There are no Robot Devil hands: the frustrations of the would-be artist

Holophonor

Having written the post about how our future on screen never seems to be portrayed as functional or optimistic, I remembered that there is of course one TV show of undisputed greatness that does precisely this. I recently watched the original four-season run of Futurama again after many years. I’ve always loved it: I almost never missed it when it was on Channel 4, and it became one of the very few TV shows I bought on DVD in its entirety.

What I’ve come to realise all over again is just how moving Futurama is as a lament of the yearning loser, with the said loser represented by Fry. While he is ostensibly the typical North American slacker, coasting through life along the path of least resistance, there are some key episodes that betray his burning desire to be something more, and to make something more of his life. The episodes that deal with this side of Fry are incidentally the ones most celebrated by fans and critics alike: ‘The Why of Fry’, ‘The Luck of the Fryish’, ‘Parasites Lost’, ‘Time Keeps on Slipping’, and ‘The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings’ (I would have loved to add the notorious tearjerker ‘Jurassic Bark’ as well, but that one doesn’t quite fit here). The first two deal with the angst Fry feels at his inadequacy, and his lack of perceived importance; the other three concern his attempts to woo Leela, the chief object of Fry’s affection. Of these, my favourite by far is ‘Devil’s Hands’, the very final episode in Futurama’s original run on Fox. In it, Fry makes a deal with the Robot Devil, whereby he gains the metal Beelzebub’s hands. They allow him to play the holophonor with the level of expertise Fry had sought through years of fumbling and fruitless practise. Fry becomes a celebrated composer and performer of operas, and through them he is finally able to express his love for Leela with the coherence and eloquence he had long harboured inside but was unable to convey. Leela is suitably smitten, but the Robot Devil intervenes with a ‘ridiculously circuitous plan’, and all ends in predictable tragedy and farce for our hero.

The holophonor, first introduced in ‘Parasites Lost’ and based on an Isaac Asimov idea, is for me the ultimate embodiment of the would-be artist’s frustration. Throughout the series Fry struggles with his inability to express his creativity in a way that he feels it deserves. When he momentarily achieves proficiency with the holophonor in ‘Parasites Lost’ with the aid of the eponymous stomach worms, the resulting art is inspired and brings Fry to the very brink of coitus with Leela. When he chooses to give up his ability, however, the music he creates is deficient and humiliating. To his credit, Fry takes up lessons and starts from scratch, but the amount of dedication and practise required to reach the desired level is a source of endless dejection. The gap between what he wants to express and the effort it takes to get there is, if not insurmountable, then forbiddingly large. One of the things that makes ‘Devil’s Hands’ so thought-provoking is the what-fi scenario: what if you could close that gap at a stroke? What if you’re given the tools which will automatically make you skilful with an instrument, or any other means of artistic expression? Imagine the output you can produce; imagine the beauty your thoughts will be endowed with, as they come to life in a form others can see and hear. Once he has the Robot Devil’s hands, Fry doesn’t look back: he composes masterpieces that have grown men weeping in their seats, and moreover win the heart of his beloved. And the holophonor is the perfect tool to give voice to his visions: it amplifies the music into a visual projection of the author’s imagination. It allows one person to create something that would take the work of dozens in ordinary circumstances.

The events of Futurama take place a thousand years in the future. There’s no technology yet available that can do what the holophonor is shown to be capable of doing. But in the advent of the age of smart devices, attempts are being made to close the gap between the creator and the instrument. Programs like Garageband which make it easier for the user to create music have been there for many years, but more recently, apps such as Gestrument, Orphion and Seline on the iPad attempt to give the user the means to move away from traditional instruments and bridge the mind to the music creation itself. Perhaps the most ambitious of them all is Imitone, a successfully Kickstarted project which aims to turn whatever you hum or sing into proper music.

Having used many of these apps on the iPad as well as having backed Imitone, I can’t help but feel that the gap remains as imposing as ever. I’ve been a very casual guitar player for more than 15 years, and if there’s one thing I’ve come to realise, it’s that there’s just no way around learning an instrument. There’s no way of doing it easier, or a shortcut that you can take that will shorten the time required to become even decent. The expression of musical art requires from you time and dedication; while your ideas can come and go anytime and may be filling your mind right now, demanding to be released, the effort to actually express them in a recognisable form demands the use of an instrument, and by the time you are finally ready to use one, the ideas may be long gone. The apps on the iPad are instruments unto themselves: they require learning, practise, commitment. There are no Robot Devil hands.

At the end of the episode, stripped of his unholy powers, Fry can barely conjure a crude picture of him and Leela together. It’s a sweet moment, and a fitting climax to an exceptional TV series. Leela professes to be happy with Fry’s more modest effort, but deep down he is dejected – he will probably never again reach the same heights again, and all his feelings for Leela won’t ever find the same eloquence. You wonder: how many people throughout history have felt the inspiration, yet were unable to bring it out to the world? What great music lay in the hearts of people past, that never found its release? 

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