Wednesday, June 8, 2016

By George, She’s Got It

The 2009-2010 TV series Dollhouse (reviewed in my May 14 blog), starring the fetching and throaty-voiced Eliza Dushku, prompted me in the way that one thing leads to another to look up two other items.

One was literary. Not until the next-to-last DVD in the Dollhouse pack spun in my player did “Rossum Corporation,” the company that runs the Dollhouse in the TV series, ring a bell with me. The bell was R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, a reference that, as a self-styled sci-fi fan, I should have caught much sooner. The 1920 Czech play is famously whence the word “robot” entered popular culture. (The word was invented by Karel and his brother in an earlier and obscurer short story.) It’s a play I’d seen referenced all my life but somehow never got around to reading. So, last week I decided it was long past time to rectify that.

While in some ways (notably gender interactions) R.U.R. is very much of its time, the play prefigures every subsequent sci-fi trope involving robots. It raises questions about artificial intelligence that we still ask today. Capek’s version of a robot, it should be noted, is not a clanking metal automaton. It is a synthetic creation that looks human: rather like an advanced Cylon of the 2004-2009 Battlestar Galactica series. However, in the original form that it appears in the play (which has a ten-year timeline), a robot most definitely is not human. It has intelligence in the same way that a modern computer does, which is to say that it can solve complex problems, perform complex tasks, and communicate with its user, but it has no real sense of its own identity. It has no goals other than what its user gives it and no fear of its own death: robots that are damaged or that malfunction recommend to the user that they be returned to the stamping mill. They are perfect workers. All the robots are produced by a secret industrial process on an isolated island owned by Rossum.

The Rossum officers and scientists have various goals, but none is evil. Harry Domin, the corporate director, reveals his hopes to create a world of plenty in which humans are freed from toil: “There will be no more laborers. No more secretaries. No one will have to mine coal or slave over someone else’s machines. No longer will man need to destroy his soul doing work that he hates.”

The robots prove to be a huge commercial success, used in manufacturing, accounting, and war. Trouble arises when a visitor named Helena Glory comes to the island representing a do-gooder organization attempting to promote robot rights. She learns that the robots have no concept of what she is talking about. In an odd twist she marries Harry Domin but – because she thinks it is the right thing to do – she works with one of Rossum’s engineers to upgrade the robots to include self-awareness and a sense of their own interests so that rights do matter to them. The engineer cooperates and succeeds partly to indulge her and partly just for the scientific challenge. Any reader (or viewer) of more recent sci-fi knows where this is heading: the robot uprising. Since humans already employ robots in war, there is a ready-made robot army.

Upshot: Thumbs up, but – as with any older sci-fi – make allowances for the ways R.U.R. doesn’t transcend its era.

** ** ** **

The second prompt was to an earlier Dushku vehicle. In 2003 Eliza turned down Faith, a proposed spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in favor of a new Fox series Tru Calling. Though cancelled six episodes into the second season, Tru Calling currently is available on DVD for any interested binge-watcher.

I almost can hear the pitch the show’s originators must have made to Fox: “The Sixth Sense meets Groundhog Day.” Eliza plays Tru Davies, a med student and nightshift morgue attendant with a gift. Every now and then a corpse will ask for her help at which point she wakes up at the beginning of that same day. Sometimes she can alter events on the relived day enough to prevent the death. Whether she experiences actual time travel or just has some psychic ability to foresee a possible day in her sleep is not explained.

Some TV series start out strong and fade (e.g. Lost and Heroes) while others start out shaky but improve (Star Trek Next Generation and Parks and Recreation). Tru Calling is one of the latter. Though watchable from the beginning thanks to Eliza Dushku, Zach Galifianakis, and Shawn Reaves, the first half of Season One is formulaic and no more than serviceably entertaining. It gets better. The show doesn’t really hit its stride until Tru’s nemesis Jack (Jason Priestley) shows up in episode 14. He is a Dark Side version of herself. He also relives days, but whereas Tru tries to save lives Jack believes fate should not be thwarted – which is to say he wants to ensure the same victims die on the relived day, too. His philosophy is that there always are unintended consequences to changing fate.

By this point in the series, however, audiences had drifted away. They didn’t return in numbers to prevent cancellation.

Upshot: Thumbs up, but patience is required with the early episodes. These cannot just be skipped, however, since they provide important information about Tru and her family.

At present Eliza Dushku has a recurring (but not starring) role on Banshee, a Cinemax series I’ve never seen but which is well regarded by critics. A future binge-watch might be in the making.


  1. I'd never heard of RUR or Tru Calling. The premise of Tru Calling reminds me a bit of Quantum Leap and Seven Days. Both were pretty watchable, although QL got a bit stale for me. Seven Days started pretty strong and fairly well maintained that. Tru Calling also reminds me of something like Ghost Whisperer.

    RUR makes me wonder if Harlan Ellison had read that before writing I, Robot. The whole modern phenomena of lawsuits and copyright infringement, and this includes music, seems a bit silly at times, but I guess justifiable to keep things from going overboard. Good reviews though, a lot of SF easily slips between the cracks.

    1. There are some similarities to “The Ghost Whisperer,” though that CBS show began the September after "Tru Calling" was cancelled and was much more successful, lasting 5 seasons. I didn’t watch “Seven Days,” but did like “Quantum Leap” back in the day.

      There were earlier humaniform mechanisms in fiction, e.g. Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Tomorrow's Eve (1886), but “R.U.R.” was the first fully fledged robot-centric story. So, I suppose all later robot tales owe something to it – not least the word.

  2. Man, I've heard of "RUR", but I've never read it either. I'll need to rectify that. Another recommendation for my reading pile.

    I really like Dushku. I wish she landed something that really took off. She seems to pick these projects that just don't quite click with people. My wife watched "Tru Calling" for a few episodes and lost interest, for exactly the reasons you described.

    1. Dushku got to be versatile in Dollhouse, but again the few first episodes are only OK, and audiences didn't stick. The show biz economics being what they are these days, networks and channels seldom are willing to let a show that isn't an instant hit develop for much more than a season.