Today marks the 75th anniversary of the first ever time a robot appeared on British television – indeed, probably on television anywhere in the world.

In February 1938, the Radio Times TV supplement announced that the Friday afternoon play would be “R.U.R” (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek.

Audiences were primed to expect the play, as the Radio Times TV preview the previous week (28th Jan 1938) had very briefly mentioned it as “a play that should lend itself very well indeed to television from the point of view of effects”.

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What they weren’t told is that this play is also the first time that the word “robot” was coined in the English language, and also the first ever science-fiction play on BBC television.

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, made of synthetic organic matter, called “robots.”, although they are closer to what we today would consider genetic clones – and indirectly probably presaged the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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Photograph from a stage play – via Wikipedia

As is commonplace in robot societies, they seem happy to work for humans, although that changes, and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race.

Having attacked the humans, the robots realise that they are dependent on the humans – as they cannot self-replicate. Just one human survives who they save as they think he might be able to save their species. It’s curiously similar to a plotline from Star Trek Voyager.

radiotimesWhat is interesting about this 1938 TV adaptation is how the reviewer emphasized the special effects nature of the forthcoming TV show, heralding the future of science fiction on TV and film, where rather too often I find that the special effects overwhelm the plots.

You don’t need special effects in books – the imagination fills in the gaps, and it would be nice if TV/Film remembered that occasionally.

I was struck by an interview with James Cameron many years ago where he explained that the Aliens in his film of the same name are just six men in suits jumping around, with only minimal detail in the makeup. We add in the missing details, and because each of us adds in our own phobias to the package, the end effect is more personal, and more terrifying.

This to me is part of the appeal of early science-fiction on TV and B&W films – the plots are fairly laughable by modern standards, and the special effects lousy, but a society still coming to terms with the racing ahead of scientific progress, the idea of rocket ships to Mars seemed eminently sensible – and of course such planets would be ruled by autocratic leaders based on a English feudal society.

Like most television from that era, sadly no records of the BBC broadcast have survived. It was only broadcast from the Alexandra Palace transmitter, which at the time reached just 400,000 homes in North London.

Broadcast at 3:20pm on the 11th February, the programme was recorded, and didn’t have to wait long before it was repeated on telly – as it was shown again that same evening!

Having been the first to broadcast the play on television, the BBC returned slightly to the theme again later on in its most famous science-fiction creation – Dr Who.

In the Dr Who episode, Robots of Death, the villain of the story is named Taren Capel, which is a reference to Karel Čapek. Commander Uvanov’s name is a reference to Isaac Asimov, who was notably sniffy about Karel Čapek’s play, stating that the only thing worth remembering about it was that it introduced the term Robot to society.

The two were opposing antagonists in the Dr Who episode as they were in literature.

Of course, I recent visited a museum where one of the Robot of Death masks is currently on display.

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3 Comments

  1. Kit Green

    As someone whose work was video effects I find it hard to think what they could have meant by “effects” back in 1938.

    the programme was recorded, and didn’t have to wait long before it was repeated on telly – as it was shown again that same evening!

    There was no means of recording video in 1938. If a record was needed there was a system that came to be known as Tele-recording. This involved a special rig comprising a film camera pointing at a TV monitor and a seperate sound recorder. To record a half hour programme there would need to be two tele-recorders as the film would run out before the end of the recording and a second recorder would be started , allowing some overlap, before the first came to an end.

    The films would then need to be processed, combined with the sound, printed, checked and then be ready for use. This was relatively costly and almost certainly was not done for this TV play.

    The likely scenario for the evening “repeat” is that the actors and crew simply repeated their live performance. The matinee would have been a dress rehearsal!

  2. Alan Burkitt-Gray

    Kit Green is right. The first reliable way of recording TV pictures, using a film camera, was developed by the BBC in the early 1950s and used in a big way for the coronation in 1953.
    Just before the 25th anniversary in 1978 I was at a press lunch (as a journalist) with the Philips company. A Philips press officer said: ‘I suppose that means more repeats.’ The bloke next to me was CBB Wood, a veteran BBC engineer, who retorted: ‘Yes, I made the coronation recording. It was very advanced for its time.’ (see http://www.bbctv-ap.co.uk/coron.htm for more). Note his initials, by the way: his parents were obviously prescient.
    There is film of 1930s TV – only because some programmes were made on film, developed instantly in a continuous process, and fed through a telecine scanner withing minutes ‘as live’,

  3. Nick Flowers

    Here is a link to a bit of extra information about telerecording. It always amused me that the machinery for playing film into television programmes was referred to in ITV as TC (tele cine) but in the BBC as TK (tele kine), clearly a classical Greek influence there!
    https://dl.dropbox.com/u/40718050/Film%20Recording.pdf

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