Bugs Bunny: "General Lee"? Why, the War Between the States ended almost ninety years ago!
Yosemite Sam: I'm no clock-watcher!
A machine or creature is programmed to perform specific kinds of duties, but at some point in time, something happens to its environment that makes continuing to perform the task pointless. The machine, ever faithful, keeps doing it anyway since it was never told to stop. Often, this is a result of After the End or at least all humans leaving the place and forgetting the machine. Being unable to carry out its task may cause further problems.
It can also happen to a person if he is somehow traumatized and has become a stoic being with no sense of his surroundings, or when working in (relative) isolation where they can miss crucial information that renders their task pointless. See Real Life examples for these.
- At the end of an EC Comics story, a man's Robot Wife keeps protecting him long after he's dead and his flesh has rotted away.
- In the world of Flashpoint, Dr. Morrow built the Red Tornadoes to protect Japan, but one of them was left unfinished and is stuck wandering around Morrow's lab, because Morrow died years ago.
- In Runaways, the kids occasionally run into the Steins' security droids, which were still functioning after their creators expired.
- The titular robot himself, a garbage disposal droid, keeps trying to clean up Earth's surface after all humans have left even though he is the only WALL-E unit still functioning and no real progress has been made in several hundred years.
- M-O, a sanitation droid, is so obsessed with cleaning up WALL-E's dirt that he follows him through the entire ship mopping up his messes. A Running Gag forms off him turning up in places WALL-E's has been an hour ago, still cleaning his dirt trail.
- BURN-E, a repair droid, gets his own short film taking place during the film where he tries in vain to repair a light WALL-E accidentally damaged. WALL-E ends up continuing to unintentionally sabotage his efforts, until BURN-E finally fixes the light... only to faint when a second later it is broken again.
- Played straight with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" short in Fantasia. Mickey, as the Apprentice, sets a magic broom to the task of fetching water from a well and pouring it into a cauldron, then goes to sleep and wakes to the room flooded with water since he never told the broom to stop. Then he finds he can't stop it and when he tries chopping the broom to bits, every bit becomes a new broom, all "programmed" to fetch water and throw it into the cauldron. It takes the return of the Sorcerer himself to stop the brooms (and save the apprentice from drowning).
- Disney's The Black Hole has a disturbing example. The creepy cloaked and mute robots on the Cygnus continue to water and care for the hydroponics bay (itself alive and almost overgrown) despite the entire crew abandoning ship leaving Dr. Reinhardt all alone. That they continue to care for it when all it does is feed one man and filter out his CO2 is seen as suspicious by the crew of the Palomino. It's revealed that the former crew have been subject to Unwilling Roboticisation and the bay is used to feed them as well. The tragedy of this is brought to a head when the Cygnus is being pummeled by asteroids and none of the cloaked robots react to preserve their lives at all, and instead continue manning their posts. It's made poetically ironic when Dr. Reinhardt is trapped by a collapsing beam and begs for help, only to be ignored by the cloaked robots.
- A famous human example is Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, where he goes berserk working on an assembly line tightening bolts in an ever accelerating conveyor belt. He eventually gets caught inside the machinery (where even there he's busy tightening bolts), and after he gets rescued he continues going through the motions, tweaking noses and buttons with wrenches on both hands.
- In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Dr. Totenkopf's machines carry on his work of assembling a "Noah's Ark"-type rocket and loading animals on it, despite his death 20 years prior.
- The Global Express driver in Overnight Delivery is adorably proud of being entrusted with a solo run, and absolutely determined to complete his deliveries, to the point where he keeps driving his truck when it's literally on fire.
"With God as my witness, you will not stop this package! Not on my watch!"
- Used in Ciaphas Cain: Cain's Last Stand. After Warmaster Varan is killed by Cain, his shuttle pilot is found starved to death in his cockpit. Varan's main superpower is psionic brainwashing, and the investigators surmise that he ordered the pilot to wait for further orders and thanks to Cain, could never give him different ones.
- Golems on the Discworld. If not attended, they will continue carrying out their last order indefinitely, potentially causing huge property damage. Other characters have mused that this is their approach to protest.
- Star Wars Legends:
- Played for laughs in The Essential Guide to Droids, which tells an anecdote where a binary load-lifter, a barely sentient droid that amounts to a forklift with legs, continued to stack boxes on a section of floor despite increasing signs that it was about to give way. After it collapsed onto the floor below, the load lifter just got back up and went to get more boxes.
- In Dark Apprentice, a droid can be seen replacing street lights in the deep lower levels of Coruscant. The droid had been performing this task for so long that even the replacement bulbs were burnt out, leaving it to continue an endless cycle of bulb changes.
- In the Ray Bradbury short story "There Will Come Soft Rains" (known to many through the Fallout 3 location "McClellan family townhome"), a fully-automated house keeps performing its duties of cleaning the house, preparing meals, singing lullabies for the kids etc., even though the home has been empty for a long time and the family and everyone else has perished in a nuclear war.
- In the Isaac Asimov short story "Risk" a robot pilot is to test a hyperspace drive and is given instructions to "pull the stick back firmly - firmly" until the drive engages. The drive doesn't engage, so the robot is stuck in that position and its human operators have to try to get it to stop but it just won't stop pulling because the drive hasn't engaged. It turns out that the reason the drive didn't engage is that the robot pulled back "firmly" with its full strength, damaging the control.
- One Shel Silverstein poem has a disobedient student be told stand in the corner of the classroom as punishment. When class ends, though, the teacher forgets to tell him he can stop, and he keeps standing there in an attempt to prove he's good. By the end of the poem, the school has closed, the building is abandoned, and he's an old man still waiting there.
- In Down the Bright Way by Robert Reed, the Wanderers explore the multiverse of Earths using an Interdimensional Travel Device. On a number of Earths, multiple nations developed artificially intelligent war machines during World War III. Unfortunately, the war machines ended up being too good at their job and ended up killing everyone, either directly or through environmental collapse. The machines still wage war on each other long after the human commanders died off and the objectives of the war were rendered moot, and they sustain themselves with automated factories.
- One scene of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is Arthur Dent encountering a space-liner that has decided to do a "short delay" because there's no lemon-scented napkins in its inventory. This "short delay" has been of several millennia and counting, during which the civilization it belonged to fell and there is absolutely nothing still standing in the planet aside from the spaceship and all of its cryogenically-frozen crew and passengers. When Dent points out the utter uselessness of waiting when there is literally nothing left, the ship's computer says that it's statistically provable that something will evolve in time, and civilizations will grow again... and it will wait until said civilizations create lemon-scented napkins, and until then the "short delay" will continue.
- On the Babylon 5 episode "A Tragedy of Telepaths", Londo and G'Kar discover that G'Kar's former aide Na'Toth had been imprisoned and forgotten for the last two years in a Centauri dungeon, since nobody ever countermanded the late Cartagia's orders putting her there. Londo explained that that sort of thing happens with an absolute monarchy, and related a story of a guard detail that was continuously posted at a spot in the Centauri palace gardens, on orders from an emperor 200 years ago to guard a special flower there that had long since perished.
- Parodied in Blackadder II when Edmund replaces his faithful manservant with another.
Edmund: Well, Bob, welcome on board. Sorry Baldrick, any reason why you are still here?
Baldrick: Euh .. I've got nowhere to go, my lord.
Edmund: O surely you will be allowed to starve to death in one of the royal parks.
Baldrick: I've been in your service since I was two and a half, my lord.
Edmund: Well that is the why I am so utterly sick of the sight of you.
Baldrick: Couldn't I just stay here and do the same job but for no wages?
Edmund: Well, you know where you will have to live.
Baldrick: In the gutter.
Edmund: Yes. And you'll have to work a bit harder too.
Baldrick: Of course, my lord.
Edmund: All right. Go and get Bob's stuff in and chuck your filthy muck out into the street.
Baldrick: God bless you, sweet master!
- Doctor Who:
The Doctor: It was just doing what it was programmed to. Repairing the ship any way it can, with whatever it could find. No one told it the crew weren't on the menu. What did you say the flight deck smelt of?
- "The Girl in the Fireplace" features a group of maintenance robots who have been programmed to keep the ship running at all costs. They followed these orders so well that they dismembered all of the ship's crew members and used their various body parts to supplement the ship's systems when they ran out of conventional parts. That's right, they destroyed their programmers in the course of following their programming.
- The Foretold from "Mummy On The Orient Express" is eventually revealed to be a malfunctioning Cyborg soldier that has been kept alive since ancient times by medical implants and must keep killing those it perceives as its enemies until whatever mission it was programmed with is complete. When the Doctor pieces all this together and realises the key to disabling it is to tell it "We surrender", it seems almost relieved as it disintegrates into dust.
- In Fargo, Gloria's late stepfather wrote a story about a robot named Minsky who was stuck wandering the universe for over two million years trying to find help for his dead master.
- The cast of Red Dwarf first encounter Kryten obediently serving the three female crew members of the Nova 5, completely oblivious to the fact that they were killed when the Nova crash-landed.
- Stargate Universe: The starship Destiny upon which the series takes place was built by the Alterans (the progenitors of the Ancients and Ori, in turn the creators of modern humanity) to explore planets linked by the multi-galactic stargate network, which had previously been constructed by automatons. In the series's present, it continues its mission billions of light-years from its point of origin despite its creators having ascended millennia ago.
- Star Trek:
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Return of the Archons", Landru guards his planet, long after its usefulness has ceased. Likewise the automated defense bot Losira in "That Which Survives".
- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- In episode "The Royale" an alien race had created a simulation of the Royale hotel from a potboiler book of the same name in order to bring comfort to a human astronaut which they had accidentally stranded on their world, having accidentally destroyed his ship and killed the rest of his crew. However, even after the astronaut died (hundreds of years ago) the simulation continues.
- In episode "The Arsenal of Freedom" the automated sales system (the eponymous Arsenal) belonging to an arms merchant from an eons extinct race is still functioning perfectly and is ready to give a product demonstration of their weapon systems to anyone passing by to try to make a sale.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Twelfth, has a spaceship that has automatically delayed its departure until it can restock itself with lemon-soaked paper napkins, keeping its passengers in "temporary suspended animation" for the indefinite time being.
Ford: Delay? Have you seen the world outside this ship? It's a wasteland, it's a desert. Civilization's been and gone. It's over. There are no lemon-soaked paper napkins on the way from anywhere.
Autopilot: The statistical likelihood is that other civilizations will arise. There will one day be lemon-soaked paper napkins. Till then, there will be a short delay.
- This was often the case in Gamma World. Any Ancient site that wasn't destroyed by the holocaust had robots continuing to perform the functions they did before the end. These included guarding the place, producing items and so on.
- Warhammer: The Old Ones may have long since ceased to exist, but their creations the Lizardmen have been dutifully following their enigmatic Great Plan for the world to the letter for thousands of years. As for what the Great Plan actually is, it seems like it means returning all the men back to the Old World, all the elves back to Ulthuan, all the dwarves back to the mountains, and exterminating basically everybody else. Yeah.
- Many robots in the Fallout universe didn't notice or don't care about the nuclear war that devastated America in 2077, and are still trying to carry out the tasks assigned to them in the Pre-War years, as much as 200 years later.
Player: Codsworth? Y-... You're still here! So... other people could still be alive too...
- Codsworth in Fallout 4 is a perfect example. 200 years after the bombs fell and destroyed civilization, he's still floating around the house waiting for you and your spouse to return home. When you finally emerge from hibernation and return to the ruins of your hometown, the overjoyed robot greets you by declaring that you're two centuries late for dinner.
Codsworth: Mmmhm. It's worse than I thought! You're suffering from hunger-induced paranoia. Not eating right for 200 years will do that, I'm afraid!
Player: No... No, that's not possible; I wasn't out for that long!
Codsworth: (cheerfully) That means that you're, ah... two centuries late for dinner! (laughs) Perhaps I could whip you up a snack? You must be famished!
- In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, there are these cute Aztec-looking little electric robot guys in the Lanayru Mines. It's out of use, and the robots old stones by now, but Link reactivates the time stones the robots once harvested, which causes things to return to the way they once were (in certain spots). They are proud, single-minded laborers even after all those years.
- In the first Monkey Island game, Guybrush trains a monkey to hold down a switch so that he can enter a giant monkey head totem and descend into the underworld. Three games later, he returns to the area and finds the grave of that monkey, and is told that it waited patiently for him to return until it starved to death.
- This turns out to be the King of Shadows' motivation in Neverwinter Nights 2. He's still trying to protect the ancient empire of Illefarn that created him, even though the empire fell, partly due to him, a couple thousand years ago.
- The Animunculi (dwarven/Dwemer magical robots) of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim still attempt to perform their duties, even as Dwemer ruins crumble around them. Their masters disappeared hundreds, if not thousands of years before, but they built things to last.
- A particularly disturbing example of this crops up in The Secret World when players finally explore Orochi Tower: up on Faust Capital's beta level, hundreds of accountants are hard at work on company finances and nothing else. They don't take breaks, they don't speak to one another, and they don't even look up from their desks when players barge in looking for stuff to steal. Notes scattered around the area imply that they're under the influence of some kind of personality modification that's been left on longer than originally intended, thanks to the ongoing state of emergency at the Tower. So, with nobody left alive to tell them to take a break or go home, the accountants will keep working come what may, never eating, never sleeping, and never once noticing the fact that several of their number have actually died at their desks. Best not ask how bad that office smells...
- The Steam Gardener robots in Super Mario Odyssey continue to maintain the plants in the area, keeping them healthy, as this is what they were programmed to do by the unknown people who built them eons ago. That being said, while they all have a compulsion to take care of plants (and even teach others how to do so), they are also advanced enough to have the free will and curiosity to travel to other parts of the world, interact with organic beings, and take up interests unrelated to plants.
- In Stellaris, you might encounter swarms of Ancient Mining Drones still working as Asteroid Miners long after their creators have vanished, and the 'bots are just as happy to try and carve up your ships as they are space rocks. The Levaithans DLC adds the chance to run into an Automated Dreadnought, a titan-class Ghost Ship crewed by mummified corpses, still aggressively patrolling a star system after nearly eight million years.
- In Digger, the Dead God Underground has so-called "cold servants", implied to be vampires, which ceaselessly force its heart to beat in order to keep it alive.
- The Friendship is Witchcraft episode "The Perfect Swarm" has a running gag with one particular pony watering a single flowerbed for hours on end. Even as a disaster is destroying Ponyville around her. Several episodes (and two in-universe months) later, "Foaly Matripony" reveals that this pony is still watering those same flowers.
- In Крепость / Fortress by Dima Fedotov, robotic attack aircraft continue the nuclear war long after everything is dead and their pilots have died in the cockpit. In the sequel, Last Day of War, the mission command supercomputer declares that it has lost the war when the last nuclear bomber crashes due to an engine failure.
- In the Kappa Mikey Christmas special (which features an homage to "It's A Wonderful Life"), the Lily Mu show is cancelled in the middle of filming. Because no one bothered to yell cut, Gonard never stopped acting, and proceeded to go on a crime spree while stuck in his villain persona.
- As quoted above, in the Looney Tunes short "Southern Fried Rabbit", Bugs Bunny encounters a Confederate soldier Yosemite Sam still guarding the Mason-Dixon line. Keep in mind that this wasn't a period piece that happened to take place during the Civil War—the short come out on May 2nd of 1953 (roughly 88 years after the Civil War ended) and as pointed by Bugs, the short takes place during the time it was made.
- An episode of TaleSpin revolved around an attempt by Khan Industries to replace all pilots with a robot, the "Auto-Aviator", and Baloo's fight to not be put out of business. While he was unfortunately unable to beat the Auto-Aviator in a Man Versus Machine competition, the Auto-Aviator showcases a very fatal flaw in the episode's final act: it is completely unable to change from its preset course and will not accept orders to do so, even when not doing so endangers the plane and everybody in it from being shot down by air pirates.
- Some fanatical Japanese soldiers continued to "fight" World War II on secluded islands in the Pacific after the war had come to an end, with at least one holding out for decades in the jungle, dismissing all calls for surrender from authorities as enemy propaganda. It took his retired commanding officer to personally visit him and tell him to surrender that the holdout finally agreed to come home.
- The ITAPPMONROBOT, as chronicled at The Daily WTF. It was a computer equipped with a CD ROM drive programmed to eject and hit a reset button on a nearby server if the server did not respond to a ping. It attempted to do so even after the server was retired.
"During the swap, ITAPPMONROBOT was moved to a neglected corner of the server room, plugged back in, and promptly forgotten. It spent the last weeks of its life dutifully opening and closing its CD ROM drive every two minutes, reaching in vain for the restart button that it'd never touch again."