Technology and the Post-Human Body in Fringe and Terminator: Salvation

Mortality is an essential component of human nature, yet literature, film, and other forms of popular culture are replete with examples of figures who occupy liminal spaces (such as the space between life and death) and they thus challenge the very nature of the boundaries they transgress. To be sure, in popular culture there exist speculative beings that represent a re-writing or re-imagining of what is traditionally conceived of as human. As Jon Seltin argues in “Production of the Post-Human: Political Economies of Bodies and Technology,” the “post-human and cyborg are now very familiar figures, both in popular culture and the academy. Representations of enfleshed machines, technologically augmented bodies and artificial intelligences are a cornerstone of contemporary science fiction” (43). Though these representations are now commonplace, important conceptual questions still remain, for, as N. Katherine Hayles explains in her book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, notions of “human” and “post-human” are more complex than “that was then, this is now”; rather, “‘human’ and ‘posthuman’ coexist in shifting configurations that vary with historically specifics contexts” (6).

To be sure, there exist beings whose very existence pushes the limits, particularly in the way they complicate the borders between life and death, man and machine, and human and post-human. Two striking cases that illustrate dilemmas related to such representations can be seen in the Fox television series, Fringe (2008-2013), through the character of Alistair Peck, played by Peter Weller, who appears in the “White Tulip” episode, and in the 2009 film Terminator: Salvation (part of the Terminator franchise), with the character of Marcus Wright, played by Sam Worthington. Not only do these characters complicate the binaries between life/death as well as between human/post-human, man/machine, and thinking/programming, but both Wright and Peck also challenge conventional views on mortality. Indeed, Marcus Wright and Alistair Peck work well as cases in point to illustrate how messy ontological categories can get—not only do they call into question existing categories, they also raise timely questions about the impetus to apply taxonomy to beings.

In this sense, characters such as Marcus Wright and Alistair Peck thus force us to re-examine what it means to be human in the 21st century as they also push us to question how we understand ourselves as human beings. In the case of Alistair Peck, it’s not only impossible to separate the man from the machine, but it’s also difficult to separate what he is from what he can do, since he’s re-engineered his body into a time machine by surgically grafting a “Faraday Mesh” (a shield to create a temporal pocket) onto his body. In the case of Marcus Wright, viewers as well as characters struggle with determining what exactly Marcus Wright is, since he’s part human and part terminator. Wright was a death row inmate who donated his body to science—he’s thus “reborn” as a hybrid figure. There is a pivotal scene in Terminator: Salvation when John Connor, the de-facto leader of the resistance, sees circuitry in Marcus Wright’s abdominal cavity and thus declares that Wright is “not human”; Wright nonetheless insists that he is human—and, notably, Connor is baffled upon realizing that Wright “thinks he’s human.” Yet, later in the film, both Connor and Wright are forced to re-assess their initial stance. Indeed, scenes which occur late in the film—as well as the film’s resolution—only further complicate this matter since the film’s resolution hinges on Wright sacrificing himself—in essence giving up both his immortality and his post-human existence to save John Connor’s life.

What complicates discussions of these characters is that the bodies of both Alistair Peck and Marcus Wright have been altered and technologically augmented to such a degree that technology defines their existence as much as (if not more so) than their human nature. In his article, “Cyber-punk: Cyberpunk and Information Technology,” Steve Jones argues that the “parallels we draw between machines and living things strongly color our understanding of the world” (89). He emphasizes that now, since information is so central to biology, “life is thought of as a genetic code, and like a machine is available for editing” (Jones 89). Both of these cases, of course, are fictional and derive from popular culture, but considering the speed with which technology is advancing, we are fast-moving headlong into a future where scenarios similar to those depicted in Fringe and Terminator: Salvation may one day be a reality. Moreover, these fictional situations highlight the type of ethical dilemmas that may one day come to pass, as human beings continue to co-evolve with technology. A closer examination of these examples will illustrate this contention.

Ethics of Technology and Questions of Being in Fringe

An American science fiction television series, Fringe (2008-2013) centers on investigations conducted by the Fringe Division, a branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The show follows F.B.I. Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (played by John Noble), and Walter’s son, F.B.I. consultant Peter Bishop (played by Joshua Jackson) as they investigate cases relating to fringe science. A subject which is not only significant to “White Tulip” (the Fringe episode which centers on Alistair Peck and which is the focus of this essay), but which remains a recurring concern of the series, is the relationship between humans and technology—indeed, many of the episodes feature transhumanist experiments and there is a repeated focus in the series about the many ethical dilemmas that such experimentations present. Discussing the series as a whole, Phil Smolenski and Charlene Elsby argue that “Fringe provides us with the opportunity” to consider “abstract questions about the ethical significance of scientific advancement” (114).

As a series, Fringe remains concerned with the limits—ethical as well as other—of science, and, to be sure, “White Tulip” is a noteworthy episode in this respect. Not only does the episode focus on transhumanist experimentation (by showcasing a character who transgresses the boundaries of the human by what he can do), but though the episode has a stand-alone plot, it remains nonetheless very much tied to the series’ overarching concerns and mythology. However, despite the clear connection between the episode and the series as a whole, the events that make up the episode “White Tulip” never make into the Fringe division’s case files since (thanks to the paradox created by Alistair Peck’s time travel) none of the members of the Fringe team have memories of what transpired—this is because their memories are effectively erased every time Alistair Peck re-sets the time line (via his time travel). Far from being incidental, this feature of the episode serves a particular function because, significantly, Alistair Peck is able to send Dr. Walter Bishop an anonymous message (in the form of a drawing of a “white tulip”) through time. This message is the sign Dr. Bishop has been waiting for, and a key to him reconciling his past and repairing his relationship with his son, Peter Bishop.

“White Tulip” begins much like other episodes in the series: the team is called to investigate an unusual occurrence. When they arrive on the scene, they discover a train car full of dead bodies and are also presented with an unsettling mystery to solve since there is no readily apparent cause of death. Dr. Bishop, after learning that the victims shared only one thing in common, that all of their personal electronic devices were drained of power, formulates a theory that someone or something drew energy from both the people and their personal electronics. An eyewitness puts Dr. Alistair Peck, an astrophysics professor at MIT, at the scene, so the Fringe team visits his home in search of clues. While they are inside his residence, Alistair Peck comes home but he manages to escape before they can question him by using a time travel device that he has grafted onto his body. The opening sequence of the show then essentially repeats itself and the team is called, once again, to the same train station to investigate. This time around, however, Agent Olivia Dunham experiences a feeling of déjà vu, so the team is able to piece together clues more quickly, allowing Dr. Bishop to read up on Professor Alistair Peck and thus speculate about his use of the time travel device; he also discovers that Peck’s fiancée, Arlette Turling (played by Kristen Ross), was killed in a car accident some time back and he starts to believe that Peck’s plan is to travel back in time to save her.

Dr. Walter Bishop eventually confronts Alistair Peck with this theory, and he tries to discourage him from making any further jumps back in time by explaining that the power needed to fuel such a jump would come at too high of a price since it would drain the life from anyone in the vicinity (and with this final jump, there would be no “re-set,” so the victims would this time stay dead). Alistair Peck tells Dr. Bishop that he has already considered this and, consequently, has found a field near where he needs to jump and promises that he will land there, ensuring that the only loss will be to plant life in the area. Dr. Bishop persists, however in trying to dissuade Alistair Peck, saying that some lines should never be crossed.

Peck jumps back in time once more, and he ends up in the deserted field like he promised, giving himself just minutes to reach his fiancée before her death. Alistair Peck reunites with his fiancée, but does not pull her from the car (which was his original plan); instead, he tells her he loves her and, only moments later, they both get killed in the auto collision. Before the episode ends, the camera pans in to show Dr. Walter Bishop in the present, where the events of the episode never occurred (due to the time travel paradox), just as he receives a drawing of a white tulip in the mail.

Beyond contributing to the series’ overarching mythology, this episode is provocative for the way it ultimately merges ethical with ontological questions (and thus forces its viewers to consider, for instance, whether science should be governed by what is possible or by what is ethical). Dr. Alistair Peck, described as “cyborg scientist” who makes the “ultimate sacrifice” to “reconnect with the love of his life” (Arlette Turling), embeds “mechanical probes in his chest to propel his body through time” (Zinder 33). By grafting this technology onto his body, Peck transforms into something other than human (in fact, Peck becomes the literalization of the metaphor that it’s impossible to separate man from his tools), yet, Peck’s motives for crossing this line are all-too-human since his invention, use, and ultimate merging with technology is the direct result of him wanting to save the woman he loves. In this manner, the character of Alistair Peck complicates the binaries between human/post-human, man/machine, and thinking/programming. While Peck has clearly transgressed the bounds of humanity by transforming himself into something beyond human—his ability to travel back in time (and essentially manipulate time) only further underscores the degree to which he has changed—yet Peck’s desire to be with the woman he loves shows he has maintained a connection to the man he once was.

As a character, Alistair Peck works as both a foil and parallel for Dr. Walter Bishop, who is presented in the series as a modern day “Dr. Frankenstein” (in the pilot episode, Peter, after hearing that Walter experimented with reanimation, dubbed his father “Dr. Frankenstein”). While Peck pushes the boundaries even further than Dr. Bishop by actually becoming one with the technology he creates, he stops short of Dr. Bishop’s ambitions and he also resists the view that science should operate independently of ethical concerns (a belief which Dr. Bishop once held but has moved on from) by ultimately deciding that some lines should not be crossed. As much as he wants to pull his fiancée from her car and save her life, he seems to understand (thanks, in part, to Dr. Bishop’s warning) that there are some things scientists should not do even if it’s within their power. His decision shows both respect for the value of human life and humility—he is not willing to kill innocent humans in the name of scientific progress, nor is he ultimately willing to “play God” by saving his fiancée, though it’s in his power to do so. By the end of the episode, Alistair Peck, although he may be “post-human,” demonstrates that he is not at odds with humanity. Indeed, by ultimately sacrificing himself and choosing to die along with his beloved fiancée, he turns away from a post-human existence and toward mortality, since it means reuniting with the woman he loves. Moreover, unlike Walter Bishop (whose many scientific discoveries have ended up in the wrong hands), Peck also effectively destroys the technology he created—and, along with it, the means with which to travel through time—when he perishes along with his fiancée, Arlette.

“He Thinks He’s Human”: Ethics and Ontology in Terminator: Salvation

Terminator: Salvation, the fourth installment of the Terminator franchise, is set in 2018 and depicts a post-apocalyptic Earth populated by a small group of human resistance fighters who continue to wage war against Skynet. The central conflict of the film is the “war between embattled human collectives and the cyborg armies” (Fisher 17). Even though John Connor, the leader of the human resistance and the series’ protagonist, plays a large role in the film, the narrative actually follows another character, Marcus Wright. Wright first appears in the year 2003 as a death row inmate who is being persuaded by Dr. Serena Kogan (played by Helena Bonham Carter) to donate his body to science. She tells him that allowing his body to be used for medical research will be a way for him to atone for his crimes and he, albeit reluctantly, agrees.

Marcus Wright next appears in 2018, emerging from ruins in Los Angeles and looking disoriented. To a teenaged Kyle Reese (played by Anton Yelchin) and another child named Star (played by Jadagrace Berry), it seems that Wright is in jeopardy, so they intervene by destroying a nearby T-600 model they perceive to be a threat. Marcus Wright acts confused when he meets them, and he asks Kyle Reese and Star what year it is; he also claims to have no knowledge on the ongoing war between humanity and Skynet. The three leave together to find other humans in the resistance but another attack occurs and they get separated from one another. After traveling on his own for a while, Marcus Wright comes across a woman named Blair Williams (played by Moon Bloodgood) and the two head to her base, which is run by John Connor, the de-facto leader of the resistance. Directly outside the base, Marcus Wright is badly injured by a magnetic land mine and Blair Williams rushes him inside so they can give him medical assistance. The medical team (led by John Connor’s wife, Kate Connor) sees metal in his leg and, at first, mistakes him for a human with a prosthetic leg. Moments later, they spy circuitry in his abdominal cavity and determine that he is actually a cyborg, as the exchange below reveals:

John Connor: The devil’s hands have been busy. What is it?
Kate Connor: It’s real flesh and blood, though it seems to heal itself quickly. The heart is human and very powerful. The brain, too, but with a chip interface.
Marcus Wright: What have you done to me?
Kate Connor: It has a hybrid nervous system. One human cortex, one machine.
Marcus Wright: Blair, what have they done?
John Connor: Who built you?
Marcus Wright: My name is Marcus Wright.
John Connor: You think you’re human?
Marcus Wright: I am human.

Indeed, even when confronted by John and Kate Connor, Marcus Wright nonetheless maintains that he is human. For his part, John Connor insists that Marcus Wright is a machine and nothing more—and John Connor believes that Marcus Wright has been programmed specifically to find and then execute him.

Marcus Wright, with the help of Blair Williams, gets free and tries to escape, but John Connor and his team pursue him. As the chase ensues, there is a raid from Skynet’s hydrobots and Marcus Wright saves John Connor’s life, forcing John Connor to reconsider his position. John Connor then admits he doesn’t know what to make of Marcus Wright. For his part, Marcus Wright tells John Connor that he’s no longer sure what he is either, but he says, “I need to find who did this to me.” They agree to go together to Skynet’s headquarters in San Francisco, where Marcus Wright will assist John Connor in rescuing Kyle Rees and other human prisoners.

Marcus Wright enters the base, interfaces with the computer, and deactivates the perimeter defenses so that John Connor can gain access to cellblock where the human prisoners are being held. Once inside, Marcus Wright is confronted by Skynet (projecting the image of Dr. Serena Kogan). Marcus Wright demands to know, “What am I?” Skynet, in the form of Dr. Kogan, tells him he was created and built as an infiltration model. Further, Skynet tells him that he “executed” his “programming beautifully” by bringing John Connor back to their base. Marcus Wright, however, refuses to believe that he is a mere machine and, in protest, rips out the hardware linking him to Skynet. He further defies Skynet by helping John Connor battle a T-800 Terminator. Although Marcus Wright defeats the Terminator model, John Connor sustains critical injuries and has to be airlifted out. The medical team does their best to help John Connor, but his heart is too badly damaged. Despite protests from Blair Williams (who recognizes Marcus Wright as fully human despite what the others may believe), Marcus Wright offers his own heart for transplant and thus ends up sacrificing himself to save John Connor’s life.

The manner in which this film ends not only raises a host of ethical concerns (in particular, dilemmas related to bioethics and medical ethics) and ontological questions (including whether Marcus Wright is human and therefore entitled to “human rights”), but it also represents a departure for the franchise. While, historically speaking, the Terminator series provides “an ‘us’ versus ‘them’” worldview, one “which fails to acknowledge the dialectical relation between humans, technology, and machine,” this “polarity takes a strange turn” in Terminator: Salvation, a point that Kimberly N. Rosenfeld makes in her article, “Terminator to Avatar: A Postmodern Shift.” Instead of clearly delineating man versus machine (which was the trend in earlier films in the Terminator series), Terminator: Salvation moves beyond this dichotomy. The attempt by machines (in this case, Skynet) to make a “hybrid man/machine” results instead, in the creation, of a being “who can’t find his place in either world” (Rosenfeld). The outcome of their experimentation is that “Marcus Wright is not either/or a man or a machine, but a problematic third wheel to the human/monster binary” (Combe and Boyle 23). Indeed, the case of Marcus Wright blurs boundaries even as he calls attention to, and problematizes, them. There is no doubt that, whatever else he may be, “Marcus is an enhanced, and improved human,” yet this description falls short of addressing his relationship to the binary of man/machine (Combe and Boyle 23).

Only further complicating matters, Marcus Wright is not fully self-aware. Indeed, he does not realize “until about halfway through the film, that he is part Machine” (Combe and Boyle 21). When he discovers, only after delivering John Connor to Skynet (as he was “programmed” to do), that he was “part of a scheme to kill John Connor, Marcus Wright humanly defies that programming” (Combe and Boyle 21-22). Furthermore, he insists upon his own humanity by declaring, I know what I am,” even as he rips the hardware link from his cortex.

Even if Marcus Wright has persuaded himself that he is human, others are not similarly convinced. For one, Skynet, tells Marcus Wright quite clearly that the “human condition no longer applies” to him. Skynet insists, instead, that Marcus Wright was “made to serve a purpose. To achieve what no other machine has been able to do.” The majority of the humans seem to concur with Skynet’s assessment of Marcus Wright. Indeed, even when faced with the reality that Marcus Wright saved John Connor’s life and aided the resistance, these humans seem unwilling to either recognize him as human or treat him as they would a fellow human. The fact that Kate Connor and the others would allow a living donor to forfeit his own existence to save another’s life—which is precisely what Marcus Wright does for John Connor—represents a clear breach of medical ethics as we understand them today (not to mention the fact that it is also a violation of Marcus Wright’s human rights). Namely, the idea that these humans see no ethical problem with one living being (Marcus Wright) offering a replacement organ for another (John Connor) at the cost of his own life flies in the face of contemporary guidelines governing organ donation.

To be sure, they deny him basic human rights (including his right to live) even as they remain willing to accept his very human sacrifice of donating his own heart to save John Connor. Indeed, it is by offering up himself as a donor that Marcus Wright epitomizes the best of human nature (self-sacrifice), yet his sacrifice is only allowed because he is not recognized as (fully) human. By the conclusion of the film, Marcus Wright, even though he may be “post-human,” establishes that he is not at odds with humanity. Instead, by ultimately sacrificing himself, he, like Alistair Peck, turns away from a post-human existence and toward mortality.

Conclusion: The Boundaries of “the Human”

Just as Haraway underscores, the relationship between human and machine is not always clear and when the conceptual concerns about creation—for instance, the question of who makes and who is made—are added to this (already complex) dynamic, answers become even more elusive. While Marcus Wright and Alistair Peck are fictional characters, the types of ethical quandaries presented in Terminator: Salvation and Fringe may one day come to pass, especially considering the rate with which technology is advancing. Because of this, these characters raise important questions about what it means to be human in the 21st century. To be sure, both Marcus Wright and Alistair Peck not only raise questions about the nature of humanity but they also trouble the binaries between human/post-human, man/machine, and thinking/programming. Alistair Peck’s decision to augment himself, combined with his ability to manipulate time, position him in such a way that he defies the traditional limits imposed on humans. The fact that Wright exists as part man and part machine similar positions him to be able to move beyond the limits of what humans can typically do. Indeed, his cyborg nature could potentially offer him something akin to immortality.

These features of their existence make Peck and Wright superior to humans in a sense, but they also work to further separate these men from typical human beings. Cases such as these thus raise ontological questions by also pushing us to examine what direction our evolution might take and to what extent humans will continue to co-evolve with technology. They force us to imagine the ethical problems that might one day come about because of emerging categories of beings existing (potentially) alongside humans. Along with, and as an extension of, these questions, the scenarios depicted in Fringe and Terminator: Salvation also push us to consider if there is such a thing as “human rights” in a post-human world.