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Sunday, January 24, 2010

I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC: YER BUNCHE'S ALL-TIME FAVORITE SCI-FI ROBOTS

Wouldn't this shot make for an ideal hip-hop album cover? I can just hear the beat from EPMD's "It's My Thing" accompanying it.

Among lovers of sci-fi and its myriad permutations, sooner or later the discussion is going to roll around to the robots we have known and loved, so now it's this blog's turn to engage in that inevitable forum of discourse. Having been an active fan for as long as I can remember, I've seen innumerable movies and TV shows that brought us automatons who ranged from the humorous to the downright diabolical and after over four decades of weighing their merits against each other, I've come up with a short list of my favorite manufactured folks. For the sake of this piece I'm sticking strictly to robots as opposed to the other common form of artificial intelligence, namely the android, a creature usually defined by it being virtually indistinguishable from the average human being save for the fact that it's manufactured and may possess abilities that humans don't. Hence no Data, Gigolo Joe, Cherry 2000, Ash, Bishop, Galaxina or Roy Batty on this here list. Anyway, here's what I came up with.

ASTRO BOY

Known as "Tetsuwan Atomu" —translation: "Mighty Atom" — or "Atomu" for short in his native Japan, us Westerners were introduced to him as Astro Boy when his black & white cartoons were syndicated here in the 1960's and he's been held in very high and warm esteem by many ever since. I absolutely loathe "cute" characters in general and "cute" robot characters in particular, but Astro Boy defies the stereotypes established by such nausea-inducers as Twiki, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and the unspeakable 7-Zark-7 by having a sweet and well-rounded personality meant to serve as a bridge between humans and the ever-growing robot populace in his future era of the 21st Century. Astro Boy's considerable adorable appeal also provides a great counterpoint to the fact that he's one of the most badassed superheroes out there, kind of a thinking, flying, heavily-equipped arsenal. When in combat mode, there are few characters who can match Astro Boy for sheer bravery, moxie and indefatigable tenacity in the face overwhelming odds. Often losing limbs in battle, Astro Boy will fight on and on, even unto being reduced to naught but a hope-filled and defiant head on a torso, and that's something I cannot help by admire and be inspired by. Plus he's got telescoping rifles that extrude from his ass-cheeks, making him a very literal badass. Seriously! (That aspect of his arsenal was trimmed from the American version.) No lie, in my estimation of what it means to be a first-rate superhero, Astro Boy ranks among the all-time greats.

GIANT ROBOT

Aka "Giant Robo" in its country of origin, this manga-derived and later impressively animated hunk of hardware is my human-controlled war-machine of choice, beating out the more familiar Gigantor thanks to it being a guy in a rubber suit instead of being a cartoon, as well as for its loony design trumping Gigantor's armored knight look. Who but a Japanese madman like cartoonist Mitsuteru Yokoyama could have come up with a 10-storey humanoid robot that shot seemingly endless rounds of missiles from its fingers while looking like a crazed Egyptian pharaoh?

Giant Robot in action.

Syndicated in the States as JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT beginning in 1969, I never saw the show, but I did see the movie edited together from some of its episodes, the insane and out-of-control VOYAGE INTO SPACE, which played for years on the Tri-State area's 4:30 MOVIE as a "Monster Week" staple, and it's a flick I cannot possibly recommend enough. A perfect way to amuse kids and drunks/stoners, the movie is overflowing with goofy aliens, giant monsters and all kinds of mayhem, all of it looking to get its collective ass kicked by a square-footed giant that looks like a sci-fi hieroglyph rendered by an acid-head.

ROBBY

One of the many indelible elements that made FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) a classic, Robby is perhaps the acme of the sci-fi automaton. Designed as an all-purpose thinking machine, Robby is a walking computer who acts as a protector to his creator, Doctor Morbius, and the doctor's hot blonde 19-year-old daughter, as well as being a mechanical manservant. He also has the capability to synthesize items that he's sampled, a talent put to use by the visiting Earth cruiser's alcoholic cook who has him whip up sixty gallons of primo whisky. Prior to the release of STAR WARS (1977), Robby was by far the most iconic robot in all of science-fiction, and if you ask me he might still be considered as such.

R2-D2

Paired with the incredibly annoying robo-queen that is C-3P0 (god damn, did his schtick grow old fast!), it's easy to see this little astromech droid as nothing more than a kooky comic foil to its gilded, prissy counterpart, but R2 merits a re-examination in its own individual right. Essentially a rolling toolbox, R2's strengths lie in its interesting design — "What if a fire hydrant suddenly sprouted in a hospital's germ-free ward?" — and plucky attitude that includes a willingness to mix it up with the bad guys right in the thick of things. It's tough, brave, and has the decency to speak in binary chirps and whistles, thus sparing us what would have been an inevitably irritating cutesy voice. Think I'm wrong about that bit of inevitability? Take a look at the entire STAR WARS saga and ask yourself when George Lucas ever overlooked even the slightest opportunity to fill the screen with vomitously cute and merchandisable characters, with the notable exceptions of R2, Chewbacca and Yoda?

BENDER RODRIGUEZ

A complete and total disgrace to all that is good in robots (and Mexicans) everywhere, FUTURAMA's Bender is a triumph of anthropomorphized bad taste and overall offensiveness, so how could I not adore him? Rude, crass and literally fueled by alcohol, Bender steals virtually every story he's in and considering some of his co-stars, that's no mean feat. Extra points for his stint as cross-dressing professional wrassler "the Gender Bender" and for using time travel to steal hundreds of priceless items from throughout human history, including Eddie Van Halen's guitar and Christ's cross.

TOM SERVO

When it comes to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000's 'bots, some people have a tough time choosing between Crow or Servo, but not me. Equipped with vestigial arms, a transparent sphere for a head and a hover-skirt to facilitate locomotion, Servo won my favor from the moment he opened the gumball machine spigot that passes for his mouth, and he cracks me up like few other comedic creations. A sensitive intellectual of highly suspect sexual orientation, Servo's referential lexicon is vast, as is his capacity for comfortable cross-dressing, the playing of genuinely disturbing games (the creepy "Dog & Bear" immediately comes to mind), attraction to senior citizens ("Estelle!") and unabashed defense of "tearing down all the barriers" and allowing strange, androgynous man/women to hang out in the bedrooms of underage adolescent males. (His stirring defense of Mr. B Natural, anyone?) Blessed with a deep baritone voice and hilariously performed by Kevin Murphy (after originator Josh Weinstein left the show), Tom Servo would be my all-time favorite robot if not for the existence of the original "bubble-headed booby," namely...

B-9, aka "ROBOT"

As 'benign" as his designation would suggest (unless re-programmed to murderous intent by that shitheel Dr. Smith), the Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot was the small screen's answer to FORBIDDEN PLANET's Robby and the similarities between the two were several (including being designed by Robert Kinoshita). But while Robby was a glorified (though nonetheless charming) tool, B-9 was ever so much more. Initially intended as a probe that would survey a colony world before his human crew-mates set foot outside their spaceship, B-9 had no personality to speak of and was re-programmed by the aforementioned Zachary Smith to murder the Robinson Family while they slumbered in their suspension tubes on the way to Alpha Centauri.

B-9 in the evil thrall of Dr. Smith.

That scheme failed and for the early part of LOST IN SPACE's first year, B-9 remained under Smith's nefarious command. That state of affairs was thankfully thwarted when nine-year-old electronics prodigy Will Robinson set about on a second re-programming that not only rendered the machine once more on its intended crew's side, but also unexpectedly unleashed the most unique of all fictional robotic personalities. From that moment on, B-9 was "Robot," an actual part of the Robinson family, and while always addressed as "robot," it was less an acknowledgement of his manufactured status than it was for all intents and purposes his name; he had been addressed as "robot" from Day One, but his newfound personality soon imbued him with the worthiness of being recognized as an individual. Though composed of metal, wires and sophisticated circuitry, the Robot was easily the most distinctive and fun character on LOST IN SPACE, second only to Dr. Smith and rounding out a trio consisting of the fey doctor and young Will, a dynamic that came to dominate the show at the expense of the other characters. The Robot was the most perfect foil imaginable for Dr, Smith, and their insulting exchanges became the stuff of legend, as did the Robot's arms-a-flailin' cry of DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!!!"



Behind the scenes: the Robot gets busted by security on the 20th Century Fox lot.

But more than anything else, it was the Robot's sense of humor and outlook on life that endeared him to me and damned near everyone who watched LOST IN SPACE during our youth. (His ability to play the acoustic guitar was also a plus.) The Robot's deeply mocking and borderline-asthmatic guffaw was infectious and his observations on humanity were often priceless, but undoubtedly the crowning gem of his comments had to be from the second season episode "The Colonists," wherein black-clad and bitchy space-Amazon the Mighty Neolani spouts ludicrous pre-Women's Lib "feminist platitudes," foments an insurrection among the Robinson females and subjugates the Robinson males, relegating them to slave labor. Always looking out for Number One, Dr. Smith affects the personality of a sensitive artist and successfully woos the estrogenic oppressor, thus avoiding work. When questioning Neolani's relationship with Dr. Smith, Will openly states his confusion, which leads to this incredible exchange with the Robot:

The Robot (attempting to make things clear to Will): The female of the species always has a soft spots for artists.

Will (very skeptical): How do you know so much about "the female of the species?"

(The camera zooms in for a closeup of the Robot's featureless bubble)

The Robot: I have been around, Will Robinson. I have been around.

When I saw that bit again as an adult, I nearly laughed myself to death. Did his second re-programming give the Robot memories in which he was once a playa? (I don't know about what you think, but the image of the Robot humping his way from space station to space station is rather disturbing and it leads me to wonder about the uses to which the Robinson women put him on lonely nights when the men-folk were off setting up weather stations on some god-forsaken world's inhospitable polar ice caps... That said, I bet he'd be a considerate and giving lover.) The only moment that even comes close for sheer insanity involving the Robot is the sequence in "Castles in Space" in which Chavo the space-Mexican — no, I am not bullshitting you — gets him shitfaced-wasted on tequila. (This was third season episode and by that time the writers had pretty much adopted a "fuck logic" attitude, with many scripts crafted by the hilariously-named Peter Packer.) Returning to the Robinson's camp with his arms characteristically a-flailin' and bellowing a hideously out-of-tune rendition of "Cielito Lindo," the Robot giggles like a madman before falling over unconscious, eventually waking up and sitting with an icepack perched atop his bubble as he vows never to drink again. Think about how miserable he must have been. The poor bastard couldn't even puke! But whatever the case, I love the Robot with a respect equaled only by that which I hold for Spock. Now there's a MY DINNER WITH ANDRE scenario I would have loved to see acted out: Spock and the Robot, hanging out and jamming, kicking back some brews and grousing about chicks. That's entertainment!

4 comments:

Jimmy Palmiotti said...

Bender is my favorite, then the lost in space robot. after that, my garage door. only two functions, but works every time.

Anonymous said...

Gotta disagree on Giant Robot. Over Gigantor? No way. On music alone (from iconic them song to the jazzy score that went with the cartoons), Gigantor kicks Giant Robot ass. --Chris C

Satyrblade said...

Denjin Zaboga at the top of my list, with Brave Raiden right under that. How can any boy not love a robot that fires razor-sharp "bird-missiles" or flings bat-ear boomarangs before changing into a weird-ass motorcycle?

http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.henshinhalloffame.com/zaboga/mz1.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.henshinhalloffame.com/zaboga/&usg=__QESvRVw8RC7H_xhKw8A8h13X-m4=&h=379&w=363&sz=38&hl=en&start=1&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=N4RhJnQUal1J6M:&tbnh=123&tbnw=118&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dzaboga%26hl%3Den%26rlz%3D1T4GZAY_enUS245US245%26sa%3DN%26um%3D1

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_R_oOgxdjRqQ/Rp01RwDcNuI/AAAAAAAAAEE/gBrH6KNyR6o/s400/raideen1.JPG


That said, Robby rules. What is it about the classic monster designers who gave us the likes of Maria, Robby, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, Count Orloc, the Universal monster parade, Godzilla and so forth? Aside from Pinhead and Freddie Krugar, that level of sheer iconic imagination seems to have been dead for the last 30 years or so!

Bobby the Blue Baxojayz said...

Not all would be my choices, but all are GOOD choices! Well done, Steve!