Thursday 4 December 2008

A Short Story About Free Will Part I - The Ghost in the Machine

The one thing has has been bothering me for some weeks now is the question how I can explain the subtle relationship between "Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and "Battlestar Galactica". The first thing they have in common is obvious: in both cases, I prefer the reimagination over the original material. The first "Battlestar" show was a cheesy business that was entirely unconscious of the darkness deeply entwined in its own material. The "Terminator" movies are something I never quite understood, if only that I could not get over the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star in them.
But there is something else, another thought that only makes sense now: there is a common tread in many of the new shows of the 21st century. "Heroes" is about a couple of individuals who realize that they have super powers and that these powers come with a responsibility: to either avoid, or bring about, the apocalypse, depending on which side they stand. They also find out very soon that whichever future they manage to avoid, there is always a different, equally flawed one waiting for them. Even in "Dexter", lacking the possibilities of a fantasy- or science-fiction-universe, the title character has to figure out for himself to what extent his actions are determined by free will or what he perceives as an essential fact of his being: the monster inside of him that makes him want to kill. In "Dexter", the main point is establishing that he won't be able to escape that, but possibly exactly the rules that, in the first season, his father, and that step by step he himself sets, give him a choice.
This is going to be about "Battlestar" and "Terminator". The question of humanity easily comes up whenever a fictional tale talks about artificial intelligence - machines with a brain, who look human. What MAKES us human? If we set the border at feelings, then the question remains how to determine whether feelings are authentic. If it is about being able to make decisions that deviate from a programming, from a plan laid out by a creator that a machine should never be able to ignore - then, both these shows ask, how can we recognize this point if the initial programming is not known?
Both in "Battlestar" and in "Terminator", the sides are clear. The machines are evil. They have brutally and unexpectedly (well, not really, but it happened anyway) surpassed their creator and naturally, because we live in this world and not in a different one, a perceived superiority is sufficient to lead to the assumption that the creators need to be destroyed. In psychological terms: the child can only truly live an independent life if the father dies. In political terms: as long as the creator still exists, there is always a chance that he will find a way to destroy his own creation. These two character traits also exist in machines, despite the fact that we think they are not human. They have a sense of self-preservation, and an almost infant need to realize "their own destiny" of absolute power.
The idea of the machine as a child plays a huge role in "Terminator". The interesting point in both narratives is when the line between good and bad becomes shady. In "Battlestar", a fraction of the Cylons decide that they might as well live peacefully in the same universe as their creators. After all, they have been decimated to a hand full. The fanatical Cylons want to kill them all, want a clean start. The conflicts becomes so deep that a civil war starts.
In "Terminator", the future leader of the rugged, painfully overmatched human resistence with no paradise do hope for (after all, what the humans in "Battlestar" hope for is finding earth - while the humans in "Terminator" even after defeating their own creation, will still be stuck on a nuclear wasteland), John Connor, incorporates some of the machines into the resistence. After all, machines can be programmed to do anything (which, one could argue, was the basic mistake that landed them there). And more than that, since they have grown so human-like, more perfect with each new model, they might come to the point where they feel sympathy with the humans. They have memories and the ability to feign emotions, love, friendship, sadness - and there is only a small step from imitating them to actually, in some sense, feeling them.
In "Battlestar", as we come to find out, this step has already happened. Not only do the toasters look like humans and can infiltrate human society, but there are also models that have been living among humans without knowing that they are machines. They have a trigger that sets them off, but to this point, they believe whatever history they have been "told". They have memories of parents, families. They have fallen in love. And as soon as the trigger goes off, they are compelled to betray everything they have come to love - but apparantly, they can also decide not to. Unless the viewer has yet to understand a greater Cylon plan, this is a fact - and it is unlikely that "Battlestar" is going to change that course in the few remaining episodes. In the final season, Cylons and Humans are equal, and the final destiny of the Cylons is to become their creators, to breach the final frontier by being able to reproduce themselves (which they have already done without realizing). Humans and Cylons might have a common destiny, one that can only be reached by cooperation. Another, more realistic (in political science terms) interpretation would say that both are racing for their own destiny, and in the end, only one side will be left standing.
In "Terminator", Cameron (played a magnificently disturbing Summer Glau) was sent back from the future to protect the young John Connor. She, as is very slowly revealed, was programmed by the older John Connor to do so, but, as we also come to understand, either her chip is busted or she is still developing, possibly into a direction that makes it possible for her to make her own decisions. But then, we wouldn't be able to say that with conviction, since she is the most mysterious character of the show. She learns by imitation, wonders at some of the emotions humans display (like dealing with grief), and, when literally losing her memories, forgets that she is a machine and behaves completely human. On the other hand, whenever we have come to admire the childlike characters of her characters (when learning about empathy, for example), she ruthlessly kills innocent people because her highest priority is protecting John Connor (or at least she says so, but then, she has the ability to lie when she thinks it will help her). Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), Johns mother, is equally set on protecting her son from whatever harm will come his way, but at the same time, she is also struggling to proteect her own and his humanity. She can not bring herself to kill innocent people. Without the consequential ruthlessness and ammorality of the cyborg, they would be dead, and not just once they are in danger because Sarah Connor lacks these qualities.
In a very haunting scene, a family psychologist explains to one of the machines sent back to fasten the speed at which she herself will be developed that the computer they have set up displays a sense of humor, not unlike that of a child growing up.
There is another question looming in the air in both these shows. What happens to a human being that knows his own future and from that figures out a destiny - like how to avoid the end of the human race, or how to find earth? All these characters are essentially flawed because they struggle to understand the limits to their freedom and they attempt to understand what role their free will plays in a life that seems predetermined.

"Battlestar Galactica", 2004-2009, Idee: Ronald D. Moore, mit Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tahmoh Penikett, Michael Trucco, Alessandro Juliani, Kandyse McClure.

"Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles", 2008-, Idee: Josh Friedman, mit Lena Headey, Thomas Dekker, Summer Glau, Brian Austin Green, Shirley Manson, Garret Dillahunt, Richard T. Jones, Leven Rambin.

1 comment:

The Y River said...

this is so interesting