Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Tobor The Great (1954)

Enjoyable adventure sci-fi

Directed by Lee Sholem
Written by Carl Dudley, Philip MacDonald
Produced by Republic Pictures
Running time 77 min.


Charles Drake: Dr. Ralph Harrison
Karin Booth: Janice Roberts
Billy Chapin: Brian 'Gadge' Roberts
Taylor Holmes: Prof. Arnold Nordstrom
Steven Geray: The Foreign Spy-Chief
Henry Kulky: Paul - Spy-Henchman
Franz Roehn: Karl
Hal Baylor: Max - Spy-Henchman


(Spoilers follow below) 

Special Report 

By Bob Denver
(Science Editor)

As has been recently reported, a young boy-genius, Brian “Gadge” Roberts, together with his grandfather's robot named “Tobor”, thwarted plans by Soviet spies to obtain information about the construction of the revolutionary new robot.

The boy hero’s grandfather, Prof Nordstrom is the inventor of “Tobor”, a robot he built to replace humans on spacecraft. Prof Nordstrom has often been in heated dispute with the CIFC (Civil Interplanetary Flight Commission) Commissioner over his agency’s questionable practices for preparing humans for space exploration.

At the mid-point of this decade in the middle of the 20th Century, our nation is poised to launch the first human being into space. To this end, the CIFC was formed and is tasked with developing newer and more efficient rocket motors and nuclear power plants, as well as alloys to house such motors.

The CIFC’s methods of handling the human elements of space travel have become a bone of contention not only with Prof Nordstrom, but also with leading CIFC scientist, Dr Ralph Harrison. After intervening in an experimental centrifuge test of an astronaut candidate’s ability to withstand G force acceleration, Dr. Harrison recently submitted his resignation to the CIFC commissioner, declaring that he would not be party to condoning such unsafe human performance tests.

Dr Harrison in a recent interview stated that he wouldn’t “stand by and see manslaughter become a part of the Flight Commission’s policy” and that he would rather “resign than see human beings become guinea pigs.”

As a way of providing a potential solution to the dilemma, both Dr Harrison and Prof Nordstrom decided to team up to complete work on the project of constructing a robot to replace humans on spacecraft.

According to Professor Nordstrom, “it is ill-advised to use human beings on the basis of guess work. It is essential that we observe and know the conditions prevalent in outer space before we send them up there to face any number of unknown hazards.”

This science editor, along with various others from among our nation’s esteemed science journalists, were invited to attend a demonstration and unveiling of Nordstrom’s robot at his secluded and secure Los Angeles residence. The electronic security measures and elaborate security checks he had in place needed to be seen to be believed!

At the long anticipated unveiling, the metallic “monster” that stood impassively before us suddenly came to “life” with glowing eyes and movement of its limbs like the awakening of an electronic Frankenstein’s monster.

According to Nordstrom, this remote-controlled, electronic simulation of a man is endowed with synthetic sentience and extra-sensory perception (ESP), enabling it to distinguish between constructive and destructive emotions of others and to react to emotional stimuli appropriately.

Professor Nordstrom went onto explain that Tobor is “already a sentient being” possessing a “synthetic instinct” and a sense of “self-preservation.”

After demonstrations involving Nordstrom’s daughter, Janice and one of our slightly embarrassed colleagues interacting with Tobor, it became quite apparent that the robot could be controlled by ESP, that it is sentient and that it can react to emotion!

At that stage, both Harrison and Nordstrom hoped to perfect its long-range communication system and intended that the robot named “Tobor” would eventually travel into space, thereby obviating the need for human beings to face the dangers of interstellar flight.

Disturbingly, it was later determined there were too many people at the demonstration as 12 people were initially invited but 13 actually attended. The implications of this development were at once apparent since Tobor could easily be reprogrammed as a weapon with destructive patterns.

One can only imagine what our nation’s enemies could do if they had the capability to produce thousands of Tobors. As Janice Roberts has been reported as saying about such a prospect, “what a terrifying thought!”

At the time Dr Harrison and Professor Nordstrom managed to develop a new communication device to telepathically control Tobor, a group of Soviet spies triggered an alarm at Nordstrom’s residence by gaining access to its compound by means of a special extending ladder to get over the electric fence on the north boundary. Their aim was obviously to break in and steal the newly developed technology to be used by their Communist masters’ for their own nefarious purposes.

Fortunately, Professor Nordstrom used new security measures to spring a trap for the intruders involving such things as night time “infra-vision” and automated intruder alarms, as well as a series of light and sound effects causing the spies to believe that they were under attack and to beat a hasty retreat.

Soon after this incident, our young hero, Brian (“Gadge”) received an invitation to a science show First Flight to Mars at the planetarium in Los Angeles. Accompanied by his grandfather, they arrived at the planetarium only to realize that no one else was there. It turned out that the spies used the invitation as a ruse to kidnap Nordstrom’s grandson and use the boy to gain access to Tobor and the new technology’s secrets by threatening that they would hurt Brian if Nordstrom did not tell them the secrets of the formula for the extra sensory perception method.

At the time of the kidnapping a presentation was to have been given to military personnel. As Brian and Professor Nordstrom were an hour late returning, concerns for their welfare began to mount.

It turned out that the spies did not take account of Professor Nordstrom’s cunning and intelligence.

“I had managed to trick the spies into placing my newly developed telepathic transfer device on my head, convincing them it was merely a hearing aid. By means of triggering a new transmitter concealed inside a pen, I was able to activate Tobor and allow the robot to come to our rescue,” Professor Nordstrom explained.

Amazingly Tobor set about his rescue attempt by stealing a jeep, closely followed in hot pursuit by Dr Harrison!

“The spies become frustrated with my delaying tactics and decided to torture Gadge to convince me to cooperate. Unfortunately they discovered that I was using the pen as a transmitter and so they destroyed the device.” Professor Nordstrom said.

When asked about what happened to Tobor after the transmitter was destroyed, Dr Harrison informed us that Brian was close enough for Tobor to be able to develop a telepathic connection. Reactivated, Tobor attacked the spies and prevented their ring leader escaping by car by ripping his car’s hood away and disabling the wiring.

At the time of writing this special report, I would like to take the opportunity on behalf of a grateful nation to wish Tobor God’s speed as he takes the controls of the space rocket that will prove to be an important small step paving the way for mankind’s eventual giant leap into the final frontier.

Points Of Interest:

Tobor the Great is a small budget film with minimal special effects. It is pitched at mainly younger viewers while maintaining entertainment value for older audiences. Lee Sholem’s direction maintains the film’s story at a steady pace and the acting is solid and genuine.

Tobor's design was the creation of Robert Kinoshita, who was a film and TV effects man and prop designer. He was also responsible for the design of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956), as well as the B9 environmental control “robot” (“Warning! Warning! Will Robinson!”) in the 1960s Lost In Space sci-fi series.

The character of Tobor the robot comes across as being an implacable, mysterious, potentially dangerous but oddly human-like being. Tobor, like the robot Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), does not speak. Unlike Gort, he does have the ability to sense human thoughts and emotions and he can move around with greater agility. The sense of a human being wearing a robot costume is somewhat counteracted when Professor Nordstrom opens up Tobor's chest to reveal his inner workings to a group of reporters at Tobor’s unveiling.

The film did quite correctly highlight the negative and dangerous aspects to space travel. The history of the space program is unfortunately punctuated by tragic events including the three Apollo crew members who perished in a fire in a capsule during a test on the pad, the close call of the Apollo 13 mission, the loss of two space shuttle crews and the tragic deaths of cosmonauts throughout the former Soviet space program.

Such disastrous events, however, have not stopped the willingness and desire of human beings to venture into space and the unknown. Rather, it seems to have been the huge expense involved with launching people into space that has placed a brake on manned space missions. As an alternative we have tended to rely more on unmanned robotic craft and vehicles to make the unknown known to us, thereby helping to pave the way for possible future manned missions. Perhaps one of our future orbiters or rovers could be called Tobor?

Consider the premise of a robot that is able to think and display and respond to emotion. A character such as Tobor raises all sorts of questions and dilemmas that we will have to contend with as our technology becomes endowed with artificial intelligence and is increasingly integrated into all aspects of our lives.

What rights would a technological / artificial being have if it is accepted that it is sentient: Namely, that it is self-aware; that it can progress beyond its programming; is able to act in an autonomous manner; can make independent (moral?) decisions and choices; has the capacity to interact with people and its environment; can replicate itself; posseses a sense of self-preservation and so on? Should such a being merely exist to serve the needs of human beings like some kind of a slave?

A sentient robot, infra vision, talking grandfather clocks, ESP communication. Such visions of a world of technological advancement has moved beyond the realm of science fiction. It is fast becoming a fact of life for all of us and will be the “new normal” for those growing up in that brave new world. Fridges that order the food you need; whole lives contained in mobile devices; cars that tell us how to get to places, park for us and one day soon drive for us; using the power of the mind to control devices around the home; computer technology integrated into our clothing and accessories; more and more technology augmenting and monitoring our physiology; technology ultimately directing the direction of our evolution. Science fiction may point the way but is often easily outpaced by reality!

As technology permeates our civilisation, is only right to question aspects of its application and be mindful of its dangers and negative consequences. Hints surrounding society’s concerns and fears of new technology occur in the film, Tobor The Great. For instance, at one point Brian finds Tobor’s controller and manages to operate the robot. However, things go wrong when Tobor advances menacingly on the terrified boy. As Brian continues to manipulate the controller to deactivate Tobor, the robot begins to run amok throughout Nordstrom’s residence by going on its own redecorating spree. Although Brain does manage to regain control of Tobor, the disturbing possibility does remain that technology could and probably will act beyond our ability to exercise control over it and that it can act in ways that are detrimental to our welfare and very survival.

Later on, while performing a series of increasingly complex navigation exercises including a simulated meteor shower, Tobor seems to require the use of a straight jacket as he apparently suffers a mechanical version of a nervous breakdown. Tobor is then shut down to allow its circuits to cool. Could a machine that is critical to human beings one day face a series of decisions or a dilemma which it is unable to resolve, can only resolve in a machine-logic manner or for which it is not programmed to handle? In such a situation, could it suffer its own version of a mental or psychological meltdown with disastrous consequences for society? Could the decisions that it does make or the actions it does execute cause harm to humanity? Could technology one day be imbued with a sense or ethics and morality or even the power of intuition and foresight to aid its decision-making processes and judgements?

Yes, be hopeful….but be cautious lest our technological Tobors are made too much in our own image!

©Chris Christopoulos 2014

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