Joss Whedon’s timely sci-fi drama Dollhouse from 2009 was a thoughtful rumination on the corruptible nature of humans and what makes a soul.
Before Netflix’s Altered Carbon and HBO’s Westworld, there was Dollhouse. I admit I might have started working on this project while looking through rose-colored glasses. The series from Joss Whedon(insert fangirl swoon here) premiered in 2009 and only lasted two seasons. It seems it went the route of yet another sci-fi great helmed by Whedon, Firefly. Gone before it hardly got a chance to get started. For those who weren’t lucky enough to watch Dollhouse the first go around, it is the story of a barely futuristic corporation that erases and imprints entire personalities over beautiful men and women to suit the whims of anyone rich enough to hire them. What could go wrong?
They become dolls for the powerful to play with. They can be perfect dates, backup singers with kungfu skills, psychopaths, dominatrix, or even hostage negotiators. Neuroscientist Topher Brink(Fran Kranz) does all the high-tech tinkering with their delicate brains. Similar to what many think is happening in Westworld, people have their entire personalities stored on computer sleeves for later use. In Westworld, they are elegant pearls, and in Dollhouse, they are clunky wedges, but whatever, it was pre-terabyte flash drive storage, so give them a break. Whether these people consented to have their minds uploaded is unclear. Although it is heavily implied they were taken under murky circumstances.
Usually, the young, gorgeous and vulnerable are lured into “service” by mounting debts, deep sadness, felonious activities, or in a particularly disgusting case, a powerful douchey stalker. The company behind the dolls is Rossum Corporation. Rossum Corp. is multinational, far-reaching, and mega connected. There are branches all over, but we primarily only see the Los Angeles branch run by Adelle DeWitt. The corporation’s public face is biomedical equipment and pharmaceuticals. They are the largest manufacturer of MRI’s, and their equipment is jacked into a massive computer system. That system stores backups of anyone who ever gets an MRI for use in their secret Dollhouses.
Just like in Westworld, Rossum is trying to take over the world one mind at a time. Their experiments turn on them and wreak world-destroying havoc. Dollhouse, through almost the entirety of the first season, is one fun wash, rinse, repeat after another. Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Eliza Dushku(Echo) is the newest It Girl and slides from one personality into another with a flip of a switch and a slick wardrobe change.
In the final episode of season one things turn on a dime. Suddenly you are propelled into a whole different time period and reality. Everything shifts tonally for the series as well as a sense of urgency replaces the voyeuristic delight of watching Echo slowly come to terms with who and what she is. It’s also fun to occasionally watch her whip people. The final season plays out with real emotional weight and one shock after another. Here are all the reasons Dollhouse rocked.
Nerd Chic Was Applauded
Topher, the neuroscientist/computer genius, is a well-rounded character full of all the positive and negative attributes an average person would have. He constantly mumbles about things like neuromodulators and demands juice boxes in between declaring nothing is ever his fault. He is off the charts gifted and just as socially ignorant. Initially, he is just comic relief, but as the series continues, he becomes the flawed heart of the show.
Topher makes massive mistakes and operates on a very gray moral compass. When confronted with exactly what he is doing he chooses eventually to be a hero. It is a believable arch for the super genius and it is the most satisfying redemption of all the characters. Later in the series, he meets Summer Glau’s equally gifted Dr. Bennett Halverson. She hasn’t had the kind of awakening Topher has but falls for the wunderkind nonetheless. They are one fantastically nerdtastic couple for a brief time.
Philosophical Truths Are Dropped
With every great success there is failure. In episode one, Harry Lennix’s character, handler Boyd Langton, questions why Topher would make the hostage negotiator imprint given to Echo(Dushku) nearsighted. He explains the imprints are real people. The personalities used are complete backups of people who lived and died. They have talents and fatal flaws. Insecurities and points of pride. When code is implanted without all the good and the bad it wouldn’t make sense. Part of what makes a person themselves is their experiences. Some of those are related to success more often than not failures. Essentially we learn more from losing than winning.
November/Madeline(Miracle Laurie) dodges her emotions and volunteers to be a doll in exchange for wiping her memory of her child’s death. Avoidance of feelings is obviously not healthy. It isn’t the first time the Dollhouse explores that concept. Dolls are hired to replace wives, mothers, and boyfriends for lonely patrons. Additionally, as the dolls become self-aware even after being wiped the idea that human souls are not dependent on memory alone. Dollhouse showed souls can’t be erased. The integrity of a person can never be completely denigrated.
Deep Scientific Questions Are Asked In Accessible Ways.
Everything that happens in Dollhouse has a tongue and cheek feel to it. In large part due to Dushku’s guile and Topher’s snarky humor. In fact, brilliant Topher becomes the moral voice of the entire series. He is constantly inventing new things and capabilities. All of that he does without ever questioning the company he works for or the greater cosmic what-ifs behind his advancements. Partly because he is entirely out of touch with humanity and partly because he is physically removed from society. Fran Kranz brings his signature geek charm to Topher, which allows even the vilest of his inventions to be shrug-worthy. That is a tall order when Season two, episode 2 Instinct, changed both Echo’s mind and her body. It allowed her to breastfeed a baby despite having not given birth.
In season two, episode three, Belle Chose, Topher has a rare ethical challenge. He questions using his skills to awaken a murderer from a coma. The entire episode is more procedural than scientific as they race against time to save innocents. The real ethical conundrums hide under the surface. Topher’s tech could be used for research, police investigation, in addition to pleasure. Just because the tech could be used for good should it be used at all? This question comes up again and again as it is used for seemingly important things that cast huge shadows later in the season.
The Cast Is Legendary
The cast is packed, with Harry Lennix from Blacklist, Dichen Lachman from Altered Carbon, Fran Kranz from Cabin in the Woods, Tahmoh Penikett from Battlestar Galactica, Amy Acker from Angel, Michael Hogan(BSG) and Enver Gjokaj from last years breakout Emergence. That doesn’t even include the lead Eliza Dushku, everyone’s favorite 5 x 5 vampire slayer. If that weren’t enough later in the series, they would add series regulars and cameos from Alan Tudyk(Firefly), Ray Wise(Twin Peaks), Alexis Denisof(Angel), Jamie Bamber(BSG), Summer Glau(Firefly), everyone’s favorite ginger nerd Felicia Day, and Keith motherf….ing Carradine.
It’s laughable that with a cast as talented as this one and a creator like Whedon, Dollhouse only got two seasons. If you told someone right now, this was a show that was premiering in six months and gave them the cast and writer the fan fervor would be so intense you wouldn’t be able to control the nerdtopia. For reasons, I will never understand the series wasn’t embraced. Regardless, the cast is amazing and reads like a who’s who of genre royalty.
The Themes Are So Relevant
As we face down the barrel of more weeks or months of social distancing and potential testing and governmental tracking after that to control the Coronavirus pandemic, parallels appear. Some experts believe once we are finally let out of our homes the government will require all citizens to download an app to track our possible exposure. Think Foursquare for pandemics. If you wind up in the same place as a positive case, you will be alerted by the government and quarantined. This is already happening in Iran and Argentina. In America, this will be a harder sell, but full surveillance states like the one in Dollhouse may be a necessary evil.
With less and less new content available these days, it will become increasingly more important to find quality shows from the past. Dollhouse fits that bill. Whether you love Dollhouse for the eye candy, the sexy costumes, the nostalgic tech, a geek crush, or nihilism, it is an excellent series with re-visiting. You can get both seasons on Hulu right now. Let’s all hope we don’t have to worry about wi-fi mind wipes!
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.