We open with a group of soldiers rolling out to follow up on reports that a group of “Roaches” is terrorizing a local settlement. The unit, including a main character known as “Stripe,” tracks them to a farmhouse and they end up in a firefight with three inhuman looking monsters. Stripe kills one with a weapon and another with a knife, but the second one first activates a device that causes a ringing in Stripe’s ears. Over the next couple days, Stripe occasionally experiences glitches and headaches, an implication that the activated device has messed with technological implants that help regulate his mind and body. The unit then follows up on reports of Roaches hiding in an abandoned complex. Stripe follows up with his platoon-mate Hunter and his commanding officer, and the CO is killed by a Roach sniper. Hunter and Stripe go inside, and while inside Stripe sees a human woman whom he helps escape — right before Hunter shoots her. Befuddled, he chases after Hunter and watches her mow down a large group of humans. He struggles with her to take away her weapon and knocks her out, but not before she shoots him. One of the human woman Hunter was targeting gathers her son and takes Stripe away from the building to a hideout nearby. Inside she explains to him that the implant in his brain is controlling what he sees, and it’s making him see some humans as Roaches — monsters. The implication is that the ruling authority is trying to exterminate a group of humans after a costly war, and the means to do that is to turn the enemy into subhuman-looking creatures. Hunter shows up and shoots the two humans, then knocks Stripe out. He wakes up in a cell and in walks a man named Arquette, who is either the leader of the unit or a psychologist (or both). He explains that in military history, men have been reluctant to kill other humans. First it was inability to pull the trigger most of the time. Then military training did a good job desensitizing soldiers to violence in training and increased shot and kill rates, but the side effect was that the soldiers were left with heavy emotional scars. The implant, known as MASS, took care of the scars. It turned the enemy into something that didn’t look human and made it easier for the soldier to be unemotional about the cost of killing. Arquette explains that the group being targeted are “lesser” humans with all sorts of genetic, health, and behavioral problems. The society in this episode is trying to cleanse itself of what it defines as deviants. Stripe is given a choice: live in a cell the rest of his life with no illusions, or have a new MASS installed that restores the illusion and wipes his memory of the knowledge that these people are being exterminated. He initially chooses no new MASS until Arquette puts his kills on a loop, except this time he doesn’t see monsters but rather the real human faces who are his victims. Unable to cope, he has a new MASS installed. The episode ends with him rolling up to the home of his lover, and while looking through his eyes we see the idealized country home with warm glowing lights and a beautiful woman waiting for him. As the camera pans out from a third-person point-of-view, we see the reality: no waiting lover, a run-down home that is tagged with spraypaint and rather dystopian looking. His entire world is airbrushed by MASS.
- A holocaust by any other name – The Nazi Germany parallels, particularly with eugenics overtones, are thick in this episode. Substitute all of the terrible things Arquette says at the end about these folks (their supposed genetic weaknesses) with how the Nazis talked about the Jews and you’ve got a more updated, technology-centered articulation of justified holocaust. We’ve talked about the roles sci-fi plays in social discourse, and one of those is to take current issues and add a technology twist so that it’s easy for us to let our guard down and see critiques about our current problems. The idea of dehumanizing a targeted group of people as a precursor to exterminating them is not a new idea. In fact, the use of the term “roaches” harkens back to the Rwanda genocide; the targeted Tutsis were called “cockroaches” in the lead up to the violent ethnic cleansing that took place there. What’s new here is that the dehumanization is a technological artifice that literally recasts how the targeted group looks as opposed to the use of words, phrases, and demagoguery.
- Image-based othering – The technological constraint on the mind that makes these soldiers kill without regret, MASS, is a gadget implant that reframes reality at a cognitive level. While that technology is perhaps too futuristic, there are parallels between that and how we consume media. Our media diet is limited by definition and we never get a full picture of any person or issue. Those constraints mean that what we choose, what frames are chosen to present what we consume, have a big impact on how we see people or issues in media. Think about the divide in the U.S. on the recent refuge issue, for example. Most of us have only experienced this issue via media; it’s easy for us to otherize others because of it. Even if you’re for a more liberal refugee policy, perhaps then it’s easy to otherize those with whom we disagree if they aren’t in our immediate social circle.
- Escapism through denial – One of the more interesting questions to emerge from this episode is Stripe’s choice at the end. He is awake for the first time since he initially agreed to have MASS installed. Initially he chose to refuse having the device replace, appalled by what this society is doing to this group of targeted human beings. But then Arquette shows him the cost of the choice. It’s not that he lives with the knowledge of what he’s done, but rather that he has to re-live that experience on loop. There is a “red pill / blue pill” (a la The Matrix) choice here, wherein now that he is awake for the first time he has to decide if the illusion is better. In some ways the same forces of control that shaped how he viewed these “Roaches” also has him over a barrel now; they can use the things he’s done as a way to control him instead. And even though he chooses ignorance at the end, the pan-out at the episode’s close shows that the illusion extends far beyond the dehumanizing view of these targeted people. The home where his lover resides is glowing and happy as he rolls up, but we get a further shot from behind Stripe that offers the unvarnished view, a house that is dilapidated and has graffiti. Very little in this society is as it seems to those who have MASS.
JOUR 325 says . . .
- Why would Stripe agree to take MASS in the first place? Is there anything in the episode that points to why someone would consider getting the implant to be a good choice? How culpable is he for his actions?
- How do we dehumanize people with our own media today? I’m not just talking about news; think about the media we are involved in creating too.
- How are these soldiers controlled? MASS affects visuals of the targeted “Roaches” of course, but it’s much more comprehensive than that.
- The military uses first-person shooter video games to train soldiers in much the same way Arquette describes, to desensitize them to the act of killing. What emerging technologies could take this to a level more similar to what we see in this episode?
- Did Stripe really have a choice at the end? Re-living his own role in genocide could charitably be called a living hell. Would it break him of his own humanity to choose anything but a MASS installation?