This week we confront a fun scifi trope and ask, “”What/who is your favorite robot/android in scifi?”
One of the things I like best about robots and AI is that these days, there’s one for every purpose: they can be fussy, benevolent, heroic, homicidal, or just sit in a darkened movie theater and throw wisecracks at the screen. 2014 was an especially great year, as we got not only the huggable Baymax, but also Interstellar‘s scene-stealing TARS, who is fantastic for all sorts of reasons.
Still, my softest of spots is for Thelma, from a 90’s Nickelodeon show called Space Cases. (Think Voyager, with an alien ship and a crew full of teenagers – including the future Kaylee Frye.) She was the android they found on the ship, whose memory chip was damaged when one of the kids stepped on it- and as a result, she was ‘not quite right’. It was a useful plot contrivance, for sure: she could give the crew some useful information, but not enough to completely solve the given problem or ruin the mystery of the ship’s origins. More than that, though, Anik Matern played her as this peppy, pleasant, “cheerfully broken” soul – a little bit Amelia Bedelia, a little bit Harley Quinn – whose penchant for misunderstandings and well-meaning failures didn’t prevent her from being an important, valued member of the crew. Flawed, lovable, non-sexualized women are a perennial favorite of mine (and still far too thin on the ground) – so while Thelma was technically artificial, she was also incredibly real.
Guest: Aaron Rosenberg
My favorite android in SF? That’s actually a pretty easy one. He’s melodramatic, angsty, whiny, and terribly British—and it’s not C3-PO! It’s Marvin the Paranoid Android, from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Part of that is because I imprinted young—I was in junior high when a friend introduced me to Marvin via the 1981 BBC TV series, and then immediately loaned me the books so I could read it in more detail. But Marvin’s also just a fun character. Too often androids are made out to be “better than human,” basically perfect in every way—at least until they malfunction and try killing everyone. Marvin wasn’t better. He also wasn’t perfect—he was obviously, outrageously flawed. But that only made him more believable as a character, and more sympathetic. Of course Hitchhiker’s is comedy, so things are played up for laughs, but the idea that flawed characters are both more realistic and more interesting than “perfect” ones has been and continues to be true today.
A close second for me, by the way, is Marvin’s spiritual successor, Kryten from the Red Dwarf series. I guess I just really like funny, snarky androids with oddly shaped heads.
Bio: Aaron Rosenberg is the author of the bestselling SF comedy series The Adventures of DuckBob Spinowitz (No Small Bills, Too Small for Tall, and Three Small Coinkydinks), which does not include a single android but does feature a man with the head of a duck. Aaron also writes the Dread Remora space-opera series and, with David Niall Wilson, the O.C.L.T. occult thriller series. He has written for Star Trek, StarCraft, WarCraft, Warhammer, Eureka, and other franchises, and also writes children’s books, educational books, and roleplaying games. Aaron is a founding member of Crazy 8 Press, and lives in New York with his family. You can find him online, on Facebook, and on Twitter as @gryphonrose.
True story: so I just typed that sentence, then looked away from the monitor deep in thought, and lo and behold, I saw the R2D2 USB hub sitting right here on my desk. I guess that means R2 wins.
Marvin is hilarious, but R2 is practical. He helps me get along with all the electronics in my office — no mean feat, as I am the very opposite of a computer geek. (Another true story: I’m writing this on a computer I purchased in 2004.) In truth, I can’t even remember why I need a USB hub in the first place. I bought it because my partner of 18 years, who is also my tech support, told me I needed one.
So now R2 is the reason I can print stuff. (Among other things, I’m sure.) May the Force be with him.
I grew up watching Star Trek:TNG. Reading this question, I can think of little else but Data dealing poker, Data with his cat, or Data singing about searching for lifeforms. Data is really at the heart of TNG, in my opinion. He embodies the question of what it means to be human. I think the writers and the actor did a marvelous job of making him relatable and sympathetic while also making him different from his warm-blooded companions.
Gonk, you say? What is Gonk? Let me tell you of our power droid savior.
Gonks first made an appearance on the sandcrawler in Star Wars Episode IV. They look like big rectangular trash cans that say “gonk” as they walk around. They have cameos throughout the movies and lots of related media. “Gonk” was a fan name that became official in the 1990s, with toys and such now bearing the name.
I first discovered Gonk in the wee days of home internet, thereabouts of 1995. I prowled around on various Star Wars boards and became aware of the Cult of Gonk, which believed the droid was almost like a god-like figure within Star Wars. I was amused and delighted, as was my brother.
So there you go. Now you know about Gonk. Rectangular trashcans will never be the same to you again.
Guest: A. Lee Martinez
My favorite robot in sci fi would probably be The Robot from that classic TV show Lost in Space. Yes, the show is goofy, cheap, full of contrived plots and broad characterizations. Why the Robinsons didn’t just eject Dr. Smith into the cold void of space is a mystery, but that’s a topic for another day.
I love The Robot (as he was always called) because he actually had a surprisingly subtle character arc. This was because The Robot became a surprise favorite of the audience. Like Stephen Urkel, but without the creepy stalker vibe that we didn’t seem to notice back then. Initially, a villain in the service of Dr. Smith, The Robot eventually became a loyal friend to the Robinson family. He became smarter, more sarcastic, and surprisingly sly. All while waving his arms around wildly and using that same monotone voice.
He’s not just my favorite Robot in sci fi. He’s one of my favorite characters of all time, and I make no apology for that. The Robot is awesome, and I wouldn’t mind being marooned in the depths of a pitiless universe if I could have him by my side. Heck, I’d even tolerate Dr. Smith for a while. At least until that unfortunate “airlock accident” came along.
Bio: A. Lee Martinez is the author of books such as The Automatic Detective and Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain. His website is aleemartinez.com.
Lawrence M. Schoen
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I have a hard time picking favorites. In this instance I have to give you two, one from my childhood, and one that appeals more to my adult sensibility.
In 1964, I was five years old, and along with Speed Racer, the big animated import from Japan was Gigantor. Here was this huge and powerful robot whose every action was dictated by a 12-year old boy using a remote controller, fighting to make the world a better place.
And let’s not forget the theme song:
Gigantor the space aged robot,
He’s at your command.
Gigantor the space aged robot,
His power is in your hand.
Bigger than big, taller than tall,
Quicker than quick, stronger than strong.
Ready to fight for right, against wrong!
But for a more adult choice, I have to go with Gort, the robotic companion of Klaatu in the 1951 film classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
I like the irony of a robot protector who, on the one hand is there as part of a mission of peace, but who is empowered and ready to reduce our planet “to a burned out cinder” (and it would have too, if not for the actions of an Earth woman uttering those three little words Klaatu barada nikto.
Yeah, they just don’t build ’em like Gort any more.