The science of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse

A look at the promise and science of the new Joss Whedon series, premiering in February...


Joss Whedon’s imminent new series concerns operatives so secret that even they don’t know what they’re up to. In the illegal federal operation known as the ‘Dollhouse’, agents are imprinted with cognitive and muscle-memories adapted to their latest mission, and conclude their assignments by being wiped of any recollection of them. The series centres on Echo (Eliza Dushku), a ‘doll’ or ‘active’ who begins to attain self-awareness, and (presumably) to learn from her experiences in some way that the mind-wiping process should technically render impossible.

Fiction about amnesia and disassociation strikes a predictably popular chord with the youth demographic unsure about its own identity or place in the world, but the fascination transcends demographics: the notion of rearranging, erasing or artificially augmenting our own memories is the stuff of both fantasy and nightmare, from Neo’s suddenly ‘knowing’ Kung-Fu after a dose of Tank’s skill-stacks in The Matrix, to the instinctive horror of forgetting crucial experiences, as with the numerous victims of the ‘neural neutraliser’ in the Men In Black movies.

Altering memories via technology remains in the realm of science-fiction; neuroscience is still obtaining early theories from phenomena that it barely understands. Baffling synergies emerge from the hard facts, such as the damaged brain’s capacity to restore cognitive memory from areas of the brain which are not associated with it.

In order to develop the science-fictional tools needed to manipulate memory, science needs to individuate the relationship between cells and memory. The day that the current mystical veil on memory is lifted and thoughts finally become classified as ’tissue’ will be a politically problematic one at best. At worst it will be an ideological and ethical earthquake.

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Anecdotal evidence suggests that this moment of revelation is coming up: the research of psychoneuroimmunologist Dr. Paul Pearsall provides a strong indication that memory is meat – unless, of course, one wishes to interpret his findings in a supernatural or spiritual sense.

Certainly Pearsall’s various studied case-histories of transplant patients provide creepy moments to match the plot set-ups of schlock horror such as The Eye (2007), or the Michael Caine film The Hand (1981); a gay woman in her late twenties receives the heart of a nineteen year-old heterosexual vegetarian girl and gives up meat…and women; an 18 year-old boy writes a poem about ‘giving his heart’ to ‘Danny’, and the young woman (called ‘Danielle’) who receives his heart in a transplant is able to finish the lyrics before they are completely read out to her the first time; a middle-aged white man receives the heart of a young black man, and inherits his donor’s love of classical music. The donors were anonymous in these cases, these facts assembled instead by research. The stories are numerous, and if true either bespeak proof of a supernatural world…or evidence that our very memories can be cut out of us with a scalpel, and are therefore ultimately subject to science, as in Dollhouse.

This is not to say that your ‘mojo’ can be removed in the style of an Austin Powers movie, any more than your DNA can be ‘removed’ with a mouth-swab. Even putting aside the notion of genetic memory, there’s a lot of evidence that nature, ever a pessimist, stores memories in more than one place in the brain, and Dr. Pearsall’s transplant anecdotes – which concern the transfer of hearts rather than brains – posit the possibility that memories may be ‘backed up’ in the most basic proteins of our bodies.

One theory of cellular memory suggests that the neuropeptides thought unique to the brain may in fact permeate all the cells of our bodies, and most particularly the heart, which has such a high quantity of peptides as to present a particularly fruitful area for study. If there should turn out to be a ‘special’ relationship between the two organs, we’re all going to feel pretty silly for abandoning that romantic conceit as children…

In terms of SF tech, nothing qualifies more as a predecessor to Dollhouse than Gerry Anderson’s final ‘Supermarionation’ series Joe 90. Here the young adopted son of a brilliant scientist receives implants of brain patterns from highly specialised personnel in order to undertake special-agent missions for one of Anderson’s typically global peace-keeping forces, the World Intelligence Network. The ‘Big Rat’ (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer) was the very psychedelic spinning machine that not only made the transference process visual but provided a golden excuse to re-run stock shots each episode. Joe himself kept a continuous memory, unlike the ‘dolls’ in Whedon’s series, and never seemed to have any unwarranted side effects, such as an urge to ogle centrefolds or start smoking (God knows, everyone else did in Gerry Anderson shows). On the other hand Joe needed some nasty-looking souped-up NHS specs in order to stay in touch with the implanted abilities.

I suspect that Whedon’s ‘dolls’ will have rather more emotional points-of-vulnerability, with a more ambiguous treatment of the source brain-patterns that our heroes will receive in the show; the difficulty in sifting practical abilities from emotional impressions and non-essential memories when sourcing implantable material is bound to emerge. In yet another real-life transplant case, a young girl who had never experienced any emotional problems led police to the killers of the donor of her new heart, after being plagued by nightmares about being murdered. To what extent, then, will the living templates of Dollhouse adopt more than just the skillset of their donor minds…?

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The character without memory is instantly sympathetic, as they can hide so little from us, and we have seen the narrative dynamic before in Angelheart, Total Recall, Memento, Resident Evil, DarkCity, Regarding Henry and many others – and in many cases, the ultimate truth at the end of amnesia was an ugly one. Will Echo find out that she was once Faith?

Though he only went through the process once, Peter Weller in Robocop (1987) is another Dollhouse analogue, and the emotional dynamic of Paul Verhoeven’s film centred on Murphy’s struggle to re-invent himself with the tatters of his old personality, much as cynical megacorp OCP had reinvented his body with cybernetic technology. Robocop’s reply when asked his name by the head of OCP at the movie’s end is one of the big cheer moments of the dehumanising, yuppified 1980s (“Murphy!”), and Eliza Dushku’s search for ‘integration’ is surely set to be the emotional heart of Dollhouse. If we’re lucky, there’ll also be a ton of good one-liners on the journey there.

‘Integration’ describes the elusive stage in the treatment of multiple-personality disorder where the patient combines the various traits of their ‘cast of characters’ into one cohesive and continuous personality, an ascension out of the darkness and confusion of insanity into the life-challenges that the patient had been fleeing before. In terms of the general culture of Whedon’s target audience, the ‘hook’ in Dollhouse is surely the struggle to be accepted (and presumably appreciated) for who one really is; people have the right to reinvent themselves, but doing so on an ad hoc and daily basis is chaos and self-negation.

But that’s a mission-statement aimed at broader demographics than those which likely interest Joss Whedon. I can’t help but feel that there’s a reason the show is called Dollhouse and not Toy House. I’m not convinced by the inclusion of the male ‘doll’ Victor (Enver Gjokaj); outnumbered by his two female colleagues (Dushku and ‘Sierra’, played by Dichen Lachman), this sounds like the Token Guy, Dollhouse‘s own ogleable Angel, there to provide balance and backdrop to another Whedon exploration into the female psyche, the fascination – if not obsession – that threads his career. Guys will tune in for Dushku as they did for both her and Sarah-Michelle Gellar in Buffy, but Dollhouse is x-chromosome all down the line, from the evidence of the set-up.

Hey, sounds good to me.

Dollhouse premieres February 13, 2009 on Fox.

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8 January 2009