Did Lost in Space Coin the Term “Does Not Compute?”

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Lost in Space coined the term “Does Not Compute”

Along with “We Come in Peace” and “Take Me To Your Leader,” one of the most popular science fiction phrases is the robotic “Does Not Compute.” When it comes to the depictions of robots, “Does Not Compute” is a popular phrase because it plays on the notion that robots “compute” rather than “think,” and it is a very cool way of showing a robot reacting differently than a human. Specifically, it is often used to a show a robot struggling with comprehending the types of seemingly contradictory situations that humans have to worry about all of the time. The human mind can deal with cognitive dissonance while a robot’s purely logical-driven “brain” can not. This, therefore, shows that robots can never quite replace humans entirely. Anyhow, the phrase became popular when it was used by the Robot on the hit 1965 television series, Lost in Space.

The robot’s most popular catch phrase was “Danger!” or “Warning!” – this has solidified into the popular consciousness as the phrase “Danger, Will Robinson!” which the Robot actually only said once (Will Robinson is the youngest child of the family that is lost in space), although the robot did frequently warn young Will of danger, just not using that exact phrasing. The Robot has been credited with not only popularizing “Does Not Compute” but also coining the phrase. In the alternative, sometimes the 1966 television series Star Trek has been credited as coining the phrase (the show often used the plot point of computers or robots malfunctioning when given a contradictory problem). The answer, though, as to who coined the phrase is neither show! Instead, the true originator was a sitcom starring a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar!

The 1964 sitcom My Living Doll starred veteran sitcom actor Bob Cummings (who I recently featured in a Theater Urban Legends Revealed about how he made his Broadway debut by pretending to be a British actor) and Julie Newmar (before she invented her patented derriere-enhancing pantyhose).

The show was created by Jack Chertok, following his hit sitcom the previous year, My Favorite Martian, about a young reporter who takes in a crash landed Martian as his roommate.

In My Living Doll, Cummings plays Dr. Bob McDonald, a psychiatrist who is given an experimental robot/android by his friend, a scientist for the Air Force who wants to keep the robot/android out of the hands of the military. The scientist is transferred to Pakistan, leaving the robot/android all in McDonald’s hands. McDonald names her Rhoda and he decides to take the opportunity to program her to be the “perfect woman” (and yes, it is just as sexist as it sounds – more so, really).

Her catch phrase was “That does not compute” (sometimes “That doesn’t compute”), becoming the first usage of that term.

The show barely lasted through the first season, though, as Cummings had problems with the show’s low ratings and there were clashes between Cummings and Chertok (Cummings was not Chertok’s first choice for the show while Cummings, for his part, viewed the show as as almost like a sequel to his last sitcom), and he actually quit the show with a few episodes left to film! Cummings wanted to have a script filmed where McDonald’s grandfather would visit (who would be played by Cummings in a dual role), echoing a character Cummings did on his last show (Cummings’ secretary on that show, a young Ann B. Davis, was the inspiration for Iron Man’s secretary, Pepper Potts). Chertok balked at the idea and Cummings quit. It is unclear whether the decision to not bring in the grandfather character (who would also be a pilot, of course, as Cummings was a major flying aficionado and often tried to work airplanes into his work) or the show’s low ratings were ultimately why Cummings left the show. Julie Newmar and one of the show’s other producers claimed the latter in a featurette that went along with a 2012 DVD release of the show. In any event, McDonald found himself also somehow transferred to Pakistan and his wacky next door neighbor (who was always lusting after Rhoda) thereby inherited Rhoda for the rest of the show’s short run. The producers planned to cast a new lead actor if the show made it to season two but it was canceled before they got the chance.

So the show had a very short but, in the long term, it was an influential one!

The legend is…


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One Response to “Did Lost in Space Coin the Term “Does Not Compute?””

  1. According to Bart Andrews’ 1980 book “The Worst TV Shows Ever”, Bob Cummings and Julie Newmar hated each other from day one; that was one factor in Cummings’ early departure.

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