Concepts and Elements of Science Fiction in TV and Films
Computers In Science Fiction: The Basics
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Robots in Science Fiction | Androids in Science Fiction
Cyborgs are a staple element of science fiction. This entry is a rundown of some of the more memorable ones, in chronological order. It is not intended to be a complete list of all cyborgs in science fiction, but rather a guide to show how they have evolved over time, as humans have learnt about robotics and cybernetic principles.
There are two kinds of cyborgs listed here.
Cyborg, from Cybernetic Organism. A half-way point between machine and man that is one of science fiction's favourite creep-out horror concepts to show how humanity is slowly being tainted by technology and we will eventually lose our humanity as we replace our body parts with machinery. Cyborgs are defined as someone who was born human (or biologically) but then supplemented with technology (cybernetic implants usually). This genus includes Cybermen, Darth Vader, Robocop and the Borg.
These are artificial life forms that are built from scratch using both organic and mechanical components. They are, in effect, artificial beings. The replicants in Blade Runner are bio-mechanical as is the Terminator. They are built to perfectly mimic humans.
The distinction is that the bio-mechanical are built 'from the ground up' with synthetic organic components, like the Terminator's skin. Cyborgs start as human, and get 'added to' later.
The beasts in the Alien trilogy are also classified as biomechanoids, though they are a horrific contortion of the human form. Though they have a full life cycle, from egg to gestation to the full adult form, this cycle is believed to be a part of a huge genetic engineering experiment. With acid for blood and an exo-skeleton, they don't exactly mimic humanity, they are a distressing parody of it, which works perfectly to make them the most frightening biomechanical creatures in film history.
Daleks - Doctor Who (1963)
There is an entry on Daleks already in the guide, so this entry will not dwell on them too long.
Daleks are weird. They are technically cyborgs, because they were originally humanoid creatures called Kaleds from the planet Skaro. They became severely mutated as a result of the radiation from a nuclear war. They are now green blobby things that die quickly outside their metal life-support casings. The history behind the Daleks is obscure. Frankly their history is a mess, this may be in part due to the Doctor's influence and because the Daleks developed time travel themselves.
A few things are clear. The Daleks were created by a Kaled scientist called Davros. The war had reached stalemate. Only two domed cities survived, one Thal and one Kaled. The nuclear weapons were useless because each side had defences that could cope. Davros invented the Daleks as a 'mobile tank' type of weapon. Most of the Kaleds were still humanoid, as were the Thals. The Thals' weapons were useless against the Daleks and they all but wiped out the Thals.
At some point the Daleks rebelled against Davros and killed him, but were then trapped in their bunker. Eventually they or a faction escaped and learned to overcome their dependence on static electricity. They developed better weapons and began systematically wiping out all life. They were ruthless and logical.
They attempted to invade Earth in various centuries and failed, thanks to the Doctor, but the Doctor's own people, the Time Lords realised that eventually all life would be Daleks, they would kill everything. Their time travel capabilities were beginning to surpass the Time Lords' own technology. Thus, the Time Lords sent the Doctor back in time to prevent their creation. The Doctor (at this point played by Tom Baker) made a bomb and planted it in among the green blobby things, but couldn't bring himself to commit genocide; even knowing what the Daleks would do, he was aware that much good would come from other races uniting against them in the future. Davros captured the Doctor and interrogated him, learning all that is to come from the Daleks. Thus Davros survived the assassination attempt.
From this point on the Dalek 'history' changes dramatically. They split into two factions, one follows the Dalek leader, the other follows Davros. Davros is a disastrous influence on them. His knowledge of the future turns out to be useless. The logical ruthlessness of the Daleks is destroyed and they never become the dangerous species that the Time Lords feared.
It all comes to a head when both factions invaded Earth. They fight it out, although by this time Davros is dead (possibly, he's cheated death before).
It's all very confusing.
One story pits the Daleks against the Movellans, an android race. Both races are 'programmed' towards being relentlessly logical, trapped in a stalemate of a war because their battle computers cannot outmanoeuvre each other. The Doctor knows how to win the war (turn their war computers off) but doesn't tell them.
Doctor: Have a go at this Davros: All elephants are pink, Nellie is an elephant, therefore Nellie is pink. Logical?
Doctor: You know what a human would say to that?
Romana: Elephants aren't pink.
The 'sink plunger' arm was not useless, they were shown using it effectively. They could also, despite decades of jokes assuming the contrary, fly up stairs... slowly. Tom Baker, who played the fourth Doctor had a great line that he shouts down to a lone Dalek:
If you're supposed to be the supreme species in the universe, why don't you try climbing up after me?'
(There are rumours the principle behind Kosh from Babylon 5 was based on them.)
Cybermen - Doctor Who (1966)
Cybermen were originally humans, the inhabitants of the planet Mondas, Earth's twin. At some point, Mondas drifted out of orbit while Earth remained in place. However the people of Mondas where highly advanced and as their planet's atmosphere died, they hid beneath the surface of the planet and began to augment themselves with cybernetic limbs and organs, eventually to the point where there was precious little 'human' left. As they became 'cybermen', they lost the power of emotion.
They started augmenting their bodies with artificial organs and prosthetics and continued until there were no original components left, even their brains were replaced with artificial replicas1. At this point they seemed to have lost all emotions, assuming they had any to start with. They feel no pity for any creatures who get in their way.
The Cybermen's main motivation is survival. It was presumably the need to survive that made them alter their bodies. Their silver exoskeletons are armoured against most weapons. 20th-Century Earth weapons are useless against them. Although concentrated weapon fire can sometimes kill a single Cyberman, they tend to attack in numbers. They are revealed to have an 'allergy' to gold, though this is really just a get-out clause; in the episodes, the technical reason gold is lethal to them is that as a non-corrosive metal it gets clogged in their breathing units. Subsequent versions of the race seem to be affected by ridiculously small amounts of gold until their final on-screen appearance, in 'Silver Nemesis', has them freaking out at the mere presence of gold coins. This may be an inherited race memory.
They can augment their numbers by building more of themselves. In this respect they can be compared to the Borg from Star Trek, as they are like a hegemonistic swarm.
Cybermen have evolved through the ages. When the Doctor first meets them on-screen2, they still wear bandages, indicating that they are only just finishing their evolution into Cybermen.
When we first see them, the Cybermen speak in a strange sing-song way that apes the 'tunes' made by early computers when loading in data. As they evolved, their voices became more electronic, thanks mainly to the devices used to create the voices being the same that are used by people who have lost their voice boxes due to throat cancer or accidents (as used by Ned in South Park). Their final on-screen versions had much more articulate voices with slight electronic modulation. These versions were able to add inflections and stresses to words in the right places, though their conversations still tended to be doom-laden and rather limited.
Darth Vader - Star Wars (1977)
Darth Vader - the lead villain in the original Star Wars trilogy - was human to start with, but as Obi-Wan says, 'He's more machine than man now.' Like Robocop, he was originally human, but an accident destroyed most of his body and he was then cybernetically enhanced until very little of his body was left. It is not clear how much of his body survived, but his limbs and much of his torso are almost certainly artificial.
It is mentioned that he only survived because of his ability with the Force, particularly the dark side. He is the protégé of the emperor and feared throughout the galaxy, partly because of his appearance.
Vader is ruthless and without compassion because he is no longer entirely 'human'. The salvation of Vader as he saves Luke is the hope that humans can remain human, even if most of their body is artificial.
The theme of family in the film is even echoed in the artificial hand that Luke is given to replace the one Darth cut off. It is interesting to see how lifelike Luke's hand is. It is probable that Darth's body could be made to look more life-like. The reason he doesn't is that he terrifies people with his presence.
With the release of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones it can be seen how far cybernetic implants have progressed in one person's lifetime. Anakin's artificial hand works just as his original did, but it looks mechanical and has a metal finish. it is unlikely that it has the nerve feedback that Luke's new hand has.
Replicants - Blade Runner (1982)
Little is known about the Replicants in Blade Runner. The film obeys the first law of science fiction - never explain anything you don't have to. They are organic, they have DNA and cells and muscles, but they are completely artificial. Hence they fall into the bio-mechanical category.
The replicants are designed to imitate humans, and are used as soldiers, police, and 'pleasure' models. Because of psychotic tendencies, they are banned on Earth and special police units called Blade Runners are employed to hunt them down, with orders to shoot on sight. The replicants are 'born' adults, but have no emotional responses programmed in. Their creators realised that given long enough, the replicants would develop their own emotions, which worried them. So, to prevent this, they built in a safeguard - a four-year lifespan. The replicants are indistinguishable from humans, the only difference being detectable by a special emotional response test.
The film is about four replicants who aren't happy about their short lives and have risked everything to travel to Earth and meet the man who made them, to ask for longer lives. They are disappointed with the answer when he tells them it is impossible. Any attempt to extend their lives would kill them.
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.
But the film does offer hope, a prototype replicant called Rachel who has been built without the fail safe. She has been given emotional awareness by using implanted childhood memories of her creator's niece.
The Terminator (1984)
The terminator is not an android (as some may think), rather it is a cybernetic organism, living tissue grafted onto a metal endo-skeleton. The terminators were created by the SkyNet computer. Terminators are killing machines, designed to fool humans into thinking they are human, however SkyNet also used them without their organic skin as effective foot soldiers in its war against humanity. They are androids. This makes it hard to classify them.
Three terminators were sent back in time (one was a prototype that could mimic any person it saw). They were convincing enough to pass as human, only dogs being able to detect them as otherwise. The first terminator is a T101 model, the prototype is a T1000. These model numbers seem to indicate the number of designs that SkyNet has gone through. Not all of the model numbers necessarily indicate a working unit. Some may not have progressed past the design or development stage.
The terminator's organic skin does have a nervous system, linked to their central processor. They can detect damage to their skin, which the second T101 likens to pain. The terminators have power cells that last for 125 years, they do not need to rest or sleep and are extremely strong.
Each terminator in the film has a weakness. The T101 is confused by lots of movement around it in the factory. Its relentless pursuit of Sarah leads it through the steam press, which destroyed it. The T1000, although much more advanced, cannot move while regenerating its form. This leads it to fall into the molten steel.
When Detroit cop Murphy is killed in action, his employer OCP (Omni Consumer Products) decides to incorporate what's left of him into a cyborg police unit, Robocop. Although technically a cyborg (organic and mechanical components), he is more machine than man.
He possesses superior strength and speed, and near flawless targeting for his firepower. His only weakness is that he is (or was) human and still has most of his memories intact. He is also hampered by his four directives:
- Serve the public
- Protect the innocent
- Uphold the law
The classified directive was an instruction not to target or arrest OCP board members.
He was once programmed with hundreds of directives which made him almost insane. This was the so-called 'Programming by committee'. He shot (but deliberately missed) someone who was smoking in public, which is illegal. He lectured children on wasting water and couldn't function as a police officer. He solved the problem with a massive electrical shock that erased all his directives.
The Borg - Star Trek (1989)
The Borg, from Star Trek are the ultimate cyborg race. They act with a collective mind, so there are no individuals. They are feared throughout the galaxy. They increase their numbers by assimilating other races into their collective, the assimilated race cease to be a collection of individuals and becomes simply 'Borg'.
The Borg are on a relentless drive to achieve perfection. They aim to achieve this through adding more and more species to themselves until they are perfect. They are close to being obsessed with defeating Starfleet and assimilating the human race. The humans have proven to be one of the most resilient species to assimilate.
Although little is known about their origins, they are believed to have originated in the delta quadrant. They have made several incursions into Federation space and been successfully repelled each time, including one temporal incursion, when they travelled to 2063 to prevent first contact between humans and vulcans, and thus prevent the Federation being formed.
The Borg are ruled by a queen. She may have been a member of species 13, though it's possible there have been at least two Borg Queens; there are contingency plans to replace the queen if she is lost.
They assimilate by first injecting them with nanoprobes4, then implanting cybernetic technology in their bodies. The nanobots will create some of the implants themselves using matter from the victim. Assimilated ships will be added to until they are configured as Borg cubes or spheres. Entire civilisations will be assimilated at once. They usually greet them with 'We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your vessel. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.' However the Borg do not assimilate every race they encounter, only those whose biological or technological distinctiveness would add to their own. They did not assimilate the Kazon because they would add nothing useful to the collective.
The main advantage of the Borg is that they share all information with every other Borg unit in existence. The Borg also have adaptive shielding. After two shots, an energy weapon, such as a phaser or photon torpedo, is useless and must be tuned to a different frequency.
The main disadvantage the Borg have is they ignore anything they do not consider to be a threat. They will ignore species who they will not assimilate. They are also incapable of scientific investigation, they cannot understand anything they have yet to assimilate. It is because of this that Species 8472 almost destroyed them.
In their collective state, the Borg are utterly without mercy - driven by one will alone: the will to conquer. They are beyond redemption - beyond reason.
- Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise
It is my opinion that the Borg are as close to pure evil as any race we've ever encountered.
- Captain Amasov of the USS Endeavor
Borg history is almost as garbled as the Daleks. Humanity first meets them when Q 'pings' the Enterprise-D to the delta quadrant. A few crew members are captured and the Borg collective decides that humanity is worthy of assimilation. Later several outposts along the Federation - Romulan neutral zone are attacked, the outposts being 'scooped' out of existence. The Borg attempt to assimilate Earth, most of the Terran defence left is destroyed by the solitary Borg cube in the Wolf 359 system. The Enterprise destroys the Cube by making it think that all the drones need to regenerate (sort of like sleeping). The assimilated Captain Picard (aka Locutus of Borg) is the instrument of this success. The Borg try again, this time Picard defeats them again by his knowledge of a critically vulnerable system, but a sphere ship escapes from the cube and travels into the past (2063). Picard destroys it, but not before the Queen and several drones begin assimilating his ship. With Data's help he betrays the queen and kills her and all the drones, but he doesn't clean up the mess, leaving the sphere to crash in the arctic. It is discovered about 100 years later by a survey team, who are assimilated along with their ship. The Enterprise NX-01 is sent to intercept them, but is unable to save them and destroys the ship, but not before they get off a subspace message to the delta quadrant. The message is a set of co-ordinates on how to find Earth.
Thus the Borg's fascination with assimilating humanity is a temporal paradox...