Why “EXTANT” is Exigent and Religion Still Matters

Extant discussion

I happened to catch the series premiere of EXTANT a day late (our nun friends caught it on time,) but it was well worth the wait. They were also accurate in their initial reaction of EXTANT being odd for all the reasons I discuss below. It’s a good thing I love odd. We normally post weekly on Tuesdays, but everyone gets an extra post this week because of the premiere!

My primary branch of interest within theology is reproductive ethics, so you can only imagine that I was as wide-eyed as my daughter spying a cup of gelato while the pilot unfolded in front of me. This is going to be fairly short long since there is only one episode to discuss and realistically I actually have more questions for viewers than comments – at least at this time. (Side-note, that time was 30 minutes ago before I started writing. Things change.)

Let’s break this down into three main themes that I think everyone may want to watch as time goes on. These themes, for me, bring up essential questions within the realms of moral theology, reproductive theology, and basic human existentialism. I would imagine based on the pilot that these will continue to be points of development for each character.

Moral theology. We have talked a little about moral theology before in different ways. It is actually a large subset of theology and itself encompasses many different topics. In a most basic sense, moral theology discusses how we develop a sense of “right”Extant-Banner from “wrong” and how we form ethics, rules, and law based on that function. EXTANT seems to be indicating early on that the moral and ethical realm will be visited quite frequently. Not only is there the questionable moral development of Ethan, the Woods’ humanoid robot son, but also an overarching storyline of what was done to Molly, who knows about it, and why they are keeping it a secret.

We will get to Molly in a moment though, let’s first talk about Ethan. Dr. John Woods, Ethan’s father, is a robotic scientist who created Ethan after he and Molly were not able to have children of their own. For all intents and purposes, Ethan is a robot. There was no indication that he had organic human material, which would make him a cyborg, so he was built in the image of human beings, but not made of the same material. In Christianity, the belief is that humans are created in the imago dei, the image of God. So to make other human beings, particularly in Roman Catholic ethics, goes against what the Church would say are the laws of nature. Similarly, in creating a robotic child, that child cannot take the place of organic life, which is solely created by God via male-female sexual intercourse. John is the creator of his son, built in his likeness. John treats Ethan no different than a human child. He believes that Ethan will learn right from wrong in the same way that a human child would and could – to John it is a matter of process. Ethan is programmed with the same moral process that a human would develop when they encounter problems. John does not seem to prescribe to a religion, as far as can be told from the pilot, so having a robotic child is a non-issue… or is it? So what is the issue and why does Ms. Femi Dodd get all huffy as John presents Ethan to the board at Yasumoto Company?

 

Femi: What is the protocol in the event your… experiment… fails? Do you have an emergency plan for their shut down?

John: To preserve their power? Absolutely. It’s called interlude mode. ::to Ethan:: Do you mind?

Femi: Excuse me Dr. Woods, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for the resting mode, I meant for their termination.

John: To kill them.

Femi: That wording is a bit inelegant, but yes.

John: Do you have a child?

Femi: I have a daughter.

John: Do you have a plan to kill her?

Femi: My daughter’s a human being.

John: I don’t understand the difference.

Femi: Well for starters, she has a soul.

John: With all due respect, Ms. Dodd, there is no such thing as a soul.[1]

 

A few moments after this exchange, John explains his position to Femi. He feels that those who believe that there is anything inexplicable by science, are idiots. Femi responds that she, then, is an idiot. Clearly it went downhill from there. Stepping back and examining their heated exchange, Femi Dodd provides the perspective that the element of unknown, in this case represented by religious belief, is ever present. There is no science to explain the soul in the way that religion/theology understands the soul. The soul, the essence of the person that exists, regardless of their physical birth and being, is also connected philosophically speaking to the conscience, which in turn guides a person morally.

What seems on the surface to be a question in EXTANT of either believing in a soul or believing in science, is actually asking on a deeper level if morality and learning to be moral are based only in process or in essence. John, of course, would argue that morality is taught as a process and therefore with the right programming anyone/thing that has the intelligence can learn to be moral via human connection and experience. This is why John calls his project “Humanichs.” Femi, obviously, is arguing that there is, by design, an essence and conscience in the human being that cannot be replicated via process or mechanics. The status of the Humanich would have to be affirmed socially before a decision on killing a humanich could be made. Similarly to other sci-fi stories, the struggle between science and religion play out nicely.

 

But let’s complicate this. Molly.

 

Molly, being unable previously to bear children, finds herself pregnant after returning from a solitary space mission aboard the “Seraphim.” Incidentally, “Seraphim” is also the name of a hierarchy of angel-like creaturesseraphim13thcentury. They are not only messengers at times but, more importantly, the ones that maintain purity and help God to maintain order. Remember that little insight!

During her mission she found herself face to face with her ex, Marcus, and proceeds (we can assume, I would say) to have some type of physical exchange. Molly blacks-out during this time. Upon reviewing the camera footage after she wakes up, she sees that she is alone, there was no one else there – or at least, no one that can be seen on film.[2] There is no indication whether her child is human or alien, but it is a life growing inside her. Molly is now facing the dilemma of having to tell John that she is carrying a baby-something-or-other that is not his. Oh, and by the way, conception happened while she was completely alone other than a ghostly hallucination. If little Marcus-geist turns out to be a baby alien, will John love it because he can teach it a moral process?

In the meantime, Molly fights with both Ethan and John about Ethan’s bad behavior. For Molly this is an indication that Ethan is not a “real” child in the sense of a human child. This is the point where I started to look around for Gigolo Joe’s entrance. Molly tells John that loving, for Ethan, is a process and not a human bond. John, again, believes that if the process to love is there that is what matters, even if the material is different. During Molly and Ethan’s fight, Molly chases after him and finds him standing over a dead bird with blood on his hand. Molly recoils, Ethan says he found it that way. Ethan then, quickly, moves to compliment Molly’s hair. Is Ethan telling the truth? Is the process to turn to flattery a way to disarm the situation?

So we have a ship named after an order of heavenly beings, a conception of unknown origin (perhaps not immaculate, but certainly peculiar,) the spirit of a dead lover asking for help, and the argument over sources of morality and conscience in created beings including a Humanich child. Molly is certainly left in a hard place at the end of the episode. Not only does she have to establish for herself whether or not her robo-child actually has the capacity for real love and morality, but she also has geist-child to contend with.

Did a scientifically superior species impregnate Molly or was it a miracle? Should robots have the same rights as human beings even if it is unknown whether or not they have the same moral capacity? Stay tuned for our next episode of EXTANT inquiries.

 

By: Erica Saccucci

 

[1] EXTANT, Mickey Fisher. Pilot, July 9, 2014: CBS.

[2] I really want to point out to Molly that if she lived in Bon Temps, this would be a completely explicable phenomenon.

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About E. Saccucci

Erica Saccucci, a PhD hopeful in Christian Ethics, particularly Reproductive Ethics, at Loyola University Chicago, and on film + religion + pop culture in her spare time. When she's not writing, working, or writing at work, you can find her hanging out with her family.

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