British television sci-fi is seventy today

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 11 February 2008

It is a genre that has been a big influence and source of entertainment for me ever since I first saw Tom Baker's boggle-eyes staring out at me from the opening credits of Doctor Who when I was 4 or 5, and today is the seventieth anniversary of what is generally attributed to be the first piece of sci-fi television.

On the 11th February, 1938, the BBC broadcast a thirty-five minute segment adapted from Czech playwright Karel Čapek's play "Rossum's Universal Robots". It was productions of this play in translation in the early 1920s that introduced the word 'robot' into the English language. [1]

R.U.R. front cover

In 1938 BBC television was being transmitted on the primitive 30-line system from Alexandra Palace, and had a potential reach of less than 50,000 viewers. Sadly, like the majority of television from that era, there doesn't seem to be any existing images of it, and I haven't been able to track down any contemporary reviews of it either. The BBC also apparently mounted a radio production of the play during the war years, in 1941, and a full-length television version in 1948. None of these survive either.

I'm sure that at the time whoever commissioned it wasn't thinking about starting a whole new genre - or indeed of being inadvertently responsible for Blake's 7. Instead, I expect they were rather excited about presenting to the masses some contemporary Czech theatre, in the kind of programming that would barely get a look in on BBC Four these days.

The robots in R.U.R. are not the extravagant metal creations of later television sci-fi, instead they are synthetic, organic creatures 'grown' in a factory. The plot is good old-fashioned science fiction though. Thanks to some meddling by what the Daily Express would no doubt call trendy lefty human rights do-gooders, the robots become aware of their servitude and overthrow human society. It is political correctness for robots gone mad, I tell you!

There is a flaw in the robots plan, however. They do not know how to replicate themselves, and the only human they have left alive is a manual worker, who they have saved because he also works with his hands like the robots did. This still from a 1920s production in the USA features the robots pleading with 'Alquist' to explain how to re-produce themselves.

Scene from R.U.R.

Although Karel Čapek is often credited with the coining the term 'robot', he said that the idea had belonged to his brother Josef. Sadly, neither survived the war. The BBC transmission in February 1938 was just 7 months before the Munich agreement sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia. Karel died shortly after the Nazi invasion, and Josef was murdered in 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen extermination camp.

Karel Čapek



[1] In fact, given my fondness for Kraftwerk, Čapek's play appears to have been a spark inspiring two of my favourite things [Return to article]

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