The Science of Romance: Solving the Timeskips in Futurama's "Time Keeps On Slipping"
About half of the Noise to Signal crew is at Dimension Jump XIII, being supremely nerdy. The other half is at home being supremely nerdy. I reside in the latter camp, and so here is my latest explorative essay, and my first during my tenure at Noise to Signal.
So settle in. Unzip your fly. And enjoy my needlessly-analytical essay on the Futurama episode "Time Keeps On Slipping."
On its surface, Futurama appears to be a science-fiction-oriented comedy program, but it doesn't take long for a viewer to realize that the driving force behind the show is not the science-fiction at all, but the interaction between characters.
It may take place in the year 3000 (or thereabouts). Its main character may have spent one thousand years in cryrogenic hibernation. His closest friends may be robots and mutants and crab-like alien creatures. But at its heart, Futurama is a show about people--people doing people things--that just happens to take place in the next millennium.
For evidence of this, one doesn't have to look much further than the development of the major characters. Trace practically any of them from the show's first episodes to its last and you'll find that they've evolved far beyond their initial gimmicky roots.
Dr. Zoidberg, for example, was effectively a one-joke character early in the show: he was of a different species than his patients. And...that was about it. The humor stemmed from the fact that he did not understand the anatomy of those he was hired to treat. But as the show evolved so did Zoidberg, and he began to take on further dimensions. He was now destitute, and accepted neither by the alien culture around him nor the Decapod culture from which he came. He was unloved and yearned for attention, connection, and companionship of any kind...all of which is, emotionally, very human.
Another example is Bender, who may have started the show as "the robot" in the group, but as quickly as episode three ("I, Roommate") we see the character already evolving beyond this. We see that he has feelings that can be hurt, we see that he is capable of feeling remorse (and even depression) and we see that he has the very human desire to "make things right" after a spat. In fact, from this point on, Bender is only really a robot in two ways: his appearance, and when "roboticness" is demanded for the purposes of a joke. The fact that he's mechanical functions only as a plot-point, and not at all as an indication of personality.
Perhaps the most literal "humanizing" of an outlandish character would be Leela, who was introduced to us as a one-eyed alien, marooned on Earth with no real sense of where she came from, who her parents were, or if there was anyone else like her in the universe. In fact, several episodes deal with Leela's curiosity on these points and they always see her looking outward, into space, for the answers. In "Leela's Homeworld," however, we find this alien character legitimately humanized, as she has her history rewritten to show that she is from Earth after all, the offspring of two mutants who abandoned her so that she might have a better opportunity in life than they had...once again, a very human sentiment.
So what do we learn from this? Well, we learn that whatever their origins as characters, and however outlandish its plots, Futurama, over time, came to establish itself as being a very "grounded" program, and one that relied--at heart--more on the strength of its characters than on the complexity of its apparent science-fiction leanings.
But that's only on the whole, right? Surely this can't be said of the episodes that are overtly science-fiction stories. Such as "Time Keeps On Slipping," with its plentiful scientific (and philosophical) ponderings, its futuristic devices and situations, its doomsday plot and technological scrambling to get it under control...considering just how much screentime is devoted to the problem of the timeskips, character dynamic must take somewhat of a back seat. Right?
If you believe that, I'm about to hold a press conference to announce that you're a "jive sucka." Because, you see, if Futurama humanizes its outlandish science-fiction characters, why wouldn't it do the same for its science-fiction plots?
This Chronological Wang Dang Doodle
The first--and most obvious--step in solving what's actually happening in this episode is to take a look at its structure.
"Time Keeps On Slipping" stands out, aesthetically, from the other episodes of Futurama thanks to the employment of "timeskips."
The timeskips are a temporal anomaly in which everything lurches forward in time anywhere from a few seconds to a few months, or possibly even years.
This means, for the characters, that they find themselves shoved forward in time with no memory of what might have happened to get them there.
For the viewer, this means something slightly different: they never see the action between skips, which are presented as though lengths of film have been snipped out of the episode.
This is a unique way of presenting the show, and it certainly does serve the purpose of making it stand out. But it's more than just a gimmick: it's a major plot device. "Time Keeps On Slipping" devotes nearly its entire runtime to sorting out the problem of the timeskips...a mission which, if it ends in failure, will spell doom for us all:
Prof. Farnsworth: At this rate by Tuesday it'll be Thursday, by Wednesday it'll be August, and by Thursday it'll be the end of existence as we know it.
With so much at stake it's up to science (represented by Professor Farnsworth and the brilliant faculty of Globetrotter University) to devise a solution.
Oh, there's also a romantic subplot for Fry and Leela, and a subsubplot about Bender wanting to join the Harlem Globetrotters, but since they can't be nearly as important we'll deal with them separately.
What does a guy have to do?
It is my argument in this essay that the timeskips are not exactly the chronological disturbance that Farnsworth and the Globetrotters perceive them to be. I believe fully that they are actually being caused by Fry...or, more specifically, the strong feelings Fry has for Leela.
But wait...that'd actually make Fry and Leela the main plot, right?
Well, yes. Consider the fact that the episode both begins and ends not with any sort of scientific problems or ponderings, but with Fry's attempts to woo Leela. Think whatever you will about the plot in between; the episode is bookended with two significant attempts at romance.
We begin with Fry trying to persuade Leela to join him for a romantic ride on some "swan boats," and we end with the realization of his grand gesture: writing her a love note with the stars themselves.
So what am I saying? The episode itself exists as a bridge between the two events?
Not exactly. What I am saying is that the events of the episode (specifically the timeskips) are symptomatic of what's happening within Fry between the two events, and are not attributable to the disturbance in the Tempus Nebula that Farnsworth and the Globetrotters believe is responsible.
Of course, this requires some justification, so let's run down some specifics.
I'll take you on, you airballing bozos.
Farnsworth responds to the Globetrotters' basketball challenge by sending his crew to the Tempus Nebula to gather chronitons. With chronitons he will be able to speed the growth of his team of mutant atomic supermen ("Mere atomic superboys, really...") in time for the game.
In fact, the rapid growth of the atomic supermen is the first time we see the chronitons in action, speeding time in this case for the purpose of accelerating growth. But Farnsworth's basketball team is not the first thing exposed to the chronitons...
Fry: Come on Leela, why won't you go out with me? We both know there's something there.
Fry's emotions for Leela are expressed among (and therefore exposed to) the chronitons in the Tempus Nebula, and though there is no immediate result of this, the later events of the episode will establish that something, indeed, happened here: Fry has sown the seeds for the timeskips.
What's causing it? Is it my outfit?
Proof is found in the fact that the timeskips follow a definite pattern.
They typically occur on the cusp of anticipation. That is to say that an idea is suggested, the skip occurs, and the result of that idea is already in full swing. What's lost is nearly always the causal circumstance that leads up to that idea being fulfilled (or denied, as the case may be).
Furthermore, the timeskips most frequently occur where Fry and Leela are concerned discussing their feelings (or lack of feelings) for each other. And one step further: the timeskips almost never occur outside of Fry's presence.
Yet the characters in the show don't seem to realize this pattern...they are more caught up in the scientific aspect of things, and not in the greater thematic design.
In fact, they are so caught up in explaining (and solving) the problem scientifically that they aren't even concerned with making sense.
Bubblegum:I think we got ourselves an excess of chronitons in the subatomic interstices.
Prof. Farnsworth: Yes I see, Something involving that many big words could easily destabilize time itself.
Their reasoning is not at all rational, as the episode suggests, because their initial plan to gravitationally divert chronitons fails. Bubblegum Tate attempts to shrug off his failure by claiming that "a real Globetrotter saves the real algebra for the final minutes."
Yet it is never made clear whether or not the Professor or the Globetrotters are equipped to solve the problem. In the above quotation, Bubblegum hides behind scientific nonsense, and Farnsworth allows it. Later in the show Bender asks to have the situation explained to him and Bubblegum "does so" by pelting him with basketballs.
Not much in the way of explanation...are the Globetrotters just "showboating" as Farnsworth suggests? Is Farnsworth himself ill-equipped to tackle the situation at hand?
It certainly seems so. Yet, by the end of the show, the timeskips have stopped. But so has something else: Fry's romantic delusions.
Off you go, apparently.
The rhetoric of the scientists in this episode leaves us with a tenuous (at best) understanding of the situation at hand, and an unlikely conclusion. But they are the only ones explaining the situation to us, and if we can't trust what we've been told, how can we know what really happened?
With the exception of the initial skips (which occur during the basketball game) every one of the timeskips hinges upon anticipation...and anticipation is exactly what Fry is feeling where Leela is concerned. He will try everything to bring them together, and it's the waiting between attempts that is cut out during the skips.
Nearly all of the timeskips (including at least one at the basketball game) are in direct relation to the anticipation of a positive result in Fry's seduction of Leela, and even where they are not there is still a sense of uncertainty that is cut during the skip; if ever a character doubts a result, the timeskip brings him to it. Once again, it is the anticipation that is removed...and Fry is nearly always present when this occurs. Is Fry, subconsciously, causing the timeskips?
Fry's attempted wooing of Leela in the Tempus Nebula may well have exposed his sense of romantic anticipation to the chronitons, which, as we see, have the power to speed time "as necessary." In the case of the supermen Farnsworth needed them to age and grow quickly. In the case of Fry's anticipation, the chronitons push him forward in time to see the results of his actions and ideas.
It is very metaphorical in a romantic sense, because Fry's desire for gratification with Leela is so intense that his exposure to the chronitons allows him skip right over the waiting. He is in command of the situation, even if he is unaware of it; the timeskips occur when Fry's anxieties are at their peak. Just as the chronitons responded to need for growth in the supermen, they respond to Fry's need for relief from anxiety.
Compare the stress levels immediately before the timeskips to the stress levels immediately following; they are always significantly lowered, owing to a resolution that has been reached. Uncertainty is out the window: there's no time for it.
The timeskips are external manifestations of Fry's internal romantic dilemma. This is why the scientific plan fails and the timeskips continue; Fry is still resolved to see things through with Leela, and the chronitons are still responding to that, regardless of what the scientists have tried to do with their gravity pump.
There is a hint of this given midway through the episode, when Fry constructs a "time proof shelter" for only he and Leela. It's actually just a seductively decorated room, but the dialogue that follows is very telling:
Leela: How exactly will this protect us from time jumps?
Fry: Because when we're together in here, baby, time will stand still.
And this may actually be true. If Fry did convince Leela to stay with him in the shelter, and if he did succeed in seducing her, the chronitons would have no further reason to speed things along...and the timeskips could be stopped at last. It's closure for Fry's emotions that we need here, not scientific reasoning.
But what about the end of the show? The doomsday device detonated by the Planet Express crew seems to resolve the timeskips once and for all, right?
Right, but something else happens as a result of the implosion that is more likely responsible for the cessation of skips.
The creation of the black hole that Farnsworth and the Globetrotters believe will solve the problem also destroys Fry's grand romantic gesture to Leela, which leaves him utterly despondent and hopeless--literally without hope.
Fry: Did you see it? Did you see it?
Bender: The explosion?
Fry: No, not the explosion!
Leela: Then what?
The episode ends with Fry, lost in his own sorrow, staring emptily into space, where only a moment ago was the one thing that would win Leela's heart. Fry's desolation has set in; he no longer believes that he can succeed. There is nothing left for the chronitons to do. And that is why the timeskips stop.
Too late, hotplate.
"Time Keeps On Slipping" also contains many hints outside of the main story that the science-fiction element is not what the episode is really about. In fact, there is a very early microcosm for the theme when the Globetrotter ship lands. As everybody in the park flees the landing site, fearing themselves in mortal danger, one man halts his retreat to circle the topless Amy, ogling her.
In this short comic moment, we have a capsulated version of the episode: there is a very real danger, but, for the participants, it's love that's more important (or, in this case, lust...the frequent low-literary parallel for love) and success will be judged on those grounds, not on the grounds of survival.
We also have Marv Albert commentating on the basketball game, downplaying the science-fiction aspects of the show in what is probably an intentional move on the part of the writers to hint to the viewer that maybe they are not what is special about this episode after all.
But the most important reminder of what this episode is actually about is Bender, lovable Bender, who "falls" for the Globetrotters in the same way Fry has fallen for Leela. He spends the episode attempting to woo them, wanting to be with them, trying to convince them that they'd be right for each other. But, like Fry, his hopes are ultimately dashed.
It's also important to note that although there are strong parallels between the Fry/Leela story and the Bender/Globetrotter story, the timeskips only occur when Fry is trying to romance Leela, and never when Bender is trying to romance the Globetrotters.
Why would this be, if the timeskips were indeed random? Surely they'd be just as likely to affect Bender's story as they would Fry's...yet they never do.
But think back to the Tempus Nebula...it is Fry who makes his feelings for Leela known...and it is his anticipation of fulfillment that the chronitons are reacting to. Bender's desire to join the Globetrotters has not yet been established, so he does not mention it...and therefore the chronitons cannot later affect it.
He attempts everything he can, right down to sewing his own uniform and making himself taller artificially, but Bubblegum cuts him down in much the same way Leela has been trying to cut Fry:
Bubblegum: Bender, you can talk trash. You can handle the ball. But look in your heart and ask yourself. Are you funky enough to be a Globetrotter? Are you?
Bubblegum: Are you?
Bender: I mean, with time my funk level could...
Bubblegum: Are you?
Bubblegum: Deal with it.
Both stories end in failure, and Bender offers some words of self-loathing wisdom:
Bender: What does it matter? I'll never be a Globetrotter. My life, and by extension everyone else's, is meaningless.
For Bender it has been established that his dream will remain unfulfilled, and that, for him, is closure. The only solace he can take in the situation is "blasting this quadrant of space into a hailstorm of flaming nothingness," which, consequently, also brings Fry to his own realization that Leela's affection will always be lost to him.
The final image we are left with is Fry staring emptily into space, but it is Bender's ominous whistling of Sweet Georgia Brown, the Globetrotters' theme song, that we hear. Both visually and aurally, we are left with the ghost of what could have been, and all too clear is the empty reality of what now will be.
Science fiction? No. It's just life.