The 2012 Canadian science fiction series Continuum, now airing on the SyFy channel is a warning sign. It represents, possibly without intent, an escalation in the way media drums up support for increased police power, and repression of civil liberties and dissent.
At first glance, this series is a mix of a standard science fiction trope with a police procedural. Criminals from the future are pursued by a cop from the future – accidentally brought along during their escape. This is an old combination.
What is new in this series is that the year 2077, from which the cop comes is a dystopian one, ruled by a corporate dictatorship. The criminals are terrorists who seek to restore democracy and human rights. That is right. The talented, charismatic and glowingly beautiful Rachel Nichols is a cop from the future trying to save a corporate dictatorship from the horrors of democracy.
The writers argue that this conflict is a way of adding moral complexity to the series. As they say on the series website, on the page that describes the criminal group “Liber8”: “For many, it will be hard not to agree with their philosophy — but for most, it will be impossible to agree with their methods.” But Continuum is no exception to the rule that television fiction is normally an emotional experience before it is an intellectual one; all the emotional weight is tilted towards the dictatorship and against those opposing it.
In the opening episode, Kiera (the cop star of the show played by Nichols) is shown as a loving wife and mother. She is a tough but fair cop who arrests some petty criminals and warns them to change their ways before sending them off to the cop shop. One character complains about the lack of human rights and free speech in their society, and she comments wryly “you seem to be able to speak pretty freely”. The leaders of Liber8 are captured after killing 20,000 people to bring down 20 corporate leaders. The shot of the explosion they create includes bringing down twin towers. Later in the series you see that one of the things they were doing before they killed 20,000 people was randomly blowing up power stations and causing extended power blackouts. “If there's a message there, I'm not seeing it” says 2077 Kiera.
We may occasionally see an argument for the Liber8 point of view, but the emotional deck is always stacked partially against them, and shifts overwhelmingly against them by episode's end. For example, we see what turned the leader of Liber8, Kagame, violent. His non-violent meeting is brutally attacked by corporate police. The cops endanger a baby in a carriage. Was this intended as an Eisenstein homage? But at the beginning of that scene we are shown glassy eyed participants getting lost in a chant led by Kagame. Without justifying the police brutality that takes a bit of the sting out of it for viewers. In the same episode, we see Kagame in our time get away from Kiera because his followers grab a random baby and use that baby as a hostage to keep Kiera from following them, parallel brutality to that of the police. We constantly see Liber8 as casual killers, indifferent to how many innocents they need to kill to achieve their goals.
It is also interesting how the series manages to tie violent terrorist Liber8 to the Occupy movement in 2012. One episode opens with Kiera staring in disbelief at an Occupy encampment. She wonders why they have not been cleared away. Her 2012 partner, Carlos, explains to her that they are on public land and it would require getting the mayor involved.. Besides these protestors are harmless; they will probably go home eventually and “hold hands and sing Kumbaya”. Showing force before you have to will only inflame the crowd and escalate. “Things always escalate” says Kiera, darkly. Apparently the Canadian makers of the series never noticed violent police actions throughout the United States against peaceful Occupy protests.
Kiera's prediction is soon proven correct. It turns out that Liber8 has decided to take advantage of Occupy because “they share our belief, our anger”. Yup, that is what Occupy was about all right – a single rage driven ideology. However it does turn out that the peaceful protestors have to be stirred into action. No problem: Liber8 hires anarchists to stir up the crowd. After all anarchists are all violent criminal thugs who will do anything for money, and the Occupy crowd is so weak-willed that it only takes a few troublemakers to stir up a riot among them. The riot is used as a cover for Liber8 to kidnap a corporate executive. (They kill security guards during the kidnapping, just to highlight their casual brutality.)
Liber8 demands 20 million dollars in ransom for the kidnapped executive – which the corporation shells out. That money is ultimately to be given to the Occupy protestors in front of corporate headquarters (who the police, softies that they are, apparently leave in place even after the previous day's riot which served as cover for a kidnapping). And when the protestors hear that the money is to be given to them they are on the verge of riot again, demanding that money until it is tossed to them – which they grab for like animals being fed in a zoo. And then they chant “Liber8, Liber8” because apparently kidnappers are always popular among peaceful protestors as long as the protestors get the ransom.
Whatever the intent behind the show, whatever is in the hearts of the show-runner and writers, the emotional resonance is clear. The policewoman who represents the totalitarian corporate dictatorship is strong, loving, caring, calm and compassionate. She offers security, stability, safety and protection against the danger and brutal, bloody, chaotic insanity of those who aspire to democracy, equality and freedom. That right-wing authoritarian message is what the program conveys.
The producers and show-runners have claimed in interviews that Continuum deals in shades of gray. But in the end, buried beneath a thin layer of right-wing propaganda, the show's core consists of more right-wing propaganda. And that right-wing propaganda is probably some of the most extreme on television.
The idea that torture and casual violence by authorities is necessary to protect us has long been part of popular culture. Well before 911, it was embedded in the meme of the rule-breaking maverick cop, and the peaceful patient guy who turns brutal vigilante after being pressed too far. Every cop show or cop film that includes scenes where it is just too much to expect for cops to stick to the rule book ends up selling the idea that it is OK to beat confessions out of people sometimes. In that context, the defense of torture in films like Zero Dark Thirty can be seen as Dirty Harry or 24 written on a bigger, slicker canvas.
But Continuum combines that meme with the love certain parts of the political spectrum have for hard choices and the contempt those parts of the political spectrum have for choices that don’t involve suffering for ordinary people. That combination takes this meme to the next level, and draws out its full logical implication. The choices the future offers in this show are corporate dictatorship or being tormented by daily violent criminality. Democracy is a failed dream terrorists use as shield from which to kill. The imperfect security of corrupt totalitarian corporate rule is the lesser evil, the only chance of a mote of security and safety against the violence and chaos that lurks behind all talk of freedom, equality, solidarity and democracy.