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Tariq West English 176, Winter 2010 Ursula Heise Midterm
Dollhouse: Reality, Identity, Soul Joss Whedon’s latest brainchild, Dollhouse, is a science fiction drama or, more precisely, an adolescent nerd-gasm with enough philosophical quandary and action to satisfy both the brain above and the one below. Set in the present-day, the show centers on the Los Angeles “dollhouse”, one in a global network of self-contained underground facilities maintained secretly by a powerful multi-national biotech corporation, Rossum. The dollhouses hire out “dolls” or “actives”, people who have surrendered their bodies and minds to the enterprise under lucrative five-year contracts, to serve the whims of an elite clientele; these “engagements” range from romantic encounters with lonely millionaires to expert criminal capers. The actives are imprinted with “personalities”, identity constructs complete with skills, memories and behaviors that make them perfect for their assigned task; they effectively become entirely different people. Adelle DeWitt, director of the dollhouse, captures the essence of its proposition explaining, “In their resting state, our Actives are as innocent and vulnerable as children. We call it the tabula rasa, the blank slate. Now imagine the imprint process, filling it, creating a new personality. A friend, a lover, a… confidant in a sea of enemies. Your heart’s desire made flesh. And when the engagement has been completed, all memory of you and your time together will be wiped clean” (Season1, Episode 2). Dollhouse poignantly engages questions of identity, reality and the potential of technology to act on our minds and bodies. Initially the series’ invites us to believe that the entirety of the mind or “self” is contained in the brain’s neural pathways; it follows that given the right tools these pathways might be mapped, recorded and even reproduced in other bodies. The dollhouse’s resident neuroscientist-hacker, Topher Brink, sees the mind as software, the brain as hardware and both as raw material to be molded to purpose by his narcissistic genius. From a database of millions of mind-maps he splices together new personas, imprinting them on blank-
West, 2 of 4 slate brains. The doll-keepers and later the doll’s themselves struggle with the disquieting notion of authentic and in-authentic identity which becomes inseparable from the issue of reality and virtual reality. The clients of the dollhouse pay not only for artificial personas, but also for an artificial reality that extends from them. In one episode an active comes off of an engagement elated, having met the man of her dreams. As she prepares to be wiped, she says with deep sincerity, “I think he feels it to, I think I found something real” (Season 1, Episode 1). In a sense, she is right about the “realness” of their connection, as her persona was designed such that the client would be the man of her dreams, and she the woman of his. Topher quips in response to the doll-persona’s sentiment, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” alluding both to the subjectivity of reality and his own moral relativism (Season 1, Episode 1). In another episode a billionaire tech entrepreneur has a doll imprinted with his dead wife’s personality; she’d died years earlier en route to the house he’d bought her the day his company went public. He needed her to see that he’d finally made good, that his hare-brained business ideas has finally worked out. The doll’s artificial identity as his wife allowed him a virtual reality: the experience of validation through her eyes. Over the course of several episodes, the Rossum corporation constructs a sort of virtual reality for Paul Ballard, a snooping FBI agent obsessed with the dollhouse but unable prove its existence. Mollie, a doll imprinted to love him and dissuade him from his dangerous obsession, is placed as his neighbor while his key underworld informant is a doll carefully placed to feed him misinformation; none of the three are aware of the virtual-reality they are living out. When Paul finally learns that Mollie is a doll, the manufactured reality begins to crumble in his mind, but not in hers; he becomes disgusted with her inauthenticity, breaking her heart and driving her to attempt suicide. Across this and many other sub-plots in the series, we are left to wonder what is “real”, whether reality is the subjective experience of the mind construct in the doll’s body or the client’s subjective experience of the doll or something created between them. The issue of identity and reality is complicated further as Paul, the character most uneasy about the in-authenticity of the doll’s imprinted identities, becomes a doll himself and the series’ central character, Echo, evolves from an imprintable doll to something profoundly more inalienable. When Paul’s investigation leads him to the truth about the dollhouse, Adelle
West, 3 of 4 convinces him to join her staff. When a psychopathic former doll wipes Paul’s neural map leaving him brain-dead, Topher must reconstruct his mind. When the reconstructed Paul awakes, he feels somehow alien to himself and wonders about his own authenticity. Around this same point, it becomes apparent that there is some unique property of Echo’s biology that allows her to hold dozens of personality constructs within her. Some part of her original personality, wiped and stored for later re-imprinting under the terms of her contract, emerges from somewhere deep within her and acts as sort of superego that allows her to negotiate the many people imprinted on her. Eventually her original identity, Caroline, is added to her stack of imprinted personas as well. At the end of this evolution she is neither Caroline nor any of her other imprints, but rather an entirely new entity who can be added to but not wiped or overwritten. This emergence of a unique and self-organizing entity that didn’t quite occur “naturally” but can’t quite be said to be artificial, stands in counter-point to Paul’s original view that imprinted dolls are necessarily less real and authentic that non-imprinted people. As the series comes to a close, we come to understand that the imprinting technology isn’t quite as powerful as Topher and it’s inventors believed. Early in the series Topher observes of a group of “blank slate” dolls who, in theory, should have no memory of each other, “They're eating lunch together, man friend. The same three. Even the same table. They're grouping.” His companions asks, “Are you saying they remember each other?” He responds, “No, no, no. The wipes are clean. This goes deeper than memory, into instinctual survival patterns. Flocking. A whole mess of sparrows turning on a dime, salmon trucking upstream.” (Season 1, Episode 4). Topher stumbles here over a reality that later becomes apparent: it is possible to access, record and modify the neural map of a brain and imprint it on another, but that imprint is a mere echo of a deeper, inalienable, emergent self. Caroline’s word at the beginning of the series, before she becomes Echo, foreshadow this reality, “You ever try and clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before,” (Season 1, Episode 1). This understanding crystallizes late in the series when it becomes apparent that two of the dolls have fallen in love and that no matter how they are imprinted, the bond between them emerges. One of these two star-crossed dolls asks Topher, pointing to her love, “That's him. What's his name?” Topher replies, “Victor.” “I love him. Is that real?” she asks. “Yes. Yes, it's real. He loves you back,” Topher replies. The message in the end seems to be that both reality
West, 4 of 4 and authentic identity are bound up somehow in the transcendental properties of our deepest bonds. Paul, who came to love Caroline as he investigated the dollhouse, loses the love for her that was encoded in his brain when Topher reconstructs his mind-map. This love later reemerges from somewhere within him. Echo, who becomes a sort of transcendent entity, loves Paul because there is something at the core of her being, something from the essence of Caroline, that was bonded to him even before they met.
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