For a long time I’ve been pondering over my list of my favorite fictional Artificial Intelligences.
This means things like robots, holograms, sentient computers, and so on from movies, TV shows, comics or books.
As usual, a bunch of caveats apply: beings or machines that are simply new vessels for a regular living mind (like Rimmer on Red Dwarf, or Arnim Zola from Captain America: Winter Soldier), don’t count. Similarly clones don’t count, imperfect duplicates like Bizarro don’t count and re-animated life forms like Frankenstein’s creature don’t count. And robots that don’t have some level of self-determination don’t count. Cyborgs certainly don’t count.
And of course, they are not going to be on this list if I have never become familiar with the character’s movie or TV show or book or whatever. For instance–I have never seen Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which you might think was a pre-requisite for this list (but I don’t). Or Her or Ex Machina. Or even Electric Dreams (1984), in spite of the fact that I once won the VHS of the movie as a prize for my dancing at an 80’s party.
And of course, if I have seen the movie or show and I didn’t like it, they don’t make the list either. As such, this sentence is the only reference this list will have to Bicentennial Man. I also didn’t include Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, because I just don’t remember it that well. On the other hand, there’s probably a disproportionate representation from the likes of Doctor Who, Star Trek, and DC Comics.
So what does get included?
60. Polyphase Avatron
Remember, this is a list of my favorite A.I. characters–not necessarily the most influential, most ground-breaking, or the “greatest.” As such, I’m for sure including the Polyphase Avatron, a robotic parrot that served the insanely over-the-top Captain in the 1977 Doctor Who serial, The Pirate Planet. Created by writer Douglas Adams, the Polyphase Avatron was a fearsome part part of the Captain’s control over his crew–if anyone displeased him, the thing would fly above them and literally poop lethal energy on its victim.
The whole thing is such a comically ridiculous idea that it would be easy to dismiss it, but I love it for the shear audacity of the concept.
Toward the end of the story, the Avatron got into a battle with K9, the Doctor’s robot dog (who just might be expected show up further down this countdown). This cosmic battle between robot super-pets ended with K9 victorious, as he proudly carried in the defeated robot bird to show off to the Doctor, to the great dismay of the Captain.
I think a lot of entries on the lower end of this countdown are the second or third best A.I.’s from their respective franchises. Ash will never be the best synthetic character from the Alien series of movies, but he’s still pretty significant as the first. Played by Ian Holm, part of the character’s interest is the complete lack of foreshadowing that he is not a normal guy, but rather an android whose assignment is to bring the titular creature back alive, even if it’s at the expense of the crew. In the midst of a story about a gruesomely murderous alien, this amounts to a pretty shocking twist.
Through Ash, one of the series’ major themes is cemented: the heartless nature of the corporate interests which lie in the backdrop of the characters’ lives and which drive many of the story’s plots.
Alan Tudyk plays the starring robot from the film version of I, Robot, a movie which is not great but not terrible either. One of the more successful parts of the movie is the character Sonny, a robot who may or may not be a murderer in a world where the idea of a robot committing a crime is unthinkable. Both Tudyk and the production manage to imbue the character with a fair amount of humanity.
At the movie’s conclusion, it is implied that Sonny will become a messianic and possibly revolutionary figure of sorts, amongst a whole population of out-of-date and decommissioned robots.
The first ship-board computer to show up on this countdown, but certainly not the last! Voiced by actor Peter Tuddenham (who played two other regular computers on Blake’s 7), Zen was the A.I. that controlled the highly advanced alien vessel which came to be known as the Liberator, which provided the revolutionary Roj Blake with the muscle he needs to cause problems for the Federation (not the nice one). Zen had an interesting design–he had his systems throughout the ship but spoke to the crew mainly through a large dark semi-circle facade with sizable blinking lights.
Sometimes Zen appeared to be more of a just an automatic system than a sentient machine, but in his final moments he displayed a surprising amount of emotion. As the Liberator experienced a system-wide failure, he droned, “I have failed you…I’m sorry…I have….”
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The T-1000 is the “bigger and badder” terminator which features as the main antagonist of the second Terminator movie. Played by Robert Patrick, he was memorably different to Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s T-800, now re-positioned (and reprogrammed) to be a good guy. The film’s director said that if the T-800 was a like a tank, the T-1000 was a Porsche.
As such, the T-1000’s menace came not from his bulk but his sleekness. It was made of “living metal” which allowed it to easily change shape, at one point even flattening itself out and becoming a coating on the floor. This basically was an opportunity for the movie to take advantage of the morphing technology that was new at the time, and which the movie helped to make into all the rage.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
I know, I know, Ulton was in the comics long before he was in the movies. Indeed, he dates back to 1968, when he was created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. However, though I probably have read an Ulton comic at some point, I don’t really remember it. Maybe if I did he’d figure further along on this countdown. But as it is, my only real exposure to the character is the live-action Avengers sequel where he’s played by James Spader (and the animated What If? spinoff where he’s voiced by Ross Marquand).
In any case, Ultron is one of those “science gone mad” robots where he is built for good intentions (by Hank Pym in the comics and Tony Stark in the movies), but who decides to interpret that idea in his own way, which is bad news for the human race. In the movie, that bad news takes the form in part of a whole city being lifted high in the air and then dropped on the ground to create an extinction-level explosion. Luckily, the Avengers are hand to stop him.
In What If? Ulton goes even further, defeating Thanos, stealing the Infinity Gauntlet, and eventually threatening life on all alternate dimensions. Fortunately, a different version of the Avengers are on hand to defeat him this time.
Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor
Handles was the detached head of a Cyberman (so named because of the handle-like designs that they had on their heads), devoid of any of its organic components. He accompanied the 11th Doctor as he head into what proved to be his final journey to Trenzalore in the TV special The Time of the Doctor by Steven Moffat. As the Doctor became trapped their over many generations, Handles remained the Doctor’s most consistent companion, and on that basis is the companion who was with the Doctor for the longest consistent time (at least around 300 years!)
Voiced by Kayvan Novak, Handles was compliant and helpful, and could even interface with the TARDIS itself. But the little computer tended to take things too literally–the Doctor was once seen having to explain to him in excessive detail how to fulfill an instruction to remind the Doctor about something he needed to do, sometime in the future.
After centuries of wear and tear, Handles eventually broke down completely, in a surprisingly heartbreaking moment for the Doctor.
53. Rachel Burrows
The Diary of River Song volume 2
Rachel is a character from a Big Finish audio series called The Diary of River Song, a Doctor Who spinoff starring Alex Kingston. In one story, River finds herself on a destroyed version of earth–the only “living” thing she can find is a badly damaged android that looks like a teenaged girl. She then goes back in time to visit that android at an earlier stage of its existence, in an encounter detailed in the episode Five Twenty-Nine by John Dorney. There, River meets “Rachel Burrows,” as she is known, living with her parents in an isolated community on a small island. The Burrows “adopted” Rachel after they were unable to have their own children, and have treated her as their own family ever since. River desperately tries to save the family from the calamity that she knows will befall them, but fails. Along the way we get some incredibly tender moments between Rachel and her parents, as the “young girl” struggles to come to terms with the loss that is coming. Dorney mentioned that mid-writing the story, he realized that it was on some level about the terminal illness of a parent, and the not-quite-human Rachel is the perfect perspective to explore the confusion of a child in that situation.
Rachel is voiced by Salome Haertel, who is Alex Kingston’s real-life daughter. Her performance is pitch-perfect for the role, and her voice is mixed in a slightly detached way which helps to translate the “uncanny valley” nature of the character into an audio medium.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
In the old days, the only droid with an unusual personality in Star Wars was the fretful and whingey C-3PO, but now there are quirky droids everywhere. But the first of these was the cynical and often sarcastic K2SO, played again by Alan Tudyk (see above). That guy knows how to play a robot! K2SO also had the distinction of being the first “good guy” droid in live-action Star Wars who was actually a physically imposing fighter. This combined with with his memorable personality made him an easy favorite amongst the Rogue One characters.
Whilst K2SO suffers the same fate as all the main characters of Rogue One, his sacrifice is not in vain. His actions outside the data vault on Scariff allow Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor to complete their mission.
Lost in Space (1965 – 1968)
Heads up, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet is not on this list because I can barely remember the movie, even though I have a positive sense of it. But I do remember a bit better the somewhat derivative Robot (for that is what he was called, although it was also short for Robot Model B-9) from the original Lost in Space. Voiced by Dick Tufeld (and performed by Bob May), Robot quickly became one of the most iconic parts of the show, often teaming up with the precocious Will Robinson and the cowardly Dr. Smith for the week’s adventures.
I’m a much bigger fan of the rebooted Lost in Space from Netflix than I am the original series, but there is no disputing how memorable the original is, especially with the classic line of dialogue, “Danger, Will Robinson.” Dick Tufeld actually reprised the role in the 1998 big screen Lost in Space which co-starred William Hurt and Mimi Rogers.
50. Dr. Theopolis
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Apparently, in the 25th century, the earth is ruled by a benevolent Computer Council, whose members are round computers about the size of wall clocks. The most significant of these, as far as the first season of Buck Rogers was concerned (which kicked off 1979), was Dr. Theopolis, voiced by Eric Server (and the feature film by Howard F. Flynn). Dr. Theopolis is an erudite scientist who occasionally assisted Buck with the information that he needed. He is notable for both his unusual appearance and soothing voice–a bit like a friendly version of HAL (see later on this countdown somewhere).
Incidentally, what you won’t find on this countdown at all is Twiki, the little humanoid robot who used to carry Dr. Theopolis around, and had lots of other adventures with Buck. I found him particularly annoying.
Star Wars (sequel trilogy)
The Star Wars sequel movies have lots of problems, and there is a lot about those films that was disappointing. But one of the very best elements of the new trilogy was BB-8, a non-humanoid and non-verbal droid which the movie was able to quickly make into a legitimate character that the audience can completely engage with.
BB-8 has an innovative design based on a sketch by director J.J. Abrams. He is voiced via artificially modified performances by Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz. BB-8’s appearances in The Force Awakens (and presumably the other movies as well) were not computer generated. Rather, he is a practical effects creation–controlled both through puppetry and remote control.
The only reason BB-8 isn’t much, much higher on this countdown is just that he wasn’t first–he’s clearly a based on the same ideas behind R2-D2 from the original Star Wars movies, just updated with more modern aesthetics.
So there’s our bottom twelve of our top sixty fictional A.I.’s. That’s 4 full villains, 1 former villain, 4 machines that don’t look remotely human, and 3 that are designed to fully pass as human. The oldest here is Robot from Lost in Space (1965) and the most recent creation (based on release date) is Rachel Burrows, whose audios came out a couple of weeks after Rogue One.
What is next? Part Two!