“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indiscernible from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke, the acclaimed sci-fi author of Childhood’s End who is perhaps best known for his screenplay (and later novelization) for Stanley Kubrick’s epic sci-fi drama 2001: A Space Odyssey, wrote those words, which appear in a republished 1973 revision of his 1962 essay “Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible.” Retroactively cited as the third of Clarke’s so-called “three laws,” the adage today is arguably one of Clarke’s best-known and widely cited quotes, commonly used to illustrate the gulf between exponential advances in technology and the comparatively slower understanding — let alone acceptance — of said technology by the general public.
It’s a principle you can see reiterated throughout science fiction, from the Matrix series’ Oracle to Star Trek’s replicators. And it popped into my head again while watching Mrs. Davis, the new sci-fi action drama from Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers) and Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory). It’s a quote that not only taps into the strange overlap between the show’s dueling depictions of faith and technology, but leans into the series’ genre-blending premise and idiosyncratic characters. In a word, it’s magic.
[Ed. note: This post contains some spoilers for the first and second episodes of Mrs. Davis.]
Set in the not-so-distant future, the series stars Betty Gilpin (Glow) as Simone, a nun who finds herself at odds with the eponymous Mrs. Davis, a hyper-advanced algorithm that all but governs the entirety of human civilization as we know it. This sets up the show’s larger themes pretty cleanly: Simone, a nun, represents the concept of faith, subjectivity, and free will in the face of Mrs. Davis, an algorithm that represents technology, the presumption of attainable objectivity, and a deterministic view of life that quantifies the sum total of human knowledge, experience, interaction, and physical existence into one big web of quid pro quo measured in ones and zeroes. Naturally, the former can’t fucking stand the latter.
The concept of “science versus technology” is a common one in science fiction, apparent in films such as 1997’s Contact and 2016’s Arrival and TV shows as recent as Westworld and Outer Range. Mrs. Davis introduces an intriguing twist on this recurring thematic conflict, centralizing an element that bridges the gap between the two in an unexpected way: magic.
We first meet Simone literally arriving on horseback to save a man from being conned by a group of magicians. Later on, the show reveals that Simone’s animosity for magicians stems from her own magic-related past: She was the daughter of two magicians, and as a child she served as a plant, deceiving crowds around Reno.
The emotionally manipulative nature of her relationship between her mother and father strained not only her home life, but her belief in anything outside of herself. After converting and becoming a nun, Simone made it her personal mission to expose magicians who seek to undermine the faith of others and bend their trust to their own nefarious ends. In the case of Mrs. Davis, an advanced, mysterious open-source program whose origins and intended purpose are as unknown as its material limitations, Simone sees just another perversion of faith and trust. Just another mean-spirited trick made at the expense of a captive audience of unwitting suckers, albeit played out on a global, civilizational scale.
When Simone is sent on a mission to finally confront Mrs. Davis, she arrives at her old elementary school. There, she interacts with a schoolteacher who, by using one of the ear-mounted receivers seen throughout the series, speaks for Mrs. Davis as her “proxy.” The schoolteacher offers Simone a box containing a weighted card — the queen of hearts, the same card her father had trained her to “catch” years ago. “How did you know?” Simone asks Mrs. Davis’ proxy, to which she replies, “A magician never reveals their secrets.” When Simone retorts that Mrs. Davis isn’t a magician, but rather a computer, Mrs. Davis’ proxy replies, “Can’t I be both?”
This interaction may seem heavy-handed on its face, but it’s one that strikes a powerful chord with regard to the role of computer technology in our everyday lives. To read this very site you need some sort of electronic gadget. If I were to ask you how that device is capable of doing that, would you be able to explain to me step by step how that is possible without using a search engine? Likely not, and to be perfectly frank, neither could I, because as much as we’d like to assume otherwise, our daily interactions with technology rest more or less on an unconscious act of faith, if not in a higher power than in the reliability of manufacturers, programmers, engineers, and product testers — not mention replicability of the scientific method — in delivering consumer products that we have since grown increasingly more reliant on to the point of being nearly hopelessly inept without it.
Mrs. Davis is interested in prodding at these themes, and the difference (if there is one) between these respective leaps of faith and devotion in its first four episodes. Where the series goes from here is anyone’s guess, as the mystery of Mrs. Davis’ exact origins and physical location seem to have taken a backseat to the unfolding drama of Simone’s past and the potential love triangle between herself, her ex-boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman) and her “partner” Jay (Andy McQueen).
Personally, I’m not entirely convinced Mrs. Davis is the true antagonist of the series, let alone whoever (or whatever) that created her. And to be totally frank, the question of Mrs. Davis’ allegiances and origins seems beside the point of the series’ true focus. It’s the bigger questions, like how can we live healthily alongside technology without it eroding our ability to meaningfully connect not only to other people, but to our own interests, passions, and desires, that the series so far seems more interested in — and if so, I’ll be happy to watch along just to see what answers — if any — this magic trick has to reveal in the end.