(Be warned - massive spoilers for Portal 2 and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles will follow.)
When I was younger and fonder of beige, I really quite enjoyed Star Trek: The Next Generation and Data’s whole Space Pinocchio storyline. I loved Asimov’s Bicentennial Man too, before it got all Robin Williamsified. As I got older and learnt words like ‘subtextually’, ‘narrative’ and ‘imperialist’ I might have noticed that, subtextually, it was rather an imperialist narrative. Everyone who isn’t us can become like us if they just try hard enough, and what’s more, they should really want to. But it didn’t matter. I’m just a sucker for that kind of redemption story.
Then, three years ago, along came Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Cameron. For those of you who haven’t watched T:TSCC – and you really should, because it’s fabulous – Cameron is the new Terminator sent back in time to protect John Connor. And it seems, at least at first, that they’re going to do the same thing with her that they did with Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in T2, teaching her all about the value of human emotion, kindness, compassion and… oh, you know the schtick.
Cameron doesn’t do that, though – she remains a Terminator despite everyone’s efforts to humanise her. In the truly brilliant second-season episode "Self Made Man", she befriends a terminally ill librarian because he has access to information about another Terminator who’s accidentally travelled back in time to cause a nighclub fire in the 1920s, as you do. Cameron’s using the librarian, but over the course of the episode, she seems to come to care for him. She tells him to get treatment for his cancer and appears genuinely bothered when her monumental tactlessness on the subject upsets him. She seems, finally, to be growing more human.
But she isn’t. After she gets what she wants, we see Cameron return to the library. She’s expecting her friend the librarian, but he’s off on sick leave – so she calmly gives the donuts she’s brought to his replacement and carries on as if nothing’s happened. She never cared about him, of course she didn’t – she’s a Terminator. She can’t feel, however much we might want her to.
That moment felt both like a gut punch and immensely satisfying – even if the show did look like it would have backpedaled on it if it had been given the third season it so richly deserved. The thing is, I think we love Data’s story, or the Bicentennial Man’s, because they tell us we can change, and we really need to believe that's true. Our criminal justice system thinks it is, or we'd have first strike laws for everything from armed robbery to littering. The entire therapy industry is based on it, and so is all of our fiction. A good story, every creative writing course tells us, is all about a character changing.
But can we really? We can certainly learn. For example, over the course of my relationship history I've learned that: A) I shouldn't lend anyone money I can't afford not to get back, B) A nightclub at three in the morning isn't the best place to determine my compatibility with someone on a deep spiritual level, and C) Crack addicts aren't terribly reliable. Go figure! I learned all of that, but I'm still attracted to feckless spendthrifts with low impulse control – I just try to date them a bit less frequently.
And then there’s GLaDOS. I love GLaDOS, perhaps not as much as the fan fiction writer who describes her having cyber-tentacle sex with Chell, but a lot. GLaDOS, as we all know, spent the first Portal trying to kill us and being really snide while she was at it. She’s even bitchier in the second game – and really, given what we did to her in the first game, who can blame her? – but as the story progresses and she’s forced into an alliance with us, she starts to change. She seems to be becoming more… human. In fact, it turns out she’s got a human consciousness – Caroline’s – stuck inside her.
So we reach the final boss battle with Wheatley, after which we choose to put GLaDOS back in charge of the Enrichment Centre. And when we’ve won, GLaDOS tells us that being Caroline has taught her that, though she thought we were her greatest enemy, we were really her best friend. And the emotion that shot through her when she saved our life taught her an even more valuable lesson: where Caroline lives in her brain. “Caroline deleted,” a mechanical voice announces.
It’s possibly my favourite moment in anything ever. GLaDOS has gone one better than Cameron. She really can change, she just chooses not to. She’s perfectly happy the way she is, and she’s got one more jibe about our weight to prove it. “I used to want you dead,” she sings to us as the game ends, “but now I only want you gone.” And isn’t that, really, the best we can hope for?