Feature Articles The 4400
The 4400 mixed alien abductions with end-of-time speculation, using themes from the X-Men and the then-future Heroes, to concoct a powerful mixture that did not make it into a veritable hit series – unfortunately.
by Philip Coppens
“The 4400” was a television series that was a mixture of “Taken” – i.e. UFO abductions – and “X-Men” – people with supernatural abilities – with a twist. The name of the series originated from the number of people that are returned next to Mount Rainier, Washington on August 14, 2004. By coincidence – or not – Mount Rainier was the location where the first “official” UFO sighting occurred in 1947, by Kenneth Arnold, marking the start of the “UFO Age”. Like all UFO sightings, the question is why ET doesn’t land on the White House lawn or Times Square, and this question is also posed in the series.
Upon their return, it becomes obvious that all of the 4400 people had suddenly disappeared between 1946 and the present day. None of them have aged, and none of them can remember anything about what has happened during their disappearance.
What has taken them, is a beam of light; what returns them, is a ball of light, a novel twist on the easier solution of an alien spaceship. British UFO researcher Jenny Randles has written about what she has called “time storms”, and – no doubt coincidentally – the ball of light that returns these people bears some resemblances to a time storm. Though often linked with UFOs, Randles labelled them as such as they resembled storms “and one of their most unusual effects is the apparent time distortion.” They often form of a cloud that drifts and one account goes: “It was a very strange cloud, moving just above the surface, but definitely moving… As big as a large house. There was an extraordinary pressure in the air around it. The truck was literally vibrating.” Of course, none of these “time storms” has ever abducted a group of people for years, nor returned en masse.
As to the number: take 144,000, drop the first and last digit, and you get 4400 – an altogether more manageable number. The number 144,000, of course, is famous for being the number of chosen in the Book of Revelation. In the Bible, these are the ones earmarked by God himself for greater things, to lead Mankind into a post-apocalyptic time. And that is precisely the mission of the 4400 too. The series ran from 2004 to 2007 and was the brainchild of Scott Peters and René Echevarria, both of whom came with an established reputation in writing science fiction. The series maps the progress the 4400 make following their return to “civilisation”, as seen through the eyes of NTAC, the National Threat Assessment Command (NTAC), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of overseeing the 4400 and their reintegration in society. The series specifically focuses on two NTAC agents, Tom Baldwin and Diana Skouris, in a clear parallel with Fox Mulder and Dana Scully – even retaining the initials DS – of “The X Files”.
Unsurprisingly, many of the returnees have trouble readapting into society, not helped by the fact that some of them realise they have paranormal abilities, though some of these are of an unusual nature. One 4400 markets his ability to loose weight, with disastrous results. Another woman has blisters which release the plague. Some abuse their power on purpose, like a 4400 who creates a drug that makes people come face to face with unresolved issues from a person’s past, while another 4400 terrorist releases a signal at NTAC that makes men violent.
Hence, there is clear tension between how the 4400 will undoubtedly change the human race – even though how is unknown – whereas the rest of the world is both afraid and the government trying to do everything to stop whatever is happening from happening and preserve the status quo. Once the 4400 are released from quarantine, it is businessman Jordan Collier who comes to meet some of his fellow abductees, and offers them sanctuary: he is building Arcadia Estates, an enclosed community of new housing, to provide homes for the 4400. To some extent, it is a cultish-type of compound; at the same time, it is designed to withstand attacks by those who are afraid of the 4400 and want to kill them. The choice of Arcadia, of course, has a hint of Nicolas Poussin and the mystery of the Priory of Sion, where Arcadia is seen as an idyllic, time-less landscape, a refuge. However, the idea of these estates is soon abandoned and substituted with 4400 Centres: safe-havens for the 4400, as well as information centres where non-4400 can come and learn.
The 4400 Centres were clearly meant to resemble the Church of Scientology. The movement is known to draw celebrities to its “Celebrity Centers”, a technique also used by Collier to promote the 4400 cause as soon as he has established his first centre. Equally, the 4400 Center is depicted as marketing courses, which leads the trainee through a series of levels, on par with similar courses developed by Scientology. Equally, technological devices are strapped on the course participants, on par with Scientology’s E-Meters. Amongst the 4400, a few have to stand out. One is Lily Moore, who has become pregnant between her disappearance and return. Another is Maia Rutledge, the youngest (aged 10), but apparently also the first (in 1946) abductee, whose parents have died and is therefore an orphan. Her ability is to be able to foretell the future and she was the first 4400 who, in quarantine, was “diagnosed” as having precognitive powers – which results in a series of gruelling tests and procedures by the authorities, who want to see whether – and how – they can duplicate these abilities. She is then adopted by NTAC agent Diana Skouris, whose colleague Tom Baldwin has got direct exposure to two other 4400. One is his nephew Shawn Farrell, who in a remarkable twist of fate, was with Baldwin’s son Kyle when the latter was in the process of being taken in 2001. But Shawn pushed Kyle out of the beam, resulting in his own abduction. Though Kyle was therefore not taken, he spent many years in a coma, from which he was only released once Shawn had returned and used his new healing abilities on Kyle. Later on, Tom will become romantically involved with another 4400: Alana. She can access people’s memories, but also create total fantasy worlds. It are apparently the abductors that have linked Alana to Tom, so that Tom’s mission can be fulfilled against the backdrop of domestic bliss.
Tom Baldwin’s mission was first explained to him on Highland Beach, where Shawn had been abducted. On the beach, Tom is brought into an alternative reality, set on the same beach, where the Future uses the body of his son Kyle to explain the plan the Future has for our present. The scene, of course, is copied from “Contact”, in which the purpose of the “giant time machines” and the existence of other intelligences is explained to the time traveller on a beach, with the aliens using the image of her dead father. The first variation on the UFO theme is that by the end of the first season, it becomes clear that the abductors are not aliens, but humans from the Earth’s future. The 4400 are returned into the timeline to avert some catastrophe the Future is trying to avert.
For some reason, Kyle Baldwin is their messenger, though it is unclear how he will fulfil this function or why specifically he is chosen. Later, Collier himself will have a vision of the future. He sees the “Last City”, “a thousand miles wide with a wall one hundred feet high” – which is an unlikely physical achievement, but anyway… It is inhabited by a “brutal and powerful elite”, the last survivors from the catastrophe, with everything on Earth outside of the Last City a wasteland. It appears that from this era, the decision is made to try and alter the timeline, so that this dire existence is circumvented.
However, Kyle, in some type of “possession”, kills Collier, in an apparent effort that the normal timeline will be followed. However, Collier’s body miraculously disappears following his death, and he will later return, alive – like a true Messiah. Meanwhile, Kyle’s father Tom Baldwin’s role becomes clear when he is given the task (by “the Future”) to kill Isabelle Tyler, the “divine offspring” of Lily and Richard Tyler, who as a baby already portrays extremely powerful supernatural abilities… and who could be seen as fulfilling the archetype of the Whore of Babylon (though at first, one might assume she might be a female Messiah). It is clear that some people from the Future want the normal timeline altered, by abducting 4400 people, whereas others have genetically engineered Isabelle, apparently to intervene with this plan. It also becomes evident that Isabelle has a specific neurotransmitter called promicin, which is nevertheless present, in smaller quantities, in the brains of all the 4400. However, it is then learned that the government, aware of the presence of this chemical, had secretly dosed all 4400 with a promicin-inhibitor. When the 4400 suddenly fall ill, the scandal is uncovered, but independent scientist Kevin Burkhoff extracts blood from Isabelle (who was never given the inhibitor) that saves the 4400 – and which marks the start of the returnees uncovering their supernatural powers, the “gift” of the Future, somehow meant to help them avert the catastrophe.
How a group of 4400 people can avert a worldwide catastrophe and change the future is explained through the so-called “ripple effect”. The idea is that by reinserting the 4400 back into the timeline, they will cause a change in their time, which will ripple through the timeline, altering it, and thus avert the future catastrophe.
During the third and fourth – final – season, a novel twist is uncovered in the plans of the Future, already touched upon: not everyone in the future wants to see the timeline changed. And those have infiltrated the Future manipulators, and were responsible for impregnating Lily and “creating” Isabelle, who is meant to stop the timeline from being changed. Apart from Isabelle, they have also sent back their own operatives, known as “the Marked”. A marked person is injected with nanites (molecular machines), which eventually take over the brain’s functions. The term “Marked” is used, as the injection leaves a tiny impression behind the left earlobe. The technique, of course, is reminiscent of the Borg of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the Goa’ulds of “Stargate SG-1” – and dozens if not hundreds of other science fiction films and series.
The Marked are discovered because Curtis Peck, a 4400 filmmaker, can write the future as well as the truth, e.g. about who killed JFK. The idea of the Marked was germinated by the… 4400 scriptwriters during the second season, but was only put into effect in season 4, and would become the central theme along which the entire series’ plotline would eventually develop.
Thus, it becomes clear that the Marked have taken prominent roles in society, with one Marked, Drew Imroth, head of Ubient software, clearly based on the real-life character of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Despite the clear spoof nature of the idea, it actually worked quite well.
At the same time, it is clear that Kyle Baldwin, when he shot Jordan Collier, was under the influence of the Marked and later, Tom Baldwin will be injected with a substance that will make him become a “Marked” as well. Though the 4400 are all re-entered at the same time, in the same place, the Future makes minor adjustments. For example, it sends five 4400 children – including Maia – even further back in time, where they will become involved with the development of artificial petroleum and composite materials used in the first lunar colonies, thus radically altering the timeline. But “the Present” people realise something is wrong – that Maia has disappeared. The Future eventually returns them, though it is at that time that Tom Baldwin is told to “kill Isabelle”, which will, however, only strip her of her abilities and render her human, rather than the superhuman soldier she was engineered to be.
In short, “the Future” has discovered that the ripple effect is being negated by the Marked, and wanted to alter the timeline again. Their ad hoc plan does not fully work, and the Present asks for the “first altered timeline” to be restored, to which the Future consents. In the end, Isabelle self-sacrifices herself, thus revolting against the Marked who had created her, and thus saves Jordan Collier, together with Shawn, her main target, as they had been the leaders of the 4400 movement she was destined to destroy.
In line with several fictional stories about contact with other intelligences, the role of free will is therefore once again underlined and as a subtle undertone, the difference between the Future and the Marked is illustrated by the notion that the latter demand complete submission of Mankind’s free will (taking control, possession, of the human they take), whereas the Future holds a dialogue with the Present to change it for the better. Kevin Burkhoff is the scientist who saved the 4400 and identified promicin. His story begins when he is actually in an insane asylum, where he develops a friendship with a 4400 woman, who forces her fellow inmates to build a communication device, which is thought to contact the Future, but which – miraculously – makes Burkhoff rediscover his sanity. The question why he “went mad” is never explained, but one can query whether somehow the Marked had identified his brilliance and neutralised him, with the Future re-activating him. He then experiments with promicin on himself and almost dies, but instead is “reborn”, eventually becoming the first non-4400 with 4400 abilities. It is, of course, another great change of the original timeline, but one that the series never seems to have underlined.
Once promicin was known to be the “superpower enabler”, the government siphons development of it into a non-governmental think-thank, Haspelcorp, headed up by former NTAC chief Dennis Ryland. They extract the promicin from Isabelle, a massive 17432 units, to develop “4400 abilities” with specifically selected soldiers – officially written off as having died in combat – who will combat the original 4400 as part of a secret project, run by Ryland. At a lower level, NTAC itself is combating the 4400 too – trying to control them – and also regulating the illegal substance promicin.
However, Collier intercepts the cargo of promicin (that originates from Isabelle) and makes it available to the population of Seattle, who are told that by taking the drug, they will develop superhuman abilities. However, it is soon learned that roughly half of those who take promicin, die – the state of the brain’s corpus callosum is the key regulator, and indicator, whether someone can or will survive the shot. Despite the many who die, however, thousands survive and the amount of people with supernatural abilities are now vastly expanding. The ripple has become a wave. To achieve the ripple to wave effect, and why Seattle is chosen as the “navel” of the 4400, is explained in the episode “The Starzl Mutation”. The plot is as follows: a flaw in a radiation machine in a Seattle hospital to treat cancer patients has resulted in a small mutation of the 11th chromosome, which is labelled the Starzl mutation, after the company that made the machine. The mutation is replicable, and therefore passed onto the children of those who had been exposed to the defective machine throughout the five years its malfunction went unobserved – or uncorrected. The mutation itself is harmless, but it is soon learned that when a “Starzl mutant” and a 4400 were to create offspring, the child would be promicin positive. In short, the 4400 were returned to Seattle because within the normal population are people who, if marrying a 4400, will have children with 4400 abilities.
However, it is then also clear that the wave effect is not created as such, but by the distribution of promicin amongst the people of Seattle. That the wave might become a tsunami is made clear when Collier takes a destitute area of Seattle and transforms it into “Promise City”, “the New Jerusalem”, where the wasteland is transformed into an urban paradise, due to the proper application of 4400 abilities. When Collier settles in Seattle, the title of the episode is actually called “Till we have built Jerusalem”.
Indeed, the area that would become Promise City is described as one of the most polluted areas in the United States and with 4400 abilities, is transformed into a lush garden environment. It is therefore implied that the catastrophe that will happen, is an ecological one, and that it can be averted.
The threat of an imminent ecological catastrophe is of course a much perpetuated political message of the 21st century, and thus formed a logical theme for The 4400 scriptwriters. In Collier’s final speech, he includes: “We will make [the Earth] whole again. Using our abilities, we will heal its toxic soil. We will cleanse its polluted waters. And we will turn this blighted place into a garden.”
The scriptwriters were equally inspired by the events of 9/11: NTAC is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, which was created after 9/11 and a “4400 Commission Report” is produced, no doubt on par with the “9/11 Commission Report”. The quarantine of the 4400 bears parallels to Guantanamo Bay and other detention centres for people the US government has identified as potential enemies – which the 4400 continuously are seen to be. However good or innocent they appear to be, several of them are known to be terrorists and the government, of course, has to wonder who precisely “the Future” is and what their plans truly are. Furthermore, some of the 4400 do decide to become terrorists, though they – and the 4400 – would see themselves as freedom fighters. The Nova Group is there specifically to defend the 4400 from the government, by organising terrorist attacks to promote the 4400 cause. The tsunami is unleashed when one promicin taker Danny Farrell develops his ability, which is oozing promicin, exposing Seattle to the drug, resulting in not only 9000 deaths, but an equal amount of people with 4400 abilities. Amongst those exposed and transformed are most NTAC agents, who have by default gone to the other side. The promicin plague has also incapacitated the police force and hence with business as usual in Seattle non-existent, Collier and his followers (including Kyle Baldwin) are asked to take charge of Seattle.
In his “acceptance speech”, Collier pledges to build a better future – and the whole of Seattle becomes Promise City. Jordan Collier, the man who has survived death, returned and led his people to a new world has now truly fulfilled his messianic destiny. Still, the scriptwriters underlined that originally, they did not intend to give him a name that had JC – Jesus Christ – as initials, and that it was only from season three onwards that they played the Messianic trump card on his character, to become “the Preacher”. Just like Jesus in his days and so many Messianic pretenders today, the question is whether Collier is “just” a lunatic cult leader, or whether he is indeed the true Messiah – the question never truly answered, though both options are possible and not mutually exclusive, of course. At the very end, it is clear that when Shawn and Kyle traded places, Shawn, with the ability to heal, seemed to take prominence, even become Collier’s second in command, and eventually taking control of the entire 4400 movement. But once Kyle has taken promicin, he will develop into Collier’s second and even leader of Promise City. Interestingly, he becomes a true shaman, who attains a spirit guide, Cassie, who knows what needs to be done, so that the plan can be fulfilled. She actually reveals to Kyle a book of prophecy of a cult that existed a century ago and foresaw precisely what would happen. The unasked question is whether this group is part of another doctoring of the timeline, or not. Of course, a shaman is a messenger, and thus, Kyle has indeed fulfilled his role as the messenger of the Future.
At the very end of the series, it is Kyle who tells his father Tom Baldwin that it is now time for him to take promicin himself. Whether he ever did or not, remains unknown. The original timeline of taking the project into a fifth season never materialised, and an alternative timeline of just four seasons was instead created. However sad for its many fans and producers, for a series that was about altering timelines, it must have seen like divine irony – or a prank played by the Future?