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.”