Barbarella’s onboard conversational computer is named Alphy. He speaks with a polite male voice with a British accent and a slight lisp. The voice seems to be omnidirectional, but confined to the cockpit of the space rocket.
Alphy’s primary duties are threefold. First, to obey Barbarella’s commands, such as waking her up before their approach to Tau Ceti. Second, autopilot navigation. Third, to report statuses, such as describing the chances of safe landing or the atmospheric analysis that assures Barbarella she will be able to breathe.
Whenever Alphy is speaking, a display panel at the back of the cockpit moves. The panel stretches from the floor to the ceiling and is about a meter wide. The front of the panel consists of a large array of small rectangular sheets of metal, each of which is attached on one side to one of the horizontal bars that stretch across the panel. As Alphy talks, individual rectangles lift and fall in a stochastic pattern, adding a small metallic clacking to the voice output. A flat yellow light fills the space behind the panel, and the randomly rising and falling rectangles reveal it in mesmerizing patterns.
The light behind Alphy’s panel can change. As Barbarella is voicing her grave concerns to Dianthus, Alphy turns red. He also flashes red and green during the magnetic disturbances that crash her ship on Tau Ceti. We also see him turn a number of colors after the crash on Tau Ceti, indicating the damage that has been done to him.
In the case of the conversation with Dianthus, there is no real alert state to speak of, so it is conceivable that these colors act something like a mood ring, reflecting Barbarella’s affective state.
Like many language-capable sci-fi computer systems of the era, Alphy speaks in a stilted fashion. He is given to “computery” turns of phrases, brusque imperatives, and odd, unsocialized responses. For example, when Barbarella wishes Alphy a good night before she goes to sleep, he replies, “Confirmed.”
Barbarella even speaks this way when addressing Alphy sometimes, such as when they risk crashing into Tau Ceti and she must activate the terrascrew and travel underground. As she is piloting manually, she says things like, “Full operational power on all subterranean systems,” “45 degree ascent,” and “Quarter to half for surfacing.”
Nonetheless, Alphy understands Barbarella completely whenever she speaks to him, so the stilted language seems very much like a convention than a limitation.
Despite his lack of linguistic sophistication, he shows a surprising bit of audio anthropomorphism. When suffering through the magnetic disturbances, his voice gets distressed. Alphy’s tone also gets audibly stressed when he reveals that the Catchman has performed repairs “in reverse,” in each case underscoring the seriousness of the situation. When the space rocket crashes on Tau Ceti, Alphy asks groggily, “Where are we?” We know this is only affectation because within a few seconds, he is back up to full functioning, reporting happily that they have landed, “Planet 16 in the system Tau Ceti. Air density oh-point-oh-51. Cool weather with the possibility of stormy precipitations.” Alphy does not otherwise exhibit emotion. He doesn’t speak of his emotions or use emotional language. This convention, too, is to match Barbarella’s mood and make make her more comfortable.
Alphy’s sensors seem to be for time, communication technology, self-diagnostics, and for analyzing the immediate environment around the ship. He has actuators to speak, change his display, supply nutrition to Barbarella, and focus power to different systems around the ship, including the emergency systems. He can detect problems, such as the “magnetic disturbance”, and can respond, but has no authority to initiate action. He can only obey Barbarella, as we hear in the following exchange.
Barbarella: What’s happening?
Alphy: Magnetic disturbances.
Barbarella: Magnetic disturbances?…Emergency systems!
Alphy: All emergency systems will now operate.
His real function?
All told, Alphy is very limited in what he can do. His primary functions are reading aloud data that could be dials on a dashboard and flipping switches so Barbarella won’t have to take her hands off of…well, switches…in emergency situations. The bits of anthropomorphic cues he provides to her through the display and language confirm that his primary goal is social, to make Barbarella’s adventurous trips through space not feel so lonely.
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A possible explanation of the mix of natural speech and more rigid forms is that the ability to easily understand natural speech is a new feature, and Barbarella started out using an older system that required a more precise form. Therefor commands she got used to saying on the old system she still uses, as well as emergency commands that have been drilled into her, but she often just uses natural speech.
That’s a nice bit of backworlding. 🙂
Who voiced him? To my ear it sounds like Kenneth Williams but I’ve found confirmation of that.
I’m not sure. IMDb is of course my go-to, but if it’s not there, it becomes an internet search challenge.