Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lost in Space Day: "War of the Robots"

In one corner, we have Robby the Robot, famous cinematic automaton of the classic film, Forbidden Planet (1956). 

And in the other corner, we have lovable B-9, mechanical guardian of our space family Robinson and popular hero of Lost in Space.

May the best robot win!

In very silly terms, that's the set-up for this classic first season Lost in Space (1965-1968) episode, "The War of the Robots," which aired originally on CBS on February 9, 1966.

Here, the stranded Robinsons unexpectedly discover a quiescent "robotoid" in an overgrown grove near their homestead, covered in vines. 

The Robinsons' protective robot insists the alien machine (Robby...) is an "extreme danger" to the humans, in part because of Robby's very nature: he's a "robotoid" (unlike the Robot), and robotoids are advanced machines which can go beyond the bounds of their programming.

Robotoids have a "choice,” according to the Robot in the way they follow (or don't follow...) orders and instructions. 

The Robinsons and especially Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) believe their Robot is just jealous of the new machine, which -- when activated by Will (Bill Mumy) -- shows an affinity for repairing watches, the damaged chariot, and other crucial devices.

Dr. Smith derides the familiar family robot as a "clumsy has-been" and "obsolete" as, in short order, Robby the Robotoid becomes practically invaluable to the marooned Robinsons (save for Penny, who has mysteriously vanished from the entire episode...without it being noticed by her Mom or Dad).

Soon, Robby confronts the B-9 and tells him that the Robinsons no longer need their original robot and that "in comparison" to himself, the B-9 is "very ignorant."

Alone and abandoned, B-9 skulks away into the rocks -- having lost his family -- and soon Robby's true motives emerge. He is actually the dedicated servant to an alien scientist (a kind of dog-alien that very much resembles the Anticans from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Lonely Among Us" that was produced and broadcast twenty-one years later...).

The Robotoid's mission is not to serve the Robinsons, but rather to disarm them, render them "harmless" and deliver them as experimental subjects to the aliens.

"You are weak and vulnerable creatures," Robby tells the Robinsons, "but there are others who have need of you..."

In the end, it's a battle-to-the-death between a nearly-invincible Robby, the most famous robot in film history, and a vastly-under-powered Bubble-Headed Booby, the most famous mechanical man of television...

I love the way the first season of the series is shot, and this episode is a prime example. In "The War of the Robots," for instance, a fluid camera glides in menacingly towards Robby the Robot at least twice, pushing portentously towards the inscrutable juggernaut.

A less efficient production might have used a zoom instead of taking the time and energy to move the camera, but you can tell that there was no expense spared in early Lost in Space, and generally, the series is really well-filmed. 

There's even a sense of visual ingenuity (and wit...) in the episode's final battle between clunky metal men. They flap and lumber their way through a cloud of opaque smoke, laboring to find the best kill position.

In some ways, “War of the Robots” is also like the dam breaking in Lost in Space, at least in terms of the depiction of the Robot.  He has been mainly the tool, so far, of Doctor Smith, and occasional helper of the family...but he hasn’t been sentimentalized.  

The sentimentalization of the machine begins in earnest at this juncture.  The Robot is seen as lonely, emotionally wounded, and looked over by his beloved family.  Will and Maureen, similarly, begin to express their feelings for the dutiful robot in this emotional fashion.

The "War of the Robots" narrative is one we can all identify with. The Robot feels squeezed out by his new "sibling," Robby, and becomes jealous that, well, there's somebody newer and more exciting in the room. 

The Robot begins striking out at those who love him (refusing to help Will...), becomes petulant and even self-loathing (describing the fact that he has been denied or "cheated" out of human characteristics evidenced by the Robotoid.)

Let's face it: haven't we all felt displaced like that from time to time? By a brother or a sister? By your best friend's 'new' buddy? 

It's strange that a story so plainly concerning sibling rivalry involves an ostensibly "emotion-less" robot, but again, that's the great thing about science fiction on television: it can dramatize stories in a way a regular drama can't.

"The War of the Robots" is a fable or lesson about jealousy, and every other dramatic consideration  about the episode is largely secondary.

In this way, the series conforms to its overarching idea: that of a pioneer family determining how to thrive on the frontier, with all sorts of challenges around.  

Only in this case, it is clear that the robot is part of the family, and not just an instrument or device. 

When we enter the space age, Lost in Space tells us, even our technology will be part of "us."

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