Rachel and I have been doing an archive binge on the biopunk / cyberpunk ambiguously-dystopian science fiction series Dark Angel, which originally ran from 2000 to 2002. Yes, we have covered other works by James Cameron before. Here we go again.
If you want to watch well-filmed scifi with a lot of characters with secretive and complex agendas, a bunch of fight scenes, and the inevitable amount of Zeerust; and you do not want spoilers, do not read further. But do be aware that despite the high quality of the production there are still some significant problematic aspects to the plot and the portrayals of various characters.
One historical note: Fox canceled Dark Angel after two seasons. Soon after, the network picked up Firefly and then canceled it after one season. Some pervasive failings of management there.
The main action of Dark Angel is set in an alternate version of 2019/2020, and takes place in and around a dystopian Seattle (Vancouver doubling was used to good effect). That it is alternate history by now is pretty obvious: the explanation for drastic and negative changes to the social order of the United States is that an unspecified-but-very-well-equipped group of terrorists set off a very high-yield EMP – “The Pulse” – at high altitude over the western half of the country in 2009, apparently missing Canada and Mexico. But the setting was alternate history even when it was developed in the late 1990s.
The central character of the show is Max Guevara, who is one of a group of people who were genetically engineered before birth and then raised from birth as living military hardware as part of a secret US government project called Manticore – which had the goal of producing super-soldiers. Max and most of her particular class at the Manticore training center (they’re collectively called X5s, and relate to one another as siblings) escaped just prior to The Pulse. The X5s attempt to live comparatively normal lives while avoiding capture by various spooky people. At the time of their escape, they were all perhaps 9-12 years old – and there are four X-series classes who are older than they are. That means that the Manticore project would have had to exist before 1995 or so. In reality, genetic engineering even now is nowhere near what would be necessary to even attempt what Manticore was doing, so the point-of-divergence of this alternate history is long before that.
In the second season of the show, we learn about Sandeman. He was one of the founders of Manticore, so perhaps we can call him Max’s grandfather. Sandeman was a defector from a few-thousand-year-old conspiracy dedicated to the selective breeding of a small subpopulation of humanity and the eventual genocide of everyone they didn’t approve of. This falls prey to the question of The Masquerade, and pushes the point-of-divergence back a very long way. Despite this distant divergence and the very different history of technology (e.g. human cloning c. 1998 but no smart phones c. 2020), history was close enough to ours that Bob Marley and George H.W. Bush did much the same thing, so there is a very big butterfly-effect net operating.
Artistic License, Biology and Physics
Max and the other people who carry Manticore genetic-engineering modifications, and many members of the secretive long-running breeding cult, have superhuman or at least extreme-upper-limit-of-human capabilities. That’s the biopunk side. Cyberpunk is represented by, among other things, a contingent of scary soldiers from alt-South-Africa called The Reds, who have had their nervous systems modified with creepy burrowing metallic implants, and several cyberpunk gangsters called “steelheads”.
Let’s start with the Reds and the steelheads. It may be technically possible to bridge gaps in a spinal cord or to bypass nerves with some manner of electronics, or to construct a fully functional cybernetic replacement arm. But doing so is not going to allow a normal human to punch through an elevator door. That’s a question of leverage and of the failure strengths of muscle fiber and bone. Likewise, when Max puts a Red down with a fire extinguisher to the jaw, he should have a broken jaw and perhaps a cervical fracture. He shouldn’t be up and moving normally ten seconds later. Feeling no pain doesn’t mean bones aren’t broken.
Biology doesn’t work that way. Neither does physics.
And then we have the transgenics: Max and the others. Supposedly, mixing and matching human genes and adding in some from other mammals and a few unspecified de novo products allowed the Manticore team to produce superhumans. The basic X-series package: enhanced speed, enhanced strength, stronger bones, accelerated healing, diffraction-limited nightvision, better hearing, better coordination, better endurance, larger margins on oxygen and water and food deprivation. That all seems to come with some serious hunger when they do eat: Max goes through lots of takeout and roast chickens. But even if energy is conserved, this makes no sense. You couldn’t engineer something like that without a lot of basic research, decades of testing in vitro and in animal models, and then far longer than Manticore was supposed to have existed in the first human tests to be sure that the mods would work as desired.
Manticore’s other products and some members of the breeding cult, who apparently were doing only old-fashioned selective breeding, get bizarre. Some become impossible. Human-dog hybrids; people who look like large reptiles; people who breath with gills and lay eggs; people who can talk to one another with internal ultrasound generators and are described as “a hive mind”; people with telepathy or telekinesis. If we erase the last one, perhaps physics hasn’t been completely violated. But biology doesn’t work that way either. We are well outside of the limits of hard scifi.
One thing that does make sense: Manticore didn’t do a perfect job. Max and a few others in her group developed seizures; the death and subsequent dissection of one of her sisters due to them was the catalyst for the escape. She can manage her own seizures with some not-actually-appropriate-for-the-purpose drugs, but it takes Manticore’s gene therapy people and several years of work to effect an actual cure. Other X5s developed other problems. The same gene mods also don’t manifest the same way in every person: Max needs far less sleep than normal humans, but only a couple of her group have that trait. As the older escapees start having children, with each other and with unmodified people, it becomes clear that the gene mods are expressed unpredictably in their offspring. And even clones of X5s don’t develop the same as each other – especially when each has had different post-natal genetic therapies.
Okay, after all of that background and ripping into the world-building, here’s something about what actually happens in the show.
The plot of the first season focuses on Max’s quest to survive and evade Col. Lydecker, formerly her physically and psychologically abusive chief instructor at Manticore; to find and help her siblings; and eventually to destroy Manticore’s facilities and free all of the transgenics. She is aided in this by Logan Cale, aka “Eyes Only”, guerrilla journalist and aspiring force for social justice in the broken post-Pulse United States. Logan is shot and paralyzed from the waist down trying to help a friend of Max, which catalyzes her helping him at the same time as she maintains a legitimate identity and a set of friends as a bicycle messenger and a covert identity as a thief-from-thieves. Logan supports their projects with a certain amount of wealth, and provides intel, equipment, and a large list of contacts. The two of them eventually become a couple, although Cameron & company deliberately drew out that subplot to the point of absurdity.
With the assistance of various of her brothers and sisters, and the ambiguous aid of Lydecker after he is pushed out of Manticore by an even-more-spooky antagonist called Renfro, who is acutely concerned about ensuring that knowledge of some of Sandeman’s work remains secret, Max eventually succeeds in destroying Manticore’s operation. During that arc, which begins the second season, she learns about Manticore’s more-obviously-not-ordinary people. Saving all of the transgenics from a cleanup operation instigated by the cult, who want to stamp out Sandeman’s children because they challenge their long-term plans for controlling human evolution, and by panicking normal citizens and government authorities forms the arc of the second season. The series ends with Max and the others establishing a safe zone for themselves in an abandoned section of Seattle. With the help of her friends at the bike messenger company, she defuses the public’s fear enough to stop killings as the Masquerade finally ends.
The plot was carefully developed, with continuity relatively well-preserved and a lot of call-backs and brick jokes. For example: in an early episode, we see Kendra – Max’s friend and roommate for most of the first season – making a little extra money and getting a supply of scarce imported coffee by teaching kids Japanese. Some episodes later, Kendra gets a job as a translator/assistant for a visiting Japanese geneticist; which seeds the first occasion that Max encounters Lydecker face-to-face since her escape – forcing her to wrestle with the ethics of if he should live or die.
The motivations of the characters are appropriately complex. Max has to navigate avoiding detection by the people who want her dead, helping the helpless, finding and helping her siblings and friends, dealing with her own personal medical problems, and her relationship with Logan. Logan has his relationship with Max, his quest to regain use of his legs (by implausible biopunk and cyberpunk means), and the complexities of covertly fighting corruption in the post-Pulse world without getting killed for it. Even Lydecker is complex in his motivations: he was an abusive instructor and is an extreme Determinator when it comes to finding the escaped X5s, but when Renfro puts out the order to kill all of them he rebels against the threat to “his kids” and helps burn his life’s work to the ground.
But there are some aspects of the plot that don’t make sense. Manticore indoctrinated its soldiers from birth, never giving them a choice about if they wanted to do the job or not, and didn’t teach them many of the crucial aspects of everyday human lives. And they were tortured: arms deliberately broken to see how fast they would heal; beaten and drugged with the excuse of making them resistant to interrogation should they be captured in the field; forced to shoot prisoners. Young children were sent out on live-fire exercises with no safety protocols, and several ended up shooting one another. What is the purpose of this? Shouldn’t the Manticore management have realized that such an abusive and coercive culture would make their soldiers mutiny, given that the soldiers have enough empathy for one another to function effectively as a unit? Even if everyone involved in setting up the project was so lacking in compassion as to not care at all about the pain they were inflicting on the kids, why didn’t they realize that their methods were self-defeating and become less evil?
Of course, the same can be said about far too many groups of people in real life. So perhaps that was part of the point of the series.
But good characterization, tight plotting, and very well-done filming aside, there are some problematic aspects to the show.
The main cast at the beginning of the first season was nominally 8 people: 3 women and 5 men. Things changed a bit during the show’s run, but let’s go with this. Max was played by Jessica Alba, who is of Mexican and French-Canadian ancestry. Of the rest of the main cast; two were black and the rest were white. Seven characters were heterosexual, one was homosexual. Those demographics may not be perfect, but they also aren’t entirely out-of-line.
On the good side: Max is very much the heroic lead character. Being the tough one, she handles the fighting, infiltrating, and high-speed chases. Logan mainly leaves that part of the job to her, and focuses on intel, financing, and get-away driving. The apparent power mismatch in their relationship (somewhat older wealthy college-educated man; younger less-wealthy never-finished-high-school woman) is appropriately called out by some of the supporting characters.
But on the bad side:
Max and the other female characters tended to be gratuitously sexualized. While there are a few similar scenes with some of the male characters, there is a big asymmetry. Not cool.
And casting was not perfect. The supporting/background characters; heroes, villains, and otherwise; skew heavily white and male. Perhaps this is to be expected given the assumed alternate history. The setting is a Pacific Northwest with a largely white population and a patriarchal culture. But the supposed story only does so much to excuse casting that reinforces harmful real-life social stereotypes.
For a more serious problem: there are a few side-plots that center around Max episodically “going into heat”, supposedly due to having feline DNA in her mixture. She supposedly becomes super-humanly aroused, and is unable to control her sexuality – several obvious ways of doing so are not mentioned. Not cool. And while it is good that these episodes are not presented as a good thing, that she has at-best-ambiguously sexually assaulted at least one person during them is never addressed. Not cool.
I also worry about subtle heteronormativity/homophobia. Original Cindy, Max’s best friend, is a lesbian. She refers to numerous past relationships, and the plot of one episode focuses on an ex-girlfriend of hers who has been exploited as an unwitting test subject by a corrupt biotech firm. The potential problem with an otherwise very cool character is that portrayals of characters that focus excessively on just one aspect of their identity can be a way of reinforcing harmful social stereotypes. I cannot say if Dark Angel falls into that trap with Original Cindy or not.
One final problem: in more than one episode of the show there is blatant cissexism/transphobia, presented without apology and sometimes explicitly as a joke. Not cool.
Dark Angel was supposedly influenced by some aspects of early-to-mid 1990’s third-wave feminism. I am not qualified to say exactly how poorly or how well it conveyed those ideas. But it is a long way from being entirely free of problematic elements.