A journal of television and new media

Technofetishized TV: CSI, Bones, and ReGenesis as Science Fiction Television?

While trying to define science fiction (SF) in Foundation’s Profession of SF series, author Robert Sawyer claimed that science fiction “will have to change if it is to survive…it will be much more common for serious SF novels to have contemporary settings” (16). Accepting this claim begs the question of what we might consider new SF, specifically new SF television, and how we will recognize it as such. More specifically, can we consider the highly technologically fetishized murder/mystery dramas like the various CSIs [1], Bones, and the Canadian show ReGenesis as SF television.

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Dr. Roberts and Grissom working in the CSI lab

In the various CSI shows we get scenes that glorify various technologies as they are used in the pursuit of justice. For example, towards the end of the CSI: Miami episode “Rio,” viewers watch a montage of Natalie’s DNA analysis of miniscule skin scrapings from a cell phone. The montage is structured like a MTV music video from the 80s or early 90s with quick editing, contrasting colors, and background music that would be at home in a dance club. However, whereas the 80s MTV music videos usually festishized the human body, beautiful women, or sexy rock stars, this video montage clip focuses on the technological tools used to analyze the evidence. We see close up images of all of the equipment used to analyze the DNA, ending with a close up of the monitor showing the results of the analysis. This type of scene is standard viewing across all three CSI shows, as are scenes where the genetic scientists in ReGenesis conduct lab analysis of infected blood.

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Analysis of the Cell Phone, “Rio,” CSI: Miami

Almost every episode of Bones includes a scene where one of the scientists, Angela, either reconstructs the face of the murder victim or reconstructs the crime scene itself. Although Angela can easily draw the faces, most of the time she reconstructs them digitally and shows the results to both the team and the show’s audience, using a three-dimensional holographic monitor. The audience is sucked into these scenes, wowed by the technology in the same way we oohed, aahed, and “whoad” in scenes about “advanced” technologies from films like The Matrix. With these scenes that focus on technologies in a fetishized manner, these shows begin to associate themselves with a long line of science fiction film and television narratives that build themselves around the concept of an advanced technology.

In all five of these shows, the CSIs, Bones, and ReGenesis, the narratives promote the message that science and technology will find the “truth” behind the murder or illness. But why do the shows want, or need, science to find the truth? Or more importantly, why is it so important to the viewers that science and technology prevail? Again, the “Rio” episode gives us some insight. Natalie, the character who conducts the DNA test, was reprimanded earlier in the episode for allowing her emotions to impact her actions while working on a different case. In other words, the narrative sets up Natalie as human, emotional, fallible—she can’t be trusted. However, we can trust science! Although it is Natalie who runs the DNA testing, her face is either completed covered, like at the beginning of the montage, or relegated to a small portion of the screen during a three part split screen in the montage.

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Greg conducting scientific analysis on CSI Las Vegas

In A Genealogy of Technical Culture: The Value of Convenience, Thomas Tierney’s theorizes how technology functions as a way to overcome the temporal and spatial limits of the body, using technology to promote the Cartesian mind/body split and even overcome death. Obviously in these shows the technologies begin to also overcome the emotional and mental limits of being human. These technofetishized scenes in the CSIs, Bones, and ReGenesis also reenact typical Mulvey [2] moments, with the close-ups of the technology standing in for the close-ups of female body parts; both objectifying, disavowing, and displacing dangerously emotional humanity. In many of these episodes female characters conduct the scientific analyses seeking the truth. The women who play these roles have their “Hollywood beautiful” bodies erased by the lab coat wardrobes they wear; nothing must distract the viewer from focusing on the beautiful infallible technology.

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Actress in Lab Coat surrounded by Beautiful Technology, ReGenesis

In the same 2000 article that Sawyer claimed science fiction will have to change, he also argued that “The days when you could tell the public that a microwave oven would replace the traditional stove are long gone; we all know that new technologies aren’t going to live up to the hype” (11). Maybe Sawyer is focusing on the public that reads science fiction, because the “we” in this statement clearly are not the primary viewers of the various technofetishized murder/mystery dramas. In these shows the technologies do live up to the hype. They are not emotional fallible humans; they can remain “objective” to find “the truth” so that “justice” prevails.

Sawyer stakes the claim that “the central message of science fiction is this: ‘Look with a skeptical eye at new technologies’” (6). He compares his definition to one of William Gibson’s, “‘the job of the science-fiction writer is to be profoundly ambivalent about changes in technology’” (6). To contrast, Sawyer discusses the success of Michael Crichton: “Crichton isn’t a prophet; rather, he panders to the fear of technology so rampant in our society…The writers of real sf refuse to sink to fear-mongering” (7). Clearly shows like the CSIs, Bones, and ReGenesis do sink to fear mongering. Crime is out of control; we can’t trust the human-run “system” to administer justice and save us. Therefore, we need infallible technologies to succeed. Although these shows focus on science and technology, do they fetishize the technology too much? Are they not critical enough to be true science fiction?

Maybe the idea that we must be skeptical of technology is being recognized. In newer shows like Heroes the narrative only depends on the emotional people; all of the characters are constructed as fallible. And at the end of season one, it’s the most fallible character, the unethical politician, who saves the day. And although Heroes seems more fantastic as a genre, with characters that have magical abilities, the narrative situates these advanced abilities within the realm of evolutionary science (fiction).

[1] When referring to the CSIs, I’m mean all three television shows: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY.
[2] I am specifically referring to the objectification of the female body through the spectator’s gaze that Laura Mulvey discusses in her article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.”

Works Cited
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
Sawyer, Robert J. “The Profession of Science Fiction, 54: The Future is Already Here.” Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 80 (Autumn 2000): 5-18.
Tierney, Thomas F. A Genealogy of Technical Culture: The Value of Convenience. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Image Credits:

1.Dr. Roberts and Grissom working in the CSI
2.Analysis of the Cell Phone, “Rio,” CSI: Miami
3.Greg conducting scientific analysis on CSI Las Vegas
4.Actress in Lab Coat surrounded by Beautiful Technology, ReGenesis

Please feel free to comment.

Comments

  • Kit Hughes (Author) said:

    I think you bring up an interesting point about the imaging of science fiction. It seems like the cathode tubes and steel wires of mechanical science (I’m thinking of something close to the fortress lab in James Whale’s Frankenstein) have made way for sleek computer interfaces of the electric tech age. What might be grounds for investigation here is the function of these “official scientific” images. How do they respond to the imagination of contemporary audiences? Where do they get their authority?

    Also, I was wondering if you thought that rise in forensics shows – which search out truth in practically invisible grains of evidence – could at all be construed as a response to the computer age – when most people are surrounded and enmeshed in largely invisible technology that they don’t understand.

  • Shelley Rodrigo said:

    Kit,
    I’m going to first comment with your second point (I’ll ponder and return for the first). I think you make a good point about a desire for the physical/real after an overload of the “virtual.” What is interesting about the focus on forensics is that the desire to find the “truth” from “invisible grains” emulates the desire to know who is typing on the other side of the chat room, WoW character, etc. In both cases, it takes the mediation of some “geek” who knows the technology, who can write the code or run the laboratory. So what does it mean when we get the hyper-emotional “geek” girl, Abby, on NCIS (http://www.cbs.com/primetime/ncis/). Is that starting to imply that we not only want to know/control who is on the other side of the “invisible;” but, we also want to know/control who knows and controls the “invisible.”

  • Karen Hellekson said:

    Shelley, I am so happy to see that you published this! And that you used REGENESIS, which as you know is one of my favorite shows.

    I’ve always been struck how science takes a back seat to the beauty of the actors, so I really appreciated your foregrounding that: no pesky hats to conceal the beautiful, flowing hair, even when going through a crime scene on hands and knees. (The beauty of the actors is interestingly erased in one scene of HOT FUZZ–have you seen it?–where all the crime-scene personnel are wearing concealing outfits and you can’t tell them apart.)

    The whole idea of “truth” as related to some kind of external scientific fact is crucial to these shows, and yet I want to problematize that: surely the external scientific fact is examined by someone’s mind, assessed, and a value judgment assigned. For example, Bones asserts that she does not interpret the data; she merely discovers a fact and reports it, and others make inferences. Yet this crucial step is erased, because that’s how we construct the truth.

  • Shelley Rodrigo said:

    Karen,
    I couldn’t agree more. The “problem” with how these shows are fetishizing the technology is that giving this type of authority to technology gives the technology a form of agency. In other words, the technology acts in a safe, non-emotional, sterile, and above all precise manner. The fact that “flawed” humans made the technology, run the technology, interpret the results of the technology is erased by the act of fetishizing. Isn’t that part of how fetishes work? The person who fetishizes a part of an object focuses on one point to disavow the rest of the object, its connections to others, its history, its context, etc. The music video montages scenes in these various shows, when the technologies are being used, usually cut off the heads, hands, and other body parts of the humans involved to help erase the human element.

    What I think is interesting about Bones is that her job is still very interpretive, we can see that. Therefore, to help the audience disconnect the humanity from the science and technology of forensic anthropology and Bones’ humanity is to make Bones “cold.” She can’t stay in relationships, she needs the help of her best friend to mourn her mother, etc.

  • Craig Jacobsen said:

    I wanted to pick up on your last bit about Heroes as an example of skepticism toward science. I’d argue that Heroes just supports your point about the police procedurals, as the sprawling narrative of the various characters is held together by the story of the scientist whose father’s theories explain the “magical” or “super” powers with a pseudo-scientific rationale. I’d argue that all of these shows are less about science than pseudo-science. The proceedures may be based on real techniques, but the shows misrepresent science’s speed (the montage disguises how long such work would really take) and abilities. The CSI: Miami looks more high-tech than Battlestar Galactica.

    As Kit notes, there’s more of science fiction imagery here (things that spark and glow) than genuine extrapolation. So is this sci fi television rather than science fiction television?

  • Shelley Rodrigo said:

    Craig,
    I think the question of this being “sci-fi” vs. “science fiction” (SF) is a great one! In my mind, some of the markers of sci-fi include:
    1. Emphasis on technology of filming/screening to set sci-fi-ness
    2. Relying on technology to save the day
    In term of #1, we can point to easy examples like _The Matrix_ with bullet time filming technology or Lucas’s requirements for digital screening of the later _Star Wars_ films. In terms of sci-fi television we can even point to the advance puppetry and make-up work in _Farscape_ as the technology that focused on alienness. In this essay’s particular examples, I think the MTV music video style parts of the episodes the focus, especially with extreme close-ups, demonstrate a similar move.
    In regards to technological reliance, look to the _Terminator_ films. For example, you have a distinct critique of technology; however, in the end it takes another technology to save the day (a production plant machine and another terminator). And are we seeing this same possible turn in _Battlestar Galactica_? And back to my example of Natalie’s personal flaw within the narrative that is recovered by her use of technology in identifying another bad guy.
    With these arguments being made, maybe yes, we can call these types of shows “urban sci-fi” in the same vain as the “urban-fantasy” novels that are currently extremely popular.

  • Craig Jacobsen said:

    I like the connection between “urban sci-fi” and “urban-fantasy” given that these shows treat the technology as magical. What I’ve come to realize in watching these shows is that they aren’t mysteries in the traditional sense that the clues are all there for the audience if only we had the insight to notice and assemble them. Instead the technology comes in to provide the characters an answer to which the audience is made aware only a the big reveal. They may as well be going back to the lab to sacrifice a goat and read its entrails for all the real science involved.

    It’s narratively disappointing because so often my interest in a narrative is how it does or does not creatively work within the constraints of its medium and genre. As mysteries these shows would be “cheating,” but I don’t think they’re mysteries. They’re their own sub-genre where the deus ex machina (with technology as deus and the magically comprehensive DNA database as the machina) ending is an expected genre feature instead of a narrative copout.

  • Shanty said:

    Hi, I’m doing a work about the truth behind the fiction, about c.si, and i would like to have some opitions about, please send it to my e.mail as fast as u can : D
    Thakz for helping : D *