midst of the 31st century where robots have their own soap operas and seemingly malevolent space aliens co-anchor the evening news, makes slightly more bizarre storylines feel, well, right at home.
And because the show has been on the air for a significantly shorter amount of time than it's jaundiced counterpart, 'Futurama' benefits not only from following that program's model of success, but also by learning how to avoid certain pitfalls that may have negatively effected 'The Simpsons' – e.g., over-saturating the market with whatever character has unwittingly become the voice of a generation. In that regard, the program certainly has a contender in its resident fowl-mouthed, cigar chomping, beer swilling tin man, Bender. And while the robot has achieved a kind of ubiquity as a plush doll, action figure, coffee mug, or whatever bit of merchandise can be wrung from popular fictional characters who never age, and don't require likeness rights to be paid out to an actor, Bender thankfully never achieved a level of notoriety that required the Internet's hive mind to rally behind an inevitable backlash.
In that sense, the show gets to go out on top, as a well-liked and possibly even revered program with a small (relatively speaking), but dedicated fanbase that can take comfort in knowing the creativity behind these latter 'Futurama' episodes didn't lack in quality, or leave the viewers longing for the heady days when jokes piled on jokes actually followed some kind of logical order. To their credit, the show's writers never fell into that kind of trap. Sure, some of the humor could get a tad esoteric, but most of the time, it didn't just pop up out of the blue to get a cheap laugh; instead, the jokes almost always felt as though they were building toward one another. Generally, this was done through the elaborate cold opens that introduced the episode's plot, by way of a prologue that would inevitably fall by the wayside. The jokes used here were typically the most bizarre, as the writers had the freedom to say or do something without the burden of some sort of greater context that hinged on the plot of the episode in question.
For all the episodes that managed to tell the story of Fry, Leela, Bender, Professor Farnsworth, Amy, and Hermes, though, there were plenty of one-offs that allowed the writers a chance to let their imaginations run wild and just do pretty much whatever they wanted. These episodes are a little like 'The Simpsons': Treehouse of Horrors,' in that they don't really adhere to the overall story of 'Futurama,' and are more there to use familiar characters to poke fun at something, usually with heavy pop-culture references. Here in Volume 8, there's the fantastic episode, 'Saturday Morning Fun Pit,' in which the head of President Richard Nixon sits and watches Saturday morning cartoons with the headless body of Spiro Agnew. The episode derives a great amount of humor not only from the spoofs it does on 'Scooby-Doo,' the prevalence of highly marketable products (especially sugary cereals), and the violence depicted in shows like 'G.I. Joe,' but also from the subtle acknowledgement that Saturday morning cartoons are largely a pastime that's no longer enjoyed by most kids. The episode packs in some of the volume's biggest laughs for sure – please enjoy Richard Nixon issuing less violent codenames for the members of G.I. Zapp, and exclaiming "Pass!" when confronted with Bender's unforgettable codename.
Overall, though, the best thing about 'Futurama: Volume 8' is that it didn't treat the end like anything of the sort; the show just kept right on doing everything it had done so well (actually, it got better as the series went on) since its debut in 1999. Some of that might be due to the hope it will experience yet another ressurection, but looking at a terrific episode like 'Meanwhile,' you get the feeling the writers and creators who'd put so much of themselves into this often-delightful and hilarious series were ready to send Fry and the Planet Express crew into the great unknown in style.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Futurama: Volume 8" comes as two 50GB Blu-ray discs in a rather chintzy foldout cardboard case with sleeves to hold the discs. The whole thing slides into an outer sleeve that is hardly any sturdier. Sure, you'll have to be extra careful with this case (as with the others in the 'Futurama' series), but at least there's some terrific artwork to look at. The discs themselves will jump straight to the top menu (no previews here), where you'll find two mesmerizing menus that will have you delaying your viewing for the pleasure of being sucked into the slightly trippy graphics on display. Each disc contains commentaries, while disc two contains all the special features.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer is simply splendid and is about as good as an animated image of this kind can get. The colors are all bright and vivid, showing all sorts of different color spectrums, without being too overbearing about it all. The image itself is incredibly crisp and clean; it's totally free of any artifacts or distracting elements, and the animation is presented with laser accurate precision. All the lines are plainly defined, and they never flicker or produce an uneven or jumpy transition. Yes, there are limits to what the animation is capable of – so it's exactly approaching certain high levels of fluidity and motion, but for the most part, it's very impressive.
Even the portions of the show that are aided by CGI animation look less disparate than they did way back in 1999. Shots of ships taking off, or objects remaining stationary while the camera rotates around them look much nicer than they have in the past (though this isn't a recent development by any means) and are integrated quite well into the overall aesthetic of the image. This being an animated show, there's not a lot in the way of depth of focus – everything is typically crystal clear, from the objects or characters standing in plain view, to the subtle Easter eggs hidden in the background of so many shots. Everything looks great here.
Overall, this is the kind of image that would be expected from a major studio turning out a animated program in 2013. Thankfully, it won't leave the audience hoping for more.
Each episode has been given a very nice sounding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that highlights the various aspects of the surprisingly multi-layered sound on any given episode of 'Futurama.' Obviously, most of the sound is dedicated to delivering an accurate representation of the many character voices that're on display during any given episode, but the mix also handles various elements like sound effects and score quite well, too.
On that front, while the sound effects are typically front loaded, they do emanate from time to time in a pleasing and somewhat dynamic fashion from the rear channels, creating a subtle but nice sense of atmosphere. It's not an entirely immersive experience, some of the sound from the rear channels can feel a little flat at times, but when it's really called for the mix generally gets the job done. Music also tends to be front loaded, but there will be times when it bleeds through elsewhere.
There are a few examples of directionality and imaging that work quite well, but for the most part, the mix doesn’t seem like it's terribly interested in developing a truly deep, dynamic sound. It sounds good, but there is some small room for improvement.
'Futurama' was always destined to feel a little cult in comparison to the series that spawned it – at least in terms of creators and irreverent styles of humor. But that's only made the show more meaningful to the fans that have stuck with it over the years. This may in fact be then end of the show as we know it – though there's always a chance of a DTV movie or two in the future – and if that is in fact the case, this volume serves as a terrific, affecting swan song for a clever series that was always a little smarter than needed to be. With a beautiful image and good sound, plus a host of interesting extras, this one comes highly recommended.