May 11 2009

The deeper issues of Dollhouse

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SPOILERS WILL BE FOUND HERE If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read this. You've been warned.

Up front, I like Dollhouse and I want to see it renewed, because I think it has a lot of potential for telling thought-provoking stories. But, at it heart I think it has some things missing, that while Joss may have plans to address, make it seem after this shortened series of twelve episodes to be huge plot holes.

The "impenetrable" Dollhouse
Two grills needed to be kicked out and Ta-Da! into the Dollhouse we go. Paul Ballard and Alpha stood in a hallway that was invisible to surveillance and once Alpha decided to leave (and even in the episode where they turned the Actives into amnesiac versions of themselves) the exit was just an elevator ride away. It strains credulity to call it "impenetrable". This sort of Swiss-cheese security is only possible if someone has allowed these weaknesses to exist. Perhaps someone with a hidden agenda who is working against the Dollhouse from the inside (and who can send messages out).

Dr. Saunders
Okay, she got slashed by Alpha. But why have these people with technology that does not exist in today's world been unable to repair her cosmetic scars? A reasonably competent plastic surgeon could make those scars disappear since they were the result of a clean slash with a surgical instrument. I realize that for TV they have to be more prominent than they really are in order to register for the camera, but even taking that into consideration why are they sometimes red and angry looking? Is she picking at them?

Also in the last episode it is revealed that she was one of the most popular Actives. I imagine that for return on investment that the programming was cheaper than surgery, but what happens in 5 years when her contract is up? Are they going to return her to the world with those marks on her? I think not. She's in for life now it seems. Could she have been a "prison test subject."?

Special Agent Paul Ballard
Paul Ballard is driven to do things because he believes in Justice. He is a zealot that pursues the Dollhouse to the point where he destroys his relationships, career, and obsesses to the point where if he had a choice between his life and taking down the Dollhouse we are very clear which he'd choose. But when offered just that choice he makes the opposite choice. Bwa? Either a) Paul Ballard is an Active programmed by the Government (otherwise how else would he keep getting cooperation from Government agents after he was suspended...and there is that conversation with the client he tried to arrest) and so he has a pre-programmed response to getting inside the Dollhouse or b) His obsession is a compensation for something else to which we have not been made privy.

Alpha Coyote "Super Genius"
Forty-plus brains and he can't pick a different hideout than one he used in his old life? He dumped the body of the engineer in a dumpster after driving through hundreds of miles of deserted landscape to get there? He restores Caroline's personality to a body so he can kill her in front of Echo and he doesn't expect her to offer more resistance than a little argument? If he put the thirty-plus personalities that Echo had into her he should have had some idea of who they were and would have found strong senses of nurturing, justice and honor in them - and he didn't expect that those personalities would rebel at what he was doing? Alpha is clearly intelligent but his psychosis is evidently clouding his reason. They should have caught this guy a lot sooner. Somebody must have been hiding him all this time. He clearly has impulse control issues and would have attacked the Dollhouse before now - and certainly with more effective methods than has been shown, if Echo was always his primary objective.

Boyd Langton
Mysterious past, meteoric rise within the Dollhouse, and he has the manner of someone who has things going on underneath. Not to mention the fact that just after he was made the head of security, Paul Ballard starts getting Doll-grams from an insider. I find it hard to believe that Olivia Williams would have promoted him to such a position of power after so short a time on the job.

Olivia Williams
Playing with company toys, personal favors for friends, and her suspect hiring and management practices; Ms. Williams is a nightmare of an executive. She often refers to some sort of over-manager who must be aware of what she is doing unless these Dollhouse operations are all over the place (NY, Tokyo, Moscow, London, Dubai). She would have to be a middle-manager by the way she handles things. No manager with a stake in the company would be so cavalier with her company (or operation). She also handles all the indoctrination personally so every Doll that gets released from their contract would remember and be able to identify her. Yep, she's not as in-charge as it may seem.

The Science
We've been told that the neuro-mapping process is uncomfortable. And we've seen that every employee gets mapped on a regular basis. We've been shown that at some level there is a core set of values that cannot be suppressed. (cf. Alpha, Echo, Victor). Why not, as a test of employment, wipe everyone and make them a doll for a few weeks to see their behavior "sans personality" to find out if they have any aberrations that make them unsuitable?

The events in the episodes "Needs" and "Omega" seem to indicate that The Dollhouse has no idea that there is a level of "core values" below the personality and that must be satisfied. This, despite having a practical, usable technology that must have taken years to develop. I'm surprised they didn't do more testing. I've seen Topher pouring over PET-scans and reading personality traits from it, don't these things show up on the scans of Actives?

While you are at it, why not program your employees from scratch? Seems the best way to get the skills you want with a personality that you can control. For some people, Topher, Ms. Williams, Langdon, this might not be practical, after all, Brilliance (Topher) can't be totally programmed since creativity is a factor. In practicality, you probably can't program an intelligence higher than your own (although knowledge is a different story). Vigilance is another trait (Langdon) and leadership (Williams) that are based more on unquantifiable factors. You can simulate these traits, but natural talents are hard to find. Once you fond those talents you can read and copy them. The natural talent will still be superior, but the copy will still be very convincing.

Same thing goes for bringing back the dead. You are only as resurrected as your last copy. How often do they get scanned? can they get personality and skill touch-ups at that time? Also, has no narcissistic client made a carbon-copy of his (or her) self as a way of experiencing something unique or forging a perfect alibi? How many concurrent copies can you have at a given time?

The Attic
They all talk about it, but what is it? The Dollhouse is a sub-building. What is in the above-building? Is it populated with boring vanilla personalities of people that are inconvenient? Do they do mindless tasks like double-check accounting sheets and fill out TPS reports? At 5:00 do they punch out a time-clock and go back to an apartment in the same building where they eat a microwave meal and watch re-runs on TV before going to bed? Is the building above an arcology for "blanks"? It makes sense that if the dollhouse is a space devoted to peace, tranquility and soothing but stimulating environments for physical and mental well-being; that the "attic" or anti-dollhouse" is a mind-numbingly gray place of no mental stimulation and no challenges. Where choices are removed and replaced with a conveyor-belt of tasks that are just challenging enough to fill your existence and no more. The attic is an office building full of executive zombies. Mindless Morlocks living above the subterranean childlike Eloi.

Stories I wanted to see, but didn't

If this technology exists, it isn't a stretch to guess that someone else has it. Who? I want to see that this isn't an isolated instance of a device. I say this because IF they had prisoners to experiment on then it stands to reason that some government agency has it too. Show me.

How much can be programmed? Seriously, can you make someone an Olympic-level athlete just by altering their brain? Can you make someone a world-class chess-player? Can you give someone an addiction? It has been suggested that you can make someone identify themselves as having an ailment (Asthma); so, psychosomatic symptoms are possible. How far have they pushed this? Could you, for instance, add just a single trait to someone - say compulsive truth-telling - to get them to tell you their secrets? Could you make someone's perceptions of allies and enemies so reversed that they thought that they were a double-agent on your side? Could you cause someone to believe that they were on an alien world? Or an alien themselves? Interesting things to explore.

Who are the over-bosses? It has been implied that Ms. Williams has a supervisor. Who are they? The Dollhouse also seems to have resources for cleaning up incidents that extends well beyond a single deep is the management structure above the Dollhouse? While the Dollhouse is undoubtedly expensive to operate and maintain, it is also bringing in what would have to be enormous sums of money. It is the kind of money that is so incomprehensible that they avoid mentioning it on the show. They speak in terms of multipliers for risk ("double the usual fee"). Only occasionally do the clients even blink. Remembering, of course, that the clients are in the "$100 million isn't a lot of money" category. So where does the money go? The Dollhouse is a very expensive drain to raise cash for something even bigger. What is it?

Your ideas
Anything I missed? Share.