Star Wars is, if nothing else, a product of its influence. Much has been made of its connections to everything from the sci-fi serials of the 1930s and 1940s to its thematic and aesthetic links to Kurosawa films (The Hidden Fortress) and Westerns (Once Upon a Time in the West).
This is certainly true of franchise mainstay C-3PO, the fussy gilded protocol droid who’s shuffled and worried his way through all nine of the main Skywalker pictures and cropped up in a million spinoffs and animated shows (not to mention cereal commercials) in the interim.
While the droid’s iconic appearance comes at least in part from the infamous Machinenmensch from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and his high-strung British fussiness feels ripped out of the farces of P.G. Wodehouse, one of his biggest inspirations was a sci-fi hit from a mere generation prior: 1956’s Forbidden Planet.
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox and shot in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope, Forbidden Planet feels much more like a precursor to Star Trek than Star Wars — the story of an exploratory starship from the “United Planets” landing on an isolated world filled with dangers and women and mad scientists. But its biggest selling point would herald the creation of everyone’s favorite goldenrod: Robby the Robot.
Introducing: Robby the Robot
Robby the Robot is arguably one of sci-fi’s most iconic (and durable) robot designs, inspiring everything from the Robot in Lost in Space to the Protectrons from Fallout. His design is incredibly distinctive: A domed Plexiglass head with clockwork machinery working inside it to simulate a kind of robotic face, the “gyroscopic stabilizers” that rotate around his head, his rubbery puffed arms and legs. It’s as if Skynet simulated the Michelin Man. He was large, lumbering, and shuffled awkwardly from place to place with his limited robotic motion — not unlike another stiff-legged robot we might know.
In his first appearance to the United Planets crew, he says (in his strong, baritone voice, supplied by actor Marvin Miller): “If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages, along with their various dialects and subtongues.” Kitbashed describes Robby as a “proto-protocol droid,” and that tracks. This line practically presages 3PO’s repeated insistence that he’s “fluent in over six million forms of communication.”
The similarities in dialogue don’t end there, either: Later on, Robby appears after a long absence to explain that he’d been busy taking an oil bath — something 3PO clearly relishes shortly after he’s been purchased by the Lars family in A New Hope. In interviews, George Lucas demurred on the idea that Robby the Robot was an inspiration for C-3PO, but the similarities are pretty undeniable.
More Than Machine: Robby As the Pre-3PO
Maybe one of the most intriguing ways Robby compares to 3PO is that, when Forbidden Planet was released, Robby pioneered the ways robots looked, behaved, and served science fiction stories on film. He wasn’t a tin-pot mishmash of thrift-store parts and cookware or a little gadget on wheels (that’s R2’s job); the film’s design team, from production designer Arnold “Buddy “Gillespie to art director Arthur Lonergan, spent nearly $125,000 (more than $1 million in today’s money) bringing Robby to life. His design was intricate and detailed, Miller’s voiceover work conversational yet authoritative and appropriately “alien.”
Moreover, his character was more than a series of if-then commands; Irving Block’s script paints him as a fully-fledged character, equal parts protector, threat, and friend. Far from the monstrous attacker that the film’s posters would imply (the theatrical poster for Forbidden Planet gives him big, evil eyes and a grimace as he carries a scantily-clad woman in his thick robot arms), Robby is kind, intelligent, and helpful. Simply put, Robby changed the way robots looked and behaved on screen.
That tradition carries through to 3PO as well — both are highly intelligent, articulate beings with full sentience who can impart great knowledge to their human companions but often require assistance to get around (since their legs aren’t exactly made for marathons). They’re at once full parts of the crew and somehow outside of them, carrying on conversations as well as they impart data. Robby’s dry wit compares nicely with 3PO’s withering bon mots throughout the Star Wars series.
The Hardest-Working Robots in Show Business
Robby also modeled one other attribute 3PO would share outside of the silver screen: he made himself known everywhere. After his appearance in Forbidden Planet, Hollywood would make prodigious use of the Robby the Robot suit in dozens of other films and TV shows. He’d show up in two other episodes of Lost in Space, alongside that show’s homegrown Robot; The Addams Family, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Twilight Zone, Gremlins, Hollywood Boulevard, and more. He even showed up for a motionless cameo in The Big Bang Theory! It’s the kind of work ethic that would make any aspiring Hollywood actor proud.
That kind of ubiquity feels endemic to 3PO too; ever since his now-canon creation by Anakin Skywalker, his golden eyes have seen at least three major interstellar wars, an interstellar zoo’s worth of terrible space creatures, and whatever the heck happens on Life Day.
But whether it’s his shambolic gait, his penchant for multiple languages, or his nature as a beloved, if beguiling, member of an interstellar crew, C-3PO owes a lot to science fiction’s first, best, bubbliest bot.