96. Deep Space Homer

“…this inanimate carbon rod!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 24 February 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 14 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: David Mirkin
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

The most ambitious episodes of The Simpsons fall largely into one of two categories: ambition of ideas, such as Marge vs the Monorail and Rosebud; and ambition of spectacle, like A Streetcar Named Marge and Krusty Gets Kancelled. The results – as in the case of these four episodes – are usually glorious. But of the two categories, it’s ambition of spectacle that runs the greater risk of tripping up the programme and producing something that commands a grand scale but which actually amounts to very little. Deep Space Homer is one such example. It roams indifferently across the biggest canvas yet deployed in a normal (i.e. non-Halloween) episode of the show and takes one of its characters quite literally out of this world. Yet once the spectacle is over and the end credits start to roll, there’s a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction. The episode departs from your brain as quickly as it arrived. Yes, the animation is impressive (8) and there are some decent jokes (5) and a few clever homages to Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey (6). But these together aren’t enough to park the episode inside your head with the same stubborn exuberation as, say, ‘Oh! Streetcar!’ or Worker and Parasite (“Eastern Europe’s favourite cat and mouse team!”). Ultimately this story is just too flighty to get any purchase on your senses; it brushes your imagination instead of grabbing hold and not letting go. It stacks up one quick, noisy thrill after another without first building a solid foundation of plot (3) and character (1). And without the architecture in place to create something permanent, the contents of the episode linger momentarily then vanish. The only thing left of any substance is the inanimate carbon rod.

With hindsight you can also see the beginning here of an obsession with that most tiresome of story concepts, ‘Homer becomes a…’. It’s an obsession that would be kept under control for a few years, but then become steadily more rampant – and more joyless. Homer’s always been the sort of person to try his hand at different things – a mascot, a snow plow driver, the manager of a country singer – but those dalliances all felt of a piece with his world view and the tolerances of those around him. There is absolutely nothing in Homer’s world view that inclines him towards becoming an astronaut; nor does he exhibit here any trace of the kind of resilience with which he stuck at those previous occupations. Instead this is a new incarnation of the character, who behaves not with any coherency or even much intelligence, but destructively and with purposeful stupidity. There are tantalising flashes of his former self, creating humour out of misunderstanding (“Wow – former President James Taylor!”) and enjoying solving problems for others (munching his way through a bag of crisps while weightless – easily the episode’s single greatest sequence).

But this is the exception. The rule is Homer is a loud idiot, be it shouting down the phone to Nasa, shouting down the phone to President Clinton, shouting about the ending of Planet of the Apes, screaming at being unable to read something on the back of his head, moaning stupidly (“Are we there yet? I’m thirsty”), brawling stupidly (“I’ll bash you good!”), and being scared stupidly. Not even Dan Castellaneta can fashion a decent performance out of such a mess; in fact, none of the Simpson family cast come out of this episode with much dignity (2).

Buzz Aldrin, by contrast, is fairly impressive, his measured delivery commending itself by virtue of sounding refreshingly non-hysterical (“Second comes right after first!’). He’s also a great deal more compelling than James Taylor, whose presence is an unwelcome return to the look-who-we’ve-booked-this-week attitude to special guests (2), and whose whining is juxtaposed with a shot of the astronauts looking distinctly – and wisely – nonplussed. Topping both, however, is Harry Shearer, who goes to town as a demented Kent Brockman and whose self-serving rantings briefly give the episode a persuasively satirical tone (4): “The ants will soon be here, and I for one welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”

The design (5) of the episode peaks with the space shuttle; the images of space itself manage to make something drab out of something that should burst with wonder and majesty. Greater spectacle can be found backstage in Krusty’s TV studio than up in this galaxy. The minute the shuttle takes off, the episode loses any slim tether with the Simpsons universe. Even the jokes start getting recycled, as Homer’s face – which had earlier turned into Popeye – gets transformed again, this time into President Nixon.

The music (4) fails to lift the occasion as well. The thunderous cues start sounding weedy on the 20th outing, and get entirely upstaged by the steals from Kubrick. “Come on Dad, you can make it,” pleads Lisa as Homer’s shuttle plummets sheepishly back to earth. “Of course he’ll make it,” snaps Grampa, “it’s TV.” For all the sheen and clatter and pretence towards being something important, this is one of the most meritless episodes of The Simpsons to date. The whole venture should never have been cleared for launch. 42%

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