Earlier this spring, we were pretty excited to see a new sci-fi show coming in from the folks who put together Fringe: Almost Human, which pairs up a human and android counterpart.
The trailer looks pretty cool (see below), but we had a sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a human/robot crimefighting team on the big or small screen. It didn’t take long to track down the facts. Almost Human isn’t nearly the first time this has been done… but could it be the best?
Elijah Baley / R. Daneel Olivaw, Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
This might be one of the stories that started it all: Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, which came out of a conversation between Asimov and an editor about mashing up genres. His editor said that it likely wouldn’t work; Asimov disagreed, and came up with this novel, which features a human detective, Elijah Baley, who’s paired up with R. Daneel Olivaw after a prominent spacer is murdered on Earth. The book is clunky nowadays – it’s writing and characters aren’t great – but the book is a fun whodunit.
Max / Hymie, Get Smart, 1968
Robotic partners show up as early as 1968 with the spy television show Get Smart, where Hymie the Robot is introduced, and then turned to help CONTROL. He was helpful to a spy agency: he was stronger and faster, and could analyze anything he ingested. Unfortunately, he also took things very literally, as in the case when he was told to get a hold of himself.
Brillo, by Harlen Ellison & Ben Bova, 1970
This short story by Harlen Ellison and Ben Bova in Analog’s August 1970 issue was well received, earning it a Hugo nomination. The story followed a robotic police officer in the future, and it really helped to start up the trope that we’re looking for: both authors put the story together later on as a screenplay, which they pitched for television.
Cleaver / Haven, Future Cop, 1976
One of the first major television shows to use the Robot-Human partnership as a selling point was NBC’s Future Cop, which saw a veteran cop paired up with an advanced robot to help with investigations. The show was not long for the airwaves: it lasted a mere eight episodes before it was cancelled, although NBC would try and bring it back at least once more. The show was also subject to a lawsuit from Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, who felt that their concept had been stolen, winning a sizable sum from the networks responsible.
Detective Alexander Holmes / Yoyo, Holmes & Yoyo, 1976/1977
Despite the lawsuit from Ellison & Bova, ABC worked on a robot show of their own, following Detective Alexander Holmes and his robot partner Gregory ‘Yo-Yo’ Yoyonivich. This was more of a comedy show as Holmes attempted to keep Yoyo’s true nature a secret. The show lasted only a couple more episodes longer than Future Cop, and is considered one of the worst made.
John Cleaver / John Haven, Cops and Robin, 1978
Even though Future Cop failed on television, Paramount Television wasn’t quite done, and attempted to revive the concept with a TV movie, rebooted with a new cast in 1977. Here, a young girl witnessed a shooting, and the two are tasked to protect her. Like its predecessor, it didn’t go well.
Officer Ann Lewis / Officer Alex Murphy / RoboCop, 1992 (TV show as well)
RoboCop somewhat fits in with this list. Officer Alex Murphy, horribly wounded in the line of duty in a crime-stricken Detroit, becomes RoboCop with a series of robotic augmentations. There isn’t a partnership in the traditional sense, but he does work alongside the police officers of Detroit, all the while working to regain his humanity.
Det. Bobby Mann / Sgt. Eve Edison, Mann & Machine, 1992
Created by the same guy who ran Law & Order, Dick Wolf, this show introduced something new to the trope: a female robot sidekick (Sergeant Eve Edison) in a futuristic Los Angles. Partnered with Detective Bobby Mann, the show focused on Edison’s continuing struggle to understand human behavior. While Yancy’s performance was praised, only four episodes ran on its regular schedule before it was cancelled, leaving its remaining episodes to be burned off later that summer.
Detective David Hume / Alpha Class Farve, Total Recall 2070, 1999
While the original Total Recall was based on Philip K. Dick’s story ‘We Can Remember it for you Wholesale’, the spinoff television series took more inspiration from his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (also the basis of Blade Runner). Taking place in a world run by corporations, the show follows Detective David Hume of the Citizens Protection Bureau. After his partner was killed by an android, he was paired up with another android named Ian Farve. The show was much darker in tone compared against the other robot partner shows, and had several complicated story arcs that were left hanging when the show was cancelled after only a single season.
Officer Smitty / Officer URL, Futurama, 1999
These guys have been some of the best recurring characters on the entire show, often playing off the clichés portrayed in the other human/robot cop partnerships on this list, not to mention the traditional human/human cop partnerships. Lazy and often ready to use excessive force against the main cast whenever possible, their presence throughout the show has been a consistent, entertaining one. Aww, yeah.
Detective Del Spooner / Sonny, I, Robot, 2004
This is a bit of a sneak-in, because Sonny isn’t really part of any police force, but it’s close enough. ‘Inspired’ by Isaac Asimov’s collection, I, Robot, this is more in line with his novel Caves of Steel: a human detective who doesn’t like robots, who ultimately pairs up with one to solve a crime.
Carter / Andy, Eureka, 2010-2011
Introduced in Season 3 of SyFy’s television show Eureka, Andy is a robotic sheriff brought in after Carter was relieved of his duties. Later on, in Season 4, he’s a full time deputy to Carter’s department in an alternate timeline, and is frequently damaged in the line of duty.
John Kennex / Michael Ealy, Almost Human, 2013/2014
Finally, this pairup is the most recent in a long line of partnerships. John Kennex (Karl Urban) is injured on the job, and his partner is killed, chiefly because of a decision made by a fellow robotic cop. Michael Ealy is a robotic cop who’s a bit odd to begin with, but it’s clear that while the two of them won’t get along swimmingly at the start, Kennex appears to warm up to him.
The role of a human detective and a robotic partner is nothing new, especially to television. Why the fascination? Detective stories are a mix of analytical thinking, going back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with human detectives working to find the facts that ultimately put the bad guy in jail. In a lot of ways, a robotic partner is an ideal that society could work toward. However, there’s a certain abhorrence to a cold, analytical mind, especially when you have crime that affects people in profound ways. Indeed, several entries in this list feature detectives who have good reason to dislike the robotic mind for the decisions that they’ve made in the line of duty, generally, with a partner dying as a result. Another consistent story element seems to be the robotic counterparts working to learn just what it means to be human – a common theme within a lot of robotic stories.
So what can we expect moving forward with the upcoming show, Almost Human? Television history is stacked against it: every show that has used this as a premise has ultimately failed, airing a handful of episodes to a full season before being shut down. Hopefully, the new show will be more successful, because it looks like there’s quite a bit of potential yet untapped with the genre.
Almost Human: Fox
Brillo: Analog Magazine
Caves of Steel: Random House Books
Future Cop: NBC
Holmes and Yoyo: ABC
Robocop: Orion Pictures
Total Recall: Showtime