The Magazine

Our Posthuman Future...

on the small screen.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Are you happy "merely" being human? Or do you wish your life could somehow be made into something . . . more? If you discovered a risky drug that would grant you a superhuman power--such as the capacity to heal the sick, kill enemies, or become invisible--would you take the shot? And if you developed a supernatural ability, would you begin to think of yourself as a superior being, with the right, perhaps even the duty, to rule? These are among the thought-provoking questions asked weekly in The 4400, a television sci-fi series now in its fourth season on the USA Network.

The 4400 began as a run-of-the-mill diversion about how the world reacts to 4,400 people, abducted by aliens, who return (apparently) from the future, each possessing a unique ability. Unexpectedly, at the end of last season, the show took a sharp turn for the better through a clever plot device: Jordan Collier, the villain (or hero), learns how to distill a substance called Promicin from the blood of the 4,400. Collier and fellow "revolutionaries" decide to change the world by distributing the stuff to anyone willing to risk a 50 percent chance of death to experience transcendence in a syringe. The program has ever since been exploring some of the most important cultural cross-currents of our time.

Take, for example, the malaise many apparently feel because they live ordinary lives. The 4400 writers understand this, and thus many of the characters risk taking Promicin rather than live one more day of quiet desperation. Better yet, the characters' lives are transformed without their having to work for it. For example, one Promicin-taker goes from pathetic loser to well-paid and respected FBI interrogator after Promicin gives her the ability to force people to tell the truth.

In real life many people do yearn for extraordinariness to be handed to them on a silver platter. We see this propensity throughout the culture; from the explosive growth of cosmetic surgery, to the increased use of ster-oids, to the desperate craving to touch the lives and thus share in the glamour of celebrities, to the popularity of reality television programs that offer average people the chance to become stars just by playing themselves. The 4400 producers understand well the seductive nature of their premise: They even have a spot on the program's website dedicated to a "fan of the week" who gains the honor by explaining which super-ability he or she would want, and for what purpose.

Our indulgence in expedient living is presented most vividly through the story lines of the show's protagonists, members of a government law enforcement agency called the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC). NTAC is assigned to keep the 4,400 from using their superhuman capabilities and, more urgently, to prevent the distribution of Promicin. Yet, in a pinch, NTAC officers reluctantly avail themselves of help from one or another of the 4,400, whether to solve a problem in their work or in their personal lives. In one recent episode, the NTAC bureau chief's father is dying. Disobeying her sworn duty, she arranges to have a 4,400 healer cure him. She hypocritically goes back to work chasing down Promicin users, with the full support of her understanding team.

It's hard to watch the show and not be reminded of the sad "transhumanists"--real life wannabe 4,400s--who are so frustrated by normalcy that they invest all their hopes and dreams in somehow managing to transcend human limitations through the miracles of modern technology. And so they spend their days sharing visions of uploaded minds dwelling immortally in computer software "platforms" while they earnestly wait for "the singularity," a pending technological tipping point of such seismic power that transhumanists believe it will lead--literally--to the creation of a posthuman race. (See my June 26, 2006, WEEKLY STANDARD article, "The Catman Cometh.")

The most recent episodes have dug deep into our collective id, exploring the apocalyptic dangers posed by zealous utopianism. After the Promicin-positive son of one of the lead NTAC agents (as in all good drama, the relationships between the characters get very complicated) discovers an obscure prophecy foretelling the coming of the 4,400 with Jordan Collier as a new messiah destined to bring God to planet Earth, the Promicin revolution morphs from a quasi-libertarian social movement into an increasingly violent religious jihad intent on creating an earthly paradise by force.

The 4400 has grown into a series that is larger than the sum of its parts. Like the best science fiction, it offers viewers interesting characters who confront deep political issues of power and its use in a futuristic soap opera that entertains as it cuts through the mire of McLuhan's vast wasteland. It might not be art, but it is surprisingly good television.

Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is an attorney at the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.