As robots return to the small screen in Channel 4's Humans, Matthew Sweet reflects on their long and peculiar television history. One moment it’s baked beans for tea and trainers scattered in the hall. Then, after a trip to the showroom and a click of the terms-and-conditions box, the kitchen is sparkling, there’s lasagne cooking in the oven, and the shoes are all in pairs. The person responsible, a home help called Anita, is smiling on the sidelines. Only her unblinking beetle-green eyes betray the fact that she is an android. That and the fact that nobody is obliged to be nice to her or pay her the minimum wage.
Humans (Sunday, 9.00pm) a new science-fiction drama modelled on a Swedish original, has been trailed on Channel 4 with ads purporting to offer you the chance to buy a robot Anita of your own. There’s even a webpage inviting you to place an order. Apparently some people have believed that these are real. I wouldn’t like to meet those people. More specifically, I wouldn’t like to au pair for them.
(HeTelevision and the robot, however, go back a long way. The one technology seemed to promise the other – or that’s the impression you get from those Sixties news reports in which transistorised maids hoover around the House of Tomorrow.
The medium, though, was never a big spender – and parsimony ensured that a small phalanx of robot props served many masters. Robby the Robot, the lumbering rubberised minion from the big-screen Fifties space opera Forbidden Planet, clicked and whirred its way through The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, The Man from Uncle and Mork and Mindy, like a once-great star obliged to play smaller and smaller venues. A gang of matt-black robot revolutionaries constructed for the Sixties BBC Two series Out of the Unknown were painted white and sent to bother Patrick Troughton in Doctor Who.
Boogie boogie: early Eighties British TV star Metal Mickey. Photo: Rex
More recently, Doctor Who upcycled a massive pair of articulated robots built for a CBBC quiz show called Mission 2110 – by giving them the voices of Robert Webb and David Mitchell and putting them into battle against CGI dinosaurs.
The android protagonists of Humans – mutinous, troubled, wracked with the agonies of their own burgeoning sense of subjecthood – might be surprised to know that most of their TV predecessors have been comical or cute. They would be bemused by the gurning dustbin that was Metal Mickey. They would raise an eyebrow at the robot baboon kept as a regimental mascot by the fighter pilots of Battlestar Galactica.
Ditto Doctor Who’s K9, the yapping Zark-7 of Battle of the Planets, and the toddling Twiki of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century - a robot of few words, most of which were biddy-biddy-biddy. And though they might have approved the nihilistic weltanschauung of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Anita and her friends would surely have baulked at the Gary Numan-style novelty record he released in 1981.
Daryl Hannah played a Replicant in Blade Runner (Photo: Rex Features)
Their job is more serious. It fulfils that shivery philosophical mission pursued by the android Replicants in Blade Runner, who want to demonstrate that they have acquired a capacity for consciousness. And it also returns the robot to the circumstances of its birth. The Czech dramatist Karel Capek coined the word in his 1920 play R.U.R., which describes a revolt among the synthetic labourers moulded in the workshops of Rossum’s Universal Robots. They’re the original east European workers on zero-hours contracts. The artificial maids and porters and sex-workers who glide through Humans are their descendants – here, with an obliging smile, to expose the moral shortcomings of their organic employers.