Pathology Precedes Potential: House, Dexter, & Battlestar Galactica
In his Rifter’s Trilogy and Blindsight cycle, Peter Watts presents us with a cast of characters straight out of the Big Book of Personality Disorders. Watts gives us surgically implanted “recovered memories;" psychopaths triggered by the chemical suppression of compassion; a brain lasered into separate volumes to create multiple personalities; and the autistic astronaut who — having lost half his brain — isn’t even capable of self-awareness.
What we, in the therapeutic age, regard as dysfunctions to be lobotomized by pills and conversation, Watts reveals as psychological codons waiting for the environmental conditions in which they’ll thrive. So far, so typical — we find it in many of the posthuman predictions of science fiction (and we find it delicately hinted at by the behavior of sci-fi fans). Now this viral vision of the adaptivity of pathology has escaped the more esoteric sci-fi labs and is thriving in the popular mainstream in shows like House, Dexter, and Battlestar Galactica.
The human emotions are mechanical and driven by necessity; the Cylon mechanics are the suppressed abilities of Enlightenment humanity.
OK, actually it’s been that way since the beginning of the genre. Conan Doyle’s greatest science fiction isn’t The Lost World or When the World Screamed, it’s the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes is the archetype of the cracked detective — bipolar, OCD, and incapable of human relationships. Unless you’ve got a mystery to solve, he’d rather learn how 3000 types of cigar smell different.
House is David Shore’s upgrade of the Holmes myth. Now the character doesn’t even care about the human dramas of murder and blackmail. He only gets out of bed for the tangled fibers of diseased flesh, and even then only if it’s a chaotic conundrum. Wearing the limp of Legba — the voodoo god of hidden knowledge, himself then secretly connected to the Greek Hermes, god of medicine — House will even put himself into a coma to go down into the underworld and come back with a cure. Like Holmes, he’s a wounded shaman interested only in restoring order to an untidy planet.
The show’s central dilemma is that, while all those around the main character, Dr. House, yearn to restore the social order by making him traditionally human, House is anti-social, anti-human, and has to stay that way to perform his function. The same is true of Dexter, a forensic scientist with a sideline in serial killing. Dexter subverts the tropes of the genre. Instead of solving murders, he assembles a case that will allow him to commit one.
To be sure, Dexter rigidly adheres to his ethical code of only killing killers; but it boils down to “don’t get caught.” And he explicitly wonders at his lack of real empathy for his victim’s victims. Each series arc presents our Aspergers-y sociopath with the specter of character development. Will he buckle to the temptations of humanism (and thereby doom the show)? Or will he simply learn new ways to simulate “normality” and thereby imply that’s all any of us ever do.
That’s also the central issue in Battlestar Galactica. We’re told the question is: “who’s the Human, and who’s the psychopathic Cylon?" We’re in Philip K. Dick territory, but with robots rather than commies under the bed. And yet, with half a season left to go, the fanboy guessing game as to which of our lead humans is the Final Cylon is irresolvable because there is no real difference. The human emotions are mechanical and driven by necessity; the Cylon mechanics are the suppressed abilities of Enlightenment humanity.
Each of these shows is itself a glaring anomaly within mainstream TV, where the alien must be redeemed through character development into full humanity. But House, Dexter, and Battlestar Galactica are Pinocchio refusing to become a boy. Their message is plain: the humans in the show are nothing but dying meat. It’s the aliens who keep mankind alive.