Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Twilight Zone: I Sing the Body Electric

"I Sing the Body Electric" was written by science fiction legend Ray Bradbury. I would have preferred it if it had been written instead by Isaac Asimov.

The story of a family, who recently lost their mother, who customize a robot grandmother that is perfect and loving in every single way raises a lot of unanswered ethical and emotional questions. I kept waiting for some big dilemma or coldly logical conclusion to be presented, but Bradbury and director William Claxton don't go down that avenue. Instead, what they illustrate is how even a robot can be a loving, welcoming member of the family, and it's just schmaltzy.

Early on, there's some intrigue. The family - David White and three kids, including the oldest daughter, Anne, played by Veronica Cartwright - visits a company promising a "data processing system" that can meet anyone's needs, and they go to the shop, and for two of the kids, assembling a grandmother is like ordering a pizza: I want to to have blue eyes, strong hands, dark hair, etc.

This sequence is actually pretty creepy. The shop is this dark, shadowy place with an odd-looking salesman, and most of the shop is black. Areas only light up to highlight individual body parts for the robots, so we see disembodied eyes, legs, torsos, what have you, and it's unsettling. It's like Dr. Frankenstein's department store window.

When Grandma Robot is ready, she arrives homes and is played by Josephine Hutchinson, and she's just perfect: loving, attentive, kind, and she can make objects such as kite strings and marbles appear out of thin air (which to me is the more impressive technology of the episode since it is never explained how she does this). Only Anne, who did not participate in her assembly, rejects her.

That's the conflict presented in "I Sing the Body Electric." Anne doesn't trust Grandma Robot or accept, and I can't say I blame I her. This is essentially who has replaced her mother, and no matter how well she's programmed, that's what she is a program. She loves the children because that's what she's programmed to do, and that's what the family paid for. It strikes me as a combination of delusional and cynical.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of great science fiction stories featuring robots who learn to love, but here there's no drama or gradual realization. Grandma Robot is always perfect and always right; a writer like Asimov could have shown how she could perfectly protocol, do exactly what she's supposed to, and end up wrong. Instead, Bradbury explains Anne's behavior away because Grandma is like her mom, and she's mad at her mom for "leaving" them. But then, Grandma saves her from truck, getting run over in the process, and all is right. Maybe if Grandma Robot did not "survive" that truck encounter, the episode might have had more punch, but no, she gets up, no worse for wear, and we get a cutesy montage of how the kids grew up, went to college, and loved and were loved by Grandma Robot, who learned just as much from them as they did from her. Mm, taste like diabetes.

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