Saturday, May 16, 2009


I admire, and more importantly, enjoy, Joss Whedon's work as the creator, producer and writer of television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Beside being a humanist, atheist, and avowed feminist, Whedon is one of only a handful of television writers who genuinely seems to understand the potential of using fantasy and science fiction to ask Big Questions as they relate to human conflicts and aspirations. When I heard that he had a new series coming out in February (alas! on Fox!), I marked it on my calendar, planning for the rare opportunity to watch a program in real time.

"Dollhouse" [Fridays at 9pm] follows Eliza Dushku as a character designated "Echo," formerly a troubled young woman named Carolyn, who has been coerced into "volunteering" to lease out her body for five years in exchange for having her difficulties resolved. She is only one of many "Dolls," men and women kept in self-contained "Dollhouses" hidden throughout the world, where they are hired out as highly-skilled mercenaries and fantasy performers for those who can afford their high-priced "engagements."

Just how do they obtain their extraordinary talents, ranging from hostage negotiator to catburgler, personal porn star, or surgeon? Topher Brink, played in full geekdom by Fran Kranz, operates a technology that imprints amalgams of recorded personalities and talents into the mind of the Doll, transforming them into "Actives" who carry out the assignments for which they have been hired, transactions brokered by the house martinet, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams). Each Active is supported by a Handler (Harry J. Lennix plays Boyd Langton, who oversees Echo) who monitor and safeguard their charges until it is time for their next "treatment" to revert them to Dollhood.

And there's the rub: in order to imprint the matrix of a new persona into a brain, the pre-existing mind must be "hollowed out." The body's original mind and personality is recorded onto a storage Wedge, and nothing is left in the Doll but a vague child-like personality that can perform basic living functions and obediently follow directions until a new personality and skill set is electronically imprinted in them.

But is the mind all that makes one a person? What about "the soul?" What about one's lifetime of habits that help define who we are? Are these, too, erased? Whedon suggests, perhaps not... and what then?

I understand that developing such a concept takes time. It is particularly difficult to introduce us to, and help us empathize with, characters who can be multiple characters. There is back-story to be hinted at while on-going storylines, such as a rogue FBI investigation by Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, recently of "Battlestar Galactica"), develop. But I admit that I was less than taken with the series after the forth episode, and was composing a blog entry titled "Damning with Faint Praise." It struck me as "Charlies Angels" meets "Total Recall." Fortunately, the elements came together in a critical mass in the fifth episode, and I was hooked.

So many questions are raised. Are there conflicts between ingrained ethical habits and a superimposed persona? What happens if the amalgamated personality is repeatedly imprinted; does it leave its own tracings? Can one cheat death by the recording and re-imprinting of one's personality? What happens if there are multiple imprintings? Is this schizophrenia, or the "Abomination" of the Bene Gesserit's Ancestral Memories in Frank Herbert's "Dune" series? Or are they √úbermenschen on their way to Godhood? And, what of the command of the technology itself? Can one "volunteer" to be a slave? So many engagements appear to be hedonistic ego-gratifications, little more than skilled prostitution; yet the Dollhouse creators claim that they also "do good," and that the revenue is important to... more important goals. Oh, we have heard those excuses before!

The first season of twelve episodes has come to its conclusion, but I understand that "Dollhouse" has been renewed for a second season. I look forward to the mysteries-within-mysteries, and ascertaining the fate of "the ghost in the machine." This one will be added to my DVD collection, one more way that I say, "Well done, Mr. Whedon!" This is a series that I wish to share.

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At 3:13 AM, Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

He's almost a prolific blogger!

I've never seen Dollhouse. Did you ever see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? It stars Jim Carrey; he'll be in two of my favorite movies ever made if I ever make such a list.

Anyway, the whole premise is getting rid of bad memories, of starting over. I'd so NOT want to do that, even though there are specific things I'd like to forget.

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