I just watched "Borderland", an episode in the 4th season of the Star Trek Enterprise series. As the new Star Trek goes, it's pretty good. We get to see Brent Spiner again, there's lots of action, the plot - albeit not too original - is pretty well guided and has good rhythm... And yes, it's the "beyond humanity" theme again. And it's the same old comfortable yet cowardly answer to it again. Let me explain.
I'm picking here on Star Trek, although it's not the only example, but this movie series is uniquely positioned, even within its genre (SciFi) to deal with the theme of the "superhumans". It's simply too tempting for a plot that gathers dozens and dozens of imaginary races scattered across the entire Galaxy, to not confront the spectator with the challenging thought of... what if, through genetical engineering, or an Act Of God (or a functionally equivalent superbeing), or time travel, or any other suitable plot device... what if, somehow, "normal" humans like us meet beings who are pretty close to the humanity's present stage of evolution, yet are superior in quite a few key points. Let's say, they are more intelligent, or more resistant to diseases, or live much longer, or are physically stronger, or possess supernatural abilities (telekinesis, telepathy, etc.). Or, even better, it's a combination of the above that distinguishes them from us - us, the "only human". Pretty typical plot device for Star Trek, right? Well, pretty typical for many SciFi movies and books. But it's Star Trek's constant way of dealing with it that i'm discussing now.
Dr. Arik Soong, an ancestor of Noonien Soong (the creator of Data, the android made famous by Star Trek Next Generation), is an expert in genetics who is doing time in jail because his creations, prior to the moment when "Borderland's" plot takes off, did quite a few bad things. You see, Dr. Soong attempted, no less, to create genetically enhanced people. And that, in the Star Trek Enterprise universe, is bad, since we're in a timeline barely 20 years after the so-called "Eugenics Wars", which were apparently caused precisely by (or because of) genetically enhanced people.
No wonder genetics is severely frowned upon in the movie. No wonder all characters seem to automatically recoil from the idea of improving upon the human status quo by means of genetic interventions. No wonder the Dr. Soong character is first seen in a prison cell, wearing some kind of hi-tech handcuffs.
So, ok, everyone is scared spitless by genetics. Yet Dr. Soong's arguments, irrational fears aside, are compelling. Genetics could indeed prolong life. Many diseases could be eradicated. People could be made stronger, smarter and, well, better through genetic manipulations. He's essentially offering solutions to many of humanity's quests. And yet, what happens?
It happens that, when we get to see his creations, an oddball gang of "Augments" - i.e. people who were genetically modified in vitro by Soong, the movie downright stamps them with the "bad guys" mark. They're strong, sure, but they're grim and dark. They're smart, of course, but they only devise evil stuff. They have no sense of just and unjust, since they kill each other fighting for supremacy. And they kick the good guys in the butt, sure sign that they're going to pay for it later, dearly.
Does that sound familiar to Star Trek afficionados? It sure does. "The Next Generation" is full of such examples. I don't recall precise episode names, but captain Picard, otherwise a cool and sensible fellow, spends quite a bit of time every now and then confronting such "superhumans" - powerful, intelligent, even endowed with supernatural abilities, yet who are almost invariably flawed somehow. And the dear captain, always the moralist, does not fail to meditate, as a conclusion to each such encounter, about just how great it is to be "only human". About just how superior it is to... well... be "less superior".
I have to tell you, it bugged me seriously.
Think of Clarke's "2001". The theme of transcendence is fully developed - one character, Bowman, essentially goes beyond the "mere human" state, and his ascension is so high that, by comparison, the whole humanity left behind is simply dwarfed. There are no assumptions being made about some kind of inherent evil in such an ascension. Bowman becomes a demigod and that's it. If there's anything suggested implicitly, it probably is that it's an evolution that is potentially open to any human being. And it opens perspectives of literally cosmic proportion.
While Star Trek... I kind of waited anxiously, every time, to see how the superhuman characters explore and put to work their augmented capabilities. So many doors being open, so many things that become accessible... Instead, the movie chooses to slam almost every character that dares to surpass the status quo.
Even the alien races, not exactly genetically engineered human beings, but sometimes being placed in similar situations. The Vulcans? Yeah, they're smart, but somehow humans seem to magically fare better always. The Klingons? Yeah, they're such mighty warriors, yet the humans kick their asses blindfolded.
There's always this mystical quality of being "only human" that seems to make these characters so much better than everyone else, even though, when cornered by a strict analysis, i bet no one could tell just how exactly they are so much "better". It's like a glorification of humanity's larger ego, the big Self of the human race that gets pampered - sure, the other guys are smarter and stronger, but somehow our mystical aura of being just human makes us so cool and untouchable.
This is something i always found very unnerving, for a SciFi movie. Hey, it's about the future, it's about where the evolution takes us. We went from single cell organisms to insects to frogs to Homo Sapiens, and you're saying that this present moment is the ultimate peak? And this is, again, a SciFi movie?
If that's the case, perhaps we could as well spend our time watching "Sex And The City" - that one, too, is about just how good it is to be "only human". About just how good it is to look at things horizontally (pun was not intended actually, but it's appropriate) and ignore any kind of perspective higher than that of individuals mired in the species' rituals and automatisms.
It almost makes one wish that, in "The Matrix", the machines prevailed. "Only human" says an Agent, looking at his opponent(s) with disgust. If those opponents are a species so proud about their present state and so careful about avoiding to disturb The Way Things Are Now... well, you know, it sort of makes one wish to side with the agents.
At least they are willing to grow.