Futurama's Dark Matter Fuel Protected The Show From A Common Fandom Problem

"Futurama" is a show that is funny and sincere when it needs to be, with characters that have endured in the pop culture landscape for more than 20 years. The show survived several different cancelations only to come back again, and again, and again. But another key component of the show is that it also managed to be incredibly smart along the way. The writers and producers embraced math and science in a meaningful way well beyond what most any other comedic animated sci-fi show would. It's that dedication to science that actually helped them solve a pretty crucial problem.

In the series, space travel is made possible through the use of dark matter. It's a concept based on scientific theory, but our actual understanding of it as a species is minimal. The writers decided to employ dark matter as a fuel substance early on in the show's run. In the commentary for the season 1 episode "Love's Labors Lost In Space," Bender voice actor John DiMaggio asked executive producer David X. Cohen if he was the one who came up with that idea. "Yeah, I thought of it before Einstein," he quipped. But the producer then elaborated on why they turned to dark matter in the first place:

"We wanted to think of something which was not well understood so that no matter what we said about it people couldn't dispute it."

"Love's Labors Lost In Space," the fourth episode of the series overall, explains how the substance works in the "Futurama" universe. The planet Vergon 6 is where much of the universe's dark matter hailed from. The planet was stripped of the precious substance, which is very valuable for space travel.

Where science meets fiction

Vergon 6, in the aftermath, was left completely hollow and was on the verge of collapse, leading the Planet Express crew on a mission to the doomed planet to rescue the species that live there. "Vergon 6 was once filled with the super-dense substance known as dark matter, each pound of which weighs over 10,000 pounds," Professor Farnsworth explains in the episode.

During the rescue mission, Leela meets Nibbler, a little alien who would be a regular part of the series going forward. What we come to find is that the native Nibblonians actually excrete dark matter as waste. The crew uses Nibbler's waste to fuel the Planet Express and escape before the planet implodes.

Now, circling back to Cohen's explanation. Admittedly, putting forth that a small, very hungry race of aliens drops dark matter every time they go to the bathroom is a stretch within the bounds of our understanding of science. But could the substance, whatever it may be in actuality, be used for space travel? Maybe, maybe not. For the purposes of the show, it's hard to totally disprove it either way. And that's exactly the point. Since no one really understands dark matter, its uses in the context of the comedy sci-fi show were seemingly endless. 

"Futurama" is currently streaming on Hulu.