Some guys get all the glory.
“You’re a brave robot, son. But when I’m in command every mission’s a suicide mission.”
-Zapp Brannigan, Futurama, episode 2.3
Quoted above is Zapp Brannigan, of Futurama fame, a bumbling and incompetent starship captain whose infamous heroic deeds are primarily born of his own delusions. Lampooning the suave adventurer captain in James T. Kirk (Star Trek), Zapp claims to have the same qualities that Kirk possesses throughout his various escapades on the Enterprise, namely a knack for ladies along with a thirst to conquer the unknown. Futurama is quick to decry this, often showing Zapp’s actions as cowardly, self-serving, and wholly unethical. Zapp is only a victor in battles where he already has an overwhelming advantage – either in numbers or an underpowered opponent – and capitalizes on this through the use of excessive force.
Zapp was the first character that came to my mind upon watching the first episode of Space Dandy. Dandy, to his credit, is a more sympathetic character than Zapp, but the two ape from similar macho stereotypes, with Dandy calling to mind the more mercenary wanderer along the lines of a Cobra or Han Solo.
Space Dandy‘s episodic format is exceptionally well-suited to the macho delusions of its protagonist. The series resets following every episode – in spite of the majority of episodes ending with Dandy, or a crew member, facing imminent doom – keeping the story light and easy. Dandy recounts his misadventures in the same vein of Zapp or a fish story, where a fish that mysteriously gets away grows larger each time the tale is told. The series allows him to do this by eschewing concrete conclusions to its episodes in favor of cliffhangers that are never resolved. If Dandy does find success – in the third episode he discovers a valuable alien while trying to get a free meal at the in-universe equivalent of Hooters – it comes from stumbling upon it by chance instead of purposefully seeking it out.
In Star Trek or Cobra, Kirk and Cobra respectively receive their more dashing attributes from their presentation in their overall series. They are presented as desirable men to their audiences by the overall direction of the shows themselves. Futurama operates differently, in that the series shows that Zapp is buffoon from his very first appearance through to the end of the series. Zapp receives his power as a commander from the in-universe response to his various deeds of derring-do. His higher-ups remain unaware of his idiocy, and his inability to command necessitates acts of intelligence or bravery from those whom have the misfortune of serving underneath him, inadvertently keeping Zapp in the captain’s chair.
Similarly, Dandy’s presumed adversaries in Dr. Gel, Commander Perry, and the Gogol Empire are the ones who make him out to be more than he is. Thanks to a series of well-timed coincidences – accidentally sending the ship into warp, chasing the scent of intergalactic ramen down a wormhole – Dandy and crew always manage to evade Gel. This gives them the appearance of being master escape artists when the reality is far more random and less impressive. Like Futurama, those close to Dandy, the audience, and additionally the narrator of the series are all in on the joke.
Some guys get all the glory because it’s in their own minds. Following a similar exaggeration pattern of a fish story, the glorious recap from our would-be hero will trend more towards the incredible upon each retelling. The figurative fish that was six inches long gradually becomes a monstrosity that could fight the Loch Ness Monster in a head-to-head battle. When I watch Space Dandy, I don’t want to root for him as much as I want to laugh at his failed alien-hunting escapades. The episodic format effectively perpetuates the disconnect between Dandy’s reality, and the way he perceives his own actions.