(This is an excerpt from a book and documentary project I am working on that deals with the depiction of robots and other artificial intelligences in film)
The Pinocchio Syndrome
As it’s name implies the “Pinocchio Syndrome” is based on the depiction of the main character in the classic story of the wooden boy Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. In this work the phrase “Pinocchio Syndrome” is used to describe any attempt on the part of a robot, android, or other artificial entity to become human, or otherwise grow beyond it’s programmed or created limits. Typically, artificial entities that have the qualities of a Pinocchio can do so in both benevolent or malevolent ways. Another historical reference for the “Pinocchio syndrome” and especially for the malevolent depictions would be Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In addition to creating one of the first portrayals of the scientist as a dangerous figure in society, Shelly’s depiction of an intelligent, feeling creature that is created through artificial means and then rejected by it’s creator and an unsympathetic world, would set the stage for latter day depictions of artificial entities as objects worthy of respect and sympathy.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s (1979) portrayal of V’Ger also adds credence to the premise of the “Pinocchio Syndrome“. V’Ger is in fact a Voyager probe, that in the course of it’s mission to explore the galaxy crash lands on an alien world populated by sentient machines. The machines improve upon the simplistic Voyager probe, bestowing upon it sentience and incredible power. The probe then continues on it’s mission, to explore and catalog the galaxy. Centuries later with this task complete Voyager, now called V’Ger makes it’s way towards Earth to complete it’s mission and deliver the date it has accumulated. But over the centuries V’ger has changed, thanks to the sentience that was bestowed upon it, V’ger senses that it has reached the limits of what it can become. Having amassed boundless information the probes sense of self demands that it question what is the nature of it‘s own existence, and ask, can I be more? To this end V’ger contrives a plan to burn out one of it’s control circuits to force it’s creator (whom over the centuries V’ger has come to equate with God), to come to V’ger and complete the download in person. It is V’ger’s goal to fuse to, to “join with” his creator and by doing so grow beyond his current limitations.
The android character of Lt. Commander Data was first introduced in the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, and in fact was purposely created to be a futuristic representation of the Pinocchio character. According to actor Brent Spiner who has portrayed the golden skinned android for over a decade, “it was an established journey that his character was going to be on from the very beginning. The point of departure was the word ‘Pinocchio‘, which was in the pilot, and was Gene Roddenberry’s concept. After discussions with him, I agreed completely that the character would evolve through the years towards the humanity he seeks” (quoted in McDonnell, pp.28). It was in fact in the Star Trek: The Next Generation films (Generations , First Contact , Insurrection , Nemesis ) that the portrayal of Data reaches it’s highest point. While the series did indeed portray as a Pinocchio like character, an artificial boy who wanted to be human, the films allowed Data to continue and eventually complete his journey towards humanity. In Star Trek: Generations, Data gains feelings by way of an emotion chip, and like a real person these new, often contradictory feelings almost overwhelm him. As the Data character progresses through the four films we see a steady evolution towards the humanity he seeks. Data’s journey towards this humanity comes to an end in the latest and perhaps last Star Trek film, Nemesis(2002). Here, after a climatic battle against evil forces bent on wiping out the Earth and crippling the Federation, Data evidences the essential quality not only of a human being but of the hero, the capacity for self-sacrifice. Data gives his own life to protect the Federation, his ship and his friends, and in doing so proves that humanity can be a far more complex concept than simply being born human.
Another less common aspect of this theme can be seen in films such as Cherry 2000(1987), The Stepford Wives(1975), and Metropolis(1927) where it is the creators or owners of the robots (instead of the robots themselves) who want humanity bestowed upon their automatons, or as with the latter two films they desire to create machines that are as close to the human ideal of perfection as possible. These portrayals specifically are demonstrative of another aspect of depiction of human looking machines in films. It represents the attempt on the part of the creators (usually but not always men), to create the perfect mate and companion. Other films that have used this thematic approach to the depiction of artificial entities with varying degrees of success are Stephen Spielberg’s A.I.(2001), D.A.R.Y.L.(1985), and Ridley Scott’s film noir masterpiece Blade Runner(1982).