I can’t believe I didn’t see it before, but Dollhouse has a way of making you see what it wants you to see when it wants you to see it.
It’s Frankenstein, circa 2009. It’s mad scientists (love how they’ve added spooky flashes of light to Topher’s laboratory skullduggery) messing around with the very forces of life itself. It’s assembling people from fragments of former people. It’s stealing the fire of the gods. It’s crossing the ultimate line.
But of course in 2009 that line is hardly there anymore, right? It’s already scientifically possible for rich people to pay poor people to supply them with replacement organs or rented wombs, and before long it’ll be possible to grow human beings for the express purpose of harvesting pieces from them, stem cells or mature body parts. Right? We know all this. The technology’s there, or almost there, and like the talking head in Episode 6 said, if the technology’s there, somebody’s going to use it. Always have before.
So despite Adelle’s assurances, once it becomes known that the Dollhouse can offer immortality to the wealthy, the wealthy are going to take advantage of it. Suddenly you can imagine a new kind of slavery, a new kind of predatory capitalism in which the rich capture young virile bodies and dispose of the minds, in which youth itself is a tradable commodity.
This is, I submit, new territory for Joss Whedon. It’s not fantasy, it’s not space opera: it’s science fiction of the most serious and thought-provoking ilk. It’s taking a look around and asking, where is this leading us?
No place good, certainly. Because the real moral problem with the Dollhouse is not that the people who design and run it are monstrous – Victor Frankenstein had the best of intentions. It’s not even that the place is catering to a very select group of wealthy sociopaths. It’s that nobody is capable of resisting the temptations the technology provides.
This episode is very clear about that. Look at Ballard’s reaction when faced with an attractive woman who is offering herself up to him in absolute submission. He knows she’s not real. He knows she has no free will. He knows that she represents everything he’s dedicated his life to fighting. And he can’t resist. It turns him on. Excellent direction, by the way: the way the camera lingers on his face for that agonizing moment as you see him losing control, losing his soul. And later, in the shower, knowing he can never wash out the stain on his conscience. He’s no different from the clients he hunts. (Nice writing too in setting this up for us in Episode 6: delayed payoff, very nice.)
And look at the spectacle Topher makes of himself with his “diagnostic.” Sure he’s cute with his ideal girlfriend, and sure his ideals are harmless, if pathetic (video games and junk food: no sex, please, we’re nerdish). But how often has he ridiculed the dolls? He better than anybody knows what they are, how fundamentally empty they are, but he’s not immune to the primal urges they appeal to – the urges that kind of power appeals to. He’s no different from Warren in Buffy.
And he’s no different from Adelle, who knows Topher has to be allowed this indulgence, just as she indulged herself with “Roger,” and just as in fact she indulges herself with her friend Margaret. The point is, when this technology is available, it will be used in the most exploitative, creepy ways humans can imagine: if you build it, they (the exploiters, the creeps) will come.
So when Adelle says they’re not in the business of offering eternal life, that this was an exception, we don’t believe her. She may believe it herself – Victor Frankenstein didn’t think he was creating a monster – but we know she’s wrong.
Welcome to a brave new world.