Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Walking in Another Person's Shoes: The Cult-TV Body Swap

After a fashion, all of science fiction television concerns the concept of identity, and a human individual's desire to protect, preserve and nourish that identity. 

When you break down that assertion to specifics, it isn't difficult to discern how the genre is dominated by threats to the inner "self."  From evil twins, impostors and doppelgangers to alternate dimension counterparts," heroes in cult television almost constantly face challenges to identity  Superheroes,  for example, often suffer from amnesia: the total loss of memory and awareness of "who they are" or who they are destined to become. 

The Borg -- arguably Star Trek's greatest villain -- rob humans and other races of personal identity, assimilating individuality into a colorless collective.   Similarly, vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are demons who inhabit your (dead) body, but lack your human soul.  From one end of the genre to the other, villains in the pantheon might accurately be described as body thieves or identity robbers/identity corrupters.

Perhaps the most common genre convention in cult television is the idea of the "body swap."  In body swap tales, two individuals change bodies, and in the process overturn the order of the status quo.   In sci-fi TV history, villains have swapped bodies with heroes, men have swapped bodies with women, and sane men have swapped bodies with mad-men.  And in each example of this template, the great struggle in the drama is to re-assert personal identity and reclaim a life that might have been lost.  We cling to our identities. Without it, we are nothing.

The Joe Stefano, Leslie Stevens anthology The Outer Limits (1963-1965) featured an early "body swap" story during its first remarkable season. 

In "The Human Factor," by David Duncan, a scientist named Dr. Hamilton (Gary Merrill) has invented a device for treating the mentally-ill that can join the therapist's mind to that of the patient.  This machine can not only share thoughts, but emotions as well...even the emotions "down deep...below the intellect."   

Hamilton has cause to test his mind-joining machine on an engineer named Major Brothers (Harry Guardino) at a military base in Greenland.  Brothers has gone mad with guilt over the death of a fellow officer, and believes that some kind of icy monster has infiltrated the facility.  His goal now is to destroy the facility, and everyone in it. 

But during a therapy session using Hamilton's mind-device, an earthquake occurs and Brothers and Hamilton switch minds and bodies.  Naturally, no other officer believes Hamilton's crazy story that he is actually the good doctor, now trapped in the body of a lunatic; and that a lunatic is now acting as the calm, steady psychologist. 

Disaster is ultimately averted but only because Hamilton's assistant, Ingrid (Sally Kellerman) is able to detect Hamilton's true, good self, inside Brother's body.  The idea of greatest importance in this body swap story is that man is more than a simple machine; that he exists as more than a physical presence, and boasts a soul or spirit (independent of physicality) that can be recognized as distinct and special. 

We would all like to believe that others would recognize our "essence," even if we seem different, or inhabit a different physical form.  The Control Voice's ending narration dwells on the machine that made this particular body swap possible, and notes that it is neither good nor evil; that it is man who will always control his machines, and make such choices.

The final episode of the original Star Trek (1966-1969) "Turnabout Intruder," also concerns a body swap. 

This time, another mentally ill individual, a female scientist named Dr. Janet Lester (Sandra Smith), discovers mind-transference technology at on archaeological dig on the distant world of Camus II. 

A former lover of Captain Kirk's (William Shatner), Lester didn't make the cut at Starfleet Academy, and has since developed a deep  and abiding self-hatred regarding her own womanhood.  She has blamed her failure not on her own instability, but on an exclusive world of Starfleet captains that refuses to "admit women."

In the course of the episode, Dr. Lester forces a body switch on Captain Kirk, and then assumes command of the Enterprise.  However, Dr. Lester's capricious, cruel nature soon becomes evident to the Enterprise crew, including Mr. Spock, Scotty and Dr. McCoy. 

When these officers attempt to relieve Kirk of command, Lester tries Mr. Spock for mutiny, and attempts to have Kirk (in her own body) executed.   In this version of the body swap tale, the restoration of order again depends on a person -- a friend -- who can recognize a person's true essence outside of physical appearances.  In this case, the Spock-Kirk friendship proves paramount, and Spock makes use of a Vulcan mind-meld to prove that Captain Kirk's true self is trapped in the body of Dr. Lester.  Again, the idea of the soul is raised, if not named directly.  In "Turnabout Intruder," Captain Kirk speaks of the things that make him "special," "only to himself."

In "Turnabout Intruder's" coda, Captain Kirk also notes that Dr. Lester's life could have been as productive and happy as "any woman's," which today is largely and rightly interpreted as a sexist remark.  But the point of his reflection is that if Dr. Lester had not hated her own identity and self, she could have accomplished wonderful things. 

The body swap story is often about a person who wants to change, to be different, and a person upon whom change is forced.  If you are happy in your own skin, you have no need to envy anybody else, or covet their identity.  But Janet Lester considered her identity not a gift (something special to herself, in the words of Kirk) but as a prison.  And she sought to escape that prison at her first opportunity.

Chris Carter's The X-Files (1993-2002) took the idea of the "body swap" in a different direction entirely  during the sixth season two-part episode, "Dreamland." 

In this tale, an experimental U.S. aircraft reverse engineered from UFO technology emits an energy wave that exchanges the bodies of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and government bureaucrat, Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean).   

This body swap tale is played largely for comedy, and a highlight of the show is an extended sequence during which Mulder sees himself as Morris in a bedroom mirror.  McKean and Duchovny literally mirror each others moves and expressions -- with perfect timing -- and the scene elicits real laughs.

Although this episode is a bit more fanciful and less serious than your typical X-Files segment, there's again a point to the drama: the idea of what it means to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.   Here, Mulder is cut off from not just his body, his job, and his best friend, Scully, but from his obsessive, lifelong pursuits.  He finds himself with teenage children, a nagging wife, and no real friends.  Morris, meanwhile -- at least in a certain sense -- does a better job with Mulder's life than Mulder did.  As Mulder, Morris attempts to get frisky with Scully, and enjoys his new, more youthful and athletic body.  Mulder gets moved into a suburban Hell, but Morris makes his time in Mulder's body enjoyable. 

The Farscape canon (1999-2003) also features a variation on the familiar  body swap story.  In "Out of Their Minds" by Ian Watson, a Halosian energy blast strikes Moya and all the refugees and fugitives aboad her (save for Zhaan) are shunted out of their bodies...repeatedly.  

There isn't just one switch among two characters featured in this dizzying, frenetic adventure, but several switches, spread out amongst Chiana, Rygel, John Crichton, Aeryn Sun and D'Argo. 

Like The X-Files installment, "Out of Their Minds" boasts a playful tenor, and doesn't shy away from issues of sexuality (a perpetual strength of  Farscape, in general). 

In other words, Crichton spends some personal time in Aeryn's body, and Aeryn takes a peek down John's trousers while in his body.  In this sense, "Out of Their Minds" is about curiosity.  In real life, we never have the opportunity to become anyone else, let alone someone of the opposite sex...or a different species.  When the displaced crew members of Moya pull together and defeat the Halosians, the point seems to be that although these characters are all different, they are all alike under the skin.  When  they remember that and work together, they succeed.  Walking in someone else's shoes and seeing something through someone else's eyes builds empathy for that person.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season two-parter "This Year's Girl," the renegade slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) uses a mystical device to swap bodies with the very woman who put her in a hospital (and coma) for the better part of a year: Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar). 

So the visiting Watchers Council actually apprehends Buffy in Faith's body, and Faith -- in Buffy's form -- is left to wreak havoc on the Slayer's personal life, including her romantic relationship with Riley (Marc Blucas).

This episode is another exploration of what it means to walk a mile in another person's shoes.  As Buffy, Faith has sex with Riley out of revenge, out of petty jealousy.  But Faith is upset and deeply-affected after the intercourse because she felt real love...something she had not experienced herself, and was not prepared for.    Suddenly -- and literally -- she's got skin in the game.  She was affected by what she did; and now can't treat her new body so cavalierly.

Smallville's (2001 -2011) fourth season offered yet another variation on the commonly-seen body swap story, entitled "Transference." 

In this episode (one of Smallville's finest hours), Lionel Luthor John Glover) plots to steal Lex's body using a Kryptonian crystal or artifact.  But Clark (Tomn Welling) jumps in at the last second to save his friend Lex, and he ends up being the person switched with Lionel. 

In this case, Lionel not only gets a new and younger body...he unexpectedly finds himself in an invincible one.  At this point, Lionel is the undisputed villain of the series, and he returns to Clark's life in Smallville with super powers to go along with his criminal mind.  The kicker in this case is that after order is restored and Lionel is returned to his own body, he feels the after-effects of Clark's presence.  In an instant, Lionel is "born again," a reformed man.  The switch has changed him, but not because of himself, but because his body housed a being of rare,superhuman virtue.

"Transference" points to another aspect of "body swap" stories that proves irresistible.  Actors featured in a regular series are suddenly gifted with an opportunity to play a different role; to emulate their co-stars, in many cases.  Smallville proves truly spectacular in this regard, with Welling deftly taking on the gestures, stance and mannerisms of Glover's character, and Glover doing the same for Welling's character.  That's the thing that makes this episode so funny, and it's really a credit to Welling (who gets most of the screentime) for pulling off a brilliant, funny, and carefully-observed version of Lionel Luthor.

Like many other genre conventions, the body swap isn't going to disappear from cult television anytime soon.  It's too useful a trope, really.  The body swap mixes things up for the performers involved, allowing them to play insane, the opposite sex, or another series regular. But it also reminds us how precious and fragile personal identity truly is.   

It would be terrible, after all, to lose your body to another person.  Especially a person who might be you...better than you ever were.

3 comments:

  1. I think the last line really is the kicker here. It's one thing to swap bodies, it's another to realize that someone could be better as you! It kinds of blows all the excuses out of the water and THAT's a scary thought.

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  2. Fine breakdown of this time-honored sci-fi theme, John. THE HUMAN FACTOR and TURNABOUT INTRUDER would be my faves from the ones you examine in your post. I also like THE MAN IN THE MIRROR episode, season 5 from Medium (I have my wife to thank for that series experience). Thanks, my friend.

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  3. Hi folks,

    Shannon: I agree. We think we own our own bodies, after all, and know what to do with them. For someone else to step in and do better is really awful...and terrifying.

    Le0pard13: I also enjoyed "The Human Factor" and "Turnabout Intruder," but I was surprised at just how good the Smallville episode was too, "Transference." People criticize Smallville a lot, but it's endured for a decade and I've seen a lot of surprisingly good episodes.

    I am a fan of Medium as well, but I haven't gotten to season 5 yet. Kathryn and I got up to season four, and then fell behind. I need to see that episode (and that season).

    Thank you both for great comments on "Body swaps!"

    best,
    JKM

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