The Last Human: Doctor Who and Anxieties Over the Posthuman

Curator's Note

"I am the last pure human!" so claims Lady Cassandra O'Brien.Δ17 in the second episode of the Doctor Who reboot.  In the episode, "The End of the World," the Doctor takes Rose on her first adventure: five billion years into the future where well-to-do beings have been invited to witness the destruction of Earth.  One of the prominent guests is Lady Cassandra, who has become little more than a face and stretched skin.  Interestingly, Cassandra's claim relies on racial, genetic purity despite her extensive body modification.  She rails, "The others mingled.  Oh, they call themselves new humans and proto-humans and digi-humans—even human-ish.  But you know what I call them?  Mongrels!" 

Lady Cassandra dramatizes Doctor Who's anxieties over what it means to be (post)human in what Cary Wolfe defines as the “historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore” (xv).  On the one hand, Cassandra's (and other characters') desire to remain "pure" and not already transformed by technology or radical difference is challenged by the show's embraces a wide range of alien, hybrid, and technologically-enhanced characters and worlds--from the Ood to Star Whales to the Face of Bo, from The Library to Planet Midnight to Other Earth.  On the other hand, though, there is clearly a desire to preserve and defend that which is "purely" human, that which is always under threat by technology and things alien.  It is no accident that the greatest threat to humanity is the corruption of humanity by the post- and nonhuman--Autons, Cyberman, Daleks, Human-Daleks, Gangers, Smilers, Silurians, the Silence, and the Waters of Mars--to name a few.  In fact, humanity's fear of losing itself results in the founding of the Torchwood Institute (and spinoff series) to combat things alien and posthuman.   

At the above episode's conclusion, Cassandra is defeated, destroyed by her own posthuman vanity, and Rose laments, "The end of the Earth.  It's gone.  We were too busy saving ourselves.  No one saw it go.  All those years, all that history, and no one was even looking."  This anxiety over saving the self and the past, present, and future of humanity is a central preoccupation of the series.  Even the Doctor himself struggles with his own alien- and human-ness--his two beating hearts--recognizing the ambivalent and radical potential and peril of the posthuman. 


This is an interesting thought, given how often the Doctor, at least in the first season of the reboot, distanced himself from humans by calling them apes. One could argue he did so as part of the emotional pain he was suffering from the Time War (which we now better understand, even if the 50th anniversary special kinda undercuts it). And at other times the Doctor has been known to be rather anti-human, at least in a disdainful way. The interpretation could be that he and the series were trying to show us our bad side in order to highlight and promote our good side -- a common narrative trope for science fiction morality tales. In a sense he may be helping us to become post-human (which I would argue doesn't make sense, given that the use of tools is what makes us human, but that's just me).

CarrieLynn brings up an interesting point about tools making us human. However, as Mark Federman ( points out, McLuhan "suggests that a hammer extends our arm and that the wheel extends our legs and feet." Thus, the use of tools would seem to make us post-human rather than human (or more human, whichever you prefer). I think this applies to Cassandra in a way (and to the Doctor and all of his companions, as well), who is kept alive by machines (the nutrient tank that houses her brain, the moisturizing gun, etc). So as much as she would like to protest that she is a "pure" human, I think she serves to underscore the fact that there may not be such a thing, and that there never has been since the time we started using tools. As I said, the same thing goes for the Doctor and his companions, who use tools ranging from the TARDIS to cellphones to all the various gadgets and gewgaws that have appeared throughout the show. So I might argue that the message of the show is more that post-humanity is an inevitability, regardless of how we feel about that, and that we have to learn to navigate the perils in order to achieve the potentials.

These are the rubs concerning the question of what it means to be posthuman. I think for the most part the series is still decidedly humanist--people are for the most part good, Earth is still a wonderful place for all of its ills--and the anxieties I point out are part of the larger cultural, global anxieties over how much technology, particularly digital and biomedical, has always-already become imbricated in our everyday lives. This ubiquity, which we see in DW and in sci fi in general, usually gets reduced down to bland binaries of good technology and bad humans-using-technology. I think DW complicates matters, for sure. I look forward to seeing further complexity and perhaps a move to hang less on to normative and conservatively traditional ideas of the human and more to embrace that which is already changing.

I just had a thought: to think about the human Companions that get taken aboard by the Doctor, get changed by their experiences with the extraterrestrial, extratemporal, or nonhuman, and sometimes get fundamentally, literally transformed by the Tardis and other technologies. They become posthuman by their experiences, which often gets narrativized as the impossibility to of returning to their "former" or "normal" lives. Unfortunately if the transformation is to radical, the only recourse is annihilation as in the case of DoctorDonna.

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