Robot! That most evocative of words is now 100 years old. Over the century, robots have taken on many of the more repetitive or dangerous of human tasks. But they’ve also entertained us, as an infinitely malleable staple of science fiction.
The word ‘robot’ was first heard in January 1921, at the premiere of Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The term is derived from a Czech word for a serf or forced labourer -- exactly the role played by Čapek’s machines, who ultimately rebel. Automatons had already been around for centuries, both in fact and fiction. But the invention of the word ‘robot’ gave them a new lease of non-life on stage and screen.
Robots have appeared in all genres, from sit-coms to horrors, but it is children’s TV and film where they are most replete. Here, we count down our 10 favourite robots from popular culture. We’ve limited things to proper robots with no human or alien component, which rules out the Daleks from Doctor Who, cyborgs like Robocop and the piloted mecha of anime. Oh, and of course, this is a list for children, so doesn’t include such public menaces as the Terminator.
10. Johnny 5
Looking not unlike a more cumbersome version of WALL-E (see below), Johnny 5 was the star of the two Short Circuit movies from the mid-80s. The temperamental droid starts ‘life’ as a production line military robot. But, thanks to the predictable plot device of getting struck by lightning, runs a short circuit and springs into sentience. His urban adventures and toddler-like naivety are by turns comic and poignant. It’s hard not to shed a tear when the terrified being cries “No disassemble Johnny 5”. The films have dated, like so many 80s blockbusters, but will still enrapture a family audience today.
9. Marvin the Paranoid Android
“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction, 'cause I don't.” There’s no one in fiction quite like Marvin, the depressed robot from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Robots are meant to be efficient, helpful and emotionally neutral -- Marvin is none of these. He goes about his doleful business with a can’t-do attitude and a universe-wary sigh. Humans are often paranoid about the disruptive possibilities of robots, but here is a robot who is himself paranoid of life, the universe and everything. Had he not inspired one of the greatest singles of the 1990s (Paranoid Android by Radiohead), we might have found him too dispiriting for the list.
Bender from Futurama is, like Marvin, another robot who runs contrary to what a good robot should be. But where Marvin is forever in the doldrums, Bender is voluble, crass and disruptive. A compulsive liar, petty thief and borderline sociopath, given to smoking and drinking and other vices, Bender is more human than many of the other characters in the show. And that is why we love him.
He might be more basketball than robot, but BB-8 certainly won a place in the hearts of Star Wars fans, following his appearance in the three sequel films. He can’t speak, and he’s a massive trip hazard, yet this is one deeply lovable droid (it’s almost as if he were designed to, you know, inspire a best-selling toy line or something). Perhaps it’s the way he moves and interacts in such a childlike way. Neal Scanlan, the special effects engineer who created him, had this to say: “I think he knows he’s cute. He knows that he can win people over. And he uses that, like children do, to get his own way.”
6. The Coin-Op Moon Robot
Perhaps the least familiar robot in our list comes from the first Wallace and Gromit film, 1988’s A Grand Day Out. Our intrepid heroes launch a rocket to the Moon, in a magnificently inefficient bid to track down some cheese. There they encounter a coin-operated robot, who immediately slaps a parking ticket on their rocket. We’ve included this relatively obscure automaton because we feel sorry for it. How long had it been sat idle and alone on the Moon’s surface? What became of the poor android after man and dog returned to Wigan? We need to know. The world could do with a new Wallace and Gromit film about now.
5. Optimus Prime
The Transformers were HUGE in the 1980s. Every child (well, every boy) had at least one robot that could transform into a truck or a car or (unfathomably) an audio cassette. Their star waned as the decades went on, but the recent big-budget movies have shot the Transformers back into the spotlight. Bumblebee might nowadays be the family favourite, but we have to pick Optimus Prime for the list. Not only does he transform into a supercool red truck, but his name means ‘first and best’.
4. C3PO and R2D2
It’s hard to separate the two most famous droids from the Star Wars universe. They’re rarely apart, except when R2 moonlights as Luke’s copilot. One is a fussy, self-obsessed communications droid, the other a beeping cylinder with no face or arms -- and yet somehow we find them so endearing. Despite not having one between them, the droids are at the heart of the Star Wars franchise. They’ve appeared in all movies to date, with the exception of ‘Solo’ -- a claim no other character can make.
3. The Iron Man/Giant
1968 was a good year for ferrous humanoids. Marvel’s first Iron Man comic book was published that year. Meanwhile, Ted Hughes’s unrelated novel ‘The Iron Man’ came out in the UK. The first is a rich man in a suit, but the second is a bona fide robot from outer space, and eligible for our list. The gigantic mechanoid is at first much maligned but ultimately saves the Earth from a bigger threat with the help of a boy called Hogarth. The (fairly loose) film adaptation of Hughes’s novel, called The Iron Giant, is considered a cult classic.
2. Commander Data
Although he looks, sounds and (usually) acts pretty human, Star Trek’s leading robot is entirely artificial. Where Spock shows no emotions, Data feels no emotions. He feels nothing, at least not until his chips are upgraded in later installments. Despite this lack of range and unimaginative name, the android commander is one of the most memorable and well-developed characters in the whole of Trek, thanks largely to the brilliant portrayal by Brent Spiner. Time and again, he shows shrewd judgement and even-handedness that are an inspiration to those around him, even the great Captain Picard. A robot we can all look up to.
A relative newcomer to the list, WALL-E hit our screens in the 2008 Pixar movie of the same name. It’s the tale of a silent, lonely robot picking over the trash of an abandoned Earth, who is suddenly swept away with fellow robot (and unlikely love interest) EVE. The pair’s interstellar journey is secondary to the deep emotional journey they take, all with minimal dialogue. WALL-E shows us that robots can have feelings, cares and needs. His story is so well told that it won Oscars, and was voted as Time magazine’s film of the decade. We too have put him at number 1. (But see where he comes in our ranking of Pixar films.)
Top trivia: WALL-E apparently stands for Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth-class, while EVE is an acronym for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator.
Of course, this list could have been much, much longer. We might have picked Kryten from Red Dwarf (ask your parents), Metal Mickey, a 1980s home-help robot (ask your grandparents), or Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (as your great-grandparents). We could have plumped for the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, or Tik-Tok from Return to Oz (actually created by L Frank Baum in 1907, before the word robot was coined). A close contender was Astro Boy, an android who dates back to a 1952 manga, but has been reinvented for TV and film many times. Wikipedia lists out hundreds and hundreds of fictional examples, indicating just how popular the robot remains, 100 years on from that first appearance.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.