By the time the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to air an excerpt from Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots live from its Alexandra Palace studios on February 11, 1938, the play had already been around for 17 years, but the airing is notable not only as the first use of the word “robot” in popular culture but also as the premiere of the first science fiction television show ever. Although the BBC would have to wait a few decades before it gave us Doctor Who, the genre has continued to honor R.U.R. by including hidden references to the sci-fi pioneer in several notable series that owe much to this forefather of the lot.
When Čapek’s play premiered on January 25, 1921, it quickly found an audience, and within just a couple of years, it had been translated into thirty languages, although the English phrase Rossum’s Universal Robots was included as the subtitle from the very start. R.U.R. told the story of Helena, who travels to an island factory where robots — a derivative of the Czech “robota,” a type of serf — are being made in the far-flung future of the year 2000. Helena fights for robot rights since these aren’t really the machines made by man that we know as robots today but rather men made by machines, with veins, nerves, and intestines being spun out on mechanical wheels. In that sense the story bore more resemblance to Westworld or Humans than I, Robot.
The scientist, Rossum, manufactures the robots by adapting the process of his uncle, who discovered a unique type of protoplasm on the island that allowed him to make the very human-looking creatures. As time passes, the manufacture of robot slaves leads to lowered manufacturing and labor costs around the world and also to a decline in human births. The inevitable robot uprising leads to humanity being wiped out, but since Helena destroyed Rossum’s formula, the new rulers of Earth cannot procreate, framing R.U.R. as a tragic satire about the folly of man, the dangers of technology, and the obsolescence of God.
Similar themes throughout science fiction stories that followed on television led many to pay tribute to the first robots by including overt references either to the title of the play or its author. In “Requiem for Methuselah,” the nineteenth episode of the third season of Star Trek, an android named Rayna Kapec, an anagram of the playwright’s name, is taught to love by Captain Kirk. Additionally, The Outer Limits aired an episode in 1995 called “I, Robot,” in which an android accused of murdering his creator was manufactured at Rossum Hall Robotics.
Other allusions take a more thematic form such as the villainous Rossum Corporation in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. That series featured actual humans whose minds were imprinted with programmed personalities, but the larger goal appeared to be similar to what actually happened in Čapek’s play: replacing humanity with artificial people. Batman: the Animated Series also paid homage to R.U.R. by naming the scientist who created HARDAC, a machine designed to replace humans with mechanical replicants, Karl Rossum. There’s even a scene in which a robot is driving a car with “RUR” on its license plate.
Science fiction television owes a lot to R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, and the tributes that have appeared over the years seem to be a fitting way to honor the pioneering play that showed up in short form on the BBC Television Service just two years after its start as a network. Besides giving us the word “robot,” a term Čapek says was coined by his brother Josef who later died in a Nazi concentration camp, R.U.R. was among the first to explore themes of technological hubris and determination of life and rights that pervade science fiction to this day. So be nice to Siri or Alexa this February 11th; no one can say we weren’t warned about the uprising.
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