Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Batman went transhuman

I have always been a fan of Batman: The Animated Series.

In the days of the early 1990s it "out Batman-ed" even the Tim Burton films for being true to the comic books. Recently, h+ Magazine brought back to mind a two part-episode that is probably my all-time favorite from the series.

The title was "Heart of Steel" and it had heavy science fiction elements. Specifically, they were transhuman in nature, hence the coverage in h+. The episodes borrowed heavily from Blade Runner (and of course I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Half of my writing borrows heavily from Blade Runner) in terms of plot aspects, visual aesthetics, and even the casting of William Sanderson as the voice of Dr. Karl Rossum (Sanderson played J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner. He is probably better known to the world at-large as Larry on Newheart during the 1980s.) The plot went something like this.

A robot steals a component of particularly advanced technology from Wayne Enterprises. Naturally, Batman investigates. He finds his way to a supercomputer called HARDAC that was built by Dr. Karl Rossum (yes, named after the lead character in the seminal robot opus, R.U.R.) at Cybertron Industries (yes, "Cybertron" is the name of the planet where the Transformers come from for those of you keeping track of the allusions.) HARDAC, a sentient A.I., is intent upon replacing humans with android doubles that it calls "duplicants"(a clever play on "replicants.") Indeed, that is what happens to Batman.

After a fierce battle, the "duplicant" Batman gains access to the Batcave, all the while telling Alfred that Alfred will continue to serve as butler until his duplicant can be installed. Creepy. The duplicant removes a component from its skull and inserts it into a drive in the Batcomputer. In retrospect, it seems like it might have been a forerunner of a USB drive, at least in concept if nothing else. It is HARDAC's plan to use the extra power of the Batcomputer to gain control of defense networks worldwide, thus placing humanity under its full control (you can probably figure that allusion out without any guidance from me.) For the better, of course.

Batman shows up and round two begins with his duplicant usurper. They fight one another to a cliff's edge in the cave where the duplicant attempts to make an appeal to Batman, claiming that both Batman and HARDAC want the same things: an orderly society, the protection of the innocent, total control (even Batman wants that in his own way.) Of course Batman insists that he and the computer are nothing alike. But if HARDAC really did create a surrogate Batman, if even a part of Batman's consciousness was transferred to the android body, then the duplicant must have an aspect or two of his own personality. Therefore, the duplicant could never allow an innocent to come to harm. To see if this bears out, Batman jumps over the cliff.

Indeed this breech of inner code drives the duplicant mad. It crashes about, running over to the Batcomputer where it realizes that HARDAC's plan will no doubt cost millions of innocent lives. It destroys the computer before the upload is complete. The resultant explosion blasts the android backward into the Batmobile and the fires activate the sprinkler system. The water hits the already damaged duplicant and deactivates it permanently.

Of course Batman is all right. Alfred climbs down into the depths of the cave and finds him. It is here that the cartoon gets into a rather heady area. When Alfred tells Batman of the duplicant's final actions, Batman muses as to whether or not the machine had a soul. After all, it had Batman's personality imprinted within its programming and it was able to think, did it have what we might term a soul? “A soul of silicon," he said, "But a soul nonetheless.”


Such good stuff here. Like I said, many of my favorite tropes get mixed in with the milieu of one of my most favorite superheroes, and then there are the high questions of transhumanism thrown in for good measure. Plus, there's that eerie sight of seeing the duplicant Batman's face torn off to reveal the metal endoskeleton. You can't ask anything more from a popular television show, especially a cartoon. Sadly, I can't find the episodes available online anywhere. Which means I'll likely have to one day break down and buy the actual season on DVD.



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