The iconic original Robby the Robot suit and Jeep from Forbidden Planet

Robby the Robot was a star, from the moment he first appeared in the 1950s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. Matthew Sweet goes back to the future

The year is 2257 AD. The place: beyond the limits of our solar system. Commander J. J. Adams is at the helm of United Planets Cruiser C-57D as it makes landfall on the planet Altair IV. It is a strange and magnificent environment – soaring mountains, turquoise skies, purple flowering trees – but some members of Adams' crew have become overfamiliar with the wonders of outer space. "Another one of them new worlds," grouses the ship's cook. "No beer, no women, no pool parlours, nothin'. Nothin' to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own tin cans."

Except he's wrong. Altair IV, as the audience watching in the cinema knows, is the Forbidden Planet. It is home to Robby the Robot, one of the most memorable creations in science fiction. He is a being with metal claws, a domed head alive with whirring mechanisms, and a silhouette as recognisable as Marilyn over the air vent. Robby is an accomplished figure. He can speak 188 languages, perform physical labour with Stakhanovite tirelessness, and use his internal chemical plant to synthesise anything – precious stones, 60 gallons of bourbon, or a nice new frock. "It's the housewife's dream," says Adams. At this point we notice that his 23rd-century space crew is entirely male and white. The audience of 1956, it seems, could imagine travel between the stars, but not an African-American astronaut, or a woman who was more than a domestic labourer yearning for labour-saving tech.

Robby's smooth black flanks and gleaming diodes were crafted by Robert Kinoshita, an MGM draughtsman who spent part of World War II in a Japanese internment camp. He built his most celebrated creation from wood, Plexiglas and a rigid thermoplastic material called Royalite, for a final bill that amounted to 7 per cent of the film's huge $1.9 million budget. At that price, there was little chance of Robby gathering dust in the props store. Almost instantly, MGM gave him his own star vehicle: a child-friendly Cold War melodrama, The Invisible Boy (1957), in which a room-sized supercomputer develops a taste for world domination and overrides Robby's benevolent attitude to humans.

After that, MGM sent him on tour. For two decades, Robby clicked and chuntered his way through appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mork and Mindy, like a once-great star obliged to play smaller and smaller venues. Now Robby is once more back in the limelight. He is offered, along with his car, control panel, MGM packing cases and spare parts – including an alternative head – by Bonhams New York in November.

Forbidden Planet is famous as a sly sci-fi version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Walter Pidgeon plays Dr Morbius, its Prospero-like scientist; Anne Francis its miniskirted Miranda. Commander Adams – embodied with blank certitude by Leslie Nielsen, future star of The Naked Gun – is the Ferdinand figure. Robby fulfils a dual role: his miraculous catering skills fit him for the air-spirit Ariel; his lumbering subservience reveals him as cousin to the muscular beast-man Caliban. But Robby's Jacobean past shouldn't obscure our view of his own historical moment: not the 23rd century, but the 20th. Robby is a servant. The kind that doesn't get paid.

He may have the dry wit of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, but his electronic brain has been programmed to obey the Three Laws of Robotics that were dreamed up by science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

These state that a robot may not injure a human being; that a robot must obey orders given to it by humans – except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. And, finally, that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. These were devised to prevent mechanical beings from harming their flesh-and-blood masters and starting a robot revolution.

Robby's struggles with these rules provide one of the great plot twists of Forbidden Planet. When the humans are attacked by strange crackling monsters, Robby fails to come to their aid – because, it turns out, those monsters are projections from the mind of Dr Morbius, and therefore also human. The quirks of Asimov's Laws are even more important to the plot of The Invisible Boy. In this picture, Robby is no longer (in the words of Dr Morbius) "beyond the combined resources of all Earth's physical science". Instead, he's the pet project of a US government scientist, who uses Robby as butler and nanny to his son, Timmie. In one scene, Timmie climbs aboard a prototype flying machine designed by his father. As the boy zooms up above the family's antebellum mansion, Robby flaps and protests like a transistorised version of Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind.

The long career of Robert Kinoshita's prop ensured that, for a whole generation of viewers, most robots didn't just look like Robby, they actually were Robby, who could be seen toddling beside the Addams Family, Columbo or Napoleon Solo. Kinoshita's work on the long-running TV series, Lost in Space, meant that another high-profile screen robot – the Robinson family's ever-reliable helpmate, B-9 – bore a strong family resemblance. Those characteristics then reappeared in designs by others – the cheerful, chunky little B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT of Disney's The Black Hole (1979), for instance, or the various mechanical adversaries of Doctor Who – and, finally, in the shapes we find in the real-world robots produced in Korea and Japan.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to dream of robots: "If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves." We owe the word, however, to the Czech dramatist Karel Cˇapek. He coined it for his 1920 play R.U.R., which describes a revolt among the synthetic labourers moulded in the workshops of Rossum's Universal Robots.

Like those manufactured beings, Robby was born to serve. But on the screen, he seems as thoughtful and sentient as the humans who surround him (sometimes more so, particularly when he's standing next to Commander Adams). As a crafted object, Robby is thrilling. As a character, he carries the weight of history, and the hint of a future in which he – and the housewives of the universe – might find freedom.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and film and television critic, whose books include Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema (2005).

Sale: TCM Presents... Out of This World!
New York
Tuesday 21 November at 1pm
Enquiries: Catherine Williamson +1 323 436 5442

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