On the web series Drone, the concept of robotic warfare has evolved from air vehicles to ground troops, likewise drastically altering the concept of war. “In the year 2023, humanoid drones were deployed to the front lines,” it is explained during the early stages of the sci-fi drama. “A new breed of soldier, stronger and faster than their human counterparts. Autonomous by design, they operate by a code—a code of war.” Unit 237 is one such drone, but during a mission to find suspected terrorists, the machine malfunctions. Transported back to the United States for reprogramming, the drone escapes and is hunted down by an elite team of operatives under the command of Nissen (Lance Reddick). There’s only one problem—a drone programmer believes that Unit 237 never malfunctioned and that something more nefarious is at work.
Drone shares similarities with the 1980s futuristic motion picture Robocop, in which the corporation Omni Consumer Products asserts that it can build a better police force using cybernetics and transform the crime-riddled city of Detroit into a new Utopia. When veteran officer Alex Murphy is killed in the line of duty, his remains are used to construct the first Robocop prototype, and like the drones of Drone, he turns out to be far more effective. Just as Unit 237 apparently malfunctioned on Drone, however, Robocop does the same when he begins to remember his past identity as Alex Murphy. A massive cover-up and conspiracy is also part of the narrative of Robocop, and despite being programmed with a Fourth Directive that prevents him from harming any employee of OCP, Robocop still finds a way to bring the bad guys to justice.
A robot being outfitted with directives to guide their behavior is not a new concept. In 1942, sci-fi author Isaac Asimov devised “The Three Laws of Robotics,” and every subsequent narrative regarding robots have more or less adhered to those principles. “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,” is the first law, with the final two being, “A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law,” and, “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”
Obviously both Robocop and Drone take liberties with these guidelines, as criminals and enemy combatants are not part of the “do no harm” equation, but the basic principles still exist in both narratives. On Drone, for instance, there is Prime Directive Nine, which states, “Do not fire on unarmed civilians.” Programmer Jay (Kenneth Choi) further expands on the relationship between directives and robots when he explains to Nissen why a drone would resist being reprogrammed. “These things, sir, they’re designed to analyze and adapt to any challenge,” Jay says. “They reason, they strategize. One thing’s for sure, though—237 doesn’t operate out of fear. If it’s running, it’s because the robot believes its actions to be correct. As a rule, it can’t violate its own prime directives. That would be impossible.”
Just as Robocop faced a dilemma that conflicted with his directives—the fact that “untouchable” members of OCP had direct ties with the criminal element in Detroit—the same holds true for Unit 237 on Drone. “I’ve been programming diagnostics for five years,” Jay tells the drone that he is trying to protect. “I know a shady operation when I see one. This isn’t pulling the plug on you for being defective after the completion of your objective. It doesn’t make any sense. What did you see over there?”
Drone contains four episodes that are packed with action, and the web series itself is filmed in a darkened hue with fluorescent lighting, much like another 1980s science fiction classic that predated Robocop by five years—Blade Runner. Furthermore, the motion picture adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? contains a philosophical bent. Drone, meanwhile, has its own subtle dissertation on the rules of warfare and who exactly constitutes an enemy combatant. “I know prime directives teach you to fight in a war, but do they teach you how wars are fought?” Nissen rhetorically asks Unit 237 when the two finally meet face-to-face. “It’s the opposite of civil. Maybe someday your kind will see that. Or maybe you won’t.”
The best science fiction—whether in the written form or filmed for television and the big screen—has often painted a futuristic world where technological advances have both benefitted and served as a detriment to society. Drone may be a web series consisting of only four episodes that are approximately ten minutes in length each, but the ensuing narrative exhibits the same fundamental principles as such classics as Blade Runner, Robocop and the works of Isaac Asimov—proving that good science fiction is good science fiction regardless of the medium.
Anthony Letizia (October 17, 2012)