The recently retired Battlestar Galactica, the upcoming Caprica, and Fox’s Sarah Connor Chronicles all deal in different ways with the questions posed by advancing technology.  But in the BSG and Terminator universes, the threat of technology is embodied by an external Other, a rogue race of robots.

Yes, on Battlestar, part of the show’s brilliance was constantly blurring the ethical and moral divisions between man and machine, but the biggest problem with the show’s finale was that after years of exploring this nuance, the bad machines all got blowed up by God and humans unanimously and willfully abandoned modern technology.  The thematically rich man/machine dialectic was tossed out the window in favor of the most literal and luddite Deus Ex Machina possible.      

But for Battlestar, the humans v. robots framework was a device anyway. Cylons-as-Other was less about exploring hard sci-fi questions of technological ethics and identity than it was about exploring the moral atmosphere of the Global War on Tuhr’r during which the show aired.  The last third of BSG‘s run had outlived the show’s zeitgeist, and while its troubled twilight doesn’t diminish its overall value, I feel Battlestar‘s urgency and relevance waned along with the Bush era. 

The other curiosity on the Friday night sci-fi landscape these days is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, a show at least as problematic week-to-week as the BSG finale was, but for different reasons. 

Dollhouse‘s biggest problem is that Eliza Dushkhu doesn’t really have acting chops. She has an acting chop, I’ll grant you, but just the one.  Setting that aside, the series’s biggest problem to date has been a lack of direction. The show didn’t know what it was about yet. It’s been more fascinating to follow in the press than on television if for no other reason than Whedon’s “it’s a work in progress” earnestness regarding its questionable initial quality and long-term sustainability.

With “Man on the Street,” the sixth episode, Whedon announced a guiding vision to unite the show’s intriguing-but-unexplored conceptual elements.  Thematically, the episode’s strongest scenes were between Tahmoh Penikett (a BSG alum) and Patton Oswalt as an internet mogul. Oswalt’s character is comfortable with the Dollhouse, viewing it as a provider of post-modern simulacra that are as satisfyingly materially ‘real’ as they are transient and illusory.  When Penikett’s Agent Ballard protests that this is technology run amok, literally overwriting the Dolls’ humanity, Oswalt’s web mogul scoffs that much of his job is convincing people not to be afraid of change that has already happened anyway.  Meanwhile, the episode is interlaced with hand-held video interviews and testimonials demonstrating the Rorschach-like qualities of the Dollhouse urban legend, in which some ‘men (and women) on the street’ find the Dollhouse concept appealing, as a means of escaping and/or expanding one’s identity.

While Dollhouse still has work to do before it’s a sustainable TV show (in its defense, it’s learning curve reminds me an awful lot of Buffy Season 1), it has found its thematic voice, and it is one more suited for our times than any of the other series I mentioned above. Because Whedon’s show is not about man v. machine, externalizing the threat of tech via robotics. It is about the fusion of man and machine, man AS machine: transhumanism. 

Roger Ebert wrote a blog post this weekend about transhumanism, reflecting on our society’s growing symbiosis with an ever-accessible internet and the visionary sci-fi of Arthur C. Clarke.  Ebert considers the machines called “Soul Catchers” in Clarke’s 3001, computers advanced enough to store a human mind, and the possibility that science could also provide a mind with cloned copies of its body in which to download itself. Cylon Resurrection anyone?  Quote:

Wouldn’t this process be akin to abortion? … Perhaps totally brainless bodies could be produced. Blank slates. What
if one of them had a glitch and started to think for itself?

And so this line of questioning is the genesis of Dollhouse, too.  Both Ebert’s essay and Whedon’s show are explorations of the central issue of transhumanism: the identity-eroding effects, the post-modern dissolution, that only seems to grow apace with the technological achievements that theoretically unleash unlimited human potential.

Fittingly then, TV may no longer be the right medium for Whedon to explore new creative ground.  In a short Rolling Stone interview from February, Whedon hints at a possible venture launching a web portal for internet serials. Even if nothing comes of it, it leaves me with the impression that after the success of Dr. Horrible last year, Whedon is better suited to explore our kaleidoscoping human condition by springing forward into web media, not falling back into network television.

So nestle into the matrix, dear reader. As the Battlestar finale demonstrated, a return to the past is no answer for the future. We may be trapped in a Red Queen’s Race, but the only way forward is further down the rabbit hole.