Summer Glau’s Uncanny Valley

By: | Post date: September 25, 2009 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Information Technology
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No, I’m not referring to a TV actress’ cleavage. In truth, I don’t even know whether Summer Glau has a cleavage. No, I’m talking about the robot she portrayed on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

(A post on a TV show?! Well, this is the personal blog, not the linguistics one.)

I don’t much watch television at all any more, and when I do, having been washed aside and left behind by mainstream culture, I usually freak out. The double of Shameless and Skins, for example, made me swear off TV for a month.

A couple of nights ago, in taxation-forms-avoidance mode, I switched on the TV and fell upon the start of the Demon Hand episode of Terminator. I vaguely knew the series existed, but had never seen it, and has certainly developed no empathy for its cast of justified psychos. But even if I had, my freakout would have been just as complete. And this is to the scriptwriters’ great credit. Man, do I hate them.

So, story is this. The cast of justified psychos is joined by Summer Glau’s Cameron, a Terminator sent Vrom Ze Footchar to protect the Messiah kid. The Terminator is a robotic killing machine, as all Terminators have been, even when they grow up to become Governators. There’s a little bit of TNG Data humour about how socially maladjusted she is, but the episode still reminds you she is a killing machine. Without her killing anyone.

At least, without us knowing that she killed anyone. I missed the subtlety of this when watching, but Cameron turns up back at Justified Psycho Manor in a cop uniform, and Sarah Connor deadpans:

Somewhere in an alley a naked cop lies bleeding.

Because Cameron had not walked out of Justified Psycho Manor in a cop uniform; if the robot needs a disguise, she’ll beat it off you.

So. Cameron is on a mission to retrieve some McGuffin or other, and the Russian dude who knows the McGuffin’s location is on the run from the Russian mafia. To find out where the dude is, Cameron joins a ballet class, run by the Russian dude’s sister. “You haff donne ballet beforr,” Teacher notes. “But yor upper body iss too mekenical, you kno?” Ha de ha. “This dansse is the pas de chat. You are a cat.” “I am… a cat.” Heh.

On her second visit, Cameron observes Teacher dancing, then kicks away a mafioso threatening Teacher, and having established her bona fides, asks to see Teacher’s brother.

They go to the brother, he’s freaked out that they could have been followed, no, no, Teacher assures him, she can help us—tell him.

Where is the McGuffin? Cameron asks.

At XYZ, Russian dude replies.

Cameron has the information she needs. Out she walks.

“But you said you’d help us!” Teacher screams.

And the camera follows Cameron, walking down the stairs nonchalantly—no, robotically—as two mafiosi, one in ponytail, run past her, bust in the door, bang bang bang, screams, bang, silence.

“Is he dead?” Sarah asks when Cameron returns to Justified Psycho Manor.

“Yes. His sister too.”

“Did you kill him?”

“No. That wasn’t my mission.”

At the end of the episode (where much more happens, but I’m still freaked out about the outcome of that mission), Sarah voiceovers clunkily that no robot could ever create art, and if they did, they’d be us, and we wouldn’t have to fear them any more.

As the voiceover drones on, Cameron puts on her ballet shoes, and dances ballet. Psycho Human Vrom Ze Footcha, who hates robots, is watching her in terror.

As always happens when I am freaked out by TV—indeed, whenever I watch TV at all—I went to the internets for edification, and read the entire Television Without Pity forum on the episode. So this following insights aren’t primarily mine, it’s synthesised from the discussions there.

The Psycho Human Vrom Ze Footcha may have been freaking out because Cameron is dancing to the same Chopin piece that he had been tortured to in a previous episode. But the episode gives plenty of reason to freak out anyway. Summer Glau was in fact a dancer before an injury redirected her to acting; I don’t get ballet, but I’ll take the forum members at their word that she did a good job.

Forum members castigated the voiceovers as being obvious and sledgehammer. But in this instance, there’s satisfying layering going on, as one poster worked out. (Sorry, I won’t go through 20 screenfuls again to work out who.) Sarah’s voiceover is not the omniscient narrator’s, and she’s belied—and then unbelied—by what we’ve seen. “A robot cannot create art?” Cameron’s dancing ballet of her own accord right in front of us. “And if a robot can create art, we need not fear them, they will have become us?” A robot dances what she was taught by someone, whose death she saw no reason to prevent: that’s a robot you very much need to fear.

(One forum member went even further: if the robots do become us, they become as violent and irrational as us. Only stronger. Even more reason to fear them.)

That was brilliant of the series. Deep and challenging, the way I had not seen in a long while. Better even than Star Trek’s Data—who the forum participants kept citing as an exemplar to avoid for Cameron (“I hope they don’t Data her.” Harsh, but possibly fair.) It’s not tragedy in the proper sense, because the ballet teacher had no tragic flaw; but like tragedy is supposed to, it evokes pity and horror and meditation on one’s lot.

And I’ll switch the channel if Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles comes on again. It utterly freaked me out.

My only contribution to all that is to note that:

  • My immediate reaction was, “You’re a monster, and that annuls any beauty in your dancing”. (One forum poster went there too.) But I’m not convinced that’s true. Nazis loved music, at least one composer has been a murderer. And while what Cameron did was horrific, it was well within the bounds of human behaviour.
  • What particularly gets me about the ballet teacher being gunned down, as well as the computer guy? The art nexus—kinda obvious from the scriptwriters, but that’s how the Big Questions get posed. The fact that we see the Teacher on screen a lot more this ep than the brother, and Cameron had saved her earlier on.

    But also, that the baseline ethics captured by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (Law #1:”A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”) are trumped by the elemental ethic of Game Theory. Not the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but the even more basic: I did you Good, Now You do me Good. I did you Ill, Now You do me Ill.

    Of course, the Three Laws of Robotics are an encumbrance to a killing machine sent Vrom Ze Footchar, and they’re an encumbrance Asimov had already envisioned in his Zeroth law, which takes precedence: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” Still, it was horrible to watch her walk away, and even more horrible to watch her dance. As the scriptwriters intended.

  • Robotics people, and animators, have encountered the phenomenon of the Uncanny Valley. If our robots and animations look not really like us at all, C-3PO and Toy Story, we’re amused. If they look almost like us but not quite—Actroids, Beowulf the Movie, we’re repulsed. The Uncanny Valley is a valley, because that’s the dip in emotional response as simulations look more human, and it’s uncanny, because that’s our emotional response. Several psychological motives have been proposed for this reaction, but surely part of it is, we are realising something alien is trying to fool us into passing for one of us.

    With the ballet teaching and ballet dancing, I submit that Psycho Human Vrom Ze Footchar (and I so did not recognise Brian Austin Green twenty years on)—is having that kind of Uncanny Valley moment. In the moral rather than physical domain.

It’s been two years since this ep screened Stateside; but belated Props to the Television Without Pity forum members, for some high quality discussion. Inamongst the ogling of Summer Glau’s bum. I hadn’t noticed; I guess she’s not my body type, or something. Or maybe I just completely don’t get ballet.

Or maybe it was still that Uncanny Valley thing. In which case, even more Props to Summer Glau, for convincing me she is a monster as Cameron.


  • John Cowan says:

    Sorry for the ultra-delayed response, but I too am in avoidance mode and I missed this before.

    A tragic flaw isn't necessarily inside the tragic character at all: it can be just a matter of being a strong character in an exposed position, like Cordelia in Lear. She hasn't done anything wrong, nor is she morally deficient in any way — quite the contrary. But she dies anyway.

    Since then, of course, we see such deaths as either pathos (Little Nell) or irony (any number of modern novels, plays, and films) or both (Princess Diana). But to Shakespeare and his lot, Cordelia's death is the fall of a princess, the real thing, and more important for her status than for personal details about her.

  • Anonymous says:

    Hey N., have you taken a look at Mackridge's Language and National Identiy in Greece, 1766-1976 yet?

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