Since the earliest stages of Mankind's first attempts at engineering, we have found ways for machines to do work for us. From the first pulley systems in wells, to wind and water driven mills. A man in ancient Persia built a "Tea Girl"...an automated machine that would, once activated, brew, pour and then serve tea, complete with sugar and cream, like a sexy little half-dressed cuckoo clock. Some of the machines we've made are to make dangerous and burdensome jobs less so, therefore saving lives and easing the physical stress of workers. Over time, however, more people are doing less physical labor- yet we are still unsatisfied to do it ourselves. It is more 'efficient' to have a machine do it for us. Slowly this idea crawled through centuries and decades of innovation until finally analog became digital and mega-computers the size of a room were reduced to the "mini-computers" we use now. But even before we had these ideas of computers, we dreamed of man-like machines.
For all who eagerly sing the praises and potential of robots, there are those who cry out against them, foretelling of mankind's destruction and the fall of civilization. These tales of Robot-horrors came long before the initial release of The Terminator in 1984. Amusingly, the very TERM 'Robot' was coined by Karel Čapek's brother Joseph for the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which debuted on stage in 1921. (It's a wonderful read and I recommend it to everyone, as an occasion to watch it is rare.) The term is from robota which means drudgery, which perfectly illustrates man's reason for their creation- to do what we don't want to. This is amusing because, Rossum's robots weren't made of machinery but rather biological material. Something we would now relate as "Genetically engineered", "biological constructs" or as "clones." They are not what we perceive today-- or even what came to permeate literature and film in the following decades!
While Isaac Assimov played both sides of the philosophical fence- Robots are good. Robots are bad. Movies like 1927's Metropolis did the same, showing a need for balance between man and machinery, although Fritz Lang's Maria was held up as being superior to human kind. Other films like the golden calf of 50's sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still presented robots as a terrible weapon that could destroy mankind! It did, however, still bear the message that it was man's own wickedness that would be at fault. While giving us the classic lines:
"Klaatu Barada Nickto!" and (my favorite) "I'm impatient with stupidity," it also offered up this exchange:
Klaatu: I'm worried about Gort. I'm afraid of what he might do if anything should happen to me.
Helen: Gort? But he's a robot. Without you, what could he do?
Klaatu: There's no limit to what he could do. He could destroy the Earth.
Other films, throughout the 60s and 70s still created classic and cult horror with killer robots. The Earth Dies Screaming in 1965, as did this horrible, campy film. 1973 brought us the best theme park ever, with Yul Brynner as the original Terminator- a bloodthirsty cowboy robot in Westworld. In 1975 men found the answer to all their problems and created The Stepford Wives.
But it was the 1980s that I was there for, when the end of the world would come on August 29, 1997: Judgment Day. That was what The Terminator told us. That not just robots- ARMIES of fucking robots and a Master Super-computer called Skynet would obliterate humans forever...only, not really forever because Kyle Reese came back from 2029 and then in 1991 they made a second movie and then a third one came out in 2003 and now a fourth one is due out in 2009 - but damn if those Robots aren't persistent.
What I also remember from the 1980s were the Super Giant Robot cartoons! My absolute favorite was VOLTRON. It was a hero team cartoon where they had giant lion robots that combined to form the massive Voltron Super Giant Robot. And then there was Mazinger Z! He was just a big, bad ass, muthafuckin Robot ya'll! And amidst the onslaught of Japanese anime cartoon series, a new series made its way to both American and Japanese screens.
These guys were created by Takara and Hasbro toy companies, and the cartoon was quite literally an 2254 minute long advertisement that spanned (with repetition) over three years (1984-1987). But these guys were awesome! They could be anything! Cars, Trucks, planes...the really bad guy, Megatron, even turned into a gun!! Something you would NEVER see in a cartoon today. These guys were innovative. They didn't fit together to form something big and crazy....they transformed into it. And it was an epic battle of good, Autobots, versus evil, Decepticons. Plus, they had the added awesomeness of being ALIENS too, from their home planet of Cybertron. There was no mistaking that these guys were humongous. They even had BIG names. Optimus Prime. Megatron.
So merely by looking at the progression of Robots throughout the Lore (yeah, they are still kinda fictional people), its easy to see trends. If they don't look COMPLETELY Human, for example, Rachel in Bladerunner, then they began as slightly more futuristic looking tin cans and have slowly evolved. The Super Giant Robots were thicker, clunkier looking, even the first Transformers by today's thinking. Then as Robotech came along a new idea for Robots was made. One in which we could SEE a more mechanized form. As we came to understand more about machines and computers, the desire for the sleek, rounded 'futuristic' image was no longer 'futuristic' but rather fake. It belied an innocent ignorance to the true workings and superior engineering of machines that we now (so humbly) possess. So we fell in love with Mechs. The other beauty to Mechs, or Mecha design was that it could - at any time- if not always, require HUMAN CONTROL. Mechs are usually just giant suits with people inside, but now those people have all the power of ...
SUPER GIANT ROBOTS.
The nostalgia we have for the Model B-9 Environmental-Control Robot of the original Lost in Space TV series, will never leave us. (In fact, buy your own.) That rounded, blinky-lighted monstrosity will always remind us of the day when robots from outer space would burn us to ash with giant laser beam eyes. Just like the Super Giant Robots of the 1980s cartoons will always bring me to reminisce with joy about stomping around on matchbox cars and Lego house as a kid. And how much quicker long road trips passed when I imagined what the passing cars and semis would look like if they stood 40 ft tall and fought with each other.
The impending release of Steven Spielburg and Micheal Bay's version of Transformers has brought about a lot of debate. Should they have maintained the nostalgia and made exact copies of the cartoon/toy robots; or is their modernized--and mechanized versions acceptable? While normally I feel that messing with a good thing is never the best, I don't know that I feel that is the case here. I think, rather, they have attempted to maintain the awe and wonder we had as kids when we first saw Optimus Prime kick Megatron's ass. But since you and I were ten years old the mechanized world around us has grown up too. Computers can show more than just spinach and lime green screens in blocky-pixelated type. We've got telephones that don't need wires, have date planners, calculators, internet and email all built in and smaller than our wallets. Shows like Modern Marvels and Mega-Builders has enlightened us to how industrial machinery, warfare mechanics and massive structures actually work.We don't watch cartoons the same way anymore either. It's okay to be an adult that watches cartoons.
So amidst all the debate, I offer you this. Is it not possible for the Transformers to evolve from the clunky Super Giant Robots of our youth, through the Mecha fittings of our adolescents to transform themselves into a modern day idea of robotic wonderment? Whether you prefer the glossy tin cans with exhaust tubing for arms and antenna for ears, or the jacked up Japanese Mechs, one thing is certain:
Giant Fucking Robots are coming.
____________________________________________*Mecha Image is "M-18G Juggernaut Assault Mecha" by MobileSuitGio
Classic Optimus Prime and Megatron
New Optimus Prime and Megatron
Classic Optimus Prime and Megatron
New Optimus Prime and Megatron