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Five reasons why I continued to watch Dollhouse

Monday 7 December 2009, by Webmaster

I’m sad to admit that I was almost among those who gave up on Dollhouse early on, almost contributed to its premature demise. I certainly didn’t support it as well from the start as I should have, and now I’m paying the price.

It’s just that, coming off the high of Dr. Horrible, and with the show having a premise that oozed potential like a honeycomb oozes honey, I was expecting to have my mind blown by Dollhouse from minute one. Instead, the first episode had ended with me considerably underwhelmed — as had the second and third. The show just didn’t feel like a Whedon work, had little in the way of cleverness and the rapid-fire dialogue that made his other shows such fun. The fourth episode was a bit better on all counts, but the fifth only really interested me regarding how the tech worked, not how the characters were being developed.

In the beginning, people kept telling me, "Buffy took a while to get going, so give this one time." But I had actually loved Buffy from the get-go, and the same had gone for Firefly, Fray, and Dr Horrible. While I hadn’t watched Angel until mid-season, I loved it from the moment I gave it a shot; perhaps that made me biased, but when I went back and watched all that I’d missed, I wasn’t disappointed in those early eps either. So I readily admit that, however unfair, I hold Joss Whedon to a standard light years above just about anyone; if the show had been produced by someone else, I probably would have watched without much complaint. But the idea that a Whedon series needed to hit its stride was almost incomprehensible; a Whedon stable stallion hits the ground running, right out of the gate!

But this horse isn’t a racer, isn’t going at full throttle on a thrill ride. Hold on; this is a good thing. This horse is taking us on a journey that takes patience and careful footing, on a path where we can’t see more than a few steps ahead of us at a time. But the further we get, the more we see — and the more we appreciate the road we took to get there. And it’s not like there aren’t still thrills along the way, like dangerous animals (Active-gone-psychotic Alpha), or narrow trails with open air to one side of you (dealing with the moral issues and technical complications of the tech used to make Actives). So while I had problems with the reasoning behind the "give it time" advice, it proved sound nonetheless, and I would have missed the ride of a lifetime if I hadn’t taken it to heart.

Which brings us to the five reasons I continued to watch Dollhouse, despite my initial qualms, and why I’m now not just on the "Save Dollhouse" bandwagon, I’m doing my best to help push! (Warning — there be massive spoilers ahead!)

5. It’s Sci-Fi, Baby!

It’s not like I don’t watch "normal" shows, but why would I want to watch yet another dime-a-dozen crime or medical drama or, gods forbid, a "reality" train wreck show, when I can watch something that has all the drama of those plus far more imaginative content? (And yet, in the case of reality TV, somehow Dollhouse is also more realistic.) I can watch people chasing a killer on some other show, or, on Dollhouse, I can watch people chasing a killer who can either switch personalities at the drop of the hat or who can be in more than one body at a time. Characters on this show can do anything, be anyone; with imprints, the possibilities are endless! You may think you know the characters on the other shows, but on this one, you know you don’t, because you can never be entirely certain of who is in a body at any given moment, can’t be sure who is "real" and who is just an imprint. The potential for surprise is constant.

Dollhouse is just far enough out of the realm of what we know that it can plausibly ask questions that other shows aren’t able to ask, as they lack any factors that would make it believable for them to, while still maintaining an aura of reality. These are valid questions for us, things we should be concerned about, because they aren’t beyond the realm of future scientific probability. Even as you read this, scientists are refining tech that allows computers to read and interpret the electrical impulses in our brains, which are really just bioelectric computers themselves. So what would you do with tech that can download the contents of your mind and upload something new? And how would you keep others from abusing it? How many cop shows or medical dramas out there could introduce these concepts into their narrative?

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself .... For those who haven’t seen it at all yet, the premise: we have people who, for various reasons, allow a Dollhouse (the series focusing on the LA location) to wipe their memories and fill their heads with imprints, a collection of scans from other minds, creating a new person. But they don’t stay that way: they are wiped again and again, getting imprint after imprint. The purpose? To fulfill the needs of the rich. Sure, sex is the common use, but a Doll (otherwise known as an Active), can be programmed to be anything at all — even a killer. And there are times when a Doll isn’t given an imprint, but rather the scan of one individual — which means that, so long as they have had their brain scanned, anyone can have life after death!

The tech evolves over the course of the show, allowing Dolls to not only have new personalities, but for their bodies to be altered. From the beginning of the series, they have muscle-memories imprinted, so that they can fight, dance, play the piano, whatever; they can even be given poor eyesight for the duration of a mission. In one episode, they take it further: Echo (Eliza Dushku) is programmed so that she cannot see out of her own eyes at all — but programmer Topher (Fran Kranz), Echo’s handler Boyd (Harry Lennix), and the others in the Dollhouse can, effectively using her as a camera! In another episode, her body is programmed to think she’s a new mother, and so her body produces milk for a baby! And the tech also evolves in how imprints are both sent and wiped, allowing the process to eventually occur over the phone! And thanks to the most excellent, post-apocalyptic ep "Epitaph One" (1.13 — since it wasn’t aired on TV, you must buy the DVD box set or download the ep from Amazon or iTunes), we know that particular development will have disastrous results for humanity.

Also, the tech doesn’t always work as expected; case in point, lead Active Echo has begun retaining the memories of these lives she’s lived. She’s not her original self, the animal rights activist Caroline, but Caroline is there, inside her — along with a serial killer and countless others. Also, Echo’s mother hen attitude towards the other Actives is growing more pronounced as, in keeping her memories, she is obtaining a better grasp of life in general and her situation in particular. But Doll programmer Topher has said that you cannot put memories into a head that still contains another personality, so what will this do to Echo in the long run? Drive her mad, like it did Alpha? (Oh, Alan Tudyk, I thought I loved you as sweet Wash, but I love you even more as a bad guy!) Or will Echo prove an exception? Those of us who have seen "Epitaph One" know what will ultimately become of her a decade into the future, but we still don’t know what happened to her between now and then ....

4. Exploring Morality, Memory, Identity, and Souls

Even if this show hadn’t been a Whedon work, the possibilities for exploring these concepts would have drawn me in, as I am endlessly fascinated by ethical and existential questions. And the episode that finally made me a fan of the show, "Man on the Street" (1.6), was the one that really started delving into that territory. The episode featured interviews with the public, asking them their opinion on the "urban legend" of the Dollhouse, how they felt about the concept. Opinion was varied: some thought it abhorrent human trafficking, prostitution or slavery, and some were intrigued by the possibilities — not just of what one could do with a Doll, but of what it meant to be a Doll. Like most science, the tech itself is amoral — it’s the uses that it’s put to that makes it good or evil. Even then, whether it is good or evil is often a matter of perspective.

Remember Inara, the consort on Firefly? She chose her clients, and saw her work as therapeutic, relieving the inescapable biological urges of those for whom a loving relationship, for whatever reason (political position, physical condition, shyness) just isn’t feasible. The head of the LA Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), sees her Dolls working in much the same fashion as Inara; she also believes in the medical breakthroughs that are made possible by the funding the Dollhouse provides. And at one point Topher reminds Boyd that these people did volunteer for the work. But in turn, Boyd brings up a compelling question: do the Dolls really know what they’re getting into when they sign the contract? Have all the permutations been explained? Have they been told that they may be used for sex, illegal activities, or violent situations? If they are not fully aware of the conditions (and we still don’t know if they are), if it was explained in the vaguest legalese possible, should they be considered as having truly consented? The contract may say "you give consent to have your body used for any purpose, so long as it is returned to you unharmed", but maybe they never imagined that "any purpose" included illegal or dangerous acts. But if it was spelled out in full ... is being made into a Doll actually wrong then? (Well, aside from being used in illegal activities.) Then again, what if the "volunteer" has no other choice to make? What if they are threatened or coerced? The show explores all these questions from every angle — imprinted Doll, imprint-less Doll, programmer, handler, client, victim, and those trying to stop the Dolls — both from inside and outside.

As for the question of memory and identity, if our identity and the corresponding memories are programmed, if they affect how we behave and seem as real as anything, then are they any less real than if we had actually lived through the creation of them? As Topher pointed out to Boyd (I can’t recall now if this was only in the unaired pilot, of if it was one of the bits from the pilot that made it into another episode), we’re programmed every day, by the media and by our social interactions; does it really matter how the programming is done? And how does perception play into it? If your mind is wiped clean and a new personality forms in its place, does that new personality have a right to live or not? And if we have souls, what happens to them in all this? Can souls be erased? Transferred? Or is it that, no matter how our brains are programmed, the soul is always there, the core of us, shaping how we use that programming? Are Dolls at all culpable for crimes committed by imprints? Do we ever really stop being ourselves? Do our selves really exist at all?

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