Tales of experiments gone wrong are a staple of science fiction, filled with depictions of scientists flexing their abilities and resources for personal reasons. Motives range from a thirst for power to a savior complex stemming from an incident closer to home. The common thread of the latter includes parents doing everything in their power to save their child. When combined with great intellect the ramifications of this drive can be far-reaching.
This is the case in the recent Alex Garland sci-fi limited series Devs, which grapples with free will versus determinism via the overreach of tech companies, and those pulling the strings. Depicting a version of the near future that doesn't look too dissimilar to the current proliferation of controlling Silicon Valley moguls, Devs portrays the development of secret quantum technology and its potential impact on the moral fabric of society. Fitting into a larger narrative of parents, technology, and the loss of a child, CEO Forest (Nick Offerman) sits alongside the likes of Fringe's Walter Bishop (John Noble) and Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks in Arrival. Trauma implicitly shapes us and informs future actions, which is magnified further when the person suffering is also in possession of the power to change this outcome. Who will play God to save their loved ones?
Spoilers ahead for Devs.
Motives clouded by individual stakes are often more dangerous because it becomes impossible to put any sense of reasoning or distance on a decision that includes an emotional tether. The first episode of Devs reveals that Amaya boss Forest will do anything — including murder — to protect the secrets being held in the belly of the woodland area of the sprawling tech company campus. A creepy statue of his daughter (also called Amaya) towers over the redwood trees, her hands expectedly cupped as if she is waiting for a giant ball to be tossed toward her.
Midway through the series, it is revealed that Amaya (Amaya Mizuno-André), along with Forest's wife Lianne (Georgia King), died in a car accident, which occurred while Lianne was on the phone to her husband, chastising him for calling when they were so close to home. The theme of a scientist using their prowess to alter events to avoid a tragedy is another repeated theme, which Alex Garland's series explores from a quantum physics and philosophical perspective. Forest isn't attempting time travel, but he does want to go back to a version of reality before this incident.
Most people would probably do anything to change a life-altering event like this one. Beyond wishful thinking, this is not something most people can contemplate. However, Forest is reminiscent of Fringe's Walter Bishop in his attempt to save his child. Both men possess the necessary scientific acumen to aid their quest, even if it has wider implications for the nature of existence. Taking on the masculine attribute of fixing things, these two men will alter the fabric of existence to reach a satisfactory solution. In contrast, Louise Banks learns of a language that changes how she perceives time but doesn't use this knowledge to save her heart. The memories peppering Arrival of her sick daughter who died are "recollections" of events that have yet to occur. She has the power to stop this from ever happening, but at what cost?
Hubris is a factor that ensures men like Forest and Walter believe that what they are doing is for the greater good when it only serves themselves. Louise knows her daughter will die and her husband will leave her but chooses to keep her secret and do nothing to change it. She is a time traveler without ever having to time-travel; instead, she is privy to information that could determine how she acts in the present. She takes on a godlike sensibility because she is omniscient — a power she uses to stop an intergalactic war but never wields to save her marriage or the child she knows will die from an incurable illness.
"Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it," she says without a flicker of regret. As a mother she is going to fight for her child; similarly, she is not going to not have this baby because she knows her life will be cut short. If she does, she will lose every precious second spent with Hannah. Rather, she cherishes their short time together, rather than fighting for a version of events that doesn't and will never exist. It might read as defeatist or selfish, but her heartbreaking choice is full of love for her daughter. If Forest and Walter are adamant about fixing their dilemma, Louise is leaning into the nurturing stereotype of mothers. She cares for her sick daughter rather than finding a cure to an incurable illness.
In Fringe, after Walter's son Peter dies from a genetic disease, he dedicates his time to watching his parallel universe doppelganger, Walternate, attempt to find a cure for his son. Circumstances lead Walter to travel through a portal to this other reality to save the boy who is not his son. He thought this was the right thing, but his stubborn refusal to listen to others has far-reaching and long-term effects that far outweigh the risk he took. Nina Sharp (Blair Brown) and his lab assistant Carla Warren (Jenni Blong) try to stop him, but their attempts are futile — Nina loses an arm for her troubles. After Peter's mother sees the boy she thinks Walter has brought back to life, his difficult decision to return him to his world becomes impossible. His arrogance and lies he told thereafter will haunt him throughout the series, testing the bond between father and son further.
Unlike Walter, Forest doesn't believe there is a multi-verse with another version of his family running around; his theory is predicated on one world with one set of events occurring. The Devs team is working on a top-secret quantum computing project that will eventually allow them to see any moment in history. Imagine watching a high-def recorded version of events — including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Marilyn Monroe sleeping with husband Arthur Miller. Guidelines are put in place to stop violations of privacy (such as the latter) or skipping ahead to events that have yet to happen; however, both rules are broken by various members of the team.
A machine with this capability will put to bed (or prove) countless conspiracy theories; the ripple effect of the secrets this system possesses is huge. In the wrong hands, this computer could be weaponized, and its capacity to be used for an act of tyranny is great. Deciding who holds the power is not a debate in this company because Forest sits at the top of the chain. Nevertheless, his grief ensures his actions are clouded by emotion rather than rational — an argument often leveled as a reason why a woman would make a bad leader. Grief is not gendered, and the actions of each protagonist in Devs, Arrival, and Fringe suggest the fathers are far more likely to wield their scientific ability as a battle cry against the circle of life. Forest adds credence to the latter theory because his actions are influenced by the desire to be with his family again, no matter the cost.
An underlying debate throughout Devs is whether we have free will or not. Forest is firmly on the deterministic side of the argument, believing everything is predetermined. His family was always going to die in that car accident, he was always going to make the phone call that distracted his wife. This takes away his responsibility and assuages his guilt while giving him hope he can be reunited with them in some form.
Rather than placing all bets on the afterlife, his computer exists as his personal time machine, sending him back to before his world changed. At first, it lets him watch his daughter as he remembered her blowing bubbles and playing, but it is much more than a sophisticated DVR player with every moment in history available to binge-watch.
For Forest to successfully bring his plan to fruition he needs to ensure his secret does not get out. Similarly, any theory that suggests he is incorrect is in opposition to his endgame and that person will also have to go — which is why Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) is fired. In Episode 5, Garland portrays multiple versions of the timeline; in some, the crash never happened, in others it did but it was less severe. If this was indeed the case, free will is still on the table, and therefore these deaths were preventable. Lily tossing the gun out of the lift reveals his hypothesis is incorrect, even if he ultimately gets his happy ending. The complexity of this powerful machine is not lost on the other workers who have conflicting theories and cannot risk what will happen if Forest maintains power over it.
"If Ex Machina is about a man who is trying to act as if he's God via technology and science, I thought there's a companion story, which is about people not trying to act as if they're God, but trying to create God," Alex Garland explained in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. Forest still thinks he can use his resources to bend the fabric of existence to his whim, but he is reframing his role, not as creator but as a martyr to the machine he dies to enter. He also tells Lily in the finale that Devs is a cheeky play on the Latin word "Deus," which means deity or God. The gold production design is also an homage to a different form of creation, a location Garland calls a "strange, twilight, gold, womb-space." Family is the big driving force and linking back to biology further emphasizes this, even if Forest's resurrection of his deceased loved ones is far from a natural event in human evolution.
In this sampling of TV and film scientists using their abilities to alter the fabric of reality or leaning into their fate, the gender line is drawn dividing fathers who will literally destroy the matter of all things, and a mother who has accepted her future without defying quantum physics. However, in the recent season of Outlander, Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) uses her skills as a physician and knowledge of life-saving treatments beyond simple tips and tricks. In "discovering" penicillin over a century before it was actually discovered, she is playing God and her hubris is comparable to Forest and Walter's. The impact her choices have on the future is minimal so far, but in Season 5 this looks set to change. This hasn't been done to save her daughter, but rather it shows how deeply conflicted she is as a doctor flung out of time — and underscores her nurturing abilities that exist beyond her role as a mother.
Possessing the knowledge from a future timeline to save lives is one conundrum, but these narratives demonstrate it is far more complex when your own flesh and blood are in peril. As Devs and Fringe suggest, even time and space cannot stand in the way of this moral quandary when a figure is willing to play God. Not every expert will rip a hole in the world under the banner of being a parent (and that's OK).