Nerdy Morty is steering his flying saucer back to Earth, escaping the ectoplasmic thing that was menacing him and his mad grandfather at the end of season four. Suddenly, the steering wheel comes off. Flames lick his craft and the noise – my God, the noise – of beeping alarm systems portends what rocket scientists call “nothing good”.
Do flying saucers even have steering wheels, you ask? Spare me your plodding literalism, I reply. Morty, convinced he and his comatose, sociopathicscience whiz of a grandpa Rick are going to die on re-entry, makes his last phone call. What nonsense, you object: I can’t get mobile coverage in the kitchen, let alone outer space. Again, ditch the scepticism, you plum.
“Jessica, it’s Morty from school,” he says as the beeping goes into overdrive. “Oh. Hey,” says Jessica, painting her toenails in the sunny calm of her bedroom. Morty ploughs on: “I wanna say that you’re really great. I know it didn’t really work out between us but I think you’re really great.” “Oh, I mean, that’s a lot,” she replies. “I wish you’d said it sooner. Being nervous is sort of selfish sometimes.” “Yeah,” replies Morty, fear of imminent death making his voice fracture even as he struggles to maintain sangfroid, “that’s a great point.”
So begins our re-entry into the world of Rick and Morty (E4), an event so beguiling to fan sites that they have been deploying countdown tickers to airtime for the past few weeks. I, too, long ago set aside my initial thought that this is just a cartoon rip-off of Back to the Future (Morty as Marty McFly minus the guitar skills, Rick a knock-off of Doc, who is a barely functioning alcoholic) with a dash of Family Guy coarseness and Futurama’s sci-fi chutzpah. It’s much more clever and funny and sophisticated than those forebears – an adult cartoon that fills the yawning chasm in my soul where the now-cancelled BoJack Horseman used to go with something even more dense, with brilliant writing and a worldview so bleak it makes BoJack seem Pollyannaish.
Instead of a DeLorean, Rick and Morty have a handheld device that enables them to access a space portal in Morty’s parents’ place. Technological plausibility is not Rick and Morty’s strong suit, nor should it be. But what will interest cosmologists and philosophers of time travel is how their adventures ramify disastrously across the multiverse, warping pasts and futures in line with Hugh Everett III’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
In this premiere of season five, for instance, Morty crosses the portal to get some wine. It’s not clear how he can get where he wants to go in space-time, but let’s not dwell. He needs the wine to woo Jessica and also because in another room, mad Rick is entertaining his sworn enemy Mr Nimbus, who, as you know, is ruler of the seas.
Mr Nimbus is somewhere on the evolutionary scale between Mick Jagger and Russell Brand, and his superpower is a – to my mind phallically oppressive – groin thrust with his posing pouch capable of slaying all foes. Mr Nimbus is vexed because Rick and Morty crash-landed in his domain, the ocean, and so demands wining and dining before signing a peace treaty with Rick. There’s also a subplot about Morty’s parents, whose revived sex life leads them to the folly of a threesome with Mr Nimbus, though both wonder if they’re only considering this because the other wants it.
But here’s the thing. Once through the portal, Morty finds himself in a vineyard presided over by a nascent civilisation of kindly, talking, hoofed animals who supply him with wine. But when he returns for more, he finds himself in a changed world. The vines have withered, hoofed animal skeletons litter their ruined farmstead. Morty’s monkeying around with the space-time continuum has wiped them out. Indeed, we glimpse a martial society arising from the ashes of this civilisation, building first a fort and training a warrior hero how to cross through tears in reality to slay the evil one they call the “dark child” (ie, little Morty), rather like how, in Terminator 2, Arnie was sent back in time to stop a terminator killing the leader of the human resistance against machine tyranny.
It’s a quite brilliant 22 minutes and one with an implicit moral. In future, when Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk tire of merely going into space, as they will, and seek to time travel – thereby ruining civilisations other than ours and rewriting the past in line with their megalomaniac dreams – this episode of Rick and Morty must be used as evidence for why they should be stopped.
This article was amended on 22 June 2021 to remove references to Rick as Morty’s uncle. He is his grandfather.