These days it seems like end of the world is everywhere you look. From zombie viruses to radical climate change to mysterious events that no one talks about, the entertainment landscape is full of catastrophic blows to civilization or even life itself. The apocalypse is big, and apocalypse stories have the highest possible stakes. It is what fuels disaster movies that take us to the brink of destruction only for the hero to save humanity at the last minute, but it’s also what motivates the burgeoning crop of stories where the world as we know it has already ended. Now that mankind has so thoroughly tamed his environment, it has become harder to tell stories of ordinary people just struggling to survive. The Wild West is long gone, and we must sweep away the progress of the past few centuries to set the stage for our frontier fiction.
But there’s another category of stories that don’t just treat the apocalypse as a device, as either a ridiculously contrived crisis that is inevitably averted or a convenient preamble that provides an appropriately lawless backdrop for the main events of the tale. These pre-apocalyptic stories examine what shape the end of the world might take, and what part we as individuals living in modern society might play in bringing it about.
Perhaps the most iconic example of the genre is the Terminator series. Though the first things that come to mind about the movies may be the titular, time-travelling (and sometimes morphing) cyborgs and a handful of awkwardly accented catchphrases, Terminator is not just a story about trying to escape from killer robots or even being the Chosen One whose life is being manipulated from the future. The core of the story is in the looming threat of Judgment Day and the attempts of both sides to alter the course of events. You’d probably feel pretty silly tossing off a “Hasta la vista, baby” these days but it’s completely natural for Ken Jennings to make quips about Watson becoming self-aware and going all Skynet on us. It turns out Skynet is more menacing than Arnold.
This is why the latter half of the movie franchise ends up not as compelling as the spin-off TV series. For The Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation are exactly about killer robots, special effects and John Connor being the saviour of all mankind (even if Skynet did take over after all). The Sarah Connor Chronicles, by contrast, is about Sarah Connor: a criminally insane Cassandra who may not be right about what’s going to happen, but can’t afford to be wrong. She’s also a single mother trying desperately to protect her son now and in the future, while John is just a teenager doing his best not to crumble under the weight of his mother’s particularly onerous expectations. They’re embroiled in a tug-of-war (or better put, a chess match) with their own future, and yes, the killer robots are still there, though not all of them are the enemy. Between constantly looking over their shoulders for the next assassin from the future, the Connors are the only ones who recognize that events happening in the present could bring about the Skynet apocalypse. Whether they can prevent it — whether it can be prevented at all, or whether history just routes around the damage — is another question.
To be fair, The Sarah Connor Chronicles is not a big-screen story; it is not a movie plot. The episodic nature of television series is far better suited to showing the slow, inexorable march toward catastrophe, and so it has been fertile ground for exploring this kind of story. Even Joss Whedon, whose Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced the world to the plural of apocalypse in the mould of saving the world (a lot), tackled the theme with Dollhouse.
If you weren’t one of the few viewers of the show, the central premise was the existence of secret institutions where for a substantial fee you can rent the services of an “Active,” a person whose brain has been modified to enable them to be imprinted with new identities — complete with memories, personality, and even specialized skills. In the final episode of the first season, the show offered a flash-forward ten years into the future, to a world where a more advanced version of this technology has escaped the Dollhouse and caused ordinary people to lose their own identities. This set up the second season to show how the events of the present day lead to the future that we’ve been shown, in an extended version of the “24 hours earlier” gambit that’s usually applied to a single episode. It turned out to be wonderfully focusing for a series that couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to explore people’s myriad fantasies, comment on human trafficking or simply try to convince people that Eliza Dushku could do more than look intense and kick ass. If early Dollhouse was never quite clear whether the tech was cool and alluring or dangerous and downright disturbing, the later episodes manage to show that it is both, or perhaps more accurately, the latter because of the former.
More recently, Caprica, the prequel to Battlestar Galactica, showed us the beginning of the chain of events that would lead the ragtag fugitive fleet to exit the twelve colonies, pursued by cylons. You hardly need to know anything about the premise of Battlestar to see that this mix of ingredients will soon go nuclear: the consciousness of a teenage genius malcontent in a robot’s body, an immersive virtual world where everything is consequence-free (unless you get a rush from risking your avatar), a group of ruthless mobsters, and a terrorist organization that is totally cool with using minors as suicide bombers. Caprica is ambitious — all these elements are presented and intricately intertwined with each other in the pilot so convincingly that we almost don’t need to be shown how they give rise to the eventual cylon rebellion (which may be part of the reason the series barely lasted through its first season). What Caprica does show us is a situation where it’s obvious that the powder keg is going to blow, and everyone’s tripping over themselves to be the one to light the fuse rather than trying to prevent the explosion, and it’s a slow burn (fifty-odd years from here to the Fall). It’s a frustrating kind of narrative, though perhaps a more realistic one, where all the parties are driven by their own selfish, petty motives and mindless of the fact that their cumulative actions are bringing about their own destruction.
These shows may differ in the way they come at the idea of the approaching apocalypse and vary in how well they succeed at what they’re trying to do, but it’s clear they share some of the same preoccupations. The Cold War-era apocalypse was almost universally a nuclear holocaust, which was only logical. Mankind had created the instrument of his destruction and all it took was an ill-considered push of the wrong button to eradicate all life on the planet in short order. But as that scenario began to look less likely over time, a new doomsday vision has taken hold. It might still be the bomb that kills us all, as in the Terminator or Battlestar universes, but it’s no longer a human who pushes the button. Indeed it’s the apocalyptic visions where the bomb doesn’t go off, as in Dollhouse or the novel Blindslight (an avowed AE favorite) that are even more disquieting. For a more insidious path to our undoing is not the gradual outsourcing of decisions to computers, but rather the blurring of the line between man and machine to the point where we lose our humanity. From Skynet and its humanoid killing machines to the cylons of BSG, from the “Active architecture” implanted in the brains of dolls to Caprica’s addictive holoband that provides access to V-world, the fears that grip our imagination stem not just from our increasing dependency on technology but our love affair with the same. It’s not the annihilation that’s terrifying, so much as the fact that it comes about because we’ve lost — or given up — control.