12 Of Scifi's Best (And Worst) Brain Upgrades

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Chuck returns tonight for its two hour third season premiere. As Chuck deals with his new and improved Intersect abilities, it's worth taking a look at other characters who received amazing brain upgrades... and some who weren't so lucky.

1. Chuck Bartowski, Chuck

Chuck downloaded the original Intersect into his brain when his college roommate Bryce emailed it to him at the start of the series. Since then, his neural supercomputer has allowed him to lead a life far more exciting and fulfilling than he ever could have imagined, but at the same time it's placed him and everyone he cares about in harm's way. At the end of last season, Chuck downloaded the Intersect 2.0, which grants him newfound physical abilities to go along with the vast supply of data stored in his head. However, as can be expected on a show like Chuck, his new powers are going to come with a glitch or two.


2. Echo, Dollhouse

Along with the rest of the Dolls, Echo can be imprinted with any imaginable skill set for any conceivable engagement, as long as the client is willing to pay the Dollhouse's hefty fee. Considering it's a matter of seconds to completely rewrite a person's brain, this is an absolutely incredible - not to mention terrifying and possibly world-destroying - piece of technology. Of course, considering all the Dolls' minds are wiped clean before they begin their tour of duty, it's hard to call this an "upgrade" with a straight face, although one might look at the "composite events" that Dolls like Echo and Alpha experienced, in which every personality they had ever had imprinted became active simultaneously. Alpha argued this was the next step in human evolution. As with most things on Dollhouse, there was disagreement on this subject.


3. Henry Dorsett Case, Neuromancer by William Gibson

The protagonist of Gibson's cyberpunk classic is just one of many "console cowboys", who connect their minds directly into cyberspace using brain-computer interfaces. Although the novel starts with his nervous system wrecked, leaving him unable to connect to the global computer network, a mysterious benefactor repairs Case in exchange for his services as a hacker. Perhaps the most extreme brain upgrade in the book is Peter Riviera's. Riviera is a sociopathic artist who is able to project holographic images using only the power of his diseased mind, thanks to some pretty hefty cybernetic implants.


4. Prometheus, DC Comics

Conceived by Grant Morrison as the wicked inversion of Batman, Prometheus was the son of two psychopathic hippie bank robbers. When his parents were finally cornered and killed by the police, their young boy swore to destroy the forces of justice. After years of training, he began his quest in the biggest possible way: by taking on the recently revived Justice League of America. Although he has no superpowers, Prometheus was able to defeat the likes of the Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Batman with some fiendish traps and the help of his cybernetic implants, which allowed him to download the skills of the world's thirty greatest martial artists. Since Batman was actually one of those thirty martial artists, even the Caped Crusader could not hope to defeat Prometheus in single combat.


5. Most of the developed world, Ghost in the Shell

The world depicted in the legendary Japanese cyberpunk franchise is one where people augment their minds with various cybernetic implants. This allows characters to use their minds in ways not dissimilar from computers, which means they can do anything from download memories to fall victim to computer viruses.


6. Joe McClaine, Joe 90

Gerry Anderson, better known for the live action shows UFO and Space: 1999 and the earlier puppet series Thunderbirds, was also behind this 1968 show (in which he also used the sophisticated puppetry technique known as Supermarionation) about a nine-year-old boy who becomes the world's most unlikely spy. Joe's father, the brilliant professor Ian McClaine, had invented the Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer (BIG RAT for short), which allowed people's brain patterns to be copied and transfered to another person. Intelligence agent Sam Loover saw the device's espionage implications and convinced the professor to let his son become a "most special agent", using specially designed glasses with electrodes inside them to access the needed brain patterns. The series then progressed on the premise that, no matter how dangerous the situation or how ruthless the enemy, no one would ever suspect a nine-year-old boy of wrongdoing and thus overlook him as a threat. Incredibly enough, this plan pretty much worked precisely as described for thirty adventures, give or take the occasional dream episode or clip show.


7. Jobe Smith, The Lawnmower Man

The 1992 movie and its 1996 sequel had pretty much nothing to do with the original Stephen King short story of the same name. Instead, the movies follow Dr. Lawrence Angelo as he uses his unique mix of drugs, cortex stimulation, and virtual reality to dramatically increase the intelligence of his patients. His first test on a human is the mentally handicapped gardener Jobe Smith, who quickly responds to the procedure, learning Latin overnight and experiencing strange telepathic moments. The experiment goes awry when Angelo's original military backers swap Jobe's drugs with a far more dangerous cocktail of "aggression factors", which turns him into a telekinetic psychopath who becomes hellbent on merging completely with the computer mainframe.


8. John Heath, "Lest We Remember" by Isaac Asimov

It wouldn't be one of my lists without a reference to an Isaac Asimov work. In this 1982 short story, John Heath is an utterly, devastatingly average man who is offered an incredibly opportunity by his employer, Quantum Pharmaceuticals. He is given a drug that allows him total memory recall, which soon allows him to remember everything anyone has ever said to him. This provides him with an opportunity for some serious corporate blackmail in the hopes of securing a better future for himself and his fiancée. Although this gambit ultimately fails, Heath retains his new abilities, promising his wife never again to use them to evil ends. Even so, the story ends with him musing that it may only be a matter of time before everyone has total recall.


9. Arnold Rimmer, Red Dwarf

In the episode "Holoship", the crew encounters The Enlightenment, an entire holographic ship where holograms of the best and brightest Space Corps personnel explore the universe and have sex at least twice a day (it's mandatory). Desperate to leave behind his quasi-existence as a hologram on a ship full of living people, Rimmer applies to join the crew of The Enlightenment, but he is forced to pass an intelligence test. Rimmer realizes he has no chance, so he does the only honorable thing: he cheats. He implants a mind-patch that temporarily grants him a genius IQ, but he is hoisted by his own petard when his brain rejects the patch during the test. The rest of the episode features a shocking twist that leads to one of Rimmer's most noble and self-sacrificing moments in the entire series, so maybe we should just move on.


10. Donna Noble, Doctor Who

Thanks to a biological metacrisis in "Journey's End", Donna and the Doctor's hand exchange genetic material, creating a new half-human Doctor and making Donna part Time Lord. (Yeah, it's still completely insane.) On the one hand, this pretty much instantly makes her one of the universe's most powerful intellects, capable even of understanding temporal mechanics and operating the TARDIS. On the other hand, her human brain is simply too small to hold a Time Lord mind, and the Doctor has to forcibly wipe her mind of all memories of their adventures to stop her head exploding. It's a bit of a mixed bag, really.


11 & 12. Fry and Guenter, Futurama

We close with two examples of brain upgrades from the universe of collective idiocy that is Futurama. In "Parasites Lost", Fry does the unthinkable and eats a sandwich from a truck stop bathroom, causing him to get worms. But not just any worms - these are superintelligent worms, and they undertake the truly gargantuan task of raising Fry first to average intelligence, then to genius-level intellect. This finally allows Fry to win Leela's heart, but he's unwilling to live in a world where he can't take any credit for his own successes, so he forces the worms to leave.


A more rigidly scientific effort to increase a being's intelligence is Professor Farnsworth's experiments with the monkey Guenter. The professor scoffs at the notion that Guenter is the product of genetic engineering, dismissing that as preposterous science fiction mumbo jumbo. Instead, his intelligence "actually lies in his electronium hat, which harnesses the power of sunspots to produce cognitive radiation." Ah, science. How I love ye.