Report Card: Barbarella


Jean Claude Forest wrote his Barbarella strips for V-Magazine, he meant them to be sexy, camp, and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. Réalisme was not much on his mind. When the strip made the transition to the big screen, it kept these sensibilities firmly in place. The technology was fittingly just a collection of narrative devices, based loosely on 1960s technology paradigms and a handful of extant sci-fi tropes.

Sci: D- (1 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

Most of the technology in Barbarella are based on popular sci-fi narrative shortcuts: False gravity, free-floating video telephony, teleportation, force fields, and yes, focused-energy weapons. These are tropes, and lots of shows throw that caution to the wind, but you should not think of this as hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason this just didn’t fail out is Alphy’s artificial intelligence, though a poor cousin to HAL (2001 premiered that same year), is a prescient voice-interface to a limited agentive system that fulfills its social role.

Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The Positronic Ray is of course the MacGuffin of the whole adventure, so technology plays a pretty pivotal role. And in the cases where the tech moves the story along, it does it cleanly and clearly, highlighting the causes and effects that let know that the heroine is alternately controlling her ship, out of batteries for her weapon, or trapped with no apparent means of escape.

Interfaces: c (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Barbarella is ultimately a mixed bag for its interfaces. Sure, you have Alphy, feeding her, keeping her company, and even managing the communications tech in the background all pretty seamlesly. The shagpile cockpit is even a surprisingly solid bit of industrial design for error recovery.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that is fine, but could stand some improvements, like the portable brainwave detector and the Queen’s display controls.

And then Durand-Durand’s Positronic Ray and the Queen’s Bed Chamber Door interface were bad enough to take me out of the movie and wonder what on Tau Ceti were they thinking. They were so bad that it countered any awesomeness the filmmakers had accidentally stumbled upon.

Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE

Sure, see it for the lovely camp value, space titillation, and to see how agentive technology should work. But don’t expect much other interface inspiration.

Related lessons from the book

  • Both the Dildano’s map and the Queen’s Door should tighten their feedback loops (page 20).
  • Barbarella still talks in stupid compterese when speaking with the fully conversational Alphy. She should follow human social conventions, too (page 123.)
  • Alphy avoided the uncanny valley (page 184) through disembodiment.
  • Durand-Durand failed to give Barbarella a safeword (page 303.)

New lessons

  • It’s probably a trope of its own, but Durand-Durand should provide himself Just Enough Control.
  • The gravity controls could have used a scenario to Put it in Context.
  • Both the portable brainwave detector and the energy box beg for Haptify Secrets.

2 thoughts on “Report Card: Barbarella

  1. Very late comment, but it occurs to me that the Black Queen’s door is an example of security through obscurity: it’s not meant to be easy to open, it’s meant to be difficult for anyone not the Queen to open or lock. (That the Queen can congratulate herself on her cleverness may be an intended consequence.)

    That both Dildano and the Concierge know the secrets of the Chamber door (and Dildano even managed to get a key) indicates that the Queen could have spent a bit less effort obscuring it, and just had a couple of Black Guard standing outside to prevent the kind of infiltration we see.

    • I would agree, but the Queen herself falls prey to the weakness of the design, when she gets trapped. Obscurity only helps if it hinders malefactors with low cost to intended users. (And I still want to know the key-return mechanism.) AND yes, guards outside the door would have been a perfect human-in-the-loop addition to the system that would have prevented her entrapment.

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