The $50,000,000.02 Woman

The $50,000,000.02 Woman September 26, 2007

I just finished watching the season premier of the new TV series on NBC, Bionic Woman. The title of this blog entry reflects the updating of the value of the original six million dollar woman to reflect inflation – plus me adding my “two cents” worth.

We’ve had various series that treat machine intelligences and people with seemingly miraculously enhanced abilities, even if the explanation is pseudo-technological (such as Heroes and The 4400). This is the first major series since Dark Angel, however, to genuinely offer what may rightly be called a cyborg (and one cannot help wondering if the choice of dark-haired actress Michelle Ryan for the new Jamie Sommers was influenced by Jessica Alba’s role in that series).

As with David Eick’s other recent recreation of a classic science fiction series from the 70s, Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman is not an attempt to retell the story of the original series The Bionic Woman. For those of us waiting for the new season of BSG to begin, it was refreshing to see not one but two familiar faces from that series (Starbuck and the Chief), the former promising to return regularly on the series. The new recreated Bionic Woman is darker, edgier (again like Battlestar Galactica), reminiscent in some ways of La Femme Nikita. In any current series involving government secrets, we expect the lines between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ to be at least somewhat blurry. This is not a bad thing – in studying the Ramayana recently for a class on South Asian Civilizations, I had the chance to reflect on how that great classic of the Indian tradition avoids such moralistic oversimplifications. Star Wars too does a great job of bringing the same theme to our attention.

One does not have to look beneath the surface of the new series to come into contact with the moral and religious overtones. As Jamie’s boyfriend, bionics expert Will, says in an introductory lecture on bioethics, the question regarding enhancement technologies is “When is it OK to intervene in God’s work?” Few if any today would have objections to glasses, contact lenses, or laser eye surgery. Prosthetics are fine, and we seem to be willing to go a step further and allow breasts, for example, to be enlarged. I doubt there is anyone in the world with an e-mail account who does not receive frequent spam offering them the opportunity to increase the size of organs they have and others they do not (or rather, they do, but because of their gender most have no interest in enlarging them). What would be wrong, then, in simply making improvements for their own sake? Why allow interventions to correct our vision but not to improve it?

Such ethical questions are pressing as technological possibilities develop with breathtaking speed. The character Will says at one point that “technology is at the point where science fiction isn’t science fiction any more.” This may well be a statement of truth – military technology is usually advanced beyond what is disclosed to the public, and so it may indeed be the case that, somewhere in the world, there is technology related to human enhancement that is much more advanced than anything known to the general public.

Although the special effects aren’t really Matrix-like, as some had anticipated, the series seems closer to the thinking of the Matrix films, steeped in cyberpunk and technological optimism, as opposed to the viewpoint of the Star Wars films, in which Darth Vader represents a shadow of a human self that has lost something of its soul as it has become “more machine than man”.

Many of these recent series show that our deep-seated longing for superheroes with super-human abilities is not waning. Bionic Woman, however, has the potential to allow us to explore the ethical and spiritual side of a technology that is much closer to becoming science fact within the lifetimes of those who watch it. It is also off to a descent start, with characters that have the potential to enchant us and draw us into their stories, and keep us glued to the TV night after night. I just hope I won’t have to find myself choosing between Bionic Woman and LOST!

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