Robby The Robot - Science Fiction’s Role Model Robot 

Star Wars' C3PO, R2D2 & Star Trek's Android Data owe Robby a huge pop culture debt.

The Master and his Machine

“If you do not speak English I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.” 

- Robby, The Robot - ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956)

“EV-9D9: How many languages do you speak?

C-3PO: I am fluent in over six million forms of communication, and can readily...

EV-9D9: [cuts him off] Splendid! We have been without an interpreter since our master got angry with our last protocol droid and disintegrated him.

C-3PO: Disintegrated?” - ‘Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi’ (1982)

An ever sophisticated world of high tech changes so quickly it’s a wonder any of us can keep up, with or without the cyber guidance a digital assistant like Siri or Google can provide. Visionary Steve Job’s brainstorm tech creation, Apple, consistently releases a new iteration of the iPhone or iPad - even the landmark iPod is still a player on the market - while Samsung, Google and Microsoft all compete for our dollars with their ever more powerful hardware and apps. Millions of downloads on iTunes and PlayStore ensure a ravenous gadget appetite is satisfied.  A big release like that of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 is lauded one day, the next a battery defect causing fires forces the South Korean company to recall the danger prone model.

It’s more than a stressful chore to keep fully abreast of current technological trends, but what if you are actually technology yourself? Imagine being the high tech role model for generations of others of your kind. To be put on a kind of technological pedestal and emulated by later models - it’s enough to make a mechanical man or electronic lady humble enough to cry, if he or she had the tears and it didn’t promote rust. There have been many artificial lifeforms portrayed in the movies and TV - robots, androids, bots, droids and more - etc. However, the lovable, even cuddly metal manservant which rises above the fictional rest is Robby, The Robot - star of MGM’s classic sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet, starring Leslie Neisen, Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis.

Hollywood Robot History - These Are The ‘Droids’ Who Have Come Before 

Robby Was Born To Serve

Androids or Robots? Droids or Bots? How about drones? How exactly are these devices depicted in movies and on TV? What’s the creative and artistic difference between these tech marvels and does it really matter? Let’s go to the definitions:

Robot - A robot is a mechanical or virtual artificial agent, usually an electromechanical machine that is guided by a computer program or electronic circuitry, and thus a type of an embedded system.

Android - a humanoid like robot. (in science fiction) a robot with a human appearance.

So, if we are comparing the Robinson family robot from the Irwin Allen TV show, Lost In Space, to the android Data, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, what’s the takeaway - besides actor Brent Spiner on TNG not having to wear a bulky, blinking suit? Generally, fictional robots originating from Hollywood are more guided or directed by their masters - or fixed programs and system - while an android or droid - ala gold boy C3PO or bullet boy R2D2 from Star Wars - has achieved a far more autonomous or even a kind of human sentience in its operation.

Self directed intentions are all well and good, but what about the good, old fashioned fun factor? Sometimes, robots can even be sexy. Take Maria - from the classic sci-fi dystopian movie, Metropolis.

One can think of Maria as a fembot - long before the term was even coined on the popular 1970’s TV show, The Bionic Woman - starring Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers, the tennis pro turned cybernetic super spy. Later, spy spoof Austin Powers, from funnyman creator Mike Meyers, would use fembot to great comic and sexy effect.

The German landmark sci-fi epic, Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, was released in 1927. A dark, even prophetic journey into the bleakness of a modern society, the most memorable thing about it is the character - and haunting prop/special effect - of Maria, or the Maschinenmensch. Translated from the German, it means Machine Human.

For all of her lasting appeal, Maria remains cold, even inaccessible. After all, the character, in essence, is looked upon as an almost Frankenstein like monster - a creation which turns against the one who creates it.

When Robby was showcased in MGM’s hit film, the movie audience and general public got a taste of robot they’d not only really like to own in real life, but one they’d probably trust their own kids with - just as Dr. Morbius does in the film.

Washing Machine Births A Robotic Icon 

Robot Bobble Head

Robby The Robot, at home in your local laundromat? He actually has more in common with a washing machine than it would at first appear.

The MGM special effects and prop designers who created Robby were Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, Mentor Huebner and Robert Kinoshita. Gillespie and Huebner produced the original sketches and designs for the Krell tech robot (coming up with thousands of drawings), and finally Kinoshita crafted the actual mechanics of the robot suit for the actor to wear. If Kinoshita gave Robby life, then actor Marvin Miller gave him a voice. Miller provided Robby’s dialogue and so a prop could effectively charm people into believing it would act as butler, tailor, protector and companion all in one beeping, blinking package.

Back to the wash. What does Robby and your machine washer have in common? Kinoshita used to design washing machines out of clear plastic so that people could see the wash action of the agitators as they worked. This influence can be seen in Robby’s whirring and clicking gears in his plastic domed brain as it works furiously to process orders or information. Before Robby, the molding of plastic wasn’t as sophisticated - especially for props. Kinoshita’s groundbreaking work on Robby helped propel this art and science forward.

Robby could be a completely formidable security guard - or even warrior - and when Dr. Morbius gave him an order to stop anyone from entering his master’s compound, the robot took it completely seriously. But his creator also endowed him with rules of governance which would prevent him from injuring a human being. These kinds of guidelines or directives are inspired by Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics. One of the primary laws is that a robot shall never harm nor kill a human being. In the film, when the ID Monster rampages and Robby won’t try to kill or stop the beast, the robot is aware that the thing springs from the mind of his master - and so in trying to destroy the destructive force projected from Morbius, a robotic law would have to be violated.

Can Robby boast of any helpful descendants? These days, it appears we’re surrounded by little robby robot offspring.

Real Robbys - Roomba from iRobot

Compared to the flashy fun of Maria or Robby from the movies, or the comfortable and friendly cuddliness of B9, or just plain Robot, owned by Will Robinson on TV's Lost In Space, the real world of robots, though helpful, seem downright boring.  But hey, boring gets the job done.

The Roomba from iRobot may not protect your compound or be able to translate hundreds of languages, but it can take care of something which most people would rather not have to tackle.

Let’s face it - cleaning up the house by sweeping, vacuuming and scrubbing things till they gleam a brilliant shine probably will never be even close to fun and games for most of us, so why handle it all by yourself? Allow a robot to take on that dull and boring task, go watch a classic like Forbidden Planet, until the day comes when you can actually own a working Robby the Robot for yourself.

Will Stape
Will Stape

Screenwriter, book author, and producer. Wrote for 'Star Trek: The Next Generation & Deep Space Nine,' and has created docudramas for cable TV and the web.

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Robby The Robot - Science Fiction’s Role Model Robot