Allison Smith

The Voices Behind The Consoles

There are certain TV shows and films that have featured unseen, automated, mechanical “voices” that never materialized into human form. They occupied a mechanized framework instead of a physical body, and became all the more fascinating and alluring to us because of their mystique as unseen characters.

One of the most legendary “Voices Behind the Consoles” is the HAL 9000 supercomputer, the major antagonist  in Arthur C. Clarke’s saga immortalized in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and its 1984 sequel, 2010. HAL (Heuristically ALgorithmic Computer) was an artificial intelligence that interacted with the crew, usually only represented by a red television camera “eye.” Speaking in a soft, conversational style, HAL was portrayed with understated slyness and a surprising level of depth by Canadian actor Douglas Rain.

HAL was capable of not only speech, but speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip-reading (discovered when Bowman and Poole, two crew members who doubted HAL’s reliability, discussed replacing him during what they thought was a private conversation in the one of the EVA pods) and playing chess. These are all skills that are now almost expected in automated forms.

What placed HAL way ahead of his time were skills far outside the realm of what is within an automaton’s typical reach. These included art appreciation, reasoning, and, even more staggering, interpreting and reproducing human behavior—aspects that are still considered too arcane and subjective to be accomplished with any consistency by a computer today.

With some memorable quotes like: “It can only be attributable to human error” (regarding the supposed failure of the parabolic antenna on the ship), HAL’s wry, unflappable style is what made him one of AFI’s greatest film villains of all time.

Capable of malice and diabolical revenge (severing Poole’s oxygen and setting him adrift and suspending life functions for crew members in suspended animation, to name just a few), HAL was an ever-present and ominous force made all the more compelling by his appearance only as that unflinching, staring red eye.

Considerably less ominous was the voice of the computer interface in Star Trek, voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, wife of the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. Largely uncredited as the voice of the computer, Majel Roddenberry also played nurse Christine Chapel in the original series. Roddenberry’s (no pun intended) stellar delivery of the prompts, with just the right flavor of detachment, efficiency, and all-business demeanor, made for a solid and unwaveringly steady computer voice. It was reassuring, mixed with just the right amount of clinical propriety, and completely devoid of the trickery and malice of HAL.

Always present, continuously watching, and never registering any emotional investiture into the outcome of situations the crew might have found themselves in, Majel Roddenberry’s computer voice provided wonderful continuity throughout the episodes, other iterations of the series, and well into the movie franchises. During the 11th movie in the series (filmed in 2008), she completed voicing her computer lines mere weeks before passing away from leukemia.

Whether they become the conscience of the spacecraft or merely keep everyone on kilter with gentle adjustments or admonishments, the characters of the automated computer genre appeal so widely because they never fully make an entrance. Without being over-the-top droll, as KITT (the Knight Industries Two Thousand) was in  the Knight  Rider series, or outright smarmy, as “Charlie” (voiced by John Forsythe) was in  Charlie’s Angels, HAL and Majel Roddenberry’s computer voice provided intriguing characters who were omnipresent, all-knowing, and infinitely more engaging for their invisibility.

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Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, having voiced platforms for Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Bell Canada, Vonage, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom, and the Asterisk Open-Source PBX. Her Web site is www.theivrvoice.com.