Is transhumanism taking over television? Amidst the usual glut of talent shows and procedural dramas, we’ve seen a growing number of shows that explore the boundaries of science, artificial intelligence, and human advancement. We recap the past season’s forward-looking TV shows so you can get caught up on Hulu or DVD, and which ones you’ll be seeing more of in the fall.
Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi)
The popular post-apocalyptic series about humans on the run after their homeworlds are destroyed by the Cylons – mechanical and biological androids created by humans – has addressed sociopolitical issues aplenty: warfare, religion, classism, the role of the democratic process in times of crisis, and the paranoia that results when enemy looks just like you. But the Cylons are more than a metaphor for terrorism. Their ability to download themselves into fresh bodies allows them to experience and learn from death. And since most Cylon models exist as multiple copies with the same appearance and base programming, many humans question their capacity to act as individuals. Finally, while some Cylons seek to bridge the gap between man and machine, others resent and resist taking on human qualities, believing biology is their only obstacle to transcendence.
Status: It’s over. After four seasons, the battle between Cylons and humans came to a close, but we haven’t seen the last of their struggle. Sci-Fi has greenlit Caprica, a prequel series that details the creation of the Cylon race.
Better Off Ted (ABC)
In this corporate satire, Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) heads up the research and development department at international megacorporation Veridian Dynamics, acting as a liaison between Veridian’s brilliant but socially awkward researchers and its shadowy executives. Though the executives often abuse their research staff to an absurd degree, they earnestly believe that science can accomplish just about anything. Need to cryogenically freeze one of your employees? Grow meat in a lab? Weaponize a pumpkin? At Veridian Dynamics, no innovation is impossible.
Status: Renewed. Better Off Ted’s first seven episodes didn’t fare well in the ratings, but critical buzz will keep us in jet packs and octochickens for at least another season.
Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) is an underachieving college dropout until his former roommate encodes his brain with the US government’s greatest secrets, transforming Chuck into the Intersect, a human spy computer. Most of the technology in Chuck has been one-note. Chuck uses the information from the Intersect to protect US interests. Or rival spy agencies try to find the Intersect or create one of their own. But the second season finale saw Chuck encoded with an upgraded version of the Intersect, one that not only contains factual information, but also has imbued the formerly bumbling computer geek with superspy skills and abilities.
Status: Renewed. Floundering ratings and a big production budget had NBC dragging its feet in deciding whether to renew Chuck. Fan support helped secure a third season, albeit a stripped-down one; NBC only ordered 13 episodes and wants to cut the series’ supporting cast.
Attractive young people who have run afoul of the mysterious Rossum Corporation sign themselves over to become “actives,” programmable servants of the Dollhouse. While the actives’ original personalities and memories sit in a hard drive on the shelf, their bodies are programmed with new memories, personalities, and abilities to serve the Dollhouse and its clients. But when Echo (Eliza Dushku), the Dollhouse’s most popular active, begins to become self-aware, it raises questions as to whether even the Dollhouse can truly erase a person.
Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon wants us to consider whether the actives are any more exploited than anyone else in our society, but the most fascinating aspect of the series is how the Dollhouse uses its actives. The dolls frequently provide companionship or perform illegal activities for Dollhouse clients.. And with the actives infused with other people’s memories, the possibilities are endless. In one episode, a deceased woman has her consciousness posthumously downloaded into Echo’s body so that she can witness her own funeral and solve her own murder. In another, a troubled girl meets an older version of herself so she can see a better possible future. And since the brain can be programmed with traits like loyalty and discretion, anyone may be an active, even the Dollhouse’s own employees.
Status: Renewed. A rocky first few episodes combined with a Friday night timeslot contributed to dismal ratings, but strong streaming and DVR numbers convinced Fox that Dollhouse was worth another second go-round. Plus, it turns out Fox executives themselves are rather fond of the high-concept drama.
Eleventh Hour (CBS)
In this remake of the British series of the same name, Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is a special science adviser to the FBI who investigates abuses of science that have stumped other authorities. He discovers illicit experiments in human cloning, neurological and physiological enhancement, genetically modified organisms, and cryogenic preservation. Unfortunately, the researchers in these fields are generally portrayed as unscrupulous at best and Mengelian at worst, and their experiments frequently result in widespread death and destruction. In response, the Biotech Industry Organization has set up EleventhHourFacts.com, a blog that demystifies the so-called “mad science” so overly dramatized in the show.
Status: Canceled. CBS has never been terribly thrilled with its anti-science show, and it hasn’t helped that Eleventh Hour scored only average ratings, despite a prime time slot right after CSI.
After her partner and lover is killed by a skin-melting bioagent, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) begins investigating the Pattern. It’s a series of bizarre occurrences that can only be explained by “fringe” sciences – such as teleportation, psychic abilities, pyrokinetics, and supersoldier programs. (Fringe, in fact, employs a mix of far out, fringe "science" and real radical scientific developments, reflected in the buzzwords that flash across the screen during the opening credits: "Science. Psychokinesis. Transmogrification. Teleportation. Precognition. Dark matter. Nanotechnology. Genetic Engineering.")
Need to cryogenically freeze one of your employees? Grow meat in a lab? Weaponize a pumpkin?
Agent Dunham teams up with Walter Bishop (John Noble), a mentally unstable scientist who did pioneering work in many fringe fields, and his brilliant estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson) to determine who is behind the experiments. It’s all apparently linked to a secret bioterrorist society that believes technological advancement will lead to our destruction, a leading research company, and a brewing interdimensional war — but like X Files, which seems to be something of a reference point here — things are not always what they seem.
For Fringe, fringe science is the cause of these crimes, but it’s also often the only way to solve them and prevent more people from coming to harm. Olivia and Peter are often willing subjects of Walter’s experiments, temporarily enhancing themselves with machines and/or hallucinogens to get to the truth.
Status: Renewed. Although it initially drew mixed reviews and inconsistent ratings, singularity-fearing biohackers proved a big audience draw making Fringe the top rated new series among adults. This guaranteed a second season, which will feature Leonard Nimoy as a dimension-hopping scientist.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)
Sarah (Lena Headey) and John Connor (Thomas Dekker) try to prevent the development of Skynet — the artificial intelligence that will some day declare war against humanity — and even scarier, propel Arnold Schwarzenegger into superstardom.
With the help of Cameron (Summer Glau), a reprogrammed Terminator, Sarah, John, and their allies try to determine and halt the events that lead to Skynet’s creation while fending off Terminators, the killer robots sent back in time to stop them. While never skimping on the action and mysteries, The Sarah Connor Chronicles also explores the fine line between humans and artificial intelligence. When a malfunction causes Cameron to lose her memories of her life as a Terminator, she believes that she is, in fact, the human resistance fighter she was modeled after. And she seems to be developing warm fuzzy feelings for John. A fearsome T-1001 apparently overseeing the creation of Skynet ends up learning far more than she ever wanted. And when the first AI comes online, he’s not a cold and murderous computer system; instead, he’s a curious and childlike creature — an eager student of human nature. At the same time, John Connor is affected by his experiences with machines; his increasing dependence on Cameron will convince him to make Terminators a significant part of the future resistance.
Status: Canceled. Fox paired Sarah Connor with Dollhouse in the ratings Siberia that is Friday nights, but come renewal time, the Terminator series didn’t fare as well as its dance partner. So, for the time being, the only place we’ll see John Connor battle the machines is on the big screen.