Intelligent robots are one of the most common tropes in sci-fi, simply because it’s interesting to think about what a human relationship could be to a mind and personality that we’ve created and can master. But beyond all the questions of ethics, the moral status of robots, and the parallels to a religious human’s relationship to God, the fact is robots are just fun. We don’t have ones that are as smart as us yet, but it’d surely be a remedy for loneliness to be able to just build a conversation partner. Preferably one who’s witty. Even Star Trek’s Data can tell a joke. And so can plenty of other fictional ‘bots:
Marvin the Paranoid Android (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
To start off, “paranoid” may not be the best descriptor for this robot, who accompanies Arthur Dent and friends on their picaresque intergalactic journey; but the two-headed conman Zaphod Beeblebrox gave him that nickname and it stuck. In reality, Marvin is just profoundly depressed. His constant existential dread is an outgrowth of the fact that he is, quite simply, way too smart: He has a “brain the size of a planet” and every mental challenge is trivial to his near-omniscient intelligence, meaning he’s perpetually bored and unable to relate to anyone. Marvin’s accomplishments include planning a war for a trigger-happy machine race while simultaneously solving all of the unsolved scientific problems in the universe… as well as composing several lovely lullabies, which went on to become cult hit songs after they were recorded by Marvin’s radio and television voice actor in the 1980s.
The Satellite of Love Crew (Mystery Science Theatre 3000)
Though both the cast and the network of long-running but troubled bad movie showcase Mystery Science Theatre 3000 changed many times during its time on television, one thing remained consistent: The core premise of a regular guy and a bunch of robot puppets making fun of the worst films ever created. Both Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson were accompanied into the theater after “Movie Sign” by a pair of foils – the immature and acerbic golden bowling pin avian Crow T. Robot (T. as in Winnie T. Pooh and Attila T. Hun) and the supercilious, Napoleon-complex gumball machine punster Tom Servo. Together with their human straight man, the two robots made for a memorable comedy team, which was enhanced by the visits during the sketch portions by third ‘bot, confused and motherly vacuum cleaner-based Gypsy, who – as the overseer of the higher functions of the ship – is actually the smartest one on the show.
An indomitable employee of the Planet Express Delivery Company, the scheming misanthropic ex-construction bot Bender Bending Rodriguez may be an alcoholic – but don’t worry, he’s fueled by ethanol. Although he’s far from the main protagonist, Bender is possibly the most recognizable character in Matt Groening’s animated sci-fi comedy Futurama, thanks to his simple and distinctive character design hearkening back to 50s-style sci-fi robots and the fact that he, as played by veteran voice actor John DiMaggio, gets some of the best lines in the show. In the best tradition of comedic antiheroes, Bender can only be trusted as far as he can be thrown and his vices seem to outweigh any good qualities he might have (his love of cooking, for example, is rather negated by the fact that he lacks taste buds and quite often serves disgusting dishes), but in the end he’s always willing to help out a friend in need.
Before Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball manga and anime became a worldwide success, he was famous in his native Japan for, of all things, a comedy series about the misadventures of a genius inventor and the sophisticated robot he creates. The robot in question looks like a purple-haired, inexplicably nearsighted little girl named Arale. Since her “father” Dr. Norimaki is such a great roboticist, Arale has a fully-fledged personality and perfect artificial intelligence; she also happens to be naïve, ditzy, and utterly baffled by human interactions. All of this, combined with her unbelievable strength (her fists can cause earthquakes and she has an array of weapons that would impress a Dragon Ball Z character, and Toriyama has said she’s physically stronger than Dragon Ball’s famously mighty protagonist Goku) is a source of fish-out-of-water gags throughout Dr. Slump.
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