By Cameron White
Season 2, Episode 17 and 18: “Avatar” and “James Garr”
Original airdate: Feb. 25, 2000 and Mar. 18, 2000
Mike Rugnetta of PBS’s Idea Channel recently posited the notion that Futurama, the sci-fi animated comedy set in the 31st century, is the greatest argument against transhumanism. Transhumanism is the philosophy that says technology will solve humanity’s greatest biological limitations, eventually guiding us towards immortality. Futurama stands counter to that notion in that, despite being set in a futuristic world where human cloning, cryogenic freezing, faster-than-light travel, and the essential equivalent of immortality (so long as you don’t mind being a floating head in a jar), the show depicts human suffering as a constant. In fact, the recognizable human qualities of its cast of characters are Fry’s hook into surviving his initial culture shock in the new millennium.
One of the qualities So Weird shares with its spiritual predecessor The X-Files is that it represents a snapshot of the kinds of scientific discoveries that were the primary topics of conversation of the time, in this case of the late ’90s and early ’00s. The show is simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the possibilities science can bring to the human race, so while it is not strictly speaking a sci-fi show, So Weird is still a bottle of cultural ideas as perpetuated through art. But So Weird can also stand as an argument against transhumanism because, for all its curiosity about what the world will look like in the years to come, it is firmly grounded by its broken family, the Phillips. That the show runs counter to transhumanist interests is especially pronounced in “Avatar” and “James Garr,” two episodes that deal with the feeling of loneliness in an increasingly digital and scientifically driven world.
“Avatar” is a particularly interesting case. The episode begins with Jack as the voice-over narrator for the intro sequence, a tip-off that the episode will run slightly against the grain. Indeed, “Avatar” places Fi on the sidelines, once again letting the rest of her family get into trouble in order to test their beliefs. Isolating Fi from the rest of the story serves two purposes. The first is plot-related: the boy genius who traps Molly, Jack, and Carey in the virtual world, Jordan, was actually searching for Fi, who left her computer with the tour bus while visiting her aunt Rachel. He built a virtual world all for himself, and he intended to “claim” Fi as his queen. In this way, Jordan stands in for the surface-level representation of the computer nerd: brilliant, but misogynistic.
The second reason is related to So Weird‘s mythology. As Molly lays out to Jordan in their climactic confrontation (on a virtual beach, of course), physical presence and touch is important for human beings to grow and develop; it’s something his virtual world, for all its majesty, cannot replicate. (Sixteen grad students writing thesis papers on haptics just punched the air.) This contrasts with the opening of the episode, when Carey is digging through Fi’s mailbox for an e-mail from a girl he met after a Molly Phillips Band gig. Fi’s journey has brought her into the orbit of a lot of strange and amazing people, nearly all of whom keep in touch long after their episodes have passed. Jordan mentions a few superficial qualities he finds appealing about Fi, but he misses out on the one thing she has that he doesn’t: friends and family. His attempt to use these as a bargaining chip to get Fi into his world exposes how little he understands their importance. And while it’s never stated, Fi’s aunt Rachel is Rick’s sister, a detail not to be taken lightly, even though she won’t show up on-screen until later. (But as a cautious celebration of the internet, “Avatar” is all too happy to verbally skewer her for being a lawyer without e-mail or an actual internet connection. How Fi manages to survive with her is a complete mystery.)
Loneliness continues to play a thematic role in “James Garr,” an episode that finally tackles a sci-fi concept with a direct connection to the Walt Disney Company: cryogenic freezing. (It was a common conspiracy theory that Walt Disney himself never actually died, but was put into a cryogenic chamber and buried deep beneath Disneyland, or Walt Disney Company headquarters, depending on who you ask.) While Carey is admitted to a hospital to get his tonsils removed, Fi and Jack both meet patients who are, in some way, dying. The sprightly Mr. DeFranco is a magician who has accepted the futility of fighting his cancer, the very same form of leukemia Jack’s girlfriend Gabe has; the monotone James Garr is a schoolteacher who agreed to become cryogenically frozen after he too was diagnosed with a terminal disease.
The obstacle in the way of both men is that of belief. DeFranco tells Jack to save his faith for someone with “more time on the meter,” while James Garr, though not lacking in higher brain function, is missing a piece of himself, as represented by his monotone way of talking and his penchant for referring to himself in the third person. Although the episode keeps Fi and Jack mostly isolated with their respective patients, the two are parallel in their own distinctions about the power of belief. For the first time, the two are very nearly on equal ground in the weird, wonderful world of So Weird. In the end, James Garr accepts the truth of his experiment — that a piece of him died the day he went into cryo — and basically switches souls with DeFranco, who comes very near to death in the climax of the episode. So DeFranco, free of cancer, gets to roam the earth in James Garr’s body, while James Garr, who told DeFranco he can help by “accepting a gift,” himself accepts death, greeting him as an old friend (to quote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).
The most striking thing about both “Avatar” and “James Garr” is that neither of them is necessarily judgmental or patronizing about scientific innovation. “Avatar” even features some progressive technological ideas — Molly compares his method of using postcards as buttons to bring up various virtual locations to “touch screen kiosks at the mall,” but Apple has since made that GUI mainstream through the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. And the failure of the experiment to freeze James Garr is presented more as a Fringe-esque oversight on the part of the scientist and not necessarily the fault of science itself, or of the group of people that pursue it. In the pursuit of his idea, Mike Rugnetta creates a dichotomy between the transhumanist pursuit of “fixing” human imperfection and the counter-argument that suffering is an essential human quality that cannot be adjusted. So Weird may be grounded by human suffering and loss in the form of the Phillips family, but it also encourages Fi to explore, to go beyond the realm of science and dig deep into the power of belief. The third option between two extremes is a happy medium, and So Weird is in relentless pursuit of that happy medium.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about Paris Gellar, the greatest character in the universe. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. He took the red pill, but the rabbit hole isn’t as deep as he expected.