Companion Tropes 34
“Robot Buddy” might seem like a blindingly obvious character trope to discuss for K9, but it is actually a very important and interesting kind of character, ubiquitous in science fiction. This is also the best place to discuss it. Kamelion was intended as a robot buddy but that never really happened. In the end he only got an introductory and valedictory story, on both occasions becoming the Doctor’s enemy. There are a couple of other candidates in Doctor Who, but Gadget doesn’t warrant an article, whilst Handles might just do, but I have other plans for him. K9, on the other hand, is Doctor Who’s perfect example of a robot buddy.
They crop up everywhere in science fiction. Perhaps defining and typifying the trope is Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet. Also falling squarely into this category are Twiki from Buck Rogers, the robot from Lost in Space, Bubo from Clash of the Titans and Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. More inventive iterations of the trope can be found in Knight Rider (Kitt) and Red Dwarf (the scutters), while on the fringes of the trope we have the actors in robot suits such as Kryten, Data and C-3PO. The trope gets subverted (e.g. Bender in Futurama) and parodied (Joey’s show “Mac and CHEESE” in Friends). Basically, it’s everywhere, in one form or another.
So what are the characteristics that are generally common to these robot buddies, and how does K9 fit into the trope? According to the excellent TV Tropes website, these are some of the common characteristics of the robot buddy:
- Often small
- Cute looking
- Has a multitude of functions
- Sci-fi equivalent of a familiar
- More recently: obnoxious, cynical, critical
- Can make heroic sacrifices and then come back
Let’s look at these in order. K9 is certainly small, but then again he is supposed to resemble a dog. In any case, I would suggest there are as many exceptions to this rule as there are diminutive robots, simply due to the limitations of available technology. It’s just easier to put a man in a robot suit, and the consequences of trying to do something different were suffered by the production teams who tried to get K9 to glide across any surface that wasn’t entirely flat. “Cute” is a matter of opinion and individual taste, but in making the Doctor’s robot buddy a dog there was clearly an attempt to go down this route. At the risk of making people regurgitate their breakfast, I’ll briefly mention the Australian version of K9, who represents a more obvious attempt at “cute”. Sorry about that.
The next point on the list is an interesting one, because you can see the purpose of this from a writing point of view. If your robot buddy can basically do anything, it is an indispensable tool to get the main protagonist out of any sticky situation. Interestingly, Doctor Who already has one of those: it’s called the sonic screwdriver. So if K9 had actually been made truly multi-functional, playing the trope straight (e.g. all kinds of gadgets popping out of him, or his nose doing more than just being a gun) there would have been a very real danger of making the Doctor so tooled up that the series lost all sense of jeopardy. One could argue that this happened anyway, as K9’s main functions are (a) super intelligence and (b) gun. But it could certainly have been worse. Whatever your thoughts on this, it’s hard to get away from the uncomfortable fact that the Doctor and K9 really equates to the Doctor walking around with a gun. It’s just a cute, robot buddy gun.
A sci-fi equivalent of a familiar definitely applies to K9. The typical example of a familiar is of course a witch’s cat. The Doctor is a wizard with a magic wand, technobabbled into a Time Lord with a sonic screwdriver, with the fantasy series Doctor Who shoehorned into a sci-fi straightjacket. He might just as well have a robot black cat. Then again, if Survival is anything to go by, it’s a good job he didn’t.
K9 is loyal, although robot buddies are perfect for a betrayal storyline. They don’t need to be brainwashed or hypnotised. They can just be reprogrammed, or sometimes even have a hidden agenda written away in their programming. The Orville recently had an excellent example of this with the Isaac betrayal two-parter. Like any other robot buddy, K9 is loyal… until someone like the Shadow comes along and takes him over.
For a robot buddy from the 70s, K9 fits surprisingly well into the more modern iteration of the trope, the kind of robot who criticises his master, or is sarcastic or obnoxious. By and large, this is achieved by making K9 the straight man in a comedy double act, and have him be brutally honest.
We all make mistakes sometimes, don’t we K9.
To take the final point on the list, K9 is probably the ultimate example of the robot buddy who can be destroyed and come back. The perfect example of this is his heroic sacrifice in School Reunion, but he repeatedly gets damaged and incapacitated in the line of duty (or even just because he doesn’t realise that it’s best to avoid water), and the Doctor fixes him, or in the case of School Reunion probably builds another. The Doctor’s ability to replicate K9 means that he gets to have an emotional (well, it should be) departure with his mistress Leela, and then come back as K9 Mark II, and then have an emotional (well it should be) departure with his mistress Romana, and then come back as K9 Mark III, joining Sarah in her adventures, or “And Company” as she has by then been renamed.
So K9 fits the trope to perfection. He is such a perfect example of a robot buddy that we have to ask the question: why isn’t he around any more? Why didn’t the Doctor keep building more K9s? Well, I think it comes down to that problem I mentioned above about the Doctor just being too tooled up. If you make life too easy for the Doctor then you lose the fear factor. In the wake of the BBC bizarrely taking Mary Whitehouse seriously and trying to water down Doctor Who, K9 was just what the Doctor ordered, and his importance shouldn’t be overlooked. The character of K9 was instrumental in maintaining the popularity of Doctor Who through one of its most difficult times, woefully cash-strapped and de-fanged. But in the end, we just can’t have the Doctor walking around with a hyper-intelligent gun forever, however cute it may be. RP