awkwardly

Monday

Screwing up avatars in Caprica and Stargate: Universe

A problem I have with Caprica and SGU is that both of them portray people inhabiting the bodies of other humans or robots, but they do it by sometimes showing the person inside. I can kind of understand why they're doing it, to avoid some confusion, but it's like sci-fi with training wheels. In the long run, they'd do better to show the body and not the character inside it.

See, it's so confusing I might not even be expressing the problem clearly.

For Caprica, there's this artificial intelligence based on a teenage girl. We first see her in virtual reality and she takes the appearance of a teenage girl. Later the personality gets mostly transferred into a robot, some errors happen along the way, it's complicated. They're going to manufacture hundreds of thousands of these robots if they can get it to work right. To let viewers know that we're looking at the one with the girl personality inside, they show the robot, then they show a view of the actual girl standing where the robot is supposed to be. So when two lab techs strap the robot to a table and start messing with it, we occasionally see them strapping down a girl.

In terms of creative writing or storytelling techniques, this is a failure of the rule "show, don't tell." They should be showing us a robot (which all the other characters are actually seeing) and trying to convey that this particular girl's personality is inside of it. As a shortcut, they show the girl instead.

But imagine if you were there with a robot that had the personality of a teenage girl inside. You'd react differently to her/it if the physical interface between the two of you was a seven or eight foot tall soldier robot, even if she acts just like your daughter or your best friend used to. Presumably the other characters are seeing it only as a robot, not the way we're seeing it. Why shouldn't we viewers get the same strict view that they're getting? It could be more interesting that way, because we might get to know the character and still have to think of the robot body. Just like if someone you know gets permanently injured and you have to get used to seeing them in this altered state, with a prosthesis or a wheelchair or some scars. It's strange at first, but you get used to it, or if you care about them enough, you get over it. They could explore that tension in this show, and viewers could explore it with them.

But the writers or animators would have to work a little harder to convey that personality within the robot, and apparently that's too hard. Tough! That's your frickin job! Let me try it if you don't think you can handle it.

(To complicate matters, this isn't a real human trapped in a robot. It's an A.I. based on a human girl, only given a human avatar when she is seen in virtual reality. What is her real physical form? An arrangement of code? Maybe they should show the little CPU processor that they keep slipping in and out of the robot's chest slot, instead of showing a human girl standing there.)

In the case of Stargate: Universe, people are able to switch bodies. To communicate over long distances, the people trapped on an empty, ancient, alien ship can switch their minds (souls, personalities, whatever you want to call it) into the body of some consenting person back on Earth. The mind of that person goes into your body back on the ship, so you've switched.

This could definitely get confusing, and I can see why they'd want to cheat, just like in Caprica. But again, they're cheating themselves and the viewers of some potential tension and drama and maybe humor.

For example, your body is stuck in a ship several light years away. You're not sure how to operate the ship, where you're going to get food next month, or if you'll ever get home. But you're able to switch bodies with someone back home. Now you go to see your ex-wife and apologize and say that you want to get back together when/if you get back to Earth. Even though you convince her that it's really you inhabiting this other guy's body, imagine having that kind of weird discussion (building up to a full-blown argument) with your ex, but it's coming through a total stranger.

You can see a little of that tension in the way they depict it in SG:U, but they do the same trick. Whenever two characters have switched bodies, we see the person whose personality is inhabiting the body. They'll look in a mirror or a reflection in a window and see the body they're inhabiting (the body we should be seeing while they've switched). Then the rest of the scene is played out with us seeing the wrong body. Again, this is not what the other characters are seeing or reacting to in these scenes, and it shouldn't be shown that way for viewers.

Another example from the show is a guy who's stuck on this ship, might never get back to Earth, so he gets a chance to visit his mother in some other man's body. This alien technology they use to switch bodies isn't widely known, and he doesn't think he can convince his mother that's what's going on, so he just pretends to be a government official telling her that her son is deep undercover overseas and won't be able to get back for a while. We understand some of the weirdness, but we should see this scene exactly as she does, this gentleman she's never met who knows a little more than he should about her and where she keeps the silverware.

Or imagine you're using somebody else's body. That has to be weird. If we saw the body of some actor who's not a regular cast member, it would remind us how weird it is through the whole scene. When they show the body of that personality, it's easier to forget the alienate position he's in. We deserve to experience the alienation in all these situations, but it's watered down.

Another bit of tension or ethics they haven't bothered to explore are the limits of what you ought to do when possessing the body of a consenting co-worker. On at least one occasion, if I remember correctly, these characters have sex with people back home while inhabiting someone else's body. Did they all agree to this before consenting to trade bodies? Would Human Resources rules bend just because of the weird technology and weird situation? Should they?

Come to think of it, Quantum Leap always did this too, didn't they? We see Sam in a dress, everyone else sees the body he inhabits. I suppose if we saw things correctly, they'd have to rely on a non-repeating bunch of actors and actresses taking the role of the main character (like they used to do successfully on shows like Twilight Zone), and we'd never see Scott Bakula. I would be okay with that. This could be a lesser reason why I never watched Quantum Leap, next to the main reason, the tired "comic relief" of Dean Stockwell's hologram walking through solid objects while his useless PDA beeped and farted.

[In both of these cases, I started watching the shows because they were/are free on-demand for a while. I wasn't a big follower of earlier versions of Stargate and didn't have access to Battlestar Galactica, or else I might have watched some or all of those.]

2 Comments:

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