Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Robby the Robot and Robotic Persistence

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Robby the Robot and Robotic Persistence

Article excerpt

This essay takes a "memetic" approach to a persistent figure of science fiction media, Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet. The figure's persistence in the cultural imaginary reflects our conflicted attitude toward efforts at linking the technological body with an electronic mind, beginning in the post-war era and continuing today.

Advertisements for the film Forbidden Planet almost invariably misrepresented its narrative. Posters, lobby cards, and newspaper ads showed its new movie robot, Robby, holding the seemingly unconscious and scantily-clad girl Altaira (Anne Francis) in its powerful arms, with its domed head and speech box modeled in a way that suggested a malevolent scowl and decidedly bad intentions (see Figure 1). Audiences of 1956 could not help but anticipate a story about a robot run amok, perhaps perversely "desiring" a human mate in some atomic-age variation on Frankenstein's image of the monster, similarly carrying off Dr. Frankenstein's wife in the 1931 film, or a more recent version of this scene, as the Gill Man of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) in like fashion bore an unconscious Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) back to his underwater cave. Of course, despite the titillating images, no violations actually occur in any of these films, and in Forbidden Planet Robby the Robot essentially functions as Altaira's servant and protector, fully controlled by humans, thanks to that film's introduction of Isaac Asimov's famous "Laws of Robotics." But that misrepresentation is worth considering--not just as one more in a long line of popular images suggesting women's vulnerability to both primitive and highly technological forces--from which they would, these films repeatedly suggested, have to be protected by male power--but as a sign of how the robotic "meme" had become terribly conflicted, bound up with both what we hoped technology would do for us and what we had come to suspect a new technology might also do to us.

While the conflicted nature of that technological representation is hardly surprising, particularly given the fallout from World War II and the heated-up Cold War of the 1950s, the peculiar dynamic embodied in Robby becomes clearer when we consider this featured robot from a "memetic" perspective. Matthew Fuller, drawing on the work of biologist Richard Dawkins, describes a meme as a "base unit of cultural formation and change," one that "accounts for both continuity and variation in words, styles, ideas--indeed any cultural element" (111). While Fuller allows that the term may be somewhat "ambiguous," he shows how it can help isolate and examine the dynamic patterns of a media representation--connections marked by what he terms "fecundity, fidelity, and longevity" (114-15), or what I would describe, inversely, as their persistence over time, relative consistency in form, and ability to generate other, related images or significant variations. Here I want to focus on the persistence, consistency, and generation of images constellated around Forbidden Planet's famous robot. For a brief history of this most persistent figure can help sketch the ambiguous and indeed shifting attitude it embodies not just toward robots, but to a specific interrelation of mechanical and computer technology that emerged in the late post-war era, at the time when Robby lingered, like an archetype of the technological being in the cultural consciousness, a dominant meme in our cultural biology.

Of course, Robby is hardly the first cinematic robot, nor one that bears much resemblance to many of his science fiction (sf) forebears, like the giant metal monsters of Andre Deed's The Mechanical Man (1921), the seductive mechanical Maria of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), or the sheet metal robots found throughout 1930s and 1940s serials, including The Phantom Empire (1935), Undersea Kingdom (1936), and Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940). However, Robby is the first robot conceived with a special mental construct in mind, that is, Asimov's "Laws of Robotics. …

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