Good news, everybody!
Futurama's back! It's been a strange old scenario ever since the show was resurrected from TV Hell. Instead of another series of 22-minute episodes, Fox - in their infinite wisdom - recommissioned Futurama in the form of four feature-length DVDs, each of which are basically four episodes back to back (to be broadcast individually on TV). The first release, Bender's Big Score, was fleeting fun, although viewed without rose-tinted glasses, it's not a patch on the first four series. The second release, The Beast With A Billion Backs, was a relative disappointment; moreso than its predecessor, it felt like an episode's worth of material stretched to warrant a DVD release.
This third release, Bender's Game, is kind of a make or break deal - the show either works in its current format or it doesn't. And no self-respecting nerd would wish ill on a show that easily rivalled The Simpsons in its heyday, right?
Thankfully, Bender's Game is a return to form for the Futurama writers. Why? Because it's them totally and 100% playing to their strengths. Anyone who's seen any behind-the-scenes footage will know that the writers are huge geeks, and unashamedly so. The show is usually peppered with highbrow maths jokes, science gags and other references that would fly way over the head of the average Family Guy fan. Bender's Game represents Futurama at its geek peak: tech jokes + Dungeons & Dragons = nerd nirvana.
The plot is pretty paper-thin, basically an excuse to sling the Planet Express crew headlong into a Lord of the Rings parody via some typically tongue-in-cheek Futurama techno-babble. The Professor reveals yet another bombshell about his relationship with ageing tyrant and oil billionaire Mom: he inadvertently invented a crystal that turned all Dark Matter into fuel, and with it, an opposite "anti-backwards energy" crystal that looks suspiciously like a twelve-sided die. When Bender attempts to engage his imagination unit by playing Dungeons & Dragons, the two plotlines intertwine in an extremely contrived fashion, fusing the D&D reality in Bender's brain to that of the real world. Therefore, all characters transform into Tolkien-esque versions of themselves: Fry becomes the Gollum-like Frydo, Bender is shiny knight Titanius Anglesmith and Hermes becomes a busty centaur named - arf - Hermaphrodite.
The idea of a Rings pastiche might be a little old (you can picture professional a-holes Friedberg and Seltzer rejecting it as 'too obvious') but the Futurama writers aren't taking the piss, just gently ribbing and poking fun at the franchise's foibles. Crucially, the LOTR scenario isn't a replacement for jokes, but the reason for them - and the writing is sharper than ever. "Is that a hobbit?" asks Fry. "No," replies Bender, "That's just a hobo and a rabbit. But they're making a hobbit." Add a Gollum-inspired Shopping Channel skit, hordes of Morks instead of Orcs ("Nanoo nan-aaaargh!") and several subtle geek gags (Gary Gygax is namechecked more than once) and you've got a solid hour's worth of grade-A Futurama material, easily the equal of the show's greatest moments. Even the throwaway lines are gold; Professor Farnsworth praying to "all-powerful Athiesmo" had me chuckling for hours.
Bender's Game is a by-product of good writers sticking to what they know best - geeks writing about geeks for geeks. It's Futurama operating entirely in its comfort zone and a return to the values that made the show great in the first place. There's still no mention of the Fry and Leela saga - that's odds on for a revival in film #4 - and there's still a nagging suspicion that a ruthless streak a la South Park might add some edge to a show that's still playing it safe. But who cares when the comedy is as effortlessly enjoyable as this? If Bender's Big Score was a tentative first step into a new medium and Beast With A Billion Backs was a rare stumble, then Bender's Game represents a huge leap for Futurama - it finally looks like its found its feet again. That really is good news, everybody.
A typically high quality package. The cast and crew commentary is another crowded affair, with voice artists, animators and producers jostling for attention (and engaging in some witty verbal sparring), plus there's a neat featurette on the writers' past experiences with D&D (complete with a dissenting co-writer brandishing a baseball bat) and the usual storyboards and animatics. If you've ever wanted to know how to draw your favourite Futurama characters, then the included tutorial will show you how. The disc's highlights are the ace Genetics Lab (which renders any chosen combination of characters fused together) and a faux anti-piracy ad, subtitled Downloading Often Is Terrible (or D.O. I.T. for short). Ali