Thu
May 17 2012 3:00pm

Phineas and Ferb is the Best Science Fiction on Television

Phineas and Ferb is the Best Science Fiction on Television

I know that’s a strong claim for children’s cartoon on the Disney Channel. But seriously, the show about two brothers who spend each day having an insane adventure, their sister Candace, who spends each day trying to bust them, and their pet platypus Perry, who spends each day thwarting the mad schemes of the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz, is one of the best depictions of science fiction on television today.

For one thing, outside of its spec fic premise, Phineas and Ferb is a really good show in general. I could write whole other articles on how it’s a blisteringly funny satire of contemporary pop culture, or how it’s a loving portrayal of a blended family that treats divorce and remarriage as normal parts of life, or how it’s remarkably cleverly written using repetition, variation, and song to create complex and compelling characters, or how the secret protagonist of the show is actually Candace, the teenager trapped between her desperate need to be an adult and her own childish desires to have fun.

All that aside, Phineas and Ferb is a great science fiction, by which I mean it uses an impossible world to tell real stories about real people. Beyond the individual episodes that focus on tropes of the sci fi genre (rockets, robots, time machines and shrink rays, for example), the whole show is, at its heart, about two mad scientists, Phineas Flynn* and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, who, though unaware of each other, are rivals in their quests to reshape the city of Danville and the entire Tri-State Area (named after John P. Tristate).

*Ferb Fletcher, Phineas’s brother, is a brilliant scientist in his own right, but since he rarely speaks or acts independently, he usually fills the role of Igor, as he explicitly does in the episode “the Monster of Phineas-n-Ferbenstein.”

 

That Phineas and Doofenshmirtz are two sides of the same triangle headed coin is the subtext of every episode, and the actual text of episodes like “I Scream, You Scream,” where they accidentally switch blueprints, and “Hail Doofania,” where they switch dialogue. Young Phineas is absolutely the better scientist, and just as mad. His solution to almost every problem is to build something impossible, usually before lunch. Even his lemonade stand is powered by a giant anthropomorphic robot. Doofenshmirtz, on the other hand, is no slouch in the building impossible devices department. He’s mainly hindered by his insistence that each device end in “-inator”, including his “Age Accelerator...-inator,” and that his plans are constantly foiled by a, well, “suave, semi-aquatic personification of unstoppable dynamic fury.”

Phineas and Ferb is the Best Science Fiction on Television

The real difference then between the two is not what they can do, which is anything, but what they choose to do with almost unlimited power. Phineas is an altruistic epicurean on a quest to have the best summer ever. He doesn’t just want to ride a rollercoaster, he wants to ride the best rollercoaster, and if he has to build it himself (with the aid of his brother and friends), he will. But not just for himself. He wants everyone to have the best summer ever, whether that means inviting his friends along on his adventures or transforming Danville into a cooler place for everyone or gearing his adventures towards solving one of his friends specific problems. And I do mean he wants to help everyone, including Candace, against whom he holds no grudge for her constant attempts at busting him. Of course, that also leads to Phineas’s main flaw: he doesn’t always notice when his help is unwanted or its over the top nature causes more harm than good, like the giant tilt-a-whirl speed dating machine he builds for Candace, or the army of potato gremlins he accidentally unleashes trying to make latkes. But his heart is always in the right place, when he causes problems he makes sure to fix them, and even when his inventions fail, he laughs it off and looks forward to his next crazy plan.

Doofenshmirtz, on the other hand, is whatever the opposite of an altruistic epicurean is. A mean-spirited megalomaniac. Most of Doofenshmirtz’s schemes are aimed at taking over the entire Tri-State area, when they are not designed to revenge himself for some petty, possibly imagined slight. Not that he didn’t have a miserable childhood growing up in the country of Gimmelshtump — for example, his family could not afford a lawn gnome so he had to stand in the garden each night wearing a pointed hat and fake beard—but that’s no reason to vacuum away everybody else’s lawn gnome. His solutions always involve making everybody else’s life worse, rather than make his own life better. Rather than make himself more attractive, he creates a ray to make everyone else uglier. As focused as he is on the failures in his life, ignoring his amazing ex-wife and kick ass daughter, no wonder he’s miserable and spends each afternoon getting beaten up by a monotreme.

Phineas and Ferb is the Best Science Fiction on Television

And while some episodes show how Phineas and Doofenshmirtz aren’t that different, other episodes, very science fiction-y episodes, demonstrate just how important their differences are and how horrible it would be if Doofenshmitz ever, you know, won. One great strength of science fiction is the ability to tell stories that are not just impossible generally, but would also ruin the ongoing narrative. But with alternate dimensions (in the TV movie Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension) and time travel (“Phineas and Ferb’s Quantum Booglaloo”), we see that a world ruled by Doofenshmirtz would be a colorless place where everyone wears the same clothes and children spend the summer indoors while hoping nothing bad happens to them. The two episodes also make it clear that, whether they know it or not, it is actually Phineas and Ferb, and the children they inspire, that keep the world from slipping into Doofensmirtz’s hands.

The point is clear, mad science aimed at hurting people creates a grey world where everyone looks the same and no one has fun. Helping others creates a colorful world full of intelligent people able to rise to any challenge. Phineas and Ferb has heroes using science at its best, and villains using it at its worst, and the show uses science fiction to tell inspiring stories about imagination. It’s a fantastic show everybody should be watching, and in closing, there’s a platypus controlling me.


Steven Padnick is a comics editor. By day.

23 comments
Bittersweet Fountain
1. Bittersweet Fountain
I love Phineas and Ferb, which in the past has caused some people to think I'm insane--since I'm twenty-five and have no small children on which I can blame watching the Disney Channel. But it's just such a clever show--for all the reasons you mention and more. The dual narrative structure in which Doof's stories and Phineas's stories often resolve each other without knowing it is just brilliant. The songs are catchy, the characters memoriable...the show is just genius.

And when people ask me "aren't you a little old to be watching cartoons?", I just repond, "Yes, Yes, I am."
James Whitehead
2. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
My family loves this show. Not only is it one of the best scifi, yes scifi, shows out there it is one of the best shows on tv today, period.

Kato
Bittersweet Fountain
3. Sara Eileen
That video is incredibly adorable.
A.J. Bobo
4. Daedylus
People that have never actually watched the show see a silly kids cartoon that isn't worth their time. People that have watched it see a very funny cartoon that doesn't care how old you are. And then there's you, Steven. The fact that you see good, meaningful science fiction in that insanity impresses me. Or scares me. Not sure which.

As a side note, I'm a 34-year-old guy and I consider Phineas and Ferb to be one of the funniest TV shows that I have ever seen and one of my absolute favorite shows of all time.
S Cooper
5. SPC
At least you have no squirrels in your pants. I was introduced to Phineas and Ferb by my 60-year-old parents, and my preschool-age children enjoy the show just as much. The writing is clever and whimsical and the family relationships are sweet. It has everything.
Thomas Simeroth
6. a smart guy
Phineas and Ferb is one of my favorite shows. My mom and I watch it together when it comes on.
Thomas Jeffries
7. thomstel
I think you typoed up there somewhere. Perry is, and always will remain, "a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal of ACTION!"

Oh yeah, the show is fabulous too. :) But the opening theme can now, after many years, go jump off a cliff.
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
I love Phineas & Ferb, discovered it by accident when it came on after one of the Disney Jr. show my 4 year old son likes, and have been watching it regularly ever since. The fantasy episode, which spoofs almost every cliche of epic fantasy, was a work of genius too. Great post!
George Brell
9. gbrell
I really enjoy Phineas & Ferb, though I can't say that I watch it religiously or even consistently.

But to claim that it's better science fiction than Fringe make me roll my eyes. Plus, it's got animated competition in the new Avatar series (which is fantastic, but given it's only on episode 6, I won't make sweeping pronouncements about its place in the television pantheon).
Bittersweet Fountain
10. Jerid Messa
But isn't Phineas and Ferb a girl's show?

Nah but seriously now I wouldn't call it the best scifi show or even best cartoon on television these days, but it's definitely one of my favorite shows that's currently airing.
Bittersweet Fountain
11. Dalene
My family LOVES P&F! My 4, now 5 yr old son discovered it & my 2yr old daughter is totally in love with it. When she saw Perry walk in the rain in the 2nd dimension movie she cried for him! My son just received a "Perry-o-ke" machine for his birthday...you can sing along or change your voice to sound like "The Beak". We watch it on our Roku daily & have seen every episode at least 7 times. We can rehearse it like my husband & I can rehearse lines from "The Princess Bride". Is that scary? Yes, yes it is.
Bittersweet Fountain
12. AlBrown
I have to agree with the premise of this article--Phineas and Ferb is made of awesome! A few months ago, I spent a month at home after surgery, not even able to hold up a book, so I watched LOTS of TV. One day I was flipping past the Disney Channel, and decided to give the cartoon a try. Before I knew it, I had watched a whole string of episodes, and that same day, set the DVR to tape the show whenever it appeared.
I love the way the show is always built around the same riff each time. It appears repetitive, much as a 12 bar blues or 32 bar Irish tune appears to an outsider. But the power of the show is how they work within that basic format, how they play off that riff. You know that Perry will disappear, that Doof will build an -inator, and that, in the end, whatever Phineas and Ferb will build will be swept away just before Candace busts them. But how you get there is constant fun.
Even my wife, who is not a cartoon fan, has started watching the show. The other day she told my daughter in law that "I didn't want to like it, but I can't help myself!" The writing, especially the lyrics to many of the songs, is just hilarious. I laughed out loud yesterday when they built a giant mechanical dog, and Baljeet said, "I recognize that dog, he's in the opening credits." And the "I've Got a Platypus Controlling Me" song, linked above, is just great!
All the characters, despite the zaniness, feel real, someone you can connect with and empathise with. There is a lot of heart in this show, and a lot of love shown between the characters. The show is laugh out loud funny for both kids and adults, the inventions are zany, and the because of that riffing in the format, it is replete with catch phrases that just cry out to be repeated. My granddaughter loves it when I walk up to her and ask "Whatcha doin'?" And when asked if she was able to get something done that day, my wife will answer, "Yes, yes I have," with a twinkle in her eye.
And the science, while far fetched, is great. The show has kids building things, learning things, and doing things. All things that our culture should be encouraging.
This show is a win all around. I am so glad that Phineas and Ferb's summer seems to be lasting far longer than the normal 104 days!
Bittersweet Fountain
13. wizard clip
In a similar vein, Cartoon Network's "Regular Show" typically resembles a standard slacker dude sitcom (with funny animals in the lead), but about halfway through each episode it morphs into some sort of Lovecraftian horror.
Bittersweet Fountain
14. howtobrew
I laughed hysterically when Doofenschmirtz attempted to use the Force during the bratwurst/weiner dual. Somewhere I need to find a XXL T-shirt that says, "Team Doofenschmirtz, Ho!"

My wife's favorite part was during the Teenage Miniature Golfing Queen episode when Candace's gnashing of her teeth was mistaken for a crowd cheering.
Seriously, some of the most clever writing on TV outside of the Big Bang Theory.
(Engineer, age 48)
Bittersweet Fountain
16. Americandy
I love this article. I'm 23, unmarried and female, no kids, and I watch this show pretty much religiously. We even have girls nights where we do our hair and pluck our eyebrows, drink girly booze and watch the show!

You did say one teeeeeeny little thing that I don't agree with though--Doofenshmirtz does not ignore his daughter at all. He adores her and goes out of his way trying to make her happy, even though she's perpetually impossible to please (she can't even pretend half the time)! He's always worried for her safety and she even starts to take up for him later on. I think Doof is a lousy scientist, but a great dad.
Charles Gaston
17. parrothead
My roommate and I love this show. It is extremely formulaic, but the writing is so clever and the characters so endearing that they more than make up for it; indeed, seeing the ways they play with the formula is itself fascinating. I also love how, despite foiling his plans every day, Perry still seems to have a soft spot for Doofenshmirtz, as seen in the clip.

If there was one character I would compare Phineas to, it would be Calvin; Phineas is bascially if Calvin could have realized his imagination. And since Calvin and Hobbes is one of the most important (not to mention earliest) influences on me and how I look at the world, that's pretty high praise.
Ron Hogan
18. RonHogan
I've said it before and I will say it again: "Phineas and Ferb's Quantum Boogaloo" should have been nominated for a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) in 2010. Maybe instead of a THIRD episode of Doctor Who...
Bittersweet Fountain
19. totz_the_plaid
As Americandy mentioned above, Doof isn't a BAD guy, really, just petty and over-the-top. He loves his daughter, and he's been shown on more than one occasion that he considers Perry as much a best friend as a nemesis.

Even with "Quantum Boogaloo", he was FAR more playfully evil of a ruler than his counterpart in "Across the 2nd Dimension". He's still "evil" but in a sympathetic way.
Bittersweet Fountain
20. Not_on_the_Internet
Are you on crack?

It is not even the best cartoon that is currently airing, even if it is completly subjective, you still can not say that it is the ''best''.
Bittersweet Fountain
21. The Other Keith
I'm lucky, I have a teenager in the house that I can blame for a DVR full of Phineas and Ferb. I should also give him credit for introducing the show to me, although I probably watch it more than he does now.
Bittersweet Fountain
22. PeteHas2Kids
I do not laugh at ANY show nearly as much as I laugh during Phineas & Ferb - from brief snorts to loud guffaws. This is the best show on TV
Bittersweet Fountain
23. Chelsea G.
I've read this article about five or six times since it was originally posted, and I just want to thank you for writing such an insightful analysis on just what makes this show so wonderful. You also note that you could write many more articles about its use of satire and formula, and I would IMPLORE you to do so. I love the way this show is so aware of its own narrative structure, and I would love to hear your take on it.

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