Do you believe you have a soul?
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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