To me, the most vivid images representing the classic science fiction that shaped my childhood are spaceships. But for my kids, it seems the fascination with robots takes precedence. I understand why. From the silly “droid” duo of the Star Wars films to the two-track maintenance robot known as Wall-E, it’s difficult to not fall in love with some of these robots.
But what about the ones that are not so nice? What about that robot that isn’t so cute? From a fan of the classic pulp stories, I find it important to remind my kids of some of the less noble robots. I’m talking about the robots that ignored Isaac Asimov’s guideline of righteousness. Admittedly, many of them influenced my personal fandom over the years – well, almost as much as rockets.
First off is the dreaded Battle Droid from the Star Wars saga. I think it’s safe to say that these have become the model from which many other robots in film have been modeled over the years. There are various forms throughout the series, but perhaps the most recognizable is the long nosed combat droid. This character not only presented a dominating force in mass quantities, but their rare speaking roles also provided a lighter more humorous side for the younger audience. This must be why my kids think even some of the bad robots are cute.
Along the same line of thinking, one of the first true battle robots was perhaps the Cylon from Battlestar Galactica (old school, not the new version). This combination soldier/pilot represented a force of loyal malevolence reminiscent of the Third Reich. On a lighter note, I’ve always had a soft spot for the episode where Apollo is stranded on a planet and must face off against a gun slinging Cylon called “Red-Eye” just like the Old West. Sure it was cheesy, but that robot was a bad dude.
The Doctor Who series brought us the Dalek. When I was a kid, I did not know much about the Doctor, but I was very familiar with the Dalek and that gravelly voice. I was fascinated by how the seemingly stoic salt shakers could be so overpowering. That is until I discovered there were slithery creatures inside the machine. Okay, they were more cyborg than robot. Allow me this one cheat because I think they still earn a spot on my list.
Going way back, we have the seductive robot Der Maschinian-Mensch from Metropolis. A complex creation, I still don’t know if she was guilty of evildoing by corrupting her followers or just a victim of her creator like that of Frankenstein. My opinion – she was a bad robot. As a side note, regardless of her status in robot lore, you can’t deny her uncanny influence in the humanistic design of C-3PO in Star Wars. Now that I think about it. If the two ever married, I still think she would be the abusive spouse.
Growing up just outside Detroit, the cult classic Robocop has always held a special place in my heart. As for the robots, the biped security enforcement machine ED-209 who nearly did in our hero stands tall as one of the meanest robots on film. Size alone made him bad. I never bought the story that the robot malfunctioned. I think the ED-209 did just what the OCP president wanted.
Some people may not consider the Giant Robot from Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot as evil. But true fans of the show know the robot was built by a captive scientist, intended on doing evil for an interstellar group of terrorists. Sure little Johnny ends up controlling the robot that eventually fights giant monsters, but it was built to be bad. Not even the cute sphinx head could hide the fact that the finger missiles and laser eye beams were originally meant to do more harm than good.
As an intergalactic police officer and sidekick to Klaatu, Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still is perhaps one of the more recognizable robots in classic science fiction film. But it wasn’t his enormous size or his crazy metal melting laser beam that chilled me as a kid. It was that eyeless stare. Was he really evil, or did he just have misunderstood control issues? In case you’re not familiar with the original literary version titled Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates, Gort was called Gnut. Even better, Gnut was the master and Klaatu was the sidekick. If he wasn’t bad, he sure had the potential.
Even Disney can have some bad robots. The blade twirling Maximillion from The Black Hole was pure evil. The way he treated the smaller robots was frightening to a child (yes, even a robot voiced by Slim Pickens doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse). For such a cheesy film, it’s difficult to admit how every scene with Maximillion gave me chills.
Warning, warning warning! Fans of Robot from Lost in Space might think of the charming protector of the Robinsons as part of the family. But true fans of the show now better. Robot was manipulated by the sinister Dr. Smith into sabotaging the Jupiter 2 flying saucer, thus sending the Robinsons lost in space. As much as we want to love this Robbie the Robot (Forbidden Planet) lookalike, he was the tool of the family’s ultimate demise.
Lastly, we can’t forget about the T-800 from The Terminator. A true classic. More than just a minion of Skynet, the killer robot hiding under the skin of Arnold Schwarzenegger was pretty scary. Maybe he wasn’t as formidable as the liquid T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but the original terminator with glowing red eyes is and always will be the face of the franchise.
The legendary Ike Asimov might’ve given us some extraordinary robots over the years, but he also provided us with the fail-safe three laws of robotics that were supposed to prevent the evilness doled out by the machines listed above. I think it’s because of these rules, my kids hold robots in such high esteem. But like every science fiction saga, you have to expect the unexpected.
I’ve pointed out some of my favorite bad robots here. I know there are a lot more and I’d like to hear about them. Perhaps in the future I’ll talk about some of my favorite “good guy” robots. Better yet, maybe we’ll just look at some rockets.