I, Robot is a unique episode for me because the first draft of my writeup was done as a story; a sort of continuation of the events depicted in the actual episode. After careful consideration, however, I realized that it was really little more than fan fiction and many people, myself included, are not really into fan fiction. (If you’re interested, please go to the fanfic section of the site and give it a read and let me know what you think!) The fun thing about writing it was that I actually still managed to cover all of the points I wanted to bring up in the actual review. (And had some fun with Spock as well…)
I, Robot is also unique in that it spawned a retelling in the 1995 reboot of The Outer Limits (written by Leonard Nimoy’s son, ironically named, Adam) as well as a 1989 reimaging in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man written by Melinda M. Snodgrass. The story focuses on Adam Link, a robot who is believed to have murdered his creator, Dr. Link. A trial is held to debate the rights of that machine. I think Star Trek did it best, but then, we’d had two seasons to get to know and love Commander Data and Picard defended him, so the Outer Limit’s didn’t really have a chance! This Adam was a pale comparison!
The episode opens with a very identifiable scene recreated from the 1931 movie Frankenstein, with a little girl playing by the water, before Adam shows up, scares her, and then has to pull her from the water. (Adam misjudges the danger of the 2” deep water, perhaps, but he does have issues with seeing things in color, so maybe he thought it was deeper than it was!) Because of his robotic strength, he hurts her arm, just adding fuel to the fire of a witch hunt. Once caught, he’s locked up before we start the testimony phase of the episode. Star Trek alums Leonard Nimoy (Spock) plays Judson Ellis and John Hoyt (Dr. Boyce) plays Professor Hebbel.
The episode is well done. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a courtroom drama? However, the testimony is infuriating. Oh, that’s not a flaw with the writing. I think the writing gets it spot on. It’s that the evidence provided is horrendously biased and it’s based largely on the fact that Adam is a “robut”, as everyone seems to pronounce it! When the evidence fails to adequately stack up against Adam, the court authorizes what is tantamount to brain damage: they allow his safety parameters to be disengaged to prove he can do harm. Imagine taking the brakes out of a car then watching it roll down a hill and kill someone and saying that it was the result of shoddy workmanship? The fact that they had to damage the poor chap proves he was working well before hand! Not to mention, even in the small town, some level of forensics might have determined that the two ton generator on a shelf was not well suited to being on a shelf!
To compound matters, no one actually asks Adam to recount what transpired while on trial. Oh, he tells it in private, but not to the court. The testimony provided is from Dr. Link’s housekeeper, which sounds suspiciously like she had a thing for the good doctor, but regardless, she’s out of a job now, so her opinion is biased. (When I was called to jury duty many years ago, I was disqualified because my opinion was felt to be biased. Perhaps the 1960s were a bit less well-thought out!) We also hear the testimony of a 6 year old girl who knew nothing of the murder and is there strictly for character assassination because Adam scared her and hurt her arm. Again, that’s like being asked to offer testimony against Jack the Ripper, and using the burnt muffins he made at a soiree as proof that he’s a murderer. Finally, we get conflicting information from the one man who actually saw the dead body and he was well within Adam’s reach in both versions. He even threatens Adam with getting the police. Do we need more proof that if Adam wanted to harm someone, he had the means and the motive? What is it? Means, motive, opportunity? He had all three, yet no harm comes to this accuser! (This sequence is actually really well done, as it’s illustrates the variable memory of the event!)
Perhaps a bigger crime is that this is based on the works of Isaac Asimov. He wrote the original story and created the rules of robotics. That is never even referenced throughout the story. I didn’t always like Asimov, finding him more than a bit pretentious, but that doesn’t meant I can’t acknowledge his work. When he nailed it, he really nailed it!
The biggest travesty of the story is how accurately it portrays ignorance and prejudices. “It will take a long time to change human nature!” I believe it, sir. I’d like to believe that just because someone isn’t “human”, doesn’t mean we can still treat them as people. Good lord, I want so badly to meet an alien race, and shows like this remind me of why they’re likely to stay away! As Star Trek would go on to illustrate to far better extent, Adam was clearly self-aware and intelligent. To me, that made him a person. The fact that it takes him sacrificing himself for a little girl, one of his accusers, no less, is a horribly believable event. He ends up being killed by a car; a machine that is neither intelligent nor self-aware. I hope the sheriff had the wherewithal to lock up the driver of that car, but I suspect not. To the bigot sheriff, no one was harmed. The only thing destroyed was a machine, and no one will mourn a broken machine.
This is one of those hours of television that get my blood pumping, although probably for the wrong reasons. Still, it’s an excellent hour of The Outer Limits and arguably one of the very best the series has to offer. ML
The view from across the pond:
I wonder how controversial The Outer Limits was considered to be at the time it was made. Some of the ideas it explores are nothing out of the ordinary to us today, but were probably quite brave for the 1960s. Last week we had a man who was able to create a whole world, with life developing spontaneously on his created planet. This week a man has created a robot that is “almost human”. These were ideas that would previously have been considered heretical, and I’m not sure to what extent that opinion would have still existed in the 60s, but these are both concepts that deny the necessity of a god in order to create life, although I suppose you could also argue that they validate the necessity of a god and in these instances man becomes the god. But the controversial nature of the idea of a thinking and feeling robot is probably why it hadn’t happened very often until Adam Link was created by Eando Binder for a magazine called Amazing Stories in 1939. This episode is an adaptation of the first two of those stories.
We start with an homage to a scene from Frankenstein, and this is a really interesting moment. It’s pretty obvious that Adam misunderstands what little Evie is doing and thinks she is drowning. In the process of trying to save her, he hurts his arm. My first thought was that it is a clever reversal of the scene in the film, with Frankenstein’s monster throwing a girl into a lake, but in fact it isn’t a reversal of what happens in the book:
“I was scarcely hid when a young girl came running towards the spot where I was concealed, laughing, as if she ran from someone in sport. She continued her course along the precipitous sides of the river, when suddenly her foot slipped, and she fell into the rapid stream. I rushed from my hiding-place and with extreme labour, from the force of the current, saved her and dragged her to shore. She was senseless, and I endeavoured by every means in my power to restore animation, when I was suddenly interrupted by the approach of a rustic, who was probably the person from whom she had playfully fled. On seeing me, he darted towards me, and tearing the girl from my arms, hastened towards the deeper parts of the wood. I followed speedily, I hardly knew why; but when the man saw me draw near, he aimed a gun, which he carried, at my body and fired. I sank to the ground, and my injurer, with increased swiftness, escaped into the wood.
“This was then the reward of my benevolence! I had saved a human being from destruction, and as a recompense I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound which shattered the flesh and bone.”
So we have a scene that in fact mirrors the original version almost exactly, so perhaps we can’t credit the writers with any kind of a clever reversal… except… the way the scene is shot is such a close match for the way it is shot in the film, almost shot for shot. That’s especially odd, because the director of this would have had no access to that footage, which was removed from the film in 1934, and presumed destroyed forever until it was found in the British National Film Archive in the 80s and added back into the film in 1986. So we have two possibilities. Director Leon Benson could have remembered the scene from seeing Frankenstein in the cinema originally. After all, when the film premiered he would have been about 21. Or it could be a coincidence.
I realise I’ve gone off on a massive tangent, but that’s because there is little else of interest to say about this episode. The Frankenstein parallel is driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the whole trial is drawn out to a pointless length considering the inevitable and depressing guilty verdict. Adam himself is just about the most boring design for a robot I’ve ever seen. The mystery of how he came to be standing over the dead body of his creator only works if you don’t notice that he is clearly holding the shelf up when we see the aftermath and the arrival of one of his accusers.
Luckily the mildly entertaining banter between Cutler and Ellis kept me from falling asleep, and I was pleased to finally see Howard da Silva in something. His is a name known to thousands of British people who have never actually seen him in anything, thanks to his introductions to the American broadcasts of Doctor Who. He is charismatic as Cutler, although he never quite turns out to be the skilled lawyer I was expecting. The guilty verdict seems inevitable from early on in the proceedings, with the locals mostly far too xenophobic to allow Adam’s continued existence. I liked how he proved himself in the end, although that of course had to come at the cost of his destruction.
“Out of every disaster, a little progress is made.”
How many disasters are needed before the human race learns not to destroy what we fear? We’re still finding out… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Inheritors
Trial dramas are useful if we are daring enough to explore the prejudices of the human species. It can be sci-fi like I, Robot or non-sci-fi like To Kill A Mockingbird or 12 Angry Men. The given genre can enhance the specific reasons of why we are prejudiced against the one on trial. But when that prejudice is centred on whether or not a being belongs to God, The Outer Limits can indeed be one of sci-fi’s most controversial shows for its time.
In Forbidden Planet, Robby was recognized enough as a sentient being and in the ending welcomed by Commander Adams’ crew. In The Day The Earth Stood Still, Gort was one of a race of robots that were trusted with an absolute authority by advanced ETs. And in Dr. Who’s The Robots Of Death, it took just one Voc Robot, D84, to be friendly enough to help save the day even if it cost him his life. I was most inspired by our real-life robot Sophia, who is now the first AI to be considered a citizen in Saudi Arabia, to name just one dignified recognition she has so far despite any criticisms that she is still receiving.
It’s quite fair to say that I, Robot is among our most pivotal Outer Limits episodes and sci-fi stories, more memorable of course for some familiar faces from Star Trek, especially Leonard Nimoy, and Howard Da Silva because of his narrations for the classic Dr. Who. To this day it reminds us all as an evolving human species of how easily prejudices may target those who are somehow different. AIs may understandably be most vulnerable as Blade Runner most profoundly dramatized. But it can reassure us that if we’re still intelligent and compassionate enough to welcome all these sci-fi moral tales, certainly for Star Trek’s Data and Dark Matter’s Android, then the one thing that both AIs and natural born humans can share in common is the God-given powers to better ourselves.
Thank you both for your reviews. 🤖
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Rog, you know you made a good point with last weeks Wolf 359 that these stories are conceptually brilliant (Wolf certainly is conceptually amazing!) but I think that’s the very crux of it. Conceptually these have been amazing. Either we get a good idea or a good look at human nature (which I think I, Robot is) but in execution it doesn’t always pan out so well.
Even The Production and Decay of Strange Particles was conceptually brilliant and if you doubt it, watch when it was done a decade later by Doctor Who with Inferno! That’s, in a nutshell, the same idea and incredibly well done – one of the best of the Pertwee era.
I think I, Robot may be a good idea with a terrific look at humanity and prejudice. I think Wolf 359 (besides being the location of the battle between the federation and the Borg) is a major “idea episode” worthy of acknowledgement as one of the best ideas the series had, but I think in execution it fails somewhat. By contrast, Demon with a Glass Hand has the execution down even if the idea is a bit warped (considering they made the dude look totally human except for a hand…!)
I actually really enjoyed this episode but that was because it holds up a mirror to mankind and says “look, humanity, you’re looking pretty ugly. CHANGE!” Not that I think it would have been received that way, but one could always hope. Oh wait…we already know don’t we? That episode was from nearly 60 years ago and we haven’t learned out lesson yet… ML
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Reflecting more now on how much The Outer Limits inspired sci-fi in years to come, it’s all the more agreeably worth noting which OL episodes may have worked significantly better than others. Recognizing how OL had even more challenges in making its anthology sci-fi appropriate enough than The Twilight Zone did, certainly with the most common message about what most seriously needs to change for humanity, the idea finding story credibility and enough positive reception should inspire all the right changes. But after 60 years and with continual onslaughts of prejudices in all that time, maybe one way to look at humans now is like a dysfunctional classroom in the school of Earth. Very sad. But hope of course somehow survives.
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The problem of good ideas with poor execution is likely to be a familiar theme when we look at the original Twilight Zone as well.
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Some examples now spring to mind.
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