It wasn't the first Fox series to be canceled too early (and it certainly won't be the last), but the initial demise of Matt Groening's Futurama proved to be slow and steady. Not in quality, of course: this tale of a man frozen for a millennium only got funnier as the series progressed, though network support dwindled during its first four-year lifespan. As the Simpsons machine rolled on, Futurama's timeslot was shuffled around; for a time, the series directly followed Groening's most famous creation, but the pairing didn't last long. Futurama was eventually cancelled for the first time in August of 2003, though subsequent DVD releases (broken into four "volumes", due to its erratic broadcast schedule) reinforced the show's rabid fanbase.
As creations like Fox's own Family Guy would prove, strong DVD sales make executives take notice. Groening approached the studio in 2006 with a proposal to create a new direct-to-DVD Futurama adventure, paving the way for rumors about a proper weekly revival for the series. Negotiations led to the announcement of four direct-to-DVD movies, which would eventually be divided into sixteen episodes airing on the Comedy Central network. These resulting movies (Bender's Big Score, The Beast With A Billion Backs, Bender's Game and Into the Wild Green Yonder), unfortunately, weren't all well-received by fans and new viewers, leading some to believe that Futurama had lost its rhythm. In many ways, it had: 90-minute movies were simply too big of a canvas for Futurama's typical 24-minute template, and the results were often a little bloated and inconsistent.
Luckily, Into the Wild Green Yonder wasn't Futurama's last hurrah. Since its release on DVD, 26 brand new episodes were ordered by Comedy Central...and that's where Futurama: Volume Five comes in. Included with this package are 13 of these "third chance" episodes, with the remaining 13 due up soon after their broadcast in early 2011. We can assume that Futurama will now be in it for the long haul---and though it'll never last as long as The Simpsons, that's probably all for the best. For now, this two-disc set (also available on Blu-Ray) serves up the following adventures, presented in their original broadcast order:
(13 Episodes on 2 single-sided discs, plus bonus features)
From top to bottom, this is a solid collection of episodes...especially considering that Futurama was still getting its 30-minute groove back. This series has always managed to pack tons of plot into each episode...and, for the most part, these smaller adventures seem to be the perfect length. There's probably no better example of this than episode #7, "The Late Philip J. Fry": this instant classic weaves a multi-billion year love story with ease, and it's among the finest Futurama adventures ever told. Other easy highlights include "Rebirth" (the much-anticipated return episode, filled with plenty of meta-jokes and shocking twists), "Lethal Inspection" (featuring the unlikely yet somehow perfect combination of Hermes and Bender, who faces his own mortality), "The Prisoner of Benda" (the entire crew swaps minds with one another, more or less) and "Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences" (a tale of mid-life despondence, starring everyone's favorite first couple from Omicron Persei 8), just to name a few.
"Attack of the Killer App"
"The Duh-Vinci Code"
"The Late Philip J. Fry"
"That Darn Katz"
"A Clockwork Origin"
"The Prisoner of Benda"
"The Mutants Are Revolting"
"The Futurama Holiday Spectacular"
In all honesty, there aren't any clunkers in the bunch, and very few episodes even border on "slightly disappointing". The only two things that continue to bug me about Futurama are (A) the way it occasionally uses real-world current events as part of the story and (B) the way that Fry and Leela's relationship blinks on and off like a strobe light. Although it's commendable when sitcoms---animated or otherwise---attempt to tell a larger story on the whole, "Fry and Leela" as a backbone feels a little cheap when rotating writers perpetually kill the momentum. The transition from "Rebirth" to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela" is one such example, and it's almost as jarring as the transition from "Bender's Big Score" to "The Beast With A Billion Backs".
In any case, what's here is top-notch entertainment that any fan of Futurama should enjoy thoroughly...and anyone that says it's lost a step is kidding themselves. Luckily, Fox has once again stepped up to the plate and delivered a solid DVD package, even if the actual episode count is a little slimmer than usual. Featuring a top-notch technical presentation and a generous handful of terrific bonus features, this is one release worth hunting down. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
Like the four previous films, these episodes are presented in 1.78:1 format and enhanced for 16x9 displays. The vivid color palette looks bold and bright, image detail is strong and black levels are rock solid. Despite Futurama's relatively simple style of animation, there's plenty of detail on display here and it all comes through quite nicely; only the Blu-Ray release offers an improvement, for those who have ventured into high-def territory. Overall, it's a strong effort that fans should appreciate.
Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is lively and active, though not much more so than the previous volumes. In any case, dialogue is clean and clear, music cues are typically strong and a few clever directional effects can be heard along the way. English, Spanish and French subtitles (and Closed Captions) have all been included during the main feature...but not for the bonus material. It's very disappointing that some studios continue to overlook this portion of DVD presentation.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the animated menu designs are colorful and easy to navigate, just like the first four volumes. Each episode has been divided into four chapters, while no obvious layer changes were detected during playback. This two-disc set uses the same paperboard-style case that the four movies originally came in: it's certainly eco-friendly and compact, but it's pretty darn flimsy and may scuff up the discs a little. Ironically, the scratch-proof Blu-Rays will probably come in a standard plastic case. One promotional insert card is included and basic episode descriptions have been printed on the inside of the packaging.
The number of episodes is certainly smaller than previous volumes, but it's good to know that we still get plenty of great extras. Front and center are Audio Commentaries for all 13 episodes; as expected, these fantastic tracks are casual, informative and very funny. Typical participants include executive producers Matt Groening & David X. Cohen, producer Claudia Katz, voice actors Billy West & John DiMaggio, various co-producers and the writer and/or director of the respective episode. A few other voice actors, including David Herman and Maurice LaMarche, are also present during a track or two. Bottom line: if you've listened to and enjoyed any of the other audio commentaries on past Futurama releases, you can certainly look forward to these!
Disc 1 also features a collection of Deleted Scenes (23 clips, 10:20 total) presented in a mixture of finished and storyboarded formats. A few deleted scenes mentioned in several audio commentaries are missing for unknown reasons, but it's great to see some extra material in (mostly) finished form. Oddly enough, these scenes aren't selectable from the episode sub-menus---not to mention that they're all on Disc 1, for whatever reason---but the effort still very much appreciated.
We're also treated to "Behind the Fungus: Makin' A Hit Song" (4:59, below left), featuring Billy West and guitar pal Greg Leon recording "Shut Up and Love Me" (from episode #4, "Proposition Infinity") in the studio. Futurama fans may also remember the band "Wailin' Fungus" from Season 3's "Bendin' in the Wind", so don't call it a comeback.
Of lesser interest is "Previously on Futurama" (1:22), a collection of eponymous bumpers from all 16 "TV movie" episodes.
Disc 2 leads off with "The Adventures of Delivery-Boy Man" (7:13, above right), a Billy West read-through of the honest-to-goodness comic book created for episode #11, "Lrrreconcilable Ndndifferences". It's good cheesy fun and also includes optional audio commentary by Groening, Cohen and co-executive producer Patric Veronne.
Also here is "Bend It Like Bender" (2:41), a music video featuring new and old Futurama clips with music by Devin Townsend Project. Oddly enough, some of the pre-widescreen clips are zoomed and/or cropped, but whatever.
Last but not least is a Live Table Read (35:08) from episode #10, "The Prisoner of Benda". In lieu of actual footage from the audio recording, we're treated to early concept storyboard art and animatics, which is a fine substitute...but both options would've been even better. Also, only the most bored fans will be able to find both carefully-hidden Easter Eggs.
All bonus features are presented in 16x9 widescreen format, but none of them include optional subtitles or captions.
Not everyone saw it coming, but thank goodness it finally arrived: Volume Five is more fantastic Futurama in 30-minute chunks, just as it was meant to be. Though a few episodes aren't quite up to speed, others approach the heights of the series' initial run...so without a doubt, it's a safe bet that Futurama's return was a step in the right direction. Fox's DVD presentation doesn't miss a beat when compared to past releases, pairing a top-notch technical presentation with an assortment of fun bonus features (including more commentaries!). Assuming you haven't already picked it up---or, at the very least, put in on your holiday wish list---Futurama: Volume Five is an absolute no-brainer for all fans of this scrappy space odyssey. Highly Recommended.