Star Trek Rewatch

Tribbles Week: Re-watching Futurama’s “The Problem With Popplers”

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The Re-Watch has come upon “The Trouble with Tribbles,” easily the most celebrated episode of the entire original series (if not the whole franchise). It would be wrong—nay, criminal—if we did not properly do our own tribute. As such, we are taking the opportunity to devote this week to everyone’s favorite furry little breeding factory, the Tribble.

Each day this week features a tribble-related re-watch, culminating tomorrow with a chance to win a tribble of your very own (along with a few other goodies). The first installment was Monday, with the original “The Trouble with Tribbles;” the second was Tuesday, with “More Tribbles, More Troubles;” and the third was yesterday, with “Trials and Tribble-ations.”


“The Problem With Popplers”
Written by Patric M. Verrone
Story by Darin Henry
Directed by Chris Sauve & Gregg Vanzo

Season 2, Episode 15
Production episode: 2×15
Original air date: May 7, 2000
Star date: 3001 (exact date unknown)
Opening subtitle: “For External Use Only”

Delivery Assignment:

The Planet Express crew has just left the homeworld of the Moochers, where Fry was swindled out of his cash and his pants (all in all not the worst day he’s had). The Moochers also pilfered the ship’s pantry, and the only food left is baking soda and capers. Starving, they see a planet on the horizon:

FRY: Maybe that planet over there has a drive-thru. A Burger Jerk or a Fishy Joe’s or a Chizzler or something.
BENDER: Ah, don’t get your hopes up. We’re a billion miles from nowhere.
LEELA: Yeah. It’s probably only got a Howard Johnson’s.

They land on a jungle-like “Type M” planet, which “should at least have Roddenberries.” They don’t see any of those but they do see a pit full of what looks like battered and fried shrimp! What luck! Leela uses her electronic armband to determine that they’re not poisonous, and tries one.

It’s delicious!

She gobbles them up and Fry and Bender follow suit. Unable to get enough of these strange, delicious little balls, they haul a shipful home to Earth. The rest of the Planet Express crew is bowled over by how tasty they are and Fry names them “popplers.” Like good capitalists of the future, they decide to sell them.

Fry and Bender set up a street cart, but have trouble getting customers and decide to sabotage the neighboring hot dog vendor. Bender walks over there and asks, “Where do you want those rat droppings you ordered?” The customers, disgusted, go over and try the popplers (at which point the hot dog vendor says “Wait a minute… You’re not the guy who delivers the rat droppings!”) The popplers are a huge hit and a man who claims to be “Fishy” Joe Gillman comes by and offers them international distribution and wads of cash. They agree!

In no time they are an intergalactic sensation. Fry and Bender even sing a jingle:

Pop a Poppler in your mouth
When you come to Fishy Joe’s
What they’re made of is a mystery
Where they come from no one knows

You can pick ‘em
You can lick ‘em
You can chew ‘em
You can stick ‘em
If you promise not to sue us
You can shove one up your nose…

However, as the popplers become more popular, protesters (led by a dirty-looking hippie named Waterfall, Jr.) from Mankind for Ethical Animal Treatment (M.E.A.T.) begin to appear outside of Fishy Joe’s. They’re carrying signs like “Stopp Before You Popp,” “Eating Is Murder,” and “Popplers Are Peoplers Too!” They try to heckle the Planet Express crew but Leela reminds them that as vegetarians, their boycott’s useless, and they throw bricks at the protesters to drive them off.

Later, Leela finds old poppler containers lying around the Planet Express offices:

LEELA: Fry, I wish you’d throw out these week-old popplers. They’re getting big and scaly. Ooh, there’s one left!

But as she reaches to eat it, the scaly, lumpy ball unfurls, opens two big eyes, and says “Mama!” Horrified, Leela throws it across the room where it lands in a bucket of honey mustard sauce and swims around in it happily.

Leela tries to tell the rest of the crew that the popplers are alive and intelligent, but no one believes her:

FRY: Look, Leela, even if you heard one talk, that doesn’t mean it’s intelligent. I mean, parrots talk and we eat them, right?
BENDER: Yeah. Maybe it just learned to talk as a parlor trick. Like Fry.
FRY: Like Fry! Like Fry!
FARNSWORTH: There’s one way, and only one way, to determine if an animal is intelligent. Dissect its brain!
POPPLER: No, mama! Stop grandpa!

Horrified, the crew decides to join her cause and stop the mass consumption of these living, intelligent creatures. They protest outside of Fishy Joe’s and Leela appears on DateNight (the fake news channel) along with Waterfall, Jr. and “Fishy” Joe Gillman. Leela tries to get the poppler to talk but “Fishy” Joe says it doesn’t matter if they’re intelligent—humans buy and eat intelligent creatures all the time, and the only reason they don’t eat people is because “they taste lousy.” The poppler calls him “a mean old caca-head,” which leads “Fishy” Joe to taunt: “Look, I’m willing to grant that it’s murder. The real issue is: Who’s gonna stop me?”

Suddenly huge flying saucers cast long shadows over New New York, and the studio begins to fall down around Linda on DateNight. All TV channels begin broadcasting from the spaceships, which are from Omicron Persei 8. He is not pleased:

LRRR: The creatures you call “popplers” come from a nursery planet in our sector.
ND-ND: You monsters have been eating our babies! We demand justice. As you ate our children, so shall you be eaten by us!

An emergency meeting of the Democratic Order of Planets (D.O.O.P.) convenes, and Zapp Brannigan has been chosen as the chief negotiator for this delicate issue. He meets with Lrrr and the other Omicronians, but during the entire session he can’t stop eating popplers. Furious at this display, Lrrr demands that they be allowed to eat one human for every poppler consumed: 198 billion. Zapp agrees, but Kif reminds him that there aren’t 198 billion humans! Lrrr responds that they’re willing to wait a few weeks while the humans shore up the population. Zapp delights in the idea of procreating, and tells Kif to clear his schedule. (Kif groans and shakes an Etch-A-Sketch.)

Brannigan emerges from the conference to announce that a compromise has been reached: rather than eating every human on the planet, they will eat only one—the first person to have tasted a poppler, Turanga Leela.

In Madison Cube Garden a huge audience is there to witness the show. Lrrr and Nd-Nd sit at a formal dinner table, and Leela is backstage, locked in a cage. Zapp rushes back there to tell her he has a Brilliant Plan. He wheels out another, identical cage, this time holding an orangutan. Kif fixes up the orangutan’s hair to include a purple ponytail, which I guess is supposed to look like Leela, and Zapp declares that he’s “seeing double.” They wheel the poor thing out to the dinner table where Lrrr and Nd-Nd eagerly await.

Luckily for the humans, Lrrr isn’t much good at identifying people, and takes it for the real Leela. But just as he’s about to eat the orangutan, Waterfall, Jr. runs in shouting “Wait, stop! It’s a trick! That’s not Leela! It’s an orangutan, one of Mother Earth’s most precious creatures!”

LRRR: The one called “Smelly Hippie” is right. This is a monkey!
ND-ND (eating it): Yes. Definitely.
LRRR: Where is the real female?
ZAPP: I’ll never tell. (He crosses his arms and Lrrr points a laser to his head.)
LRRR: Where is the real female?
ZAPP: I’ll get her for you.

He does, and Lrrr, despite Leela’s protestations, opens his mouth and tosses her in. But before he can can close his mouth one of the popplers throws itself into her mouth! It’s the one she saved, who says his name is Jrrr and that if she gets eaten, he gets eaten, too.

His mother says she’ll “count to glorks” before punishing him but the little one goes on:

JRRR: Hear me out. There are many good reasons to eat. Hunger, boredom, wanting to be the world’s fattest man. But not revenge. Are we no better than they? Besides, Leela’s my friend.
LRRR: (Mumbling) Is this true, Earthling?
LEELA: (Mumbling) Yeah, it is. (He takes her out of his mouth.)
LRRR: (Taking her out of his mouth.) Leela’s garbled words have opened my eyes.

Everyone cheers, and Waterfall, Jr. steals the mic to tell everyone to hold hands. Irritated, Lrrr asks Jrrr if that’s his friend, too, and when Jrrr replies “No” Lrrr eats the hippie.

LRRR: People of Earth—oh, that hippie’s starting to kick in—we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today, I realize now that—dude! My hand are huge! They can touch anything but themselves. (Touching his hands together.) Oh, wait.

Nd-Nd drags him off the stage.

In the end, everyone from Planet Express has gathered around the office table for dinner together, and they toast to Leela, who “showed us it’s wrong to eat certain things.” They share veal, suckling pig, and dolphin (to which everyone gasps):

LEELA: Dolphin? But dolphins are intelligent!
BENDER: Not this one. He blew all his money on instant lottery tickets.
FRY: OK.
LEELA: Oh, OK.
AMY: That’s different.

Analysis:

Futurama is one of my favorite shows of all time. It was made by nerds who got it, and though I’ve seen the series at least four times I pick up on new jokes with every viewing. The show can leave me in stitches, but it’s also got a sweetness and humanity to it that has made me cry on more than one occasion. I’ve been dying for a chance to review an episode, and luckily Tribbles Week is as good an excuse as any. (I suspect I’ll find an excuse at some point to review “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” but suggestions are welcome.)

An obvious pun on “The Trouble With Tribbles,” “The Problem With Popplers” has a whole slew of great little Star Trek jokes nestled within it. Fry of course is the ultimate Star Trek fan, something that gets him in a wee bit of trouble in “Where No Fan Has Gone Before.” They land on a “Type M” planet, which “should at least have Roddenberries,” a line that always cracks me up. When Leela decides to see if the popplers are poisonous, she uses “this thing on my arm” (which is obviously a kind of tricorder, and has previously worked as a communicator and laser, among other things). Zapp Brannigan plays a big role, and the Futurama staff has explicitly stated that  Zapp is supposed to be Kirk—if he were actually just Shatner not acting. I love when he emerges and states loftily, “Using the twin guns of grace and tact, I blasted our worthless enemies with a fair compromise.” If that isn’t Kirk, I don’t know what is.

But mostly, this is a brilliant, if a little odd, parody of “The Trouble With Tribbles.” In the original, the tribbles capture the hearts of the Enterprise crew with their cuteness. Here, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and peoples’ love of the popplers has to do with the revelation that they’re made of meat. Who could resist? It also turns the reproductive nature of tribbles on its head: instead of being creatures “geared for reproduction,” they’re the larval products of reproduction. That sounds pretty gross, but think about it: all the tribbles on the ship are basically babies, and beaming them all over to the Klingon ship isn’t exactly sending them to daycare.

There’s a really interesting idea here, though: what constitutes intelligence, and at what point do we actually care? Remember The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide? The tribbles are clearly alive, but there’s no way to know if they’re intelligent. (We presume they aren’t.) Can they feel pain? They can tell a Klingon from a human… does that imply some kind of decision-making on their part, or is it instinct? The “moral” lesson at the end of Futurama shows that even when these things aren’t ambiguous we treat ethical issues very subjectively, and in the end people’ll eat whatever they can get away with eating and just try not to think about where things come from. (Full disclosure: I’m a vegetarian.)

Futurama was fairly brave in its cynicism, and it got away with a lot of scathing commentaries that I don’t think Star Trek could’ve pulled off. Here’s hoping the new series holds up to classics like this one.

Torie’s Rating: Dark Matter efficiency of 200%

Eugene Myers: In retrospect, I suppose “The Problem with Popplers” doesn’t bear all that much resemblance to “The Trouble with Tribbles,” riffing mainly on the title and an unhealthy obsession with small round creatures. It’s certainly not as close an homage to Star Trek as the stunning “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” which reunited the voices of most of the original crew and parodied many classic episodes. Great joke about “roddenberries” aside, this installment of Futurama really doesn’t have much more to do with Star Trek than any other (though admittedly, any given episode owes a lot to Trek). Episodes often have guest voices and references to Trek actors like Leonard Nimoy and George Takei (even Scott Bakula, who ruined the franchise!), and of course pretty much every episode uses the door “whoosh” among other sound effects from the original series. Most memorably for me, the Star Trek fight music is the national anthem of Zoidberg’s planet, and let’s not forget the regular appearances of lusty Captain Zapp Brannigan.

I loved “Popplers” the first time I saw it, but strangely didn’t enjoy it quite as much this time around. I’d forgotten the reveal about the Omicronians, so it was a nice surprise for me. I didn’t look too hard for any deeper meaning to it all, content to just enjoy the dark, often gross humor, but the last scene implies that there was a message after all. Like Lisa Simpson on Futurama‘s sister show, the writers ask the audience to question their eating habits, couched in humor. Just as programs like Twilight Zone and Star Trek “tricked” audiences into thinking about real social issues of the time, “Popplers” may be fooling us into taking a closer look at our treatment of animals. But it’s too little, too late, and the punchline seemed in poor, well, taste. Perhaps I was also in hypercritical mode: the casual comment that the young Omicronians eat their mothers seemed to undermine the issue of humans eating their larvae. The show could have gone in any number of directions, but for me it fell short of meaningful commentary about animal intelligence.

I like the parallels Torie draws between “Tribbles” and “Popplers,” and I think she’s hit on something, but for me, “Popplers” is simply a cheerful celebration of the roots of science fiction television. Star Trek paved the way for shows like Futurama, and inspired its creators, who are fans like us, to create something entertaining and provocative of their own—and hopefully just as long-lasting.

Eugene’s Rating: Dark Matter efficiency of 195%

Best Line: FRY (as he eats popplers): “Oh, they’re great! They’re like sex! Except I’m having them!”

Trivia: This is the first time we learn Leela’s first name, Turanga. We also learn that Fry’s first name is Philip.

Though “Fishy” Joe claims they don’t eat people, Leela tells us in “Fry and the Slurm Factory” that there’s something called Soylent Cola. “How is it?” “It varies from person to person.”

Other Notes: Patric Verrone, who penned this episode, worked on shows like Rugrats, The Critic, Pinky & The Brain, and Muppets Tonight (which he won an Emmy for). He wrote many Futurama episodes, including one of my favorites, “The Sting.”

Phil Hendrie, the radio personality, voices Waterfall, Jr.. He also voiced the other Waterfalls in the series (they were systematically killed off).


Tomorrow on Tribbles Week: a surprise! Well, two! (Spoilers: it involves winning a tribble! Okay, it’s not a surprise, it’s a contest. Or two.)

Check the Star Trek Re-Watch Index for a complete list of posts in this series.


Torie Atkinson thinks the only thing this episode is missing is Morbo.

Eugene Myers could go for a refreshing can of Slurm right about now.

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