What is a robot? The Free Dictionary defines it as: A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance. Mindless cold automatons. In the early days of popular fiction, robots were essentially portrayed as nightmarish monsters. Perhaps it stems back to people's fears of automation taking factory worker jobs. Whatever the reason, robots were usually seen as something to fear. Over time, perhaps through pop-culture, we have learned to stop hating and love robots.
Throughout fiction there have been several robot characters that transcend their limitations as machines to become something greater, to become something more than the sum of their nuts and bolts. These iconic 'bots helped make us a little less fearful of the future.
Here are just a few of those mechanized legends...
ROBOT B-9 from Lost in Space (1965-1968)
B-9 Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, or just Robot for short. When Lost in Space began, he was a robot in the truest sense. He was cold, emotionless, and even a bit dangerous. But then, as the series shifted focus from adventure to more camp, the writers gave Robot his own personality. As the series transitioned from season one two season two, Robot became less a menace and more like a member of the Robinson family. He even developed emotions, often laughing and engaging in sarcasm. He became a character unto himself, and one of the most beloved of the series. Although Lost in Space only ran for three seasons, that bubble headed booby will live forever on in our hearts.
B9 Robot was designed by Robert Kinoshita, who also designed Robby the Robot. He was performed by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld.
After Lost in Space ended its run, robots returned to being mindless terrors to fear. That trend would continue for nearly a decade until George Lucas taught us to love our metal friends all over again.
R2-D2 from the Star Wars films (1977 – present)
Although I could have included C-3PO, for me, the true robotic hero of the Star Wars franchise will always be that classy Astromech, R2-D2. The little droid with the big heart saved Luke, Han and the gang countless times. Like any other human character, R2-D2 cared for his fellow travelers and their mission to bring an end the Empire. Even less anthropomorphic than his golden counterpart, R2-D2 looked more like a trash can than a person and could only communicate in beeps and whistles. Yet, he rose above his limitations to become a hero. He bravely carried the Death Star plans for the rebels, fixed the hyperdrive on the Millenium Falcon, and saved the gang from the Death Star trash compactor. Let's not forget the many missions he flew into battle alongside both Anikin and Luke Skywalker. In George Lucas' universe, robots (or Droids, as they are called) are neither simple tools nor monsters, they are characters like any of their flesh and blood counterparts. If Lost in Space's B-9 Robot helped us to see a robot as a friend, then R2-D2 showed us that a robot can also save the hero. R2-D2 was not just a droid. He was a lot more.
Ralph McQuarrie and John Stears designed R2-D2 and was built by Tony Dyson
R2-D2 was performed by Kenny Baker
Johnny Five from Short Circuit (1986)
A NOVA Labs prototype military robot, Robot Number Five was hit by lightning. In that shocking moment, Robot Number Five became self-aware. Basically, he became alive! While on the run from government officials, Number Five shacked up with a woman named Stephanie Speck (played by Ally Sheedy). Often taking in stray animals, Stephanie welcomed Number Five into her home. Under her tutelage Number Five (later renaming himself Johnny Five) learned of the world around him, and quickly acclimated to it. He found joy in the smallest things. He saw wonders that human eyes took for granted. We as viewers couldn't help but feel an emotional connection with Johnny. We are drawn by his childlike innocence and his true love of life.
Johnny Five was designed by Syd Mead and voiced by Tim Blaney
Data from Star Trek the Next Generation (1987-1994)
In the series Star Trek The Next Generation, Data (played by Brent Spiner) was a synthetic life form designed by Doctor Noonien Soong. He was self-aware and highly intelligent. Most striking of all was his human-like appearance. Although he looked (mostly) human, he was completely artificial and far stronger than any of his human crew mates aboard the Enterprise. Data was impervious to nearly anything that would kill a mortal man. And yet, what was Data's greatest desire? He wanted to be human. It's a dream even the all-powerful Q admonished him for. (ST:TNG Deja Q) Data is the culmination of all those amazing robot characters that came before him. He is also what we all would hope robots will truly become one day; not just look like us, but to be our friends. Data walks the same journey through life as the rest of us. He is trying to find out who he is and in doing so better himself. He is most relatable to us because he reminds us of ourselves as we too walk a similar journey of discovery.
Andrew from Bicentennial Man (1999)
In Andrew (played by Robin Williams) we have the ultimate transcendent robot. In the year 2005 of the film Bicentennial Man, he began his existence as simple housekeeping robot for the Martins. As time passed and his duties became less, Andrew found he had dreams and desires of his own. In his personal journey through life, he encountered love and a longing to be closer to human. In an effort to attain his dream, he underwent many upgrades to his body. As the decades pass, Andrew began to look more and more human. In the end, with the human woman he loved by his side, Andrew made the ultimate step toward his goal. After two hundred years of life, Andrew chose to end his life so as not to live on without the woman he loved. He chose to die. In Bicenennial Man, we encounter a machine with true humanity.
So, as the release date for Chappie nears (a new film about a robot that becomes conscious, essentially alive) I thought it was appropriate to applaud those robot characters that grew beyond their housings and changed our view of what robots could someday be. They were neither evil nor mindless. These are the robot characters who made us laugh, cry and feel. But these are only my top five. Is there a bot character that you love or admire? Please explain in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.