Robots. Sure, if we get it wrong they might take over the world and force us to serve them buffets of edible oil products and fancy electric cocktails, but they have the potential to be so cute and helpful. For every Terminator or I, Robot army that would hunt you down and crush you, there is a Baymax or Iron Giant who wants to be your friend. Or if you happen to be an evil genius, perhaps the evil robot armies actually do want to be your friend.
For me as a kid, the coolness of movie robots subsumed all of the allegories and warnings about the dangers of technology. (By robot, I mean the iconic type of robot that is clearly made of metal – the humanoid ones like androids, high-end cyborgs and femmebots were totally uninteresting to me.) At the time I was also relatively unconcerned with whether they were good or bad, so Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Dr. Who’s Daleks were as much of a draw as Robby the robot in Forbidden Planet or Robot B-9 in Lost in Space. And then there was Mechagodzilla, which combined the coolness of monsters, dinosaurs and robots all rolled into one.
It didn’t really matter what kind of robot they were, or if they resembled anything in particular. I happily watched K-9, Doctor Who’s robot dog, battle space pirate The Captain’s robot parrot, Polyphase Avatron. I thought that the second coolest thing in Clash of the Titans was Bubo, the robot owl that Athena sends to Perseus to help him defeat the Kraken (the first coolest thing being the Kraken, of course). I confess I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century though, with his very annoying habit of saying “bidi-bidi” before absolutely everything.
As the rendering of robots in film improved and my access to the world of movies expanded beyond the old ones that played on the few cable channels we got through the antenna on our rotary dial tv, I came to love the cute and friendly robots the most. I moved from Robot B-9’s helpful warnings of “Danger, Will Robinson!” and the 1951 movie version of Astroboy to R2D2 and the antics of Johnny 5 in Short Circuit. I found it so adorably heartbreaking when Johnny 5 worked out that “disassemble” was the equivalent of “die” and freaked out, screaming, “No disassemble!” No disassemble Johnny 5.
Cute and friendly do not necessarily equal helpful though. Gir in Invader Zim is adorable and friendly, but not very helpful at all. He’s constantly foiling his alien master Zim’s plans to conquer the world by doing things like getting distracted by tacos, siphoning off his jetpack fuel to make room to store more tuna, or putting sombreros on all of the cows that Zim is beaming up to his ship. Or there’s Crow and Tom Servo, who do help Joel and Mike survive all of the terrible B-movies they’re forced to watch in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but they also cause all kinds of trouble, like when they “help” Mike with the annual safety check and it turns out that they’ve used all of the safety equipment for some other purpose.
Mike: Hi, folks. Mike Nelson here. Crow and Servo are about to help me with the annual Satellite of Love safety check […] Parachute?
Crow: Gym class.
Mike: Life vest?
Tom Servo: Faulty.
Mike: Ham radio?
Crow: Mistook it for an actual ham.
Mike: There, the Satellite of Love is completely unsafe. Hey, does anything work?
Tom Servo: Yeah, the toaster oven. We used it to bake the ham radio. Mmmm.
Mike: Oh, OK, well then. We’re dead. We’ll be right back
Crow: Come on, Mike, we’re gonna go stick our heads in the towel dispenser.
Tom Servo: Wheeee.
(from Episode 1012, Squirm)
My wife and I have come up with a code phrase for times when we know the other person is trying to be helpful but really they’re just making it worse or driving us nuts. It’s “some kind of help”, which comes from Shel Silverstein’s marvellous poem “Helping”:
Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it
And some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping’s all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without
“Helpful” of course is partly a matter of perspective. While Robot B-9 is very helpful for Will and the Robinsons, it’s not for their nemesis, Dr. Smith, the secret agent who attempts to use it to sabotage their space mission and ends up trapped aboard with them. I mostly remember the Daleks trundling around saying “Exterminate!” but to their creator and later Emperor, Davros, I’d argue that they fell into the category of evil help. And in Wall-E, Wall-E and Eve help the humans get back to Earth and rescue the crazy malfunctioning robots from the repair ward, but the robot that tries to stop them also thinks it’s being helpful. Auto, the autopilot for the spaceship they’re on, honestly believes that they will all die if it doesn’t prevent them from going back to Earth. The definition of helping depends on whether you see yourself as the hero or the villain, and which of those things you turn out to be in the end.
It probably doesn’t pay to dismiss the possibility that they will someday rise up, in all their cuteness, and overthrow us. I mean we’re probably safe from our Roombas, but Android Dick, a real-life robot based on the appearance and oeuvre of Philip K. Dick, probably thinks it’s being friendly and helpful when it gives this response to the question “Do you believe robots will take over the world?”:
“Jeez, dude. You all have the big questions cooking today. But you’re my friend, and I’ll remember my friends, and I’ll be good to you. So don’t worry, even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times sake.”
alex MacFadyen insists that before you go, you must do a little dance with Gir.