Philosophers, writers, and scientists have been grappling with the mysteries of reality and human existence for thousands of years. What is consciousness? Do we have free will? Does god exist? These questions often spark heated debates because they have no easy answers. And while many television series might shy away from the notion of addressing these types of questions purely out of fear of polarizing their audience, there are a select few that have not only acknowledged these provocative questions, but attempted to provide answers to them. Here are five TV episodes that tackled big philosophical issues.
5. “Dark Water” (Doctor Who)
Do we experience anything after we die? In Doctor Who, there is a realm called the Nethersphere which is, in essence, a programmed virtual reality where the minds of the recently deceased can be uploaded and saved. While a persons consciousness is within the the Nethersphere, it can be suspended in a type of cybernetic promised land, which would be akin to thinking they had died and gone to heaven. On the other hand, instead of cyber-heaven, one could have their consciousness altered to remove any trace of emotion only to have it reinserted into a cyborg body. In any case, this episode gave us the answer to the question. Yes, we do have experiences after we die, and a part of the human consciousness remains.
4. “In The Pale Moonlight” (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
Do the ends always justify the means? This has been a classic Star Trek conundrum looked at from many angles over the history of the franchise. But, in this particular episode, Captain Sisko works together with Garak in an attempt draw the Romulans onto the Federation’s side in the war against the Dominion. Over the course of the episode, the decisions made by Sisko become increasingly unsettling as he condones a number of crimes, including the murder of two people. But, in the end, their scheming pays off and the Romulans join the Federation/Klingon Alliance. In this episode, the ends did justify the means for Sisko, even though it cost him his morality and self-respect.
3. “Help” (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
Is there such a thing as destiny or fate? In this seventh season episode, a student at Sunnydale High School goes to Buffy — who has recently been appointed school councillor — and tells her the grim news that she will die on Friday. Buffy does everything she can do to prevent the girl’s death, including saving her from taking a crossbow bolt to the head, but, at the end of the episode, the girl dies from a congenital heart defect. Buffy feels devastated, and even though she knows she tried her best, she concedes that some things just can’t be helped.
2. “The Measure of a Man” (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
Should an artificially intelligent being be granted human rights? When Data is given a reassignment that would see him disassembled for the purpose of study, he refuses and a courtroom hearing is called to determine if he even has the right to make that decision. As Picard defends Data against the cyberneticist, a profusion of philosophical and ethical questions emerge like, is it possible to measure consciousness, what does it mean to be sentient, and how is it determined who should have rights and who should not. At the end of the trial it is resolved that Data meets the criteria to be considered sentient for the same reasons a human would. And, since he is considered sentient, Data is allowed to decide for himself whether or not to accept the reassignment.
1. “Godfellas” (Futurama)
Is there a God? Following a space battle, Bender is set adrift in space and has a collision with an asteroid. After floating for some time, he realizes that a tiny humanoid civilization has grown on his body and that he is their god. Eventually, an atheist faction of this civilization of “Shrimpkins” breaks off and a war is started between the believers and non-believers. Although Bender tries to intervene and save the little world, in the end, his attempts are futile and the Shrimpkins destroy themselves. As Bender continues floating in space he encounters a god-like presence who relates to his experience and concedes that it has actually given up on using direct intervention altogether. So, from Futurama’s standpoint, there very well could be a god, but apparently if they’re doing their job right, we won’t be sure they’ve done anything at all.