The history of IT is largely a modern story, and through representations of computers in films of the late 20th Century we can gain insights into how (a) computing was marketed to non-computing people over time and (b) how computing has come to transform modern society. Many of these films, as most good science fiction movies will do, explored emerging new technologies before they became a part of mainstream society. For the purposes of on-screen story-telling, such technologies were depicted often in sinister ways.
Most of the sample films and television shows listed below are classed as science fiction – with the notable exception of the last listed film, ‘The Social Network’ (2010). Marketed as a drama film, its exploration of the back story to the most successful of the social networking sites of recent times (Facebook) speaks volumes about the extent to what was once the stuff of science fiction have become normalised and embedded in ordinary life.
Several themes emerge from this list of films and television shows:
- Distinctions between ordinary computers and ‘super computers’ – ordinary computers manage specific functions, while ‘super computer’s manage vast numbers of small systems.
- ‘Super computers’ will develop logical reasoning faculties, either by simple exposure to huge volumes of information or by explicit programming by scientific (human) geniuses.
- Logical reasoning computers will develop personalities – some will be crazed megalomaniacs, some will be sultry temptresses, and others will be simply comical eccentrics.
For a modern audience, fears associated with world-wide inter-connected computer networks appear unfathomable and bizarre. Yet in the 1960s, and a lesser extent in the 1970s and 1980s, science fiction movies and television shows were dominated by computers intent on either controlling the entire human race or exterminating it. Often this power would be achieved (according to the movies) by connecting a super-computer with other super-computers. In the 21st Century, such inter-connected computer networks are known collectively as the Internet. The technologies underpinning the Internet had grown slowly through the 1950s and 1960s, however, it was the introduction of the World Wide Web in the 1990s that helped popularise use of the Internet. Human beings now have access to the vast volumes of information predicted by the older science fiction movies. And how do they use it? They Facebook it.
|Dr Who – The War Machines||Type||TV series|
|Date||1966, 3rd Season, First Doctor, William Hartnell|
|Overview||The Doctor arrives in London just four days before WOTAN (‘Will Operating Though Analogue’), an advanced computer able to ‘think’ for itself, is linked to other major computers around the world – operated by the White House, Cape Kennedy and the Royal Navy. Unknown to the rest of the world, WOTAN has concluded for itself that mankind cannot develop further and decides to take over the world once it is linked to the other major computers of the world.|
|Sources||Discussion Clips and other Episode InformationNovelisation|
|2001: A Space Odyssey||Type||Film|
|Overview||Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, and with a screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is notable for many reasons. Not least of which is ‘Hal’, an on-board sentient computer (short for ‘Hal 9000’). Hal’s function is manage all on-board systems of a space-ship journeying from earth to Jupiter while three of the five crew are in cryogenic hibernation. Hal asserts that he is ‘foolproof and incapable of error’.During the course of the voyage, Hal decides that the human crew are a potential threat to the completion of the mission and proceeds to kill the crew one by one. It becomes a race against time as the last surviving crewman endeavours to disconnect Hal before he himself is killed.Throughout the film, Hal’s presence is sensed more than seen. Apart from a red camera eye, Hal appears to have no corporeal form. His otherworldly persona is further emphasised by his soft, conversational voice even as the tension between him and the remaining crew member escalates to a deadly conclusion.|
|Sources||Discussion of the film Discussion of HalFirst appearance of Hal in the film|
|Dr Who – Inferno||Type||TV series|
|Date||1970, 7th Season, 3rd Doctor, Jon Pertwee|
|Overview||UNIT is providing security for a project drilling down through the earth’s crust, in the belief that a limitless source of energy is available below the earth’s crust. The Doctor is present to take advantage of the output from the project’s nuclear reactor to power experiments from the TARDIS console.The project’s computer becomes a source of tension between the Doctor and the project’s director – first the Doctor wants to use the super computer to carry out mathematical calculations. Later, he observes that the computer is reporting warnings of impending catastrophe that the director refuses to heed.Just before the catastrophe occurs, the Doctor is transported into a parallel universe where Britain is a Fascist police state. After witnessing the catastrophe in that temporal dimension, the Doctor escapes back into the normal universe and succeeds in adverting disaster.|
|Sources||Discussion Episode Plot SummaryNovelisation|
|Dr Who – The Green Death||Type||TV series|
|Date||1970, 10th Season, 3rd Doctor, Jon Pertwee|
|Overview||The Doctor investigates reports of bizarre deaths in and around a South Wales coal mine, close to an oil refinery engaged in innovative energy research. When challenged, the chemical company spokesman denies that the deaths are related to chemical waste produced by the refinery.In addition to the themes of environmental pollution and corporate greed, the story is also notable in that the chemical company is actually run by a super computer with megalomania – known as the BOSS, an acronym for ‘Bimorphic Organisational Systems Supervisor’ (while possessing megalomania, the BOSS also has a sense of humour and hums to itself).The BOSS later attempts to brainwash the Doctor, but fails. The human head of the refinery tries to persuade the Doctor that the BOSS’ intentions are good – that he will give people freedom from pain and fear. But the Doctor retorts that the BOSS is offering people freedom from freedom. The Doctor triumphs in the end.|
|Sources||Discussion Episode Plot SummaryNovelisation|
|Overview||Based on an earlier student film (1967), ‘THX 1138’ depicts a dystopian future society where everyone is known by id numbers (THX 1138 is the name of the lead character).The lives of the city’s inhabitants are controlled by computer, one of whose manifestations is the state sanctioned deity ‘OMM 0910’. The people live in a drug induced state, which suppresses individuality, political dissent, and sexual desire. Further, the drugs enable people to work hard and endure dangerous working conditions.However, the drug induced state does not completely eliminate an individual’s sense of self and his/her emotions. Therefore, citizens are able to communicate with ‘OMM 0910’’ in ‘unichapels’, akin to telephone booths, where individuals apparently encounter a compassionate presence and receive a blessing after confessing their sins and anxieties.|
|Source||Discussion George Lucas’ official website|
|Overview||‘Dark Star’ is the story of the crew of a spaceship ordered to search the galaxy for ‘unstable planets’ that might threaten future human colonisation, and destroy them using thermonuclear bombs controlled by sentient computers. The crew themselves are a fairly grungy lot, and the film is a black comedy in a genre (science fiction) more noted for heroic figures and sleek, advanced technology. The film has two computers of note:
• The Ship’s on-board computer.
• The Sentient computer of Bomb #20, who refuses a command to disarm after being activated for an aborted planetary destruction. Having some conscious time alone in the bomb bay, Bomb #20 begins to engage in ‘Cartesian doubt’, in which it doubts everything (including reality) that it perceives outside itself. It comes to believe that it can only trust itself, ‘I think therefore I am’. Convinced that it alone represents truth, it declares ‘Let there be light’ and triggers its own destruction – and that of the ship.
|Sources||Discussion Plot Overview (with quotes from the conversation with Bomb #20)Quotes|
|Doctor Who – The Face of Evil||Type||TV series|
|Date||1977, 14th Season, 4th Doctor, Tom Baker|
|Overview||The Doctor arrives on a jungle planet where he is immediately recognised by a female warrior as the ‘Evil One’, a demon from the mythology of her people. He learns that Leela, the female warrior, has been exiled from her people (‘the Sevateem’) for profaning the religion of her people – in which their god Xoanon is believed to be kept prisoner by the Evil One and his servants, the ‘Tesh’.The Doctor comes to realise that the Sevateem and the Tesh were originally a single people, survivors of an inter-stellar survey team that became stranded on the planet in the distant past. Further, he remembers that he has visited the planet in that distant past – in which he tried to assist the ship’s crew by re-programming the ship’s computer, Xoanon. However, he forgot to wipe his personality from the computer, which Xoanon later adopted in his deranged state, giving it a split personality. Xoanon established himself as a god, lording it over the now divided crew – the Tesh (the ship’s technicians) and the Sevateem (the Survey Team).The Doctor overcomes the crazed computer in a mind struggle.|
|Battlestar Galactica||Type||TV series|
|Date||Original Series, 1978, Season 1, Episode 7 ‘The Long Patrol’|
|Overview||Battlestar Galactia (Original Series) depicted survivors of a human civilisation fleeing across interstellar space in search of a mythical planet known as ‘earth’. In many of the episodes, members of the refugee fleet encounter lost outposts of human civilisation.In the episode ‘The Long Patrol’, one of the lead characters (Starbuck) is sent out on a covert reconnaissance patrol in an advanced prototype fighter craft. Curiously, the fighter has superior speed but no armament. And the fighter is equipped with a flirtatious computer with a feminine voice named CORA (‘Computer, Oral Response Activated’).|
|Sources||Discussion (Episode)Discussion (CORA)|
|Blakes 7||Type||TV series|
|Date||Seasons 1-4, 1978-1981|
|Overview||‘Blake’s 7’ is set in the far future, in which an eclectic group of freedom fighters, criminals and outcasts wage war against an evil galactic empire (‘The Federation’). The series takes its name from the group’s original leader, a rebel named Roj Blake, and his companions. Over the course the series, the members of the group change but the number remains fixed at seven. In each iteration of the seven, one or more sentient computers are included in the team as active and loyal contributors.• ‘Zen’, a member of the original seven, is a sentient on-board computer that manages the group’s original ship – the ‘Liberator’ – a ship created by an advanced alien society, itself controlled by a malevolent computer.• At the end of the first season, the group captures ‘Orac’, a super-computer that imitated the irascible personality of its human creator. In contrast to many other earlier fictional supercomputers, Orac’s intelligence does not derive from possession of gigantic information storage banks. Instead, it possesses highly developed logic processes (giving it sentience) that enable it to trawl the interstellar digital communication channels while engaged in its own research projects.
• In the final season, the group acquires a new spaceship equipped with its own on-board computer – ‘Slave’. In stark contrast to Zen and Orac, and despite its apparent abilities, Slave (as its name suggested) possesses an extremely subservient personality.
|Sources||Discussion (Series)Discussion (Zen)Discussion (Orac)
|Salvage 1||Type||TV series|
|Date||1979, Pilot film|
|Overview||The ‘Salvage 1’ series began with a plan by a junkyard owner to carry out the ultimate salvage operation – by sending a rocket built from scrap to the moon to salvage the equipment left behind by NASA during the Apollo missions (The later episodes were focussed on earth, however, the series pilot excited a generation of young boys about the possibility of building their own space rocket).The planning team realise that they need an earth-based ‘guidance computer’ to provide remote control for the launch and the later landing on the moon. Unable to build such a computer within the time allocated to achieve launch, the team decided to ‘steal’ a computer – by using a modem to hack into an unused computer owned by an aerospace facility.The plan is initially successful until the moment the rocket attempts to land on the moon – at which point staff at the aerospace facility shut-down the computer for maintenance, unaware that the computer has been hacked. The rocket’s pilot is forced to land the rocket at the last minute on manual control. For the return journey, the team obtain access to a NASA computer by playing on Cold War tensions by suggesting that they might accept an offer to use a computer loaned by the USSR.|
|Sources||Plot Overview Series Pilot (online)|
|Battle Beyond the Stars||Type||Film|
|Overview||The film is notable for its re-telling of an American western movie (‘Magnificent Seven’), which in turn was a re-make of a Japanese samurai film (Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’, 1954).In lieu of a horse (as one would expect in a traditional Western movie), the young farm boy hero of the story is given a space-ship – with an on-board computer named Nell, a computer with artificial intelligence and a sassy attitude.|
|Sources||Discussion Quotes from the Film (including from ‘Nell’)|
|Overview||TRON’s plot is a curious amalgam of computer gaming and corporate greed. After leaving a corporate software firm following the theft of his latest games by a colleague, a software engineer hacks into the corporation’s mainframe computer to obtain evidence of the theft.However, instead of simply finding information, he is actually transported into the network itself – into a gigantic computer game-like world populated by computer representations of application users. The cyber world is ruled by a malevolent dictator known as the ‘Master Control Program’ (MCP), which possesses the likeness of the evil corporate executive.In a curious twist, the MCP tries to eliminate belief in the ‘users’ from the minds of his subordinate programs. In the subsequent gladiatorial-like struggle between the forces of MCP and dissident programs, the MCP is destroyed. The freed programs can now communicate again with their users in the real world, the software engineer is returned to the real world, and evidence is released by the computer confirming the original software theft by the corrupt executive.
TRON is notable for many reasons, not least of which for bestowing anthropomorphic characteristics upon computer Bits, Programs, Systems and Game Grids.
|Sources||Discussion Video Clips|
|Overview||‘War Games’ follows the actions of as young computer hacker that hacks into a computer thinking he is playing a game about a nuclear war. In fact, he has hacked into a US Military supercomputer programmed to run nuclear war simulations. In the context of the Cold War, the hacker’s actions actually triggers a national nuclear war scare and brings the world to the brink of WWIII.The crisis is brought to an end when the hacker forces the computer to consider the implications of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (a key theme in contemporary Cold War politics) by getting it to play games of tic-tac-toe over and over again. The computer becomes convinced that nuclear war is unwinnable and releases control over the US nuclear missiles poised to respond to the simulated Soviet nuclear first strike.|
|Sources||Discussion Film TrailerVideo Clips (1)
Video Clips (2)
Video Clips (3)
|Red Dwarf||Type||TV series|
|Date||1988-1989, Seasons 1-3; 1991-1993, Seasons 4-6; 1997, Season 7; 1999, Season 8; 2009, Season 9; 2012, Season 10|
|Overview||‘Red Dwarf’ is set in the far future, in which the last surviving human (a slob, rather than a classic science fiction hero) is eking out an aimless existence on a former mining ship.‘Holly’, the ship’s on-board computer, has spent 3 million years without human company before reviving the sole remaining member of the human race from stasis. An experience, as Holly states, has left him a little ‘peculiar’. In practice, he has gone ‘computer senile’ – he plays practical jokes on the crew, omits the number ’7’ from his mathematical calculations and has a ‘blind spot’ in his optical scanners (plot devices that at times gets the crew into awkward situations), and develops odd ball inventions (such as a new system of music, based upon 10 notes rather than 8 notes).|
|Sources||Discussion (Series) Discussion (Holly)|
|The Social Network||Type||Film|
|Overview||‘The Social Network’ recounts the founding of facebook, the social network website that popularly personifies the social networking revolution of the early 21st Century.The film explores the personality conflicts that drove the creation and early development of the facebook revolution – at the film’s end, the film announces the following facebook statistics: that it has over 500 million members in 207 countries and is valued at 25 billion dollars.In contrast to the wider history of computers in movies, the ‘computer’ is a key player in this story but has no true personality in its own right. Social networking sites such as facebook bind the human race together through the interconnected world offered by the modern World Wide Web. Indeed, the ‘computer’ has come full circle as a plot device in movies – it has reverted to being a tool for human beings rather than a distinct personality within the story. But the ‘computer’ is no longer the tool for the scientific, political or military elites as it was in the earlier movies; it has become the tool for the ordinary person.|