Dragon Ball Z was a hit anime known more for its fantasy-led storylines than its science-fiction plots. With energy harnessed to cause people to turn into ‘super’ forms, special dragon balls that could bring departed spirits back to life and talking pigs and turtles, DBZ isn’t really thought of as scifi.
Yet, scifi did feature. There were several scientists in the show whose expertise usually helped the team out when their powers came up against a brick wall. The z fighters couldn’t do everything, after all. There was even a focus on space travel for a couple of seasons. Yet, these science fiction elements remained on the periphery. They added to the story but they were never a core part – until season four.
In season four, Trunks rocks up from the future to warn the z fighters about impending doom from a duo of androids. However, the situation becomes more fraught when even more androids than expected show up to cause mayhem, destruction and devastation. The plot follows typical the biopunk timeline: it starts out with an evil scientist plotting to design the ‘ultimate’ creation, only for him to completely lose control of the situation.
Doctor Gero also manages to incorporate cyberpunk components into this creations, and the story goes a somewhat controversial way (well, among warring cyberpunk and biopunk fans) as Gero is revealed to have given himself mechanical upgrades. He is a cyberpunk creation himself, but he switches to bio-engineering for later designs believing that to be a better way for beings to unleash their energy. 16, 19, and Gero are clearly mechanical and incorporate cyberpunk themes whereas 17, 18 and Cell are biopunk creations. 17 and 18 do retain some cyberpunk features (such as scanners and explosives) but they are overwhelmingly biological creations, so that they could be absorbed by Cell and so that their designs could be put in contrast to the ‘outdated’ mechanical androids. It is the last group who together can form the strongest being the universe has ever seen.
The cyberpunk creations are disposed of relatively quickly. The comparative physical fragility of the mechanical creations is visually depicted throughout the series. When the mechanical androids are destroyed, we clearly see their wiring and mechanical bolts being thrown around. We also witness them all with their heads intact while the rest of their bodies have been destroyed. To see them decapitated is startling. They can speak, but they can do nothing to save themselves or attack anyone else. In contrast, for Cell to be destroyed we have to see every single cell of his being eliminated, otherwise he can easily regenerate. His entire design and creation was supposed to be ‘perfect’ and unlike what Gero could achieve with any other creation, and especially not his mechanical androids like 19.
In biopunk, often the ‘ideal’ (even when it is used as a form of horror) is to create something entirely biological, from scratch, and for the creator then to take the place of ‘god’. It is a centuries old idea and has long slipped its way into stories which have worried about just how far science will go in the name of progress. Their paths are often strikingly similar: a creature, or person, is created and then they are deemed a monster which kills their creator and cannot be controlled. This comes to pass in DBZ as androids 17 and 18 (and notably, not the more mechanical 16) instantly destroy Gero upon their awakening.
17 and 18 are then supposed to go on the rampage according to biopunk tradition and according to the warnings Trunks gave about how the androids behaved in his time. In the future, 17 and 18 are the traditional biopunk villains, although they are much more difficult to pity given just how one dimensional they appear. However, in the present, 17 and 18 don’t live up to the hype Trunks gave them. They do get into trouble with the police and steal clothes, but other than that, they are relatively passive. They don’t go out of their way to cause destruction, they mostly just want to have fun. 18 even declares that 17 “loved life” after he is absorbed by Cell and indeed, it seems to extend far beyond 17’s own perceptions of life. While he fights Piccolo, 17 doesn’t fight particularly harshly and nor does he really try to murder the Nakemian. 17 tells the warrior he doesn’t want to kill him because he’s only after Goku. 17 isn’t particularly violent, at least by Dragon Ball standards, and he never presents himself as a threat to the Earth or any of the fighters beyond Goku. He values the lives of others.
This is a subtle deviation from what has become a bit of a biopunk trope. Biopunk does tackle important moral questions about science, and fears around scientific progress, but it does risk becoming predictable at times if the default story is the one where the monster is evil. 17 and 18’s detour from the script adds an extra subtle dimension, even if Cell does still play to the role of predictable pantomime villain. 17 and 18 are not villains or monsters. They were created by an evil man, and then they destroyed him. After that, they did not seek to cause substantial harm. They only followed the path an evil creator told them: by setting out to destroy Goku, but otherwise they were no significant threat to anyone.
The real threat was Doctor Gero, and going back to Frankenstein, we can see that so often it is the creators who are deemed either dangerous or absolute fools for their pursuits. They are the makers of their own demise.
Can evil be made? What differs between the ‘good’ androids and Cell is that we constantly see Cell being told Gero’s lessons as he develops. We don’t with 17 and 18. Cell is told every minute of every day that he is perfect and must become the ultimate weapon. This suggests their differing outlooks and sense of purpose are as much about the lessons the androids received as it was about how they were created.
Biopunk is the perfect vehicle for exploring the exploitation of rich, elitist and (for want of a better term) nerdy men who can singlehandedly buy or create anything they desire. The misogyny comes to the forefront in Dragon Ball Z, although it is questionable whether the show is even trying to challenge it or whether it is perpetuating old ideas. Both androids 17 and 18 are designed to be attractive, so that they do have beauty as well as brawn. This is a typical act of a narcissistic villain as Gero, who puts value on the bigoted and narrow norms and ideals society prizes and wants to be the best in all of them. He wants to create creatures who are perfect; who everyone could admire in every way even while they cause untold terror. Mass Effect 2 explored elitism and misogyny in a similar way: Henry Lawson created Miranda Lawson to be the perfect human, and that included driving her physical design. Mass Effect goes far further and examines the psychological impact this had on Miranda, and it looked at the misogyny she continued to receive.
“This is what I am, Shepard. I can’t hide it. The intelligence, the looks, even the biotics. He paid for all of that. Every one of your accomplishments is due to your skill. The only things I can take credit for are my mistakes.” ―Miranda Lawson, Mass Effect 2
17 and 18 were designed with similar goals: although it should have had far much more of an impact on 18 given how women and girls are judged by their beauty in society, if however, Dragon Ball Z had been willing to dive deeper into its own story. The very notions of what constitutes “beauty” are based upon misogyny (as well as ableism, and white supremacy). 17 and 18’s attractiveness is mentioned but it is never a choice that is challenged, and nor do we see any real emotional impact from the androids about their creation. The situation becomes more disturbing still when Trunks states specifically that 18 was designed to be a “beautiful young girl.” She is not described as a woman. The sexualisation of girls is particularly problematic when Krillin ultimately falls in love with 18 and they enter into a sexual and romantic relationship. 18 has the mind of a woman but her attractiveness is based upon that of a young girl – and that is never confronted. It is left as part of the plot that all of the characters accept.
The shallowness of DBZ can be infinitely frustrating when the series can come so close to challenging pernicious concepts and yet it retreats, in favour of rushing through a story to maintain the levels of drama and shock factor. Biopunk is a brilliant forum for examining the abusive of privileged men and the lack of thought or care they can have for the lives of others. Because biopunk so often focuses on one man and his few creations, it can give an intimate look at the power dynamics at play but DBZ ultimately shied away from that.
We do at least get the battle for freedom from 18 and 17 that we usually see from biopunk subjects – only this time, there’s a twist. While they are trying to be free of Gero, their fight is really through the proxy of Cell, Gero’s ‘ultimate creation’. Cell must absorb 18 and 17 to take on their powers and achieve his perfect form. 17 may have killed Gero, but the scientist’s creations are still at war with each other: Cell trying to complete Gero’s end goal, and 17 and 18 fighting for their own liberation from the deceased tyrant’s schemes. 17 and 18 are the biggest victims of Gero’s plots. They were created by a man bent upon achieving perfection without consideration for anyone or anything, and then it is revealed they were designed and given life only so they could be absorbed by another creature to become a part of their perfection. 17 and 18 are rarely allowed free will in this arc. They have a brief moment of freedom after Gero’s death but that lasts only for a couple of episodes before the existence of Cell is revealed.
The androids are all created as bioweapons, but considerable time is given to show their fights among themselves, and in the end, it is Cell who wins and becomes a threat to the entire universe. 17 and 18 are absorbed, and their story once more is taken on by another egomaniacal villain.
Cell’s unlocking of his ultimate fighting capabilities fits neatly within the typical biopunk arc. He was created, as were the androids, and now unified in one being (albeit, far from peacefully) they pose a threat to life everywhere. The idea of artificial creation has long been treated as a crime against nature and a threat to the order of life in literature. Cell becomes a literal threat and is presented as soulless and devoid of any humanity due to his creation. Indeed, as the most complete biological creation he is the one who actually looks the least human.
He is, inevitably, defeated. The point of DBZ is to show that good can win out people try hard enough and work together. The defeat of Cell actually showed the fighters all contributing to the battle more than during any other saga. They all must combine against the ‘unnatural’ Cell to be able to survive and truly defeat him. However, that is not the end of the biopunk story.
“How dare you? Don’t you know I gave you life, and I can take it away?” Doctor Gero, Dragon Ball Z
During the fight with Cell, 18 was recovered (and 17 eventually is revealed in the show to have been revived, although the manga is much more clear on that plot-line). The end of the science-fiction story then was not at Cell’s defeat; in fact, it has yet to conclude at all. 18’s life with Krillin is possibly the element which was most resistant to what we could expect from biopunk. Despite being created for destruction, 18 carves her own path and largely lives a life of peace. She also has a child, who is not deemed unnatural or monstrous in any way. The development of 18 frames the story fittingly: the real monster was always Gero and that was because of his selfish, narrow and utterly cruel ambitions. Cell was nothing more than Gero’s toy, and 18 and 17 were victims of Gero’s cruelty and the greatest justice was that both of them could live the lives they wanted to after the trauma they had endured.
Additionally, there is an added a sense of justice throughout the final battle in that we see 16’s decapitated head talk to Gohan. This older model is still trying, and while Cell crushes his head easily beneath his feet, it shows that the biological creation may have power but he and Gero failed to understand the depth of love and solidarity. While showing an android of being devoid of emotion because of his creation would be a cliché to say the least, that is nullified by the fact that it is another android confronting Cell. It is the destruction of 16, an android Gohan barely knows, that finally unlocks the young Saiyan’s powers and helps bring about Cell’s eventual defeat.
Dragon Ball Z is one of the most compelling fantastical stories anyone could ever be lucky enough to watch, but it well works science-fiction into its story too. Its forays into biopunk and cyberpunk helped to reinvigorate the series after the epic Namek saga, when it was feared that DBZ might not be able to reach those dramatic heights again. In so many ways it is a traditional biopunk plot-line, but that is how it can frustrate. We should be beyond these typical stories and nothing really new was offered. It was dramatic, engaging and frightening but it was also a story whose conclusions were guessed from the moment Cell was revealed. Biopunk can give a great framework for a story, but it should also be avoided as only that. Its more than a template for a script. Its a sub-genre that offers greater depth than the show really seemed willing to dig into.