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Dark, or the Post-Modern Prometheus: the denial of death and scientific innovation

Disclaimer: This text was originally published on Tab UOL, in Portuguese. It contains spoilers from the TV series Dark.

There were other times when I thought that I was only addressing a same subject here, which is rather the theme of my thesis. But it seems that I’m still able to distinguish (or at least some people say so). In any case, what I bring today is an essay about a TV series that became very popular in the past months, especially due to its finale.

Now that the German series Dark is over, we know that its main topic is time travel. This is already enough information for us to conclude that the series has only two possible outcomes: either it is full of clichés or it is refreshing and insightful. Well, I believe Dark fits the second option.

On Tilt, a very throughout article explains all the concepts approached during the three seasons, but there’s also Rodrigo Petronio’s essay that explains why Dark became a success. In the case of Petronio’s text, he argues that “since Doctor Who, 2001 and Somewhere in Time to Butterfly Effect and Interstellar, the virtualities found in the space-time travels are the most potent narrative recourses to be approached when thinking about the fundaments of reality. In this sense, Dark is exceptional. It was born as a classic.”

One of the reasons why Dark is classic lies on the fact that, intertwined to its many topics, the series are built over an archetypical narrative as old as Ancient Greece, since the lore of the series is much closer to the myth of Prometheus — a vastly incorporated trope in science fiction (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is one of the most literal examples).

But there are different versions of this same myth, according to each author, being it Hesiod or Aeschylus. Generally though, the myth tells the story of Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, who were tasked to create human beings and animals. Epimetheus was charged to deliver bravery, intelligence, claws, shells and wings to animals, but when it was humans’ turn, there was only clay to be used. Epimetheus asked for help, so his brother stole the divine fire and delivered it to humans, so they could be superior to the other animals. However, the fire was something to be exclusively held by gods and, for this same reason, Zeus ordered that Hephaestus chained Prometheus to the peak of the Caucasus mount, where every day an eagle or a vulture would come to dilacerate his liver which, on its turn, always regenerated. This would repeat throughout the next 30 thousand years.

In the Greek tragedy “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus, the protagonist was taken responsible for teaching humans how to write as well as giving them access to mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and the same fire that worked as a technology capable of promoting the development of human civilizations. In this version, we learn that Prometheus had an important role helping Zeus and other gods to win their battles, which means that his punishment was also a case of treason. Common sense has therefore associated the myth of Prometheus to the expression that “curiosity killed the cat,” which means that are things that men should not deal with if they don’t want to be punished or damned. It is the same logic hidden in the apple offered to Eve in the Bible, as well as Pandora’s mysterious box.

It is no coincidence that in Dark we have this clear nod to the characters of Adam and Eve as the foundations of humanity or the whole cosmogony of the series. In fact, as we realize throughout the seasons, especially in the last one, they are not exactly the protagonists — they don’t even have control over their own lives. The theme of the free will is often addressed, but sparsely explained, after all, the lore is more interested in unraveling the illusion that, yes, human beings must follow the rules of the time, but it maybe it’s possible to deceive it somehow and thus retun to paradise.

In the third season, we learn that the only way to stop all the disgrace that the families suffer from is in the origin of everything: when H. G. Tannhaus turns his time machine on for the first time, he actually creates the two dimensions of Adam and Eve, both having the apocalypse experienced no matter what Martha or Jonas do. The series finale therefore culminates in the explanation that there was no way to avoid apocalypse and that, in fact, all lives and timelines were messed and entangled in an uncorrectable way. The only way out was in the discovery that both major dimensions which the series develop until the end of the third season were nothing more than the negative side effect of Tannhaus’ invention.

But he wasn’t the first one to try to mess with time. His great grandfather was the founder of the sect Sic Mundus, which aimed to discover time travel. However, the interest wasn’t just scientific, but mostly because Heinrich couldn’t accept losing his wife Charlotte for death. In the case of H. G. Tannhaus, who finally manages to build a time machine, the scientist has lost his son, daughter in law and granddaughter in a car accident right after a fight between father and son. From such a “trivial” event (in the sense that this could happen to anyone), new dimensions are created and fulfilled with more suffering and more death.

When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, she didn’t only create science fiction but also referred to the myth of Prometheus — by the way, the complete title of her book is “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.” In this novel, the British author starts the story by presenting us a man who dedicates his life to the dream of reaching the North Pole, so he can make a scientific discovery, but he is stopped by a stranger that is rescued by his crew. This man, Victor Frankenstein, tells the seamen to abort the mission, and the reason why lies in his own life experiences. He tells the story of his happy childhood, until he loses his mother to some disease and thus his search for knowledge and scientific discovery become central to his life as a college student.

Among his readings on mystic and new discoveries in the field of chemistry, Frankenstein realizes he might be able to create life from scratch, just like alchemists aimed to do in the figure of the homunculus. But this new life he creates is monstrous and, for this very reason, the scientist rejects it. Relying on an excessive drama that is common in gothic romance, the scientist’s journey is thus intercepted by sickness, outbreaks and the death of his loved ones by the hands of the monster he created. We are also invited to know more about the monster feelings, so we understand that he wasn’t born corrupt, but it happened due to his horrible physical appearance that made him not acceptable by society. Resignated, the monster asks Frankenstein to give him a partner in his own image, but a female version. The scientist declines, so more deaths come either by the hands of the monster or in consequence of his acts.

Shelley addresses Frankenstein’s desire to have control over the science of life, so he could free us from death, disease and unhappiness. But as much as Mina in Bram Stoker’s Dracula asks the vampire to “take her away from all this death”, so did Frankenstein aimed for the same ends when creating the monster that ultimately turned against his own creator. In his words, Victor could be his creator and the monster his creature, but he made him stronger than men and that makes him superior, thus the real master. Shelley brings the myth of Prometheus into her novel as a means to argue that Frankenstein had stolen the fire of the gods through his scientific achievements, which shouldn’t be achievable by humans. Technology could, in a first gaze, seem positive or promising, but it could also lead us to tragedy and misfortune.

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, it was just about time for the First Industrial Revolution to begin. This transition between an archaic to a technological world powered by steam wasn’t completely accepted by all people. This becomes clear in the gothic romance as a genre as well as in its subsequent development through science fiction and horror.

With time, the association between scientific and technological progress with fear grew weaker — and this is due to more optimistic stories such as the ones written by Jules Verne or even “A Rainha do Ignoto”, here in Brazil. But the truth is that, until these days, we are still confronted by narratives that are commercial successes and which rely on this binomial formula of scientific progress and its negative consequences — Black Mirror being the most contemporary example in this sense.

When we finish the series Dark, we learn that Martha and Jonas rather decided to avoid the creation of the time machine so both their dimensions and their following tragedies didn’t exist at all. In other words, they abdicate their own existence. Maybe this decision is the only way that they have free will, because both Martha and Jonas understand that they can only stop the apocalypse from happen if the trigger of the creation of the time machine is avoided. So they interfere in the destiny of the scientist’s son, impeding his death and thus allowing life to go on as it always should. Martha and Jonas, or Adam and Eve, alongside their respective dimensions, therefore cease to exist. In order to avoid more death and suffering, Martha, Jonas and all the remaining characters in the series abdicate to exist.

We are the only living beings who know that we are going to die. Such acknowledgement is what makes us struggle for meaning to live at all, in spite of the certainty of our closure. But not all meaning is convincing enough for us to extinguish our anxiety: it’s not always that religions will deliver a story that will brings us peace, so we make science and defy the gods, we try to steal their fire but, theoretically, we are always punished for that in a vicious cycle of loss and damage.

We don’t have a vulture eating our liver, but we have this “itch” of our consciousness and ambition that is inherited through generations, just like we see in Dark. When Martha and Jonas eliminate the “apple” that Tannhaus could have bitten, and thus be expelled from paradise by creating new layers of this Dantean inferno portrayed in the series, the couple actually avoids that everybody is deemed to damnation — but at the expenditure of a grandiose scientific discovery.

It is in this sense that ethics as a philosophical are proves to be one of the most important scientific fields of contemporaneity. After all, just like in the time when Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece, we are now on the brink of a new industrial revolution (the fourth one, according to the World Economic Forum), and certain scientific and technological choices that we make today could possibly unleash the apocalypse that we couldn’t see yet. We (still?) don’t have a time machine, but we have the ability to think about the future, speculate the consequences and reflect on the possibilities. Therefore, the field of futures studies and even science fiction as a genre can both contribute in a great extent to technological innovation and the discussion around it.

Written by

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.

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