Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Robot" (October 2, 1976)

This week on Ark II, Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet (1956) fame guest stars as Alpha 1, or “Alphie,” in “The Robot.” 

Samuel has been working on the construction of this highly-intelligent machine for four months, and he puts the finishing touches on Alphie just as the crew stops lake-side in Sector 9, Area 15 to enjoy a picnic.  Unfortunately, Alphie -- like most young children -- is prone to accidents and clumsiness, and Captain Jonah has a difficult time trusting him.

After Alphie snaps off the knobs of the Ark II’s mapping computer, Jonah orders the machine shut down while the team investigates a strange “sickness” in a nearby village.  Alphie begs not to be de-activated, because he believes he can help resolve the problem.  When Jonah won’t acquiesce, Alphie breaks free of restraints, knocks-out Samuel, and heads out into the wilderness to act on his own.

It turn out that Alphie is right.  As the robot learns from a girl named Nestra, all the villagers are suffering from exposure to a toxic gas, one which turns them into vacant, zombie-like sleep-walkers. Alphie discovers the source of the leak in a nearby crevice, but finally must sacrifice his very life to seal it up and save the humans.

After Alphie’s noble act, Jonah realizes he was wrong to harshly judge the robot.  As Ruth notes at one point, “robots make mistakes…but so do people.”

Along with “The Lottery, “The Robot” is likely one of the best and most enjoyable episodes in the Ark II series catalog.   The writers, Len Janson and Chuck Menville, along with director Ted Post, really bring their best game on. 

There’s a real vibrancy to this installment (at least compared to others), in part because there’s more banter between the characters here than in all the other episodes combined.  They joke, tease, laugh, and show real ease with one another.  Who are these people?

Perhaps even more importantly than the new-found esprit de corps, not everyone is nice all the time in this episode.  Jonah is still the good guy captain, but he reveals impatience and temper with Alphie.  That doesn't make him evil, it makes him human.  

Samuel, meanwhile, displays powerful emotions when he realizes that his creation has died heroically.  These are welcome colors that the characters could have used on other occasions too, so that they wouldn’t always seem so perfect…and cardboard. 

Visually, "The Robot" is well-vetted.  The show opens with some new footage of the Ark II at an idyllic lakeside, for instance.  And Robby himself -- shiny and upgraded for his starring appearance here -- makes a great visual anchor for the proceedings.  It’s entirely possible (with apologies to the late Jonathan Harris…) that Robby is actually the best and most versatile guest star in the Ark II stable.  He gives a command performance hero, and his heroic death is actually pretty touching.

As usual, the weakest part of an Ark II episode involves the obligatory jet jumper, the rocket pack that Jonah wears to conduct reconnaissance in every darn segment.  It was interesting to see the jet jumper in action probably four or five times early on, but now it’s just a momentum breaker.  The jet jumper interludes inevitably slow down the narratives.

Finally, Ruth makes a comment in this episode that obliquely involves one of my curiosities about the show.  I’ve oftened wondered about the organization that built the grand Ark II, and whether the vehicle is the only one of its kind.  In “The Robot,” Ruth notes “It’s the only ark we have,” which, on the surface, seems to suggest the Ark II is indeed a one-of-a-kind.  On the other hand, she may simply be referring to the crew.  It’s the only ark this crew has, in other words.  So we almost get clarity, and then we get robbed of clarity...

Next week: “Omega.”


  1. Anonymous12:57 PM

    John, I like your review of “The Robot”. I always love seeing Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot since he has the longest running ‘robot career’ in both film and television. When I saw this episode as a boy in 1976, I was hoping that Robby was going to be a permanent member of the Ark II crew. Hero Robby ultimately follows Isaac Azimov’s Three Laws of Robotics by sacrificing himself to save human beings, but I still honestly missed him for the rest of the series. You are right about the interaction between the Ark II crew characters because their banter makes them much more real as flesh & blood people not two-dimensional characters. When writers take the time to add these little interactions, as you stated John, then we the view can relate to them as that is what we might say in that situation. We also saw this banter in the episodes of the original Star Trek series and especially season two of Space:1999. John you have no idea of the long debate that my friends and I had after watching this episode in 1976 regarding Ruth’s declaration of “It’s the only ark we have”. We were a group of young boys proudly concluding that there must disappointingly not be a fleet of Arks roaming the Earth until my older teenage sister said Ruth was talking about her crew mates specific. I felt like Charlie Brown having the football, once again, pulled away by Lucy.
    We were frustrated regarding this matter and hoped for an upcoming episode that would answer this illusive question. We thought there has to be an episode that the Ark II returns to base camp and we see a fleet of Arks parked or coming and going. I suggested that there should have been an episode that the Ark II encounters the Ark III or Ark X on a separate mission. It would be much the way the Kirk’s Enterprise would encounter another Constitution Class starship on the original Star Trek series. Even with one built full-scale ARK II Filmation could have easily faked two Arks as two Landmasters were faked in Damnation Alley(1977). The writers truly knew how to tease the viewer with the truth. So close, but yet so far from clarity regarding how many Arks. If [when] ARK II is remade hopefully[definitely] with the same production design[Ark II, ArkRoamer, ArkJetJumper], then I would like to see the Ark II crew take her beyond the desert[southern California locations] to a snow covered location , coastal beach location with ocean tides coming in, encounter other Arks on other missions and most of all return to home base of the Ark fleet so we can see it, finally. I wouldn’t mind also seeing ruins of major cities or monuments like Planet Of The Apes movies and television series did.
    Nice posted screen photo of Jonah using the handheld laser and Robot’s laser assisting. I think the JetJumper footage was injected into episodes[as the rocket belt jet pack footage was used in Lost In Space(1965-1968) ], even when not necessary, for the ‘wow’ factor of us child viewers in 1976 and to remind us that they have a lot of really cool technology to play with. If Filmation had merchandised, then I would have loved to have purchased an Ark II playset with [Jonah, Ruth, Samuel, Adam] crew action figures, Roamer, JetJumper and Robby ‘Alphie’ much like our beloved Mattel Eagle I playset.


    1. SGB:

      Thank you for such a wonderful and detailed comment about Ark II and "The Robot," one of the stronger episodes. I agree with you that Robby as Alphie would have made a terrific addition to the crew. Having him as a regular would have really added to the science fiction element of the series. He would have been a useful writer's device because -- not understanding humans -- Jonah and the others would have had to teach him. I like the idea of Alphie as a learning child, growing in experience and morality week to week. Very nice.

      I share your frustration too with the series' lack of development vis-a-vis information about the Ark II headquarters. We should have occasionally seen the Ark II crew getting word from home, or getting supplies from another Ark. I agree with you, it wouldn't have been that hard to accomplish, even with a minimum of visual effects, and it would have added SO MUCH to the universe and sense of verisimilitude.

      Like you, I also would have loved some Ark II toys or model kits. Boy, wouldn't those be worth a pretty penny today?!

      Excellent and interesting thoughts, and I enjoyed reading them very, very much.

      Thank you for always commenting so intelligently about my Ark II reviews.