Written by Adam Christopher
Y’know, there’s just something about robots that I like. Maybe it’s because they’re one of those rare creations that actually made the leap from sci-fi to the real world—what started out as a fictional concept of artificial workers ended up as real machines which build our cars and explore the solar system. Maybe it’s because robots are real that we can see what they might one day become. A warp drive that can take us to the next star in the blink of an eye is pure fantasy…but a walking, talking, thinking machine that can make coffee and take out the trash is tantalizingly possible.
Maybe I like robots because they’re just so damned retro, the term first coined in 1921 by Czech writer Karel Capek in his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Here, the robots are synthetic, organic people, mass-produced in a factory—the Czech word “robota” meaning forced labor. A little different to what we would call a robot today, perhaps, but it’s the idea that’s key—artificial, manufactured life.
Robots may come and go according to science fiction fashion, but I have three particular favorites of my own.
D84 (Doctor Who: The Robots of Death, 1977)
It won’t surprise anyone to discover that one of my favorite Doctor Who stories is about a bunch of robots who throw Asimov’s three laws out the airlock and start slaughtering the human crew of a vast, floating sandminer that is sucking minerals from the dunes of a distant, unnamed planet. The robots, with their Art Deco stylings, are divided into three classes: Dums, mute worker drones; Vocs, the standard mechanical crewmen; and the Super Vocs, one of which runs the whole operation. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that one of the supposedly silent Dums—D84—can not only speak, but is a secret undercover agent on the trail of dangerous roboterrorist, Taren Capel.
Now, D84 is something of a hero of mine. Played with eerie calmness by Gregory de Polnay, he not only assists the Fourth Doctor and his companion, Leela, to uncover Taren Capel (hiding among the human crew of the sandminer) but, in a noble—and very human—act of self-sacrifice, destroys one of his killer kin to allow the Doctor’s plan to succeed.
Robbie the Robot (Forbidden Planet, 1956)
An obvious choice, but you can’t argue with the most famous robot in all of science fiction. One of the first robots to be shown as a distinct character with his own personality, Robbie’s impressive 7-foot bulk is a true design classic. While the original prop is now part of a private collection, 1:1 replicas are available—George R.R. Martin even has one in his hallway.
Andromeda (A for Andromeda, 1961)
From the famous to the obscure, Andromeda is closer to the R.U.R. concept of robots, being an artificial, organic creation. In the story, a newly operational radio telescope immediately begins receiving signals from the Andromeda galaxy; the signals turn out to be plans for an advanced alien supercomputer. Once the computer is built, it gives instructions for the creation of Andromeda, played by Julie Christie in the original production and by Susan Hampshire in the 1962 sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough. It might sound a little hokey, but A for Andromeda was co-written by famous cosmologist and astronomer Fred Hoyle with producer John Elliot and is a remarkably ambitious piece of early television sci-fi. The 2006 remake, starring Kelly Reilly as Andromeda and Tom Hardy as her creator, Fleming, is well worth tracking down.