Human beings have a long history of loving things that are not human beings.
Robots, machines, artificial intelligence, and droids are all popular cultural symbols as long as they don’t cross into the uncanny valley. It’s easy to love the simple mechanical beings because they’re blank slates. And no slate was perhaps blanker than the simply-named “Robot” from the Lost in Space.
“Robot” was technically designated the “Calls B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot” in the show. The characters preferred to just call him Robot. And even after all these years the Robot’s simple moniker remains Lost in Space’s greatest achievement. Give your cats names all you want, you know deep down in your heart of hearts that every single cat in the world’s name is really just “kitty.” Same rules apply for Robots. Alexa, Siri, Roombas – they’re all “Robot.”
Robot was, simply put: a Robot. His head was a ovular glass sensor filled with antennas and wires. His body resembled a propane tank strung together with Christmas lights. His stubby, useless arms jutted out in front of “him” as there his little red claw hands were perpetually expecting a hug. His legs were…and there is regrettably no other word for this, “thicc.”
He was about as lovable a robotic creation as could possibly exist. Almost everything that has entered our cultural memory from the original Lost in Space comes from Robot. “Does not compute.” “Danger, Will Robinson.” Those are two incredible greatest hits for any pop cultural entity.
And for as strong and simple a premise as the original Lost in Space had (Swiss Family Robinson in space) one can’t help but think that the show has been rebooted twice now only so that new creators can play with as fun a blank slate as the Robot.
The 1998 film adaptation Lost in Space got the first crack at recreating the brilliance that was Robot. The film itself was largely unsuccessful both critically and commercially but its failures cannot be laid at Robots feet… or tracks rather. The Robot of the film is a large, hulking creature. He has broad shoulders and spindly arms ending in claws. Instead of a glass bubble head, he has more of a sleek forward-facing sensor.
He also shoulders a much larger narrative burden. The events of Lost in Space (1998) are put into motion when the evil Dr. Smith hacks the Robot and forces him to attack the Robinson’s Jupiter II while they are in stasis. Young Will Robinson is able to gain control of the Robot and the two become fast friends. Robot learns about the beauty of baseball and friendship, as all robots should be so lucky to do.
Ultimately Robot does not factor into Lost in Space’s end game that much. He just remains Will’s steadfast friend and after he’s eaten “alive” by killer space spider’s, Will even downloads his software into another Robot form that happens to resemble the original Robot quite a bit. Even after his unfortunate devouring, he remains the best part of a mediocre movie because, well, how could he not be? He’s the Robot.
Robot’s significance to the plot of Lost in Space becomes even more crucial in the 2018 Netflix series. Now the Robot is even more advanced than ever. He does not even have Earthbound origins.
He looks militaristic and powerful, made up of material stronger and more durable than anything on Earth. Gone are any kind of “bubble sensor” heads. Instead Robot has a blank, expressionless face that alternates between blue or red static depending on his “emotional” state.
Like in both previous incarnations, however, Will is able to befriend him rather easily. Will saves this Robot’s life and Robot builds a sort of Wookiee life debt bond with the lad. This proves to be incredibly useful to Will and the Robinsons. Robot saves their lives countless times and becomes one of the most important assets to the family marooned on an unknown, dangerous planet.
The Robot’s origin also becomes hugely significant to the show and judging by how Lost in Space Season 1 ends, will remain significant going forward.
Lost in Space has lingered in the cultural memory far longer than anyone would have anticipated for such a silly little show. Undoubtedly the concept of being lost in the vast emptiness of space has proven to be resonant. It’s just as possible, however, that people just really like nice robots named Robot.