Thursday, February 26, 2009

How Many Dolls in the Dollhouse?

Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (for anyone who’s been living under a rock), has just launched his new show, Dollhouse. Here’s the description from FOX’s website (where you can catch the first two episodes of the show):

ECHO (Dushku) is an "Active," a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don't just perform their hired roles, they wholly become -- with mind, personality and physiology -- whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time. Confined between missions to a secret facility known as the "Dollhouse," Echo and the other Actives including SIERRA (Dichen Lachman), are assigned engagements by ADELLE DEWITT (Olivia Williams), one of the Dollhouse leaders. After each scenario, Echo, always under the watchful eye of her handler, BOYD LANGTON (Harry Lennix), returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased by TOPHER BRINK (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's genius programmer.

As Adelle says in the second episode, an Active is a tabula rosa (a blank slate), not even really a person, adds Langton. Between missions, that is. But when an Active is on a mission, he or she seems very much a person, specially created to do a job. The catch is that each of these is a very short-lived person.

So, although we only see a handful of human beings serving as Actives in the Dollhouse, it seems to me that the place is "home" to a whole lot of persons who live only a day or so. The Dollhouse seems to pressure desperate people to serve as "hosts" or "body donors" for their organization, effectively giving up five years of their lives, and then they create a series of persons to do their dirty work only to terminate each of those persons when the work is complete. Seems like a pretty nasty outfit to me.

Of course, that assumes that we accept some kind of psychological contintuity account of personal identity. On such accounts, if there's absolutely no psychological connections between the serious hostage negotiator of the first episode and the gutsy outdoorswoman of the second episode, then they're different persons from one another--and from Echo, the in-between, low-functioning person who's mostly interested in massages and swimming.

One of my main questions when I first heard about this show was how Whedon was going to make us care about Echo if there's really no continuity between the various persons who animate this body. Turns out that premise starts to erode as early as the second episode, where we start to hear about "composite events," in which Actives retain memories from previous missions. Seems like the doll is slowly going to become a real girl....

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