Is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse the Most Intellectually Engaging Series on American Television?

Do you believe you have a soul?

Season 2 Promo

Dollhouse Starring Eliza Dushku

Forget for a moment whether that soul continues to exist after you die; I’m not asking what color your religion is. Instead, I’d like to know whether you believe there’s something more to being human than mere material subsistence: consciousness, the capacity for rational thought, the emotional, intellectual, and logical processes that in some important way set us apart from our animal friends.

Do you believe that part of your existence is prospectively separable from your physical existence, intellectually, mechanically, digitally, or spiritually? That’s what I mean when I ask whether you believe you have a soul – is your essence distinct from your substance?

From militantly devout atheists to eagerly martyred Islamic extremists, almost all of us believe in this kind of a soul, an intellectual consciousness somehow divisible from our skin and bones, our axons and dendrites, a soul which is the source of our notion of justice and our capacities for abstract reasoning. We are logical and emotional and not merely biological beings, or so we believe.

But what do these beliefs imply? What if we could literally separate our consciousness from our body while that body continued to live? Would we want to? What is the moral status of our body while we are separated from it? Are we still connected to it, or has it somehow taken on a moral existence of its own?

And what if we could watch a television series that engaged these questions, and each week explored further the questions generated by that scenario? Fox’s Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon (Firefly, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and starring Eliza Dushku (Bring it On, True Lies) and Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica), does just this, and may be the most intellectually engaging television series in the history of American television.

Television rots your brain, or rather, it softens it for Alec Baldwin to slurp like a slushie drink, or so he said in an advertisement during the 2009 Super Bowl. This popular image of television and other forms of visual programming as stultifying rather than edifying is being proven incorrect by the increasingly intelligent content produced for these media. While popular series from Dancing with the Stars to Two and a Half Men may offer little to no intellectual engagement at the same time as these series are finding massive audiences, so too are smart shows from Dexter to Deadwood, from The Sopranos to The Wire finding audiences despite their darker subject matter. While many people will escape the despair of economic gloom in Survivor or some variety of mischievous Housewives, we in the know take solace in the broadcast of intelligent, intriguing long-form fiction which, when done properly, challenges us to think about the human condition in ways that we might not have considered previously. Art has come to the boob tube, if only more of us would pay attention, literati especially.

On a daily basis, intellectualism-lite hits broadcast and cable television in the form of a variety of procedural series: you might have heard of the most popular family of shows on television, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spinoffs, or one of the longest-running, Law & Order and its spinoffs. Even medical series, from the recently departed ER to the ever-popular Grey’s Anatomy are procedurals as well, only focusing on a different sort of problem. Therein, the viewer is asked not to focus so much on a set of relationships or conflicts but rather on some sort of mystery, which changes from one episode to the next. Properly done, each episode in this kind of series lets the viewer both satiate her or his base desire for character-driven drama while also allowing for the activation of the problem-solving areas of the brain; we aren’t just led from point-to-point on the chase to solving the mystery of the week. The writers of the best of these shows make us think about the motivations of the potential villains, make us ponder the protagonists’ decision-making, and occasionally entangle the characters in important social, political, and philosophical questions that can be wrapped up in the sixty-minute time limit.

These procedurals are distinct from more common television series, which focus on comedy, relationships, and drama for drama’s sake; the distinction lies in the attempt to actively engage the viewer’s intellectual inclinations. That these shows have not removed the commonly held scorn of the èlite toward flickering photography has everything to do, however, with the fact that these programs do so only on the surface, their plots and characters provide only a shallow depth to what is still mere cotton candy entertainment. They rise above the most base dreck, but not enough to distinguish themselves as more than mere entertainment: a procedural, even one shot beautifully starring award-winning actors and actresses, can rarely engage its audience more than superficially.

Some series step beyond superficial entertainment into a new level of conceptual complexity that goes beyond what a sixty minute episode can conclude. These series have some sort of conflict built into their creative core. Perhaps the new paradigm for this kind of show is Battlestar Galactica. In that series, a race of sentient machines created by humanity wipes out all but a few thousand of its creators in a nuclear holocaust; across four seasons, the surviving humans race across the galaxy trying to flee the robots they’ve created who believe the humans wish extinction on them just as strongly. The central question of Battlestar Galactica is whether, if we have created our own executioners, if we fight amongst one another endlessly in the face of our extinction, is our species really worth saving?

Programs like Battlestar Galactica explore issues existential, metaphysical, political, and social in their very conception. They are also free to examine issues in individual episodes just as though they had a mystery to solve in the sixty-minute window of a mere procedural series. Therefore, Dexter, about a serial killer who through careful training has been molded to both avoid detection and murder only other serial killers, will in one episode invite the viewer to question the morality of such an arrangement, ponder whether sociopaths can really be trained like puppies, question the extent to which a literal or figurative parent has the right to mold someone so thoroughly, and be forced to wrangle the ethical dilemma of whether an attorney who maliciously manipulates the legal system is just as guilty as the man who stabs with a knife. These shows can bring intellectual richness to viewer’s lives that procedurals, pure comedies and dramas, and even nonfictional documentaries cannot alone achieve.

And yet there is one class of television program that exceeds even conceptually complex programs in contemporary production; a higher level, as it were. These programs take the thematic conflicts at the center of such programs, the weekly mystery of the procedural, add the witty, educated dialogue of an Aaron Sorkin script, and keep the strong relationships and characters of dramas and comedies. These shows are, if not exclusively, at least often the creation of Joss Whedon.

I am no slobbering fanboy who believes the man infallible; indeed, once in the execution stage, his series can sometimes lose focus, his writing and directing of individual episodes is often too focused on relationships and not enough on theme. His series start slow, like essays going through the drafting process. But the strength of each of his three series prior to Dollhouse is in their conception and what he allows himself and the other writers and producers to create with each act, episode, and season of those creations.

Begin with his most famous creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sadly, the name alone turned off millions of prospective fans, and yet the title itself signals the genius conflict at the center of its creation: a hitherto unassuming and popularity-obsessed Valley girl discovers she is a supernaturally endowed superhero who must fight demons bent on the extermination of humankind. Like Battlestar Galactica and other such series, Buffy had both that central conflict and a weekly problem of some sort to solve. Story arcs of varying complexity crossed from episodes ranging  in the single digits to multiple seasons, and thematically, like Dexter or LOST, Buffy’s central conflict lent itself to thematic variations, like a classical symphony: Whedon conducted his writers and producers down winding roads of death, friendship, maturity, forgiveness, sexuality, and feminism, to sometimes greater and sometimes lesser effect.

So, too, did Whedon’s other two series combine thematic complexity with witty dialogue, close relationships, and weekly situations to solve. The Buffy spinoff Angel, starring David Boreanaz of the Fox hit Bones, explored a similar conflict to that of its mother series: whether a creature of darkness, granted a reprieve for his sins, could find repentance through good works: he helped the helpless using the supernatural strength and speed of a vampire. In Firefly, a comedic space western, Whedon began to explore more political themes. In every society, there is an inherent tension between the good of the many and the good of the few, or the one. How much right does the government have to interfere in the lives of individuals? How much personal freedom can individuals demand of the government when our actions have consequences for others? We clearly depend on each other, but how much can we afford to? These questions were examined in the guise of the crew of an interplanetary sometimes-smuggler/sometimes-freighter, the Serenity, led by a former freedom fighter (Nathan Fillion of the recent ABC hit Castle) who took on two refugees from the star system’s totalitarian government.

Put simply, if you want an enjoyable, cerebral serial fiction experience nonpareil, seek no further than the Joss Whedon oeuvre.

And yet even this might seem a matter of mere degree; perhaps Whedon was lucky or  was just a little bit better at hitting the central conflict and finding the corresponding episodic and season-long complementary conflicts, or might merely have found those conflicts that inspired adoration in this author.

Dollhouse is another story. Regardless of its ability to connect emotionally or aesthetically (while I disagree with reviewers who had and have problems with both criteria, such reviews are beyond the scope of this essay), it is the most intellectually engaging show on American television today, and might be the most cerebrally significant series in history.

If our consciousness and memories are indeed discrete entities separable from our substance as discussed above, the titular Dollhouse actually pulls off the separation. When young people are desperate and have no other recourse, they contract with the Dollhouse for a five-year term in exchange for an exorbitant fee. The Dollhouse gets exclusive use of their bodies, which they then fill with whatever consciousness, whether singular or composite, best suits the Dollhouse’s fabulously wealthy clients. These clients use the Dollhouse’s “actives” for a variety of tasks, from mere sexual and relationship fantasies to hostage negotiation, forensic profiling, or even professional singing.

Because the Dollhouse has removed the active’s personality and memories and imprinted a new set of biochemical imperatives, the active provides the client a real human experience: as the Dollhouse’s director explains to a prospective client in the unaired episode (on the Season One DVD), “Epitaph One,” “an active doesn’t judge, doesn’t pretend. This [engagement] will be the purest, most genuine human encounter of your life and hers.” The active’s personality can be perfectly crafted to fit the client’s exact needs, whether interpersonal, sexual, or intellectual. Over the course of the first season and the beginning of the second, the actives have been on dozens of engagements, and some of them, despite having their new personalities “wiped” after each, have begun to achieve something resembling a sustained self-awareness.

The beauty of Dollhouse, what makes it creatively consequential, perhaps unparalleled, is the variety of conflicts inherent to this premise, the questions raised not only by that premise, but by each episode of the series in succession. The introduction to this essay was merely an appetizer. While most of us believe we have a soul, is that soul inviolable; that is, do we have a right to give that soul over to a corporation to reside on a hard drive while that corporation does with our physical bodies as they see fit? But if our soul is on a hard drive and we have no say over the actions of our body from one moment to the next, then surely that is indentured servitude or even slavery, held morally reprehensible in Western societies for well over a century. Yet it looks a lot like capitalism, too; and in the spa-state of the Dollhouse’s quarters, it looks just as much like dystopian communism. Can we sell our souls into slavery?

What about our bodies? The souls are separated from the bodies when the Dollhouse uses the latter as actives. Why should we care what happens to our bodies when our souls are separated from them? Is it not our souls from which our moral reasoning, our moral choice and conscience originate? All that matters morally are the choices we make; if my leg spasms and kicks my neighbor, then I am not morally responsible for that action, but if I intentionally punch him in the face, then I am to blame for that action. Why is it of any matter what my body does when my soul is on a hard drive in a storage room? Is the body even really mine at that point?

And what of our humanity itself? Am I a human being because I am of the species homo sapiens, because of my soul/consciousness/rationality, cogito ergo sum, because someone else tells me I am, or for some other reason? If my soul is stored on a hard drive and then wiped from my body, does my body retain some part of that essence, or have we been completely separated? Am I in two places at once? More than once place if copied? None if on a hard drive and wiped from my body? If deleted?

These and other questions are at the core of Dollhouse, questions that concern the fundamentals of human existence. And the series deals not only with these questions, but more in each episode. In the episode “Man on the Street,” the active called Sierra, played by Dichen Lachman, is raped by one of the staff of the Dollhouse. The staff of the Dollhouse are trained to treat the actives as pets rather than as people; after all, they’ve lost their capacity for rational thought in their tabula rasa, or non-imprinted state. If the soul is gone, and the active is regularly hired out for sexual fantasies anyway, why is it any different when the staff does it? The body isn’t violated any differently. And in the episode “Haunted,” Echo, played by Ms. Dushku, is imprinted with the memories and personality of a woman recently deceased, a friend of the director of the Dollhouse who, upon discovering her death wishes to solve her presumed murder. If the technology is possible, why not resurrect the dead? Put the deserving in the bodies of the undeserving? Create ever more complex machines to house our souls á la Battlestar Galactica’s soon-to-be-released spinoff series Caprica?

Therefore, it is not just that Dollhouse is conceptually complex, that it uses its episodes to explore that complexity and standalone issues, but also that the issues in an episode, in a season, and across the whole series to date are fundamental questions about human existence, questions with which we all must wrestle to a greater or lesser extent. One of the things that made Battlestar Galactica one of the most important achievements in the history of entertainment was that its central question in the age of global warming and nuclear war – does our species deserve to exist – was both powerful and, in some episodes, deeply moving. Yet that question holds one still more fundamental at its core: who am I and what am I?

While still a form of popular entertainment, Dollhouse is, on a spectrum from the most mindless of pastimes on the left to the highest concept art on the right, clearly trying to take television into the right-hand side of that spectrum. It explores the existential question and a related host in every episode. It engages those questions well enough that it deserves to be seen by more people than it is, but regardless of its viewership, Dollhouse is intellectually incomparable on modern television. It raises the bar for current and future television shows as though Joss Whedon is issuing a challenge to networks and creative minds around the U.S.: there is a way to produce intellectually compelling television at an even higher level without condescending.

–Posted by Kevin S. Burke

Dollhouse will not be renewed for a third season by FOX as reported on November 11th by The Hollywood Reporter and confirmed by Joss Whedon at the fan site Whedonesque. However, the second season will be aired by FOX in its entirety according to this schedule, beginning on December 4th at 8 PM EST with a double episode extravaganza. It can also be viewed at Hulu or Netflix and Season One, including an unaired pilot episode and an unaired thirteenth episode called “Epitaph One,” is available on DVD (or Blu-Ray) through Amazon in the US and UK.

Neither this blogger nor the members of this group blog are in any way affiliated with FOX, Mutant Enemy, or any other producers of Dollhouse, nor have we been compensated in any way for this post.

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29 Responses to Is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse the Most Intellectually Engaging Series on American Television?

  1. Dr. Johannes Ruscheinski says:

    I think that the believe in a “soul” is a baseless superstition and wishful thinking. I don’t see how a soul could have arisen during our evolution and what useful purpose it would serve? Also, it is interesting that the vast majority of experts do not believe in this concept. By “experts” I mean the people that study our universe, namely physicists and people that study live i.e. biologists. My own background is in physics and I have many fiends who are in biology. People are just too hung up on how important they think they are, and they simply have a hard time imagining that they will cease to exist after their brain dies. Consciousness and thought are very likely expressions of the functioning of our brains and nothing more. Your reference to “devout atheists” seems inappropriate to me. “Devout” is usually associated with a religious belief. If atheism is a religious belief, then “not collecting stamps” is a hobby! I also find it bewildering when people assume we’re somehow fundamentally different from other higher mammals. Our biology says otherwise.

  2. Kevin says:

    But Dr. Ruscheinski, the question I ask in the introduction is not necessarily spiritual; in fact, I disavow questions of afterlife in the second sentence. In fact, what I’d like to know is whether you believe the central premise of Dollhouse is possible: can your personality and memories be digitally stored on a hard drive and then later restored? If so, is that substantively different from the idea of a soul? It need not be governed by a god, God, or gods in order to satisfy the question.

    My choice of “devout atheist” was intentional: many atheists are just as dogmatic in their beliefs as the most unquestioning of Southern Baptists, and I have met them. They refuse to accept even the possibility of a supernatural creator. “Devout” is merely a synonym for “devotion,” after all, and a person can certainly be devoted to an anti-theistic worldview.

    And yes, we are biologically similar to other higher mammals, even intellectually similar. But we are not the same, just as every 30-60-90 triangle is similar, only those that have sides measuring exactly the same length are indeed identical.

    • Phil says:

      Yes, you can be devoted to a atheist world view,but in general usage it is not synonymous with devout. ALL the atheists I know in the UK refuse to accept the existance of a creator *without evidence*. Given evidence they are willing to reconsider,but think that such evidence is highly unlikely. It’s the difference between being 100% certain if you are devoutly religious, and 99.99% certain. Which seems small,but is I feel significant. They also think that we are purely biological (unless/until Dollhouse type technology enables another form). Perhaps in a much more religious country the only ‘visible’ atheists are unrepresentative.
      I had never thought of Dollhouse as concerning the soul. The idea that conciousness could be seperated from the body doesn’t imply it at all, merely that the information and connections contained within the brain could be removed. Conciousness isn’t the physical matter of the neurons, but the emergent property of the information and interractions that the neurons contain and produce. I’m not sure why you equate conciousness with a soul? The soul is purely a religious concept that is usually considered to be able to exist independently of matter, and is something distinct from conciousness. That isn’t what is happening in the Dollhouse,the conciousness there is always contained in a Hard Drive or an Active, or transmitted through the wave/particles of EM radiation.

      Sorry if I sound too critical,I agree compledtely with the main body of the post!

  3. Benjamin Adams says:

    Kevin: That’s very engaging and thought-provoking. I just want to offer a correction: “Epitaph One” is the unaired (in the US) season finale included in the box set; the quote you attribute as being from “Epitaph One” is actually from the original, unaired pilot, which is also on the box set.

  4. Roobecca says:

    Interesting article! Funnily enough, Dollhouse has never once made me think about the “soul” concept. It seemed to me the reverse actually, the dolls exist because everyones brains work differently to some degree, exactly how, when and where your synapses fire based on biological reaction is a unique pattern in everyone. Imprints are methods of re-wiring the brain to the individuals exact requirements. Conceptually, considering no amount of fMRIs, PET scans, CAT scans, etc., can actually intrinsically explore the workings of the human brain yet, the idea that you could then manipulate these findings and thus completely change peoples personalities, is to say the least, thought-provoking! (Although the issue of the Dolls in Doll-state seems incorrect, because that wouldn’t be completely wiped so much as wiped to a base level of functioning, which in effect still has to be some kind of programming)
    I’m still not sure I’d consider it the most intellectually engaging series though, the execution of the episodes is not as strong as the theory of the premise behind it.

  5. Graham says:

    I also take issue with the phrase ‘devout atheist’ and recommend reading this article by A.C Grayling.

    It is most certainly not the case that the majority of people believe in an immaterial consciousness. Dualism hasn’t been the mainstream view for over a century in philosophy of mind, and though it is seeing a slight revival, it is far from a powerful force, due primarily to the still unanswered problem of how something immaterial can in any way affect or be affected by something material. Materialism is almost universally accepted by scientists and analytic philosophers.

  6. Roy Huggins says:

    I’m not sure the show brings up the question of whether or not we have a soul. I know the FBI guy talks about it but he sounds ridiculous to me. The unexpected behavior in the actives is way more easily attributed to bugs in the tech.

    We’ve already had much evidence that neural damage can create fundamental changes in personality, memories, etc. Examples include the guy who got stabbed in the head with a railroad spike (forgot his name) and the devastating effects of dementia. Whether or not affected people have souls doesn’t seem to change the effects of the neural damage or degradation.

  7. TheGnat says:

    A work does not need to overtly discuss a philosophical issue in order to bring it up or address it.

    Anyway, I find it kind of hilarious how people are treating Dollhouse. To me, the issues it’s approaching are somewhat old hat in a television format. Why? Because one of the most interesting and thorough studies on the soul and the mind-body interface aired as a television show in 2003: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. And that was the show, which came after a comic book (1989) and a movie (1995). In the U.S., anime media are seen as odd, out of the mainstream, but in fact they are watched as normally as live action in Japan.

    When a t.v. show starts citing philosophers and scientists at you not only in the serious conversations, but in the after episode comedy clips…you’ve got a very thorough study going!

    Anyway, Joss Whedon is cool, and I suspect he watches a lot of anime. Firefly and Dollhouse both instantly made me think of anime I had seen in the past. Actually, I didn’t even watch the original run of Firefly because I thought it was a rip-off of Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, based on the ads.

  8. Kevin says:

    Hi Graham:

    Regarding “devout atheist”: I don’t believe Professor Grayling and I disagree. As I mentioned to Dr. Ruscheinski above, “devout” and “devoted” are synonyms. “Devout” and “fundamentalist” are not, however, so I’m not sure why you linked it.

    Regarding your invocation of theory of mind and the near-death of dualism as a doctrine, I am well-aware of it. A close reading of my post will recognize that my post does not directly engage that debate. Since you seem not to have recognized this, please allow me to clarify; I will take two passes at this attempt.

    First, the simple version: if you believe there’s more to life than eating, sleeping, and breathing, and have life goals that are more complex than “survive,” you most likely agree with my version of “I have a soul.” People who believe in immortal spiritual souls agree with me, too – for the atheists in the crowd, it’s a tough pill to swallow perhaps, but I’m trying to be inclusive on this point.

    The complicated version: from a purely materialist standpoint, if our consciousness is indeed comprised solely of the electrochemical processes of our brains, there is some point, perhaps not knowable to contemporary science but most likely knowable to some science, at which the entire experience of a human being can be reduced to digital information. This is the basic conceit of Dollhouse, and the only kind of soul necessary for entrée to this post. Perhaps it’s defining “soul” down excessively, but I don’t think so: I agree that dualism is problematic epistemologically (I am an analytic philosopher in training) and think that we need to find a definition that helps us understand ourselves analytically but not merely biologically.

    I hope one of those two helped; if I haven’t succeeded one of these three times, I’m afraid I won’t. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Kevin says:

    Apologies for the second comment, all: I went long on the preceding comment.

    Benjamin: the quotation is actually from both. I re-watched “Epitaph One” today so I’m sure it’s in that one; it’s the first memory when Mag and the others imprint “Mr. Miller.” I think they just straight lifted it from “Echo.” Thanks for pointing that out, though; I had forgotten that scene was in both episodes.

    Roobecca: Your post reminded me that I know very little about the technological plausibility of Dollhouse, but unlike most space-based sci-fi, like Star Wars or Star Trek, where rules of physics are regularly broken, Dollhouse doesn’t seem to be all that far afield – perhaps the wiping is implausible, but the modeling and recording of a consciousness doesn’t seem far off at all. Perhaps someone (you?) could write a post exploring the neuroscience of Dollhouse? I’d love to read it.

    Gnat: My biggest problem with anime/manga is that I walk into the library or Barnes and Noble and see this massive section of Eastern graphic novels and don’t have the slightest idea how to navigate or even how to get information on what among all those hundreds of books would be interesting to me. Can you suggest resources that would help me get started finding things that I might like? I had an easier time with Western comics since those are being made into blockbuster films that are easy to track back from and find out about authors, artists, and et cetera (I’m thinking specifically of the Alan Moore/Frank Miller graphic novels that have been adapted – they were my entrée to modern comics).

  10. Dan says:

    The name of the ship on Firefly is just “Serenity” (not “the Serenity”).

    In fact, in the episode “Bushwhacked”, Inara corrects Officer Harken when he makes the same error.

  11. Yes, I agree absolutely with your arguments. Way to go,Kevin.

    This isn’t just the most “cerebrally” important television show yet, either.

    Though, when it comes to the philosophical side of things, Joss is exploring the issue of the soul in a manner precisely like Heidegger’s account of Dasein — I describe this in a review at thelandofunlikeness. Doillhouse in its central conceits captures a rather non-analytic, more Continental angle on idenity-formation, that the soul you are talking about is something that involves a unique history of moments lived bodily and in time. This temporal history adds up to a “who,” not a “what.” (Heidegger.) And these “daseins” are being deposited into bodies that are deprived of their own daseins. The is how the show manages to raise the body and soul question in a highly exact and technical manner through its device of “The Chair.” (Weaponize the Chair with the remote wipe and what is left of humanity?)

    No, it’s not just cerebrally the show is important, but artistically too. (As Iyou know.) It’s that this show is so edgy that, when it comes to our complicity in sexual exploitation and human trafficking, in and through our own highly programmed roles and attitudes, it DOES NOT exclude itself from that complicity. It takes the risk that all high-level art has to take: knowing that by portraying what’s going on, we may very well be pimping what is going on — unless our readers/viewers recognize the commentary contained in how the material is being framed. Lots of them never do, in which case they are being seduced rather than educated. There’s lots of this sense of moral culpability in Dante or in Western lyric love poetry, or in George Herbert, you name it. Artists know they are taking these risks; they know they are culpable/responsible for those who are taken in (or repulsed) as well as for those who are liberated.

    I wish we could regain a high regard for art that works without a safety net and refuses to be entertainment when it can disrupt the entertainment to shock us awake. I wish we were more willing to linger with the disturbing angles in an episode and exercise some of Keats’ “negative capability” — not reaching irritably after certainties or easy dismissals.

    Whedon is deliberately going and taking us — if we will go there — somewhere darker. This means not letting us have the security of the warm engaging characters and “family” that his shows have always promoted. Now he’s asking us to see if we can find our way to those incredibly precious things, starting in a wasteland of personal fragmentation and great distances between persons, persons living in various kinds of bad faith.

    It’s good to see you asking fresh questions about the human soul that take us outside of the knee-jerk atheist or knee-jerk theist patterns and responses. Joss Whedon is a committed humanist. Humanists have not always been secular by definition, after all; Christian humanists have had a long tradition that has thought through the same territory. How does a co-opted, fragmented, isolated, even betrayed human being ever struggle toward wholeness and the capacity for genuine friendship or love or joint venture in the common good?

  12. Doubting Thomas says:

    A show that doesn’t even bother with ‘suspension of disbelief’ (ie. Actives are supposed to be seven figure expensive, yet suddenly a professor can afford the LA Dollhouse’s prize exhibt), can’t be considered intellectual, much less the most intellectual.

    Come back when you’ve watched Dexter and Mad Men for two.

  13. rehabber says:

    Well you have just given Dollhouse the Kiss of Death, by saying Dollhouse is intellectually incomparable on modern television. Networks can not let this

  14. akdmyers says:

    Interesting post, Kevin. I do take issue with one of the central tenets of your argument though, that the souls of the actives are stored on a hard drive. My sense of the show has always been that while the administrators of the Dollhouse believe that that is what is happening (though they wouldn’t, I don’t think, use the word “soul” for what they are storing) the whole point of the show is that in fact, this kind of complete separation of personality from biology and physical form is impossible – something of the self yet remains. That is how I at least interpret Echo’s retention of memory from one engagement to the next. While she may not actually remember anything of her life as Caroline, some core of her essential self has survived all the brain wipes and imprints and is fighting to be heard.

  15. Benny-bebop says:

    When you stand in a hornets nest either stand very still and hope they didn’t notice or shake it. You, my good Kevin are a shaker. I applaud you. Dollhouse is without doubt the most intellectually rich and wonderful show that hardly anyone is watching. (I’m wagging my finger and tutting vehemently right now).
    The Whisky/Topher interaction (S02E01) was a perfect illustration of the one of the key points in your argument. Our memories and experiences (programmed or experienced) make up a huge part of who we are and Whisky decided to change after recent interactions with Echo and Boyd. I don’t believe in souls. Life and the human brain are complex and yet fragile. Altering the chemical makeup in the brain can change a person completely or brain injuries, etc. However, we are not the same person throughout our lives anyway, we change, we grow, we recede. Nothing as dramatic as a “wipe” is necessary. It acts as a metaphor on some level I think. The interchangeable human condition, being reborn again and again. The parts of our mind we didn’t know were there and the parts we are still to find.

  16. janeaire says:

    I’m not sure the show is arguing that “soul” or “consciousness” can be reduced to bits of data on a hard-drive wedge. On the contrary. Despite the fact that the Dolls are wiped, they continue to retain some vestige of animating force, of “spirit”, a lingering sense of self beyond that of memories, relationships, social roles, achievements or learning. It might be closer to a Buddhist notion of Emptiness, which is not Nothingness but rather a unique causal force unto itself, the Void which yield Chaos and Creativity.

    The Dolls are not dualistic, though. This deeper self is inherent or immanent in the bodies of the Dolls. It is inseparable – in atheistic terms, the parts of the brain that cannot be wiped or rearranged “from the outside.” One could put “Caroline”, the ego/personality of Echo, into the body of a little girl, but Echo herself is singular. Echo can’t be lifted from Echo, and once her body dies so too does Echo pass away. Nor is Echo immutable – on the contrary, she is evolving, and this is due not to memories but to embodied experiences – what is *done* with those memories.

    So “consciousness” is immanent and inherent in embodied experience. What is *fictional* is the autobiography, the memories, the achievements, the rights and roles we imagine we inhabit. What is left is myth – the stories that never happened, but are always happening, the recurring *patterns* of life, the Heroic Journey writ large.

    ~ jane ~

  17. […] Is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse the Most Intellectually Engaging Series on American Television? Do you believe you have a soul? Forget for a moment whether that soul continues to exist after you die; I’m not […] […]

  18. Kevin says:

    Dan: Ouch. Out-geek’d. Duly noted and corrected.

    Professor Blumberg: While I wasn’t thinking specifically of Hegel’s concept of Dasein while composing the post, your comment makes it obvious to me that that’s both exactly what Whedon is trying to get across and was the most influential concept for my post as well. I’ll be in touch through e-mail; I deeply appreciated your comment.

    rehabber: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooOOOOOOooooO!!!!!!!

    akdmyers: I’m not sure that’s one of the central tenets of my argument so much as it’s one of the central questions of the show. Is that what’s happening? POTENTIAL SEASON ONE SPOILER HERE: In “Omega,” when Echo/Caroline is talking to Caroline/Wendy, Echo/Caroline says that she’s the “porchlight waiting for [Caroline/Wendy].” But the question is, while that’s what Echo/Caroline thinks, is that really true? At this point, because of the limits of Topher’s technology, the brain damage that’s come at various points throughout the show, and Alpha’s induced composite event, can Echo really be called Caroline anymore? That Paul Ballard and Adelle DeWitt call her that does not make it so. I hold that they are two different people, each equally deserving of the designation of “soul,” consciousness or, as Professor Blumberg more appropriately pointed out above, “Dasein.” Perhaps they can share space in the composite Echo/Caroline body because bodies are apparently limited resources in the Dollhouse world, but they are not the same person. Now, the fact that there is something of Caroline in Echo, just as there was something of Carl William Craft in Alpha, is notable in the formation of the Alpha and Echo personalities, but it doesn’t prevent the consciousness in the physical body being separate from the one that has been removed. But I look forward to your disagreement. [END SPOILER ALERT]

    Benny-bebop: Thanks for the kudos. You said a lot in a short space, but I think the most important bit is about the fluidity of the consciousness/personality/soul/dasein/whatever, and that strikes hard at my whole post and the Dollhouse conceit itself. Because what Topher is wiping when an active is created, or at the end of an engagement, is just one static moment of consciousness; when Victor is sedated in “Belle Chose”, Topher says that he can’t be wiped; and yet that is the only time when our consciousness might be at rest enough to be static. Thought-provoking comment indeed.

    Jane: Well said. I have no substantive reply except perhaps to refer you to my comment to akdmyers above, but your commentary on the Heroic Journey is particularly on point. I’d love to see an essay comparing Echo to heroic archetypes in literature – if anyone writes one, be sure to pingback to here. Thank you very much for the comment.

  19. Jonny says:

    Fantastic essay, it must be said. But while I respect your observations, I don’t really agree with some of them.

    For one, saying that Dollhouse “may be the most intellectually engaging television series in the history of American television” is, in my opinion, a little extravagant. It’s a fantastic show, as all Joss Whedon shows seem to be; but there have been many, many gems over the years. From recent memory, one network show that I found both entertaining and intellectually stimulating was “Boston Legal.” David E. Kelley is, alongide Joss Whedon, my favorite producer. The reason for that is that he took a truly excellent and intellectually stimulating show in “The Practice” and made it even better with “Boston Legal,” its spinoff. For all the goofiness of Boston Legal, the cultural, political and ethical conundrums of American society were tackled head-on, and sometimes with no answer for the viewer. It may not sound like much, but television these days seems like it’s all about creating a nice little story with a packaged conclusion to keep the viewer from having to form his or her own thought on the subject matter. Hell, a skeptic (me!) might even argue that it’s a form of propaganda.

    Sticking to the Sci-Fi realm, and even looking at the show that was put alongside Dollhouse last season, I thought that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was fantastic in its own right. It had almost everything going for it: talented and well-cast actors; engaging storylines, creative episodes (I remember more than one episode that had a different storytelling format than the preceding one) and a way to relate to pretty much every character on the show – with the notable exception of Cameron, played brilliantly by Summer Glau. Sadly, the one thing it didn’t have going for it was ratings. It’s sort of like finding a dream job where you get paid well, enjoy your work, get along with your co-workers; but your boss hates you and ends up firing you. It’s a sobering reality; it all comes down to ratings in the end.

    I also wanted to touch on the subject of Dexter, The Sopranos, etc. because I think that premium channels are entirely different than cable or public television. One could even argue that the gap between cable and public is more than marginal, but I won’t discuss this because I think that premium channels are a much better example for supporting the argument I’m about to make. HBO’s slogan of “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” is more than just marketing, they are completely sincere about what product they’re offering. If you look at what HBO has had to offer, you’ll see that the majority of their shows have been huge hits with their audiences. More importantly, a lot of these shows are incredibly well made: the actors are excellent, the writing is second-to-none, the storylines keep you on the edge of your seat. How many television channels can convince you to watch a show about a Mormon family and deliver? “Big Love” is a fantastic show on so many levels, and it’s not the only one. The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz, Deadwood… The list goes on. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm fits in that category. HBO does have a few “brain slurpee” shows of their own; as much as I enjoy watching Entourage, there’s really nothing intellectually stimulating about it at all. True Blood I’m a bit on the fence about, it’s a good show but I’m not sure that it’s much more than action, sex, adventure and a hint of horror. But on the other hand, Eastbound and Down is deceivingly brilliant. I’ve mostly ignored Showtime because I do think that their shows are a noticeable level below HBO’s (the one exception is Weeds, which could easily fit in on HBO), but Dexter is a good show – it has a fantastic actor in Michael C. Hall (a 6 Feet Under / HBO alum, by the way) and a terrific premise. However I think that most of the supporting cast is having trouble keeping up with Michael C. Hall’s talent, and more importantly, the writing is average at best. It could be such a fantastic show, but really, there’s little intellectual stimulation in there for me.

    Well! This turned out to be quite a bit longer than I expected it to. I’ll just end it by saying that I do hope Joss Whedon gets to keep making this show for a few more seasons, it would feel like an injustice if he didn’t get to tell the story over four or five seasons. The show is starting to hit its stride, the fanbase is growing (slowly yes, but surely), and the characters are taking shape. Who doesn’t want to know more about Sierra, Whiskey or even Boyd’s past? And Tahmoh Penikett’s acting alone makes it worth watching; I had never heard of him but he is immensely talented. Enver Gjokaj as Victor has also impressed me quite a bit.

    Perhaps, if Dollhouse doesn’t work out after all, Joss Whedon’s next project should be on HBO.

  20. Ron says:

    How does someone put a soul on a hard disk? And still use the body? Can’t be done…even in science fiction and be somewhat believeable. The soul is not tangible, without the soul the body does not exist as we know it. The body loses it’s usefulness, it becomes stiff, rigor mortis sets in.

    It may be more believable to say that the consciousness is put on a hard disk and the body used for whatever purpose. But the soul is at the very core of the body, without the soul the body is no more, that is to say, we become an animal. Unable to do more than search for our next meal, avoid predators and live from day to day by instinct. Higher thought is not an option without the soul.

    So the answer to the question that started all this, “Do you believe you have a soul?”, has to be an unequivocal yes. Yes, even if you are an atheist. Why? you say. Well, do you believe in cannibalism? Without a soul we are no more than animals. Animals to be slaughtered and devoured. How about slaves? Should we force one another to be beasts of burdens due to one of us being stronger than another? What about murder, rape, etc.? Without higher thought processes we are no better than animals and therefore these aspects do not exist.

    Can the soul be seen? Not in a live body. As I stated above, it is the very core of the body. It won’t show up on an X-ray, it is not tangible.

    To Dr. Ruscheinshi (from the first post) I say this:
    Whether or not you believe in a supreme being, you have a soul. The soul is not a product of the human ego; the soul is not a religious thing, it is real. Religions vary from continent to continent, person to person: the only definition I infer from the first comment is Western Christianity, the only religion atheists ever seem willing to criticize. Religions are the result of the higher thought processes. They are a product of our beliefs and customs, some of which have been handed down since the beginning of civilization. Our “higher thought processes” prove we have a soul, as without the soul there are no religions. Our belief /non-belief in a supreme being determines what happens to our soul upon our bodies’ deaths, or at least whether we are comfortable with that transition into nothingness, bliss, or torment. To you I say; don’t let your education be the demise of your soul.

  21. That fluidity of consciousness though is a composite itself. Not simply the instantaneous moment but all of the formal structure that supports that consciousness, that has come to reside there through the persons embodied past.

    I figure whenever any consciousness is in a body, that consciousness/body combination is acquiring its own history, the temporal succession of unique “nows” that are the “I” are embedded within it.

  22. […] memory and implanting new ones – where does the body end and soul begin, basically. (link)  The second comes from Soul Pancake, delving into the question of “Should the Godless be […]

  23. Robert Fearon says:

    Excellent article. I have never considered Dollhouse in this way before. Can you recommend any other works (books, shows, films etc.) that wrestle with the topic of the soul?

    • Kevin says:

      Hi Robert,

      A few ideas, though I have no idea what your tastes are like, so I hope these are helpful.

      In general, most fiction should be about the human “soul” to some extent: its improvement, its rending, its laughter, its weeping. My friends and I (those who share in the production of this blog) tend to find that science fiction is pretty good at asking these kinds of questions or wondering what causes those kinds of situations. Lots of people are turned off by sci-fi by the weird makeup or the tendency toward complex plots or action set-pieces; I hope you’re not one of those people. Here’s some suggestions we have that tend in that direction. Specifically


      Not fiction, but Dana reviewed Soul Made Flesh for Geek Buffet a while back
      Use of Weapons by Iain Banks (and other works by Iain Banks
      Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
      the I, Robot series by Isaac Asimov
      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick and, generally, anything by Philip K. Dick is a good start
      We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
      Various things by Stanislaw Lem – probably Futaralogical Congress
      The His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
      The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
      Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
      The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown deals with this tangentially

      I’d also recommend Plato’s Phaedo or anything by Plato, really, and I think Plato’s style of putting Socrates into dialogue with his students tends to be readable and accessible if you give him a chance. Just sayin’.


      Star Trek: The Next Generation, especially those episodes focused on the character Data or the race called “the Borg”; the other Star Trek series as well
      Angel by Joss Whedon (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well, though I think Angel hits the soul issue a lot harder than Buffy does)
      LOST is covering a lot of this ground really well, too, though it’s one of the many themes they cover; part of why I can’t call it “most engaging” is that it hits so many themes that it’s only hitting them at a surface level
      Battlestar Galactica featured a series-long discussion of religion, polytheism-versus-monotheism, the soul, and our place in the universe. I highly recommend it. It is the only series I think of as a serious contender to Dollhouse for most intellectually engaging series. As I understand it, the new series Caprica will be dealing with these issues even more closely.
      Dead Like Me was a dark comedy series involving grim reapers who live among us and take the souls of those who die to their final destinations


      Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott
      The Matrix, directed by the Wachowski brothers and filmed mostly in Australia, covered a lot of ground on this subject and wasn’t merely an action movie, unlike its sequels
      AI: Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss
      Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan
      The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky
      The Island, directed by Michael Bay (though we note that it was panned by critics for some good reasons)

      And finally: this is not an exhaustive list. Take these as a starting point, or go off on your own and try something new. We at the Geek Buffet are big fans of sci-fi, but we don’t think that’s the only way to get engaged in these kinds of things. You’ll probably get lots of suggestions from lots of other places; your local library should be a fantastic resource. Good luck!

      • Robert Fearon says:

        Thanks so much, Kevin!

        Don’t worry – I’m a director in Australia and absolutely love sci-fi. And we have very similar tastes it seems!

        I haven’t read any of the books you listed (I have read a bit of Philip K. Dick, though), so I’ll check those out.

        I’ve seen every ep of Buffy, Angel, BSG, and Dead Like Me (I even bumped into Ellen Muth on the street a few years ago!). All awesome shows. Never got into Lost, though. My bother loves it and has all the DVDs… maybe I’ll give it a go.

        Blade Runner = classic. Saw The Matrix when it came out, but I can’t really remember it… I’ll have to rewatch. And I’ve been meaning to watch The Fountain for ages, so I’ll go out and rent that soon.

        Thanks again for taking the time to respond in such detail! I really appreciate it.


        PS. I just watched the latest Dollhouse ep. Good one, wasn’t it?

  24. Natalie says:

    I love your analysis. I’ve thought about Dollhouse’s themes and your “soul” reading is intriguing. I was focused on the body and what the “body” means. I guess I saw it from the flip side of the coin.

  25. guyintheblackhat says:

    Kevin, you have made GeekBuffet into a hot spot on the Web beyond hypochondriac’s searching for Dana’s admittedly well-researched “Green Tea Allergy” post, for which you deserve a round of…


  26. […] tough for me because, on the one hand, I did enjoy it (largely thanks to the complexity of its central premise – which I am not even going to begin to explain here) but on the other, it frustrated the […]

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