Of the Future (Recapitulation)

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The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

-William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

What the famous opening line of Gibson’s cyberpunk classic describes is not a Metropolis-blue sky, though that is the color of a dead channel today. Nor is it the apocalypse-red sky of Gotham with which our first opening began, at the very beginning of near-apocalypse. No, Gibson’s sky is a dead television in 1984, and that means the mottled, ever-shifting grays of static.

(No, not him. He’s later.)

Static has retained a curious power as a signifier, despite its relatively brief presence in actual life. It is an acutely analogue phenomenon, near-vanished in a digital world, and equally unknown to our pre-electronic great grandparents. Even in 1999, it was increasingly uncommon.

But nonetheless, it remains in our collective visual memory. In Neuromancer, of course, it refers to a dense layer of gray clouds, and so here in our new opening it does as well: we open with a burst of static, and then pan up over gray ocean to gray looming city and gray industrial kanji-flecked towers looming over that, with, yes, patches of gray sky visible between a few buildings.

Static is so many things. It denotes something lost, a gap, a place where the message is missing, a flickering discontinuity. A sky of static offers no hope and betides no apocalypse; it speaks nothing. But too, it is noise, speaking too much for anything to be made out but a sibilant hiss. Inundated with information, we retain nothing; that is the future, and how can we respond but with apathy?

But the apathy predates the static. The first frame of this opening is not the gray sky of the city; it is a brief flash of an image seen more fully later, a lurid spiral centered on a hand holding an eye, quickly vanishing into the static. This is not a difficult image to interpret, especially associated with the static of a dead television: it is at once lurid and hypnotic, a vision given to us by an unseen hand. It is television itself, entertainment masquerading as information, propagandized news that sells itself as entertainment, all in the service of power, corruption, and greed. The word “Apathy” itself flickers past soon after, followed by images of our main characters, mired as they are in apathy at the start of this story: elderly Bruce Wayne, and young Terry McGinnis, standing in a graveyard, the quick flickering between them suggesting that they are standing together in that graveyard, and yet they are not both on the screen at once.

But all of this is buried in the first second, nigh-subliminal, and fittingly is soon after buried in the liminal image of the sea. It is only after we see the city and its dead-television sky that we get a fuller view of the hand, eye, and spiral, animated now to make it clear that the hand is giving the eye to us–and then, flickering long enough to read and associate with that image, the word “Apathy” once more.

The image flickers again: people in futuristic armor with futuristic guns, again in lurid colors, and a young woman screaming, all in shades of gray. She is not pure light, it seems, a victim but not no innocent, while the armored people are blood and darkness against a backdrop of fire, unquestionably an image of menace and evil. This, we are told, is “Greed.” That, after all, is what comes after apathy: if we no longer care, then what else is there but to selfishly pursue our own desires?

The images accelerate. Briefly, we see police cars, and then the word “Corruption.” Enough said; we know where the greed of the powerful leads. Wayne, alone once more; his word is “Power,” followed immediately by that image of Terry in the graveyard and “Hope.” The progression continues: greed and corruption intensify power and encourage the continued apathy of the powerful, while placing their hope in another, a heroic figure perhaps, gives the powerless a reason to continue to be apathetic, abetting the cycle anew.

But then something cuts through all that. There is another direction hope can go: not hope that we will be rescued, but hope that we can find a way out ourselves, an encouragement to action rather than apathy. A swarm of bats flies past to reveal a figure standing atop a roof, at once familiar and new, while a distorted but familiar melody shrieks out over what was until now a driving but directionless bassline: the notes are different lengths and the key has changed, but the progression of intervals remains, so that with only a little effort we can recognize that we are hearing a version of the Elfman-Walker Batman theme.

Briefly, we see what he sees, a thick, hunched figure with a gun, a silhouette much like the ones we saw in the Batman: The Animated Series opening. Hazy images of the city flicker past, forming a name we know: Batman, of course, and then in a white flash a new word appears over it: Beyond.

But beyond what? What lies between the sharp, noir contrasts of Gotham and the neo-noir cyberpunk grays and neon of New Gotham? It will be quite a few episodes before the show gives us an answer, but it is one we have been anticipating since the beginning of this project: the near-apocalypse of ’09 happened. We never find out the details of this event, but we know what it is–a near-apocalypse. And we know what its aftermath, its consequent is: a dingy world of smog and darkness, corporate greed and biological horrors, a world where all the problems of the present have continued and metastasized into the pustulant growth that is this world of power and greed, apathy and corruption.

More images flicker past, a sequence bookended by images denoting Terry’s enemies: an ace of spades pierced by a bullet for the Royal Flush Gang, a feminine silhouette in swirling blues for Inque. In between, two images: the “blind justice” statue in a jumbled sea of words, looming menacingly closer, followed by “Courage,” and Terry’s classmates dancing energetically against a background of writhing, flickering figures, followed by a brief focus on his girlfriend Dana and the word “Honor.” Dana, from whom Terry consistently keeps the truth throughout the series, to whom he constantly lies–that is who receives “Honor”? A choice as bitterly ironic as assigning “Courage” to the symbol of the justice system, institutional violence wielded by the powerful from a position of safety to keep themselves safe. This is cyberpunk: our heroes and their allies are light gray in a dark gray world, at best. Look at what comes next: images of violence in the street, but now it’s Batman doing it at Bruce’s instruction, and so it gets the word “Justice.” Precious little of that here; just superheroics.

Because, outside the show, we know what near-apocalypse is. Apocalypse is just revolution seen from above; near-apocalypse is failed or aborted revolution. It’s a vision of justice that consists solely of protecting the status quo from those who would upset it, whether for their own gain or in an effort to accomplish something better. It is the same old stagnation and decay, because we fear toppling the structures might be worse. It’s what superheroes do, and thus that is what this future is Beyond: it is beyond the choice not to take the risk and try for something better. It is beyond the decision to stay safe, to indulge our protector fantasies.

It is a world of political corruption, corporate greed, public apathy, and environmental decay. It is, in short, the world we chose.

The pilot opens in 2019.

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