August 12, 2009

The Peristence of Memory

Many sci-fi geeks are rejoicing to have a Joss Whedon ("Buffy", "Angel", & "Firefly") show back on television. In this case Mr. Whedon has cast former vampire slayer Faith (Eliza Dukshu) as Echo, an "active" within an organization called The Dollhouse. Her real identity, Caroline, has been wiped from her memory so she can be programmed to fulfil clients' various needs. The Dollhouse rents out the actives (or "dolls") at what appears to be extremely high prices to play a variety of roles. To date we have seen the dolls be sexual fantasies, assassins, thieves, and other sundry things. Clearly, those with a great deal of money (i.e. the rich and powerful) don't ever hire a doll to go and read to their grandparents. One gets the sense that wealth and immorality are tightly woven in the Whedonverse.

So this is what the show "Dollhouse" is all about on the surface. Being Whedon, the show is wonderfully layered with more cerebral concerns too; namely, what is the role of memory in creating and sustaining one's identity? After each assignment, a doll is essentially wiped clean back to their original, innocent state. The attached picture shows a standard dollhouse bedroom, which contains five beds sunken into the floor. As the dolls awake each morning the image is as if they are being reborn each time. The metaphor is forced but it works and they all wander about the spa-like dollhouse complex in a state of bliss.

But, memory glitches appear, particulary in Echo's case, and we see her original identity fighting to make sense of her multiple realities. Meanwhile a rogue FBI agent (played by Canadian actor Tahmoh Penikett of "Battlestar Gallactica" fame) appears to be the only one at the Bureau who believes the Dollhouse exists, and is trying to find it and shut it down and rescue Caroline/Echo. What he does not realize is that his fate is already in the hand of the sinister (but deliciously sexy) British mistress who runs the Dollhouse.

We learn that Caroline actually volunteered to be a doll, and that she signed a five-year contract, so we have to ponder the ethical dilemma of whether one can or ought to voluntarily enslave themselves, for there is no doubt that these individuals have been reduced to playthings and objects. As we learn more and more about the four key dolls (Echo, Victor, Sierra, & November) and their back stories the intrigue has raised to a can't-stop-watching-must-find-out-what-happens-next level. All the while, we wonder about the nature of identity and how thin the line is between memory and blankness.

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