“The ultimate upgrade” – Doctor Who & the Cybermen (parts 1 & 2)

September 20, 2007

In a two part episode concerning the Doctor’s encounter with the Cybermen, The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel rehearse a number of important bioethical issues regarding the feasibility and acceptability of “the ultimate upgrade” (00:24:15) – that is, the downloading and/or replicating of characteristics and functions of the human brain into a machine.

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John Lumick (The Rise of the Cybermen. BBC, 2006)

In brief, The Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel concern the efforts of John Lumick – a dying cybernetics genius in a parallel world – to prolong his life by downloading or replicating his conciousness in a mechanical body. This is described in terms of “a brain welded to an exoskeleton” (00:00:20). However, Lumick sees the cybermen project as, not only, his way to circumvent the wheelchair we see him in and his immanent death, but also, as the future of the human species – what he refers to as “our greatest step into cyberspace” (00:24:56). In order to secure this future Lumick unleashes the Cybermen on human society where they go about suggesting that “upgrading is compulsory” (00:41:53) and that humans “are inferior and will be reborn as Cybermen” (00:45:01).

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The Cybermen (The Rise of the Cybermen. BBC, 2006)

As the story progresses the slippage and ambiguity in the terms ‘treatment’ and ‘enhancement’ becomes obvious. In The Age of Steel it is noted that “this all started out as a way of prolonging life” (00:07:21), though that the project has now become one which “takes the living and turns them into…machines” (00:04:30). Though this issue of mechanical enhancement of humans, including their effective replacement by super – or post – human cyborgs, is presented negatively in the action and dialogue that ensues, these episodes of Doctor Who do acknowledge the view that this type of extreme augmentation can be seen as the next step up on the evolutionary ladder. Indeed the Cybermen are referred to as a new species and describe themselves “human point two” (The Rise of the Cybermen: 00:41:51).

While both episodes are interesting, though provoking and exciting, it is The Rise of the Cybermen, that provides the best opportunity to explore and elaborate current themes in the bioethics of enhancement, including:

  • the distinction between treatment and enhancement of human beings by mechanical means
  • the boundary and difference between humans and machines
  • the idea and practical use of a hierarchy of ethical values in society
  • and, the interaction between science and regulatory and political structures in technological decision-making

These issues are explored in detail in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that will shortly be available to accompany this post.

The Rise of the Cybermen was first broadcast on BBC1 on May 13th 2006 at 19.00 (TRILT identifier: 0059521F), followed by The Age of Steel on BBC1 on May 20th 2006 at 18.35 (TRILT identifier: 00597007).


“The Meaning of Humanity” – Doctor Who

June 6, 2007

The recent season of Doctor Who, the third since the relaunch of the the iconic series after a long absence, has included several episodes dealing with one of the most fundamental questions of all time: what it means to be human.

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The human/Dalek hybrid
(Evolution of the Daleks. BBC, 2006)

One particular episode, The Evolution of the Daleks (first broadcast on BBC1, 28th April 2007), explores this theme through the creation of a hybrid Human/Dalek, in what the Daleks refer to as “the final experiment”. This transgenic organism, formed by the “splicing of human and Dalek genetic codes”, appears as the pinnacle of Dalek evolution, harnessing all the qualities of humanity that has made it undefeatable in the past…well, since the 1960s at least.

The classic episode The Evil of the Daleks (1967), was the first time the series attempted to describe something called the “Human Factor”. For years the Daleks had recognised this as some immaterial quality that humans possessed and they lacked; one that made the human race stronger, smarter and able to survive countless Dalek attacks. In 1967 the Daleks tried only to identify this mysterious quality, however in 2007 – with the benefit of a state of the art genetics laboratory – they finally incorporate the human factor into their own genetic makeup. It is through the interaction and comparison between the hybrid Dalek Sek and the Doctor, and Sek’s responses to subsequent events in the show, that the boundary between Dalek and Human, and the characteristics that make up the Human Factor are identified and explored.

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The pig/human hybrids
(Evolution of the Daleks. BBC, 2006)

Essentially, The Evolution of the Daleks attempts to establish relations of similarity and difference between humans and Daleks, though also between humans, Daleks, and the pig/human hybrid army that had been created in the preceding show The Daleks in Manhattan. Humanity is depicted as thinking and feeling, where the Daleks are single-minded and emotionless. Humans have the ability to appreciate music and feel compassion for others; they possess courage, determination and ambition; though also experience pain and fear. It is the lack of these characteristics that makes the Daleks “less than their enemies”. The pig/human army, on the other hand are referred to as “simple beasts”.

The attached annotated Evolution of the Daleks Clip Guide provides relevant clips and quotes, and can be used in conjunction with copies of the episode obtained from the BUFVC (TRILT identifier: 006717D3).