THURSDAY: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Fantasy

14 November 2013

Both NASA and ESA (European Space Administration) are planning a mission to Mars.  But, in this day and age, who isn’t?  India is planning a Mars mission.  A Dutch company named, Mars One, isn’t just planning a mission, but a colony.  What’s interesting is how they plan to finance the mission.  The Mars One colonists’ transportation to, and colony on, the red planet will be financed by a reality show starring – you guessed it – the colonists, themselves, on Mars.  If this seems kind of “out there,” so is the planned departure date.  Their first group is scheduled leave about twenty years from now.

However the NASA and ESA missions are serious business because their potential colonists certainly have the right stuff.  NASA is considering bumblebees and the ESA is considering a robotic snake.  Amazingly, of all the possible candidates, the bees and the robotic snake seem most naturally suited to the challenges of life on Mars.

The rather rotund bumblebee wouldn’t “cut a good figure” in the astro-insect selection process, but appearances can be deceiving.  When NASA discovered that the ideal atmospheric pressure for space facilities was considerably below the normal pressure found on Earth, the search was on for the most adaptable contestants.  At the ideal atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa), human beings were burdened because this is only about half the sea level atmospheric pressure here on Earth.  Honeybees gave up completely at 62 kPa.  But “Bumbles” kept right on going – gathering honey and pollinating flowers at the ideal 52 kPa.  Below that pressure, “Bumbles” slowed down, but didn’t stop.  And when, at a meager 30 kPa, the bumblebees finally lost their ability to fly, they went on working!  Crawling from bloom to bloom, the bumblebees went on pollinating and gathering honey.  What can we say?  The few, the proud, the bumblebees!

Of course, Robo-Snake, as a robot, has few issues adapting physically to an alien environment.  A robotic snake will bring a specific skill to the red planet that a biological snake enjoys on earth – the remarkable ability to travel over and through certain types of almost impassable terrain.  Robo-Snake’s amazingly snake-like movement allows it to explore and investigate places that no human, conventional robot, or vehicle could go.  This ‘bot’s serpentine motion produces a kind of locomotion that allows it to travel almost anywhere without getting stuck.

While writing a previous post on this subject, my mind kept wandering to the sci-fi and fantasy possibilities.  Every time I though of a bumblebee and a robotic snake on Mars, I couldn’t help thinking what a good Disney movie that mission would make.  Of course, in actual fact, if they make the cut, “Bumbles” and “Robo-Snake” would be traveling to Mars on different missions sponsored by different space agencies.

But let’s forget the facts and stick to the fantasy.  I had to wonder: what if Bumbles and Robo-Snake teamed up on Mars to form one of those classic duos that are the stuff of sci-fi fantasy?  As I thought about the pair and their possible adventures on the red planet, I couldn’t help thinking in terms of those famous sci-fi fantasy teams of the past.

I imagine Bumbles and Robo-Snake wandering the Martian landscape in a feature film (or weekly episodes of a TV series) struggling to survive.  Of course, they stumble into adventure after adventure as they explore, not only the physical terrain, but discover unknown and exotic Martian flora and fauna.  Perhaps, other interplanetary visitors from other star systems would pop-in, from time to time, and confront the bee-snake team with novel challenges in which the duo’s unique relationship would lead them to a successful resolution.  Sort of like . . .

Sort of like the relationship between the Robinson family and the “General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9.”   The television show was the 1965 series, Lost in Space. Model B9, unimaginatively referred to as “Robot” by the cast members, had one of the most memorable lines in television, history — “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!”

Maybe Bumbles and Robo-Snake could be stranded on Mars with a group of much less well adapted human companions (like the Mars One colonists).  Because Bumbles and Robo-Snake are uniquely adapted to the Martian environment, they would be well suited to the job of rescuing their hapless human companions who would, on a weekly basis, manage to fall into some kind of trouble or involve themselves in some kind of misadventure.

Maybe one of the colonists would play the role of Lost in Space’s subversive and, then, eccentrically silly Dr. Smith.  The new version of the Dr. Smith character might arrive with the Mars One colonists.  However, this Dr. Smith might be an agent from a rival TV network featuring a rival reality show.   His job is to assure that Mars One colonists’ own reality show suffers dismal ratings and cancellation.  Or, maybe even more darkly (but realistically), the new Dr. Smith might be an agent from Mars One itself.  If the Mars One reality show’s ratings don’t climb fast enough, the new Dr. Smith has been sent to “eliminate” the colonists swiftly and completely in order to accomplish a de facto cancellation.

Of course, Bumbles and Robo-Snake will be there to foil Dr. Smith’s mission and rescue the colonists while forging an even more successful TV series about a bumblebee and robotic snake.  This assures the survival of the human colonists after the unexpected cancellation of their reality show.  However, “Danger, Bumbles.  Danger.” might be too cliché to recycle, so there needs to be some work on a new script for this new “non-reality” show.

Lost in Space’s Model B9’s fame was great, but its career was limited.  Like the original Star Trek cast, B9 found itself hopelessly typecast.  After suffering a relatively short downward spiral, rescue and repair came from TV and film producer Kevin Burns with whom the B9 enjoys a comfortable, private and, even, reclusive retirement.   Because of the attention and adulation B9 receives from nostalgic fans, Kevin Burns commissioned the creation of a B9 “clone” – a replica that is displayed on tours and at conventions.

Less known is the story of B9’s stunt man or, rather, stunt robot.  In fact, two versions of B9 were built for the original TV series.  The other, just as imaginatively, termed “stunt robot” was featured in distance “or hazardous shots.”  Like the star, after the series ended, the stunt double fell into a downward spiral of disrepair until it was rescued and refurbished by the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, in Seattle Washington, where it enjoys a more public retirement to this day.

B9 was created by mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita.  With such talents, wouldn’t it have been great if Kinoshita had designed other movie robots?  It would, and he did.  In fact, Robert Kinoshita designed, perhaps, the première sci-fi robot of all time.

Right after the brooding and reclusive Dr. Mobius unlocked the most basic secrets of the Krell, in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, he built Robby the Robot.  But let’s not get too far ahead of our story.

How could this play out with our own film duo? In our version of the story, Bumbles, with the help of Robo-Snake, discover the secrets of an ancient and extinct Martian civilization.  In the process, they unleash a mysterious force of which they, themselves, are unaware.  After the human colonists fall victim to a mysterious predator, Bumbles is left alone, with her faithful robot snake sidekick, to pursue her investigations in the solitude she loves.

Years later, a rescue ship arrives with a small crew of humans and (appropriately) a contingent of bumblebees.  “Bumbles” warns the rescue ship’s crew not to land on the surface because of a mysterious danger – the nature of which Bumbles herself does not consciously understand.   Of course, there could be a romantic subtheme.  Perhaps, like Morbius, Bumbles could have a single daughter bee who is wooed by a drone bee from the rescue ship.

However, I don’t know if Robo-Snake could equal the sheer range of Robby.  That robot could do almost everything.  Certainly, Robby kept pace with Star Trek’s replicator when it created a large quantity of hard liquor at the request of one of the rescuing crew members.

Whatever the storyline, Robo-Snake faces a major challenge if it is to step into the shoes of the famous Robby the Robot.  After raising the bar for all movie robots with his first 1956 performance, Robby went on to a remarkable career.  He escaped being typecast in Forbidden Planet (although, with robots, some typecasting is unavoidable).  To his credit, Robby has worked consistently in Hollywood including appearances on The Doby Gillis Show, The Twilight Zone (3 episodes), Hazel, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Monkeys, Wonder Woman, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, a cameo appearance in Gremlins and, most recently, in a 2012 General Electric commercial.

Robby enjoys a semi retirement in the collection of William Malone.  Robby’s early career was marred by the same harassment from adoring fans that so many other stars have suffered.  Souvenir-hunting fans, twice, roughed Robby up so badly that he had to be refurbished.  On both occasions, original spare parts created for the film Forbidden Planet were called into service to restore Robby to the perfect physical health typical of a well maintained robot.  But back, again, to our bee-snake team.

Let’s not limit our vision.  What if the Bumbles and Robo-Snake combination generates a successful film or series?  What next?  Would a spin-off be in order?  The real Robo-Snake is being considered as a sidekick, but not to a bee or human being.  Instead. Robo-Snake is being developed to assist another robotic device — The Mars Rover.

To its credit, the Mars Rover is an amazingly well-engineered vehicle.  However, no matter how serviceable, it has a daunting task — to be operated by remote control as it navigates a rough and rocky terrain.  The result is that Mars Rovers usually end their serviceable careers by getting permanently stuck.  Is there a solution?  Enter Robo-Snake.

The Robo-Snake that may eventually go to Mars will have one of two possible configurations.  It will either travel with the Rover as a portable robot to be released to investigate nooks and crannies too small for the Rover as well as areas in which the Rover is more likely to get stuck.  The other design would permanently attach Robo-Snake to the Rover as a kind of arm – or more picturesquely – a kind of tentacle.  The Robo-Snake arm, if long enough, could reach out to examine all those nooks and crannies, while also performing other functions as well  Maybe, the most important “other function” would be as an arm to help the Rover get un-stuck, after it squeezes itself into too tight a spot.  In fact, the tentacle-like arm could grab nearby objects to help pull the Rover free of an obstruction or push the Rover out of a tight spot.

However, from an entertainment standpoint, the Rover and his pet Robo-Snake, as a team, would defy the conventional wisdom that robots are not all that interesting in leading roles.  With only two robots, how interesting could the relationship be?  When have just a couple of robots, alone, entertained anyone?

Well, it happened at least once.  R2-D2 and C3PO formed the ideal, model relationship for our Rover – Robo Snake team.  With the Rover designed as an all terrain vehicle and the Snake designed to behave . . . like a snake, there are bound to be temperamental or, rather, programming differences between the two, just as there were differences between the effervescent R2-D2 and the diplomatic C3PO.  I can imagine a constant dialog between the Snake and Rover warning, admonishing, and critiquing (if not nagging) each other over every petty detail of their mission in a style uniquely pioneered by the Star Wars robotic duo.

Aside from the progressive improvement in the quality of special effects, the introduction of R2-D2 and C3PO brought an entirely new dimension to the portrayal of robots on screen.  While sci-fi aficionados will point, quite accurately, to the distinct personal eccentricities and mannerisms of almost every movie and television robot, the robotic Star Wars duo left subtlety out of the equation displaying quite decidedly dimensioned personality traits.

R2-D2, the small message carrying droid of the first (or is it the IVth) Star Wars film, introduced Luke Skywalker to, at least, the image of Princess Leia.  Then, R2D2 led the future Jedi Knight to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  R2-D2 is always accompanied by C3PO, a “protocol droid” developed to assist in matters of “etiquette, customs, and translation”   And it is this last ability, translation, that defined C3PO’s role in relation to R2-D2 who, while occasionally uttering surprisingly understandable whistles and chirps, had no human language capabilities.  C3PO translated R2D2’s statements for the benefit of human listeners (and audiences).  The two displayed an almost childlike relationship.  They engaged in busy conversations and seemed to be on the verge of bickering rather than chatting most of the time.

The rather sophisticated character development of these robots, in contrast to earlier robotic film stars, was illustrated by actor Anthony Daniels’ refusal to take the offered role of C3PO.  After all, what actor would want the limited role of a robot?  However, after reading the script, Daniels accepted the role realizing the substance and range offered by the robotic performance.

Likewise, R2D2 was more than a prop — even behind the scenes.  Portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor said, “As soon as R2-D2 comes on the set, everyone goes a bit silly.”  McGregor said that the small robot inspired affection.  It surely did with no less than George Lucas who has said that R2D2 was his favorite character.

The Robot Hall of Fame was created in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University “to recognize excellence in robotics technology.”  Since then, a number of real and fictional robots have been induced:

Robby the Robot inducted 2004

R2-D2 inducted 2003

C3PO inducted 2004

To its shame, the Robot Hall of Fame has yet to induct B9 of Lost in Space.  In my opinion, this is a glaring (and almost unforgivable) omission.  B9 was not even among the candidates considered in 2012.  However, in an NBC People’s Choice Poll, B9 received many write-in votes.  More surprising was a respectable showing in the same poll by the animated robot “Bender” from Futurama.  Even as a fan of that series, I must confess that, to win induction, a robot should at least rise to some standards.  Unfortunately, Bender takes pride in sinking below them all.

What would my favorite Cinderella robotic candidate be?  Well, if I had to pick, it would be Red Dwarf’s “Kryten” portrayed by Robert Llewellyn.

And so, dear reader, I will end with the obvious question:  What or who is your pick as the best sci-fi fantasy robot of all time?