The old saying goes: “The question is not am I paranoid, but am I paranoid enough?” And nowhere is this more obvious then in science fiction series Dollhouse whose two-season run just ended last Friday. It’s not that Dollhouse is particularly well-crafted science fiction series, but somewhere between its formulaic plot lines and rushed ending forced on by the FOX network’s decision to cancel it, it nevertheless managed to tackle big questions about nature of human identity and free will, posing some uncomfortable questions in the process.
That’s no small wonder considering that Dollhouse is another brainchild of Joss Whedon, a writer who gained a cult following with his TV shows, no matter if were they successful – like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel – or failures such as Firefly. Some see Whedon as over-hyped producer who is mostly concerned with mixing fast thrills and fashionable truisms, while others point towards surprising wit, insight and cynicism in his writing.
Dollhouse is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, with its intriguing premise and uneven development. Series posits an invention of a technology that allows human mind to be erased and then imprinted with whatever personality its creator desires. With a human mind thus turned into a glorified hard drive, the inventors start the Dollhouse – facility whose employees fulfill a five year contract by being regularly imprinted with various personas while their original one is safely stored on a computer. Essentially, we’re getting an inside view into Manchurian Candidate but, instead of people being brainwashed into assassins, they are – maybe even more disturbingly – being mostly used as expensive playthings.
The key difference between the Dollhouse and an escort service, or even sexual slavery, is that Dolls honestly feel and know whatever they are programmed to. But even this is just the tip of an iceberg. Over time, we witness Dolls programmed to behave like fully realized human beings displaying skepticism, sympathy, hate, rebellion and a whole gamut of human emotions. They’re indistinguishable from regular humans… except their personalities are about as natural as plastic.
We focus on one of these Dolls named Echo (Eliza Dushku) and, over the first half dozen episodes we see her play variety of roles from a high-class prostitute to a hostage negotiator. Parallel to that, we follow FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) who searches for disappeared girl named Caroline, also played by Dushku. At first, plot spins in formulaic circles with Ballard hitting dead ends one after another while Caroline/Echo goes through all sorts of heroics only to be turned into a blank slate by the end of each episode, ready for new assignments.
But then, in the second half of its first season, Dollhouse suddenly becomes much more engaging show. In one eerie episode we see Dolls rebel and try to escape the Dollhouse… only to turn back when they reach an exit. Their behavior was merely a pre-programmed security check. In other, a person aghast with the mere concept of Dollhouse is revealed to be a Doll itself, merely fulfilling its programming to manipulate other characters. We see Dolls committing murder and villains imprinted with benevolent personas, all posing complicated questions about the true extent of individual responsibility.
What does this all say about the rest of us? Are we merely a deterministic amalgam of our previous experiences? What is free will anyway? Are we truly slaves if we’re unable to even perceive our slavery? How much of our thoughts are genuine and how much are they shaped by our environment and the roles society imposed on us? These are some surprisingly heavy questions for seemingly formulaic action series.
But besides posing such quandaries in front of his audience, Dollhouse creates the ultimate conspiracy, one hidden not in lofty skyscrapers or shady offices – although there is a fair share of those too in the series – but within our own minds. Others shape our thoughts without us even noticing it. We spy ourselves but don’t know that. Are minds are programmed but we cannot comprehend it. Government agents and alien invaders of the “X Files” seem quaint in comparison: clumsy external forces that skulk in shadows. Compared to that, Dollhouse programming is an elegant way to make its target regulate and control itself.
Dollhouse tried to combine typical action series with a more cerebral kind of science fiction – the one that often takes seemingly implausible premise and runs it to its logical conclusions. Results were mixed. Its formulaic and repetitive first episodes bored a more serious audience while its morally ambiguous characters and situations probably turned off viewers looking for light entertainment. Its ratings sunk and FOX executives got nervous.
Great deal of problem lies within the main character herself: in theory, Caroline/Echo is a fascinating character, being repeatedly purged of all her experiences at the end of every episode and yet slowly developing a personality of her own. In practice, this repeated deletion made developments in every episode seem insubstantial and the main character unsympathetic.
But even so, one has to give Whedon credit for trying. Dollhouse presented an interesting and chilling concept. The fact that such series actually came to exist and that network hold on to it long enough to give it conclusion, how ever rushed it might have been, gives hope for other above-the-mill TV shows and its not-so-numerous audience.
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