Dollhouse: “Ghost”

We Can Forget It For You Wholesale


Fridays on Fox at 9/10 E/C


Written by Joss Whedon

Directed by Joss Whedon

Although my personal motto/mantra is “The pilot is not the series”, I confess I had high hopes for the debut of Joss Whedon’s latest work. I did not expect to be so let down by a highly-anticipated series. My mistake. While I am willing to give this series a couple more chances to hook my interest, I have to say that this is not an auspicious beginning. At this point, Dollhouse has so much to make up for that I’m not sure it’s possible to turn this series into a hit.

The idea behind Dollhouse is that people sell themselves into indentured servitude to a mysterious “dollhouse”, which takes them and erases their personalities and/or memories. This is a selective process, inasmuch as these “actives” retain the memory of how to speak English, how to walk, and so forth. These more or less blank slates are then imprinted as needed with manufactured personalities and memories, sent out on a mission, and on their return are “reset” to their original state of oblivion. Dollhouse follows the career of one such “active”, a woman (Eliza Dushku, Tru Calling) once known to herself as Caroline but now known to her handlers as “Echo”.

The first “mission” we see Echo on is as a girlfriend-for-hire for a weekend, rented by a rich yuppie who pretends to share a past with her and then watches impassively as she walks away at midnight, to be returned to her blank state with no memory of him. There’s a word for women you rent by the hour for partying, drinking, and sex, and it’s not a pretty one.

Her next mission finds Echo convinced that she’s a top notch negotiator, as she tries to finesse the handoff of a kidnap ransom for a little girl. Unfortunately, the personality that was downloaded into her was kidnapped and abused by one of the men Echo recognizes. Her reaction derails the plan, endangers the little girl, and alerts her former-FBI handler to a crime in progress. Through some method we’re not privy to, Echo remembers where “she” was held, confronts the kidnappers, and is herself rescued at the last moment by a fellow “active”, Sierra (Dichen Lachman, Neighbors). Both of them return to the Dollhouse, where they get erased and returned to the dorm, which is full of naked dolls of both genders milling about aimlessly between assignments. There is a word for a woman who is periodically given new assignments to be enacted under a new personality: actress. This entire premise is merely a metaphor for the acting profession.

Of course, science fiction fans have seen most of this before. Sometimes it seems that half the works of Philip K. Dick are devoted to memory erasure and implantation; the subject forms either the main or subtext of stories like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (basis for the movie Blade Runner), Paycheck (basis for the movie of the same name), and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”, (basis for the movie Total Recall). Rudy Rucker, Fred Pohl, Greg Egan, and a host of other SF writers have explored the idea of mind transfer. Memory erasure was the entire premise of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so forth. The issue is not whether the idea of mind erasure/transfer is original. The issue is whether Whedon can add any new dimension to a body of work that arguably goes all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The production values paint the Dollhouse itself as a sort of frat house with money. Everywhere there is beautiful hardwood, frosted glass, comfortable furniture. Mixed-gender showers imply a sexuality which is belied by the single-coffin sleeping cells for the actives. There’s money everywhere—in the Dollhouse, the clients, the world. Supporting cast includes Harry Lennix (24) as Echo’s ex-cop handler, Olivia Williams (X-Men: The Last Stand) as the head of the Dollhouse, and Reed Diamond (Journeyman) as the corporate muscle. All turn in credible performances. It is hard to evaluate Dushku’s, however. How does one judge the performance of an actress playing a vacant stare?

I’d like to think that the dark and unsettling pilot is a prelude to an exploration of the ethical issues involved in prostituting a literally unwitting victim, of putting her in danger of her life without her real, informed consent. I’d like to think that Whedon intends to dissect the cultural implications of putting a premium on lithe and attractive bodies that house vacant minds. I’d like to think that Whedon’s much-vaunted feminism will persuade him to treat Echo as something more than a breathing mannequin. I’d like to think we will be getting characters who are somewhat beyond the stereotypes we are now all too used to: the disheveled computer geek with a crush on a pretty girl that he fulfills by voyeurism, the burnout ex-cop who still has a sense of honor and justice, and the corporate suit with no moral compass whatsoever. I can dial up these stereotypes in any show on television today. Unfortunately for Whedon, his own works have raised the bar of expectation higher than these run-of-the-mill shows.

The gossip mill says that the pilot for Dollhouse was rewritten to mollify Fox network executives. This is bad news, because what emerged was not a program I would have associated with Whedon. There was no witty banter, no cute in-jokes, no cultural meta-awareness. All the sly humor that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly cultural icons was missing. I hope this is not an indicator of our future, because that’s an SF future I’ll gladly pass on. If Whedon can get past the serious ethical obstacles in his premise and present us with some intriguing stories exploring what we mean by “self”, “personality”, and “memory”, he’ll have added not only to his own considerable reputation for cutting-edge storytelling, but to the sci-fi genre’s long-established interest in these issues. I fear, however, that this will be a short-lived series written by Fox executives about a mannequin who gets dressed in different roles every week.

Dollhouse opened at a 2.0 rating/6 share in adults 18-49. It came in second in that demographic to ABC’s Supernanny. More people wanted to watch a reality show about a nanny than a supposedly cutting-edge show about personality transfer. This does not bode well.