Bronwen Calvert, Being Bionic: The World of TV Cyborgs

Bronwen Calvert, Being Bionic: The World of TV Cyborgs (London: I. B. Tauris 2017 ) £14.99 Pb. ISBN 978-1-78453-648-0

In Being Bionic, Bronwen Calvert, an associate lecturer with the Open University, begins by introducing us to a famous cyborg example, that of the Borg in the long-running TV series Star Trek. They were first introduced in Star Trek: Next Generation, and later reappeared in the spin-off Voyager. After defining a cyborg – a ‘mostly theoretical being that incorporates organic and machine/technological parts’ (2) – Calvert then defines a number of theoretical approaches.  For example, Rosi Braidotti terms such a figure, a ‘teratological imaginary’, or ‘borderline figure’;  a figure on the edge of society that creates a sense of fear, such as a zombie.1 Calvert contrasts this with another way of examining this common trope in television SF,  that of Donna Haraway, who suggests that such a figure offers ‘the breakdown and deconstruction of binary oppositions’, such as nature/culture, male/female etc (4).

Calvert then outlines the long tradition in Western storytelling of the fear of the embodied within the inorganic, from Galatea (the statue carved by Pygmalion) in Greek myth, to the doll woman in E T A Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (5). This she combines with Western philosophical ideas of, for example, the Enlightenment idea of ‘body-as machine and disembodied mind as described by Descartes’ (5). It is this latter aspect which seems to be embodied in cyborgs of the twentieth and twenty-first century.

This leads on to a dual analysis of the physicality of the body; as lived and experienced from within, and as a ‘body for inscription’. Using the ideas of Grosz, Calvert suggests that the TV cyborg can become ‘a surface for social and cultural inscription’. It is this aspect which I feel is the key to the analysis. SF well known as reflecting the anxieties of the times in which it is created. For example, the novels of Philip K Dick can certainly be seen to reflect Cold War anxieties.

The emphasis does seem to be on female cyborgs. Often such a character is viewed as ‘hyper-sexual’ as opposed to on the edges of society. But this of course clearly reflects the idea as the body as text, to be written on, ‘presenting an exaggerated version of femininity that reinscribes gender markers onto a constructed, artificial/body’ (9). One example is of course ‘Seven Of Nine’ in Star Trek.

The book then outlines various episodes of a number of TV series, using a variety of analytic tools. Chapter One deals with Dr Who, in which ‘cyborgs’ were the villain almost right from the start. They are described as ‘technophobe’ figures. The early version of the Daleks, dating from 1964, are seen as allowing an allegorical treatment of World War Two (the Daleks have definite Nazi overtones), as well as  the Holocaust, and a possible future nuclear apocalypse (22), a fact I missed when seeing the very first series, aged 6. Then came the Cybermen.  And both figures (Daleks and Cybermen) did indeed have an ‘organic’ component.  Calvert draws comparisons between the Cybermen and Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, as reflecting a fear of medical technology running out of control (23). Personally, however, I always found the monster in Frankenstein a very sympathetic figure, especially in the central section in which he educates himself along the lines of Rousseau’s Emile; it is the way he is ‘othered’ by us humans which turns him into a monster.

Another chapter deals with the original Bionic Woman, in which one character takes on a more mechanical aspect as a technological cure for injury – the character Jaime who gains bionic legs. In this case the character has to keep her mechanical/organic hybridity a secret (120), resulting in an unorthodox family life.

In a later chapter Calvert deals of course with that ultimate cyborg, the Terminator. However, she concentrates on the spin-off series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Here, for example, a character is hidden in plain sight as a human, but can ‘weaponise’ when necessary, using the metal liquid technology first unleashed in Terminator 2 in 1991.

Chapter Two deals in more depth with the Borg in Star Trek: the Next Generation and Voyager. Here there is more discussion of the role of ‘Seven of Nine’, who Calvert sees as a construct of both ‘female-as–other and ‘female-as-ideal’.2 I would certainly see this ‘ideal’ as a male construct, as the character is a shapely cyborg squeezed into a skin-tight suit. Indeed, one critic is quoted as seeing Seven as ‘clearly intended as eye candy for the boys’ (55).  Calvert traces the journey of Seven of Nine, from part of the collective hive-mind of the Borg, with a great many mechanical aspects, to an individual who along the way loses much of the Borg hardware (54). In this she (Seven of Nine) seems to embody the Western philosophical tradition of the individual, as opposed to perhaps a more Confucian view of the importance of the group. There is certainly a thematic overlap with the fear of being forcefully absorbed as a Cyberman (in Doctor Who), which also leads to a loss of individual identity and agency.

So where does this all get us? Calvert’s stated aims in the book is to ‘create an overview of television cyborgs, and to look at a variety of representations’ (206). The conclusion is that all of these Cyborgs represent the overlap between machine and human as ‘others’, of which some are monstrous, and some struggle to be more like us (206). Calvert then raises the question of whether cyborgs still represent an aspect of our own technological anxieties. My answer would be yes – one only has to look at the Dr Who episode in which mobile phone ear-pieces are used as a way in for the Cybermen, here representing a powerful tech industry, an episode which is very prescient in the way in which it deals with the role of large tech companies and loss of individual privacy.3

Anna Brunton, University of Oxford.


1 Rosie Braidotti, ‘Teratologies’, in Ian Buchanan and Clare Colebrook (eds) Deleuze and Feminist Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh university Press, 2000).

2 Bronwen Calvert, ‘Going Through the Motions: Reading Simulacra in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, Slayage 4.3 (December 2004)

3 ‘Rise of the Cybermen’ (2006)