One of the most persistent and compelling character types in television has been the Cyborg. There are many reasons for this, but without question a great deal of this is the enormous flexibility of the Cyborg and the myriad of uses that the figure can be employed. Cyborgs usually stand for “the Other”. Donna Haraway famously wrote in “A Cyborg Manifesto”, far and away the most important piece ever written about Cyborgs, “Cyborg writing is about seizing the tools that mark the world that marked [one] as other.”
The same holds true of Cyborgs on television, but there also is a far wider range of what is meant by “Other”. Sometimes Cyborgs are the monstrous other, such as the Daleks in Dr. Who, while on many occasions Cyborgs serve as stand ins for ourselves, as we are made “Other” by the corporate, social, religious, governmental, and consumer forces in our world. Cyborgs are made things, constructed by people; they are artifacts. So, also, we sometimes feel that our own lives have been formed and shaped by forces outside our control. It is this shared sense of being artifacts created by others that gives the Cyborg such imaginative force.
When we see the covert military program that made Max Guevera (Dark Angel) attempt by force to recover their “property”, we gain a sense of her as someone without rights, without legal standing, and without standing as a person. She is a commodity, a thing. In Battlestar Galactica, Sharon is constantly referred to by others by impersonal pronouns. She tells her lover (later husband) Helo, “I’m not a person to them. I’m a thing.” She is referred to as “it” and “that thing”. So in a very real sense, when we watch Cyborgs on TV, we don’t see an “Other”, we see ourselves. The story of Sharon Agathon doesn’t resonate as a story about a machine, but a person very much like ourselves.
The Cyborg is facinating also for the many forms it can take. As many writers have pointed out, many of us are already Cyborgs due to various technological enhancements. Artificial hips, knees, legs, hands, arms, and hips; pacemakers; lasik surgery; plastic surgery, including implants and facial reconstruction; performance enhancement drugs — all of these are ways of bridging the gap between the biological and the technological.
Nor is the Cyborg limited simply to the mechanical. Most writers on Cyborgs regard any kind of technological recreation or formation of the individual, such as psychological programing, as the making of a Cyborg, so that the Manchurian Candidate is as much a Cyborg as James Cameron’s Terminator. A television character such as Sydney Bristow on Alias, who in a storyline that did not receive as much long-term emphasis as one might at one point have anticipated, could be considered a Cyborg because of the way that she had been programmed from childhood as part of Project Christmas, just as Olivia Dunham on another J.J. Abrams’s series, Fringe,can even more certainly be regarded as a Cyborg through the pharmocological regimen she underwent as a small child.
The Cyborg has been a preoccupation of many film and television makers. James Cameron is the foremost artist of the Cyborg, not just because of his role in creating the Terminator franchise, but because of Cyborgs he introduced in Aliens and in the TV series Dark Angel. The foremost creator of TV Cyborgs has been Joss Whedon, who had a few of them in Buffy and Angel, but even more in Firefly and Serenity as well as in his most recent series Dollhouse. Interestingly, Cameron, Whedon, and Abrams are also among the leading creators of film and movie projects that feature strong female characters, which would reinforce the contention of many feminists that the Cyborg is a particularly important category for understanding gender.
There are an almost endless number of Cyborgs on television, many more, in fact, than there are robots. While robots are entirely mechanical (like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation), Cyborgs have at least some biological component, even if it is merely epidermal exterior. Here is my selection of ten of the most compelling or important Cyborgs in the history TV, ten that display the range and diversity of the Cyborg, presented in chronological order…
1. The Daleks (Dr. Who 1963-Present)
Exterminate! Exterminate! The Daleks have perhaps been the most famous and certainly the most long-lasting of Dr. Who’s nemeses. Daleks are soft, poorly formed creatures that live inside hard, metallic exteriors that look like nothing so much as salt or pepper shakers. Whatever compassion or empathy they may have possessed at one point in their species’ history has been long lost. They evince pure hatred and have no real goals as a race except to destroy whatever they come in contact with. They show no personality or recognizable motivation apart from the single-minded determination to destroy everything in their path. Interestingly, while the Daleks are the oldest Cyborgs on this list, they are also the only ones still active.
2. Steve Austin (The Six Million Dollar Man 1974-1978) and Jamie Summers (The Bionic Woman 1976-1978 and 2007)
Frankly, the two shows from the ’70s are relics at this point, hopelessly dated and primarily of historic interest. But the concept of humans who had had substantial parts of their anatomy replaced — and upgraded — by high-tech mechanical devices was unprecedented at the time. The Six Million Dollar Man was loosely based upon Martin Caiden’s 1972 best-selling but bland sci-fi novel Cyborg, which celebrated and delighted in the military capabilities of the alterations.
Watched today, the show is too limited by the episodic structure of the narrative and the extremely limited special effects and stunts to be very enjoyable — the advances in visual special effects are well-known, but the improvements in stunts and wire work, much of it coming out of Hong Kong, has been just as substantial. The same is true of The Bionic Woman, which in lieu of special effects may have employed more slow motion sequences than any other show in TV history. A promising 2007 remake of the series was short-circuited by extraordinary network interference and the 2007-2008 WGA strike.
The underlying idea behind all three shows, however, is a fundamental one, embodying both the hopes and fears of the ongoing melding of human biology with new forms of technology. While the technology expands human potential, it also threatens our understanding of what it means to be human.
3. Seven of Nine (Star Trek: Voyager 1997-2001)
The Star Trek franchise excelled at pushing the boundaries of personality and humanity, and one of its finest creations was the former Borg drone Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One, known more simply as Seven of Nine and even more simply as Seven. Born as the human Annika Hansen, Seven was assimilated at a very young age and lived as part of the Borg until separated during an exercise in which Voyager and the Borg cooperated to defeat a common enemy. For the last four seasons of Voyager Seven strove to rediscover her humanity while overcoming what she rarely acknowledged as severe psychological trauma inflicted by the Borg.
Many TV Critics and Star Trek fans (especially in the slash tradition) are of the opinion that the Borg is coded as “Gay”, but Seven comes across not as gay but as a rape survivor. For many fans her gradual acceptance of her own limitations and rediscovery of the joys of being human were one of the things that kept Voyager worth watching during its final seasons. Seven might also be the last great character created in the Star Trek universe.
4. Max Guevera (Dark Angel 2000-2002)
Perhaps no show has presented as clearly so many of the recurring themes surrounding Cyborgs as James Cameron’s Dark Angel. Co-created by James Cameron, the show details the attempts of Max, a young and intensely beautiful transgenic female (played by the surreally gorgeous Jessica Alba) to achieve a life of normalcy despite having been created by the military in the womb to serve as a super soldier, a genetically enhanced killing machine. Max escaped as a child from the secret military facility at which she had been created and has spent the rest of her life trying to elude recapture. The military considered her property, with no say-so about whether she is to return to full-time service as a weapon, with no input into her own future, with no self-possession or rights.
Max perfectly encapsulates all of the Cyborg themes I noted at the beginning, and does so brilliantly. She also illustrates the sense of alienation that so many Cyborgs communicate. When her friend Original Cindy learns her secret and complains that she has discovered that her friend Max “is not even human”, Max, who has been created by a blending of human and nonhuman DNA, replies, “Mostly human.” While we love gazing at Jessica Alba’s impossibly beautiful face and love seeing her kick butt, we respond most deeply to her attempt to assert her personhood against a world that has simultaneously created her and denied her the right to her own existence.
River Tam and more
5. River Tam (Firefly 2002)
I’ll repeat what very nearly everyone else familiar with the show has stated: the cancellation by FOX of Joss Whedon’s sci-fi Western was one of the great tragedies TV of the past decade. Heck, THE great tragedy of the past decade. While not nominally one of the most important characters on the show, it was obvious to any close watcher of the series that River Tam would have driven the main story arcs in the series. A narrative that would have played out over a couple of seasons was collapsed into the plot of Serenity, the film sequel to the TV series.
River was a child prodigy whose brain was altered to create a range of extraordinary abilities: she could sense events at a distance, was telepathic, and possessed an extreme athleticism that turned her into the ultimate hand-to-hand combatant. River was also deeply scarred, a psychically and emotionally-abused soul who only randomly qualified as a fully functional human being. The film ended with her reaching a new level of stability, some of her demons at bay, even taking her place as a fully functional member of the crew.
6. Jake Foley (Jake 2.0 2003)
David Greenwalt and Silvio Horta (the latter brought Jake 2.0 star Christopher Gorham over to Ugly Betty as Betty’s love interest Henry when he became the show runner of the series) created this series about a low level NSA computer geek getting injected with nanobots and instantly becoming an ill-prepared superhero. Television has failed so far to produce definitive narratives about nanotechnology (the Stargate franchise with the replicators and Star Trek with the nanite-laced Borg are two examples), Jake is perhaps the most interesting to date. Unfortunately the series did not quite make it to a full season’s worth of episodes.
7. Sharon Agathon (Battlestar Galactica 2004-2009)
On a series filled with Cyborgs, Sharon Agathon managed to stand out. While Number Six in her red dress served as one of the visual icons of Battlestar Galactica, Sharon’s story made her the most compelling Cyborg on the show. While other characters were driven by a variety of motives, Sharon was driven by her love for her husband, for her daughter, and for her position as an officer on Galactica. Her and Helo’s romance prefigured the resolution of the entire series, anticipating the eventual collaboration between the Cylons and humans, while their half-human/half-Cylon daughter Hera truly was “the shape of things to come”. Watching Sharon deliberately go against her program and repeatedly save the human race despite near universal distrust and loathing on the part of humans was one of the few inspiring story arcs on a show that tended to go dark and then stay there. (Edward James Olmos on several occasions cited the transformative love that Sharon experienced as one of the crucial elements on Battlestar Galactica.)
8. Kyle Trager (Kyle XY 2006-2009)
As a Cyborg, Kyle bore some resemblance to Max Guevera. Both were superhumans due to breeding, though the methods were different. Max was the result of genetic engineering, a chimera created by blending together the DNA of a variety of constitutive species, making her not quite human, or, as Max told her best friend Original Cindy, “Mostly human.” Kyle was completely human, but his exceptional abilities came from artificially being kept in the womb, the premise being that he continued developing “in the womb” for some 16 years, giving him intellectual and physical capacities that were completely unique.
While Max was cut off from the family that she longed to have, Kyle was devoid of a childhood, though he found a home with the Tragers, giving the series itself the feel of a family drama. The themes on the show focused more on the difficulties of growing up and fitting in than on questions of what it means to be human, though it repeated many of the constantly repeating themes of sci-fi, such as the ways in which technology dehumanizes us.
9. Cameron (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, 2008-2009)
For its first two and only seasons, the Terminator known as Cameron (named that in honor of the creator of the Terminator franchise, James Cameron) was one of the main delights of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. All indications are that in Season Three Cameron would not have been a part of the series, Summer Glau playing the human Allison instead of Cameron, the latter’s chip going instead to the supercomputer on legs known as John Henry. Cameron was a fascinating character on several levels, obviously pursuing an agenda that she was not completely sharing with Sarah and John Connor, but also because most other TV Cyborgs, one could debate whether or not she was actually a person. She in fact seems less “human” that many pure robots like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Cameron might, in fact, be the only major Cyborg unable to pass the Turing Test, the thought experiment that the British genius John Turing devised for determining sentience in a machine. Stated simply, if when asking a series of questions to someone or something you can’t see, you can’t tell tell that they aren’t human, then they qualify as persons. It is not at all certain that Cameron, whom a psychologist on the show suspects of suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, could pass the Turing Test.
Sadly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles ended before many of the most fascinating questions about Cameron could be answered. Why did John Connor send her back? Did, in fact, John send her back? She says on a couple of occasions that she was different? How? We know that she was able to ignore some of her base programming. How did she do that? And did she in fact “love” John? Unless creator Josh Friedman decides to reveal in an interview the answers to these questions, we may never know.
10. Echo (Dollhouse, 2009-2010)
I believe that eventually people will view the cancellation of Dollhouse as nearly as tragic as the cancellation of Firefly. The premature axing of the latter is more baffling in that it was immediately a brilliant show and FOX’s inability to see its greatness is inexplicable; the former was much slower to become a quality series, partly due to extensive network interference and partly due — if Joss Whedon’s frequent protestations that early changes suggested by FOX execs were changes that he agreed with — to Whedon’s struggles to gain command over his subject matter. Echo started off as just another Doll, a human programmed with the personality, knowledge, and capabilities of whoever her handlers wanted her to be. As she evolved in the second half of the second and final season, precisely when the show became fascinating, Echo became instead of an empty shell a fully functional self-programmer, an agent capable of accessing any and all of the abilities of the personalities with which she had been imprinted. She had, in other words, become a superhero.