Super soldiers, neural radios, bio-monitored self-imprisonment and sleeper assassins. Sounds like a pretty good show, right? It was! I would love to tell you all about it’s freaky futuristic science and how closely it linked to actual technology that exists right now in real life. Many spoilers follow.
Dollhouse was a short-lived science fiction action drama, which aired on Fox a couple years ago. Its premise was soaked in the ethics of progress but executed through explosions, sexual hijinks and intrigue. It generated more willies than ratings.
It takes place in a present-day analogue where “Dollhouses” exist underground, literally and figuratively, all over the world. Within them are contained hundreds of Dolls/actives, people who have voluntarily submitted themselves to memory and personality erasure for a set period of time. In exchange for allowing their physical bodies to be “imprinted” with other memories and personalities, they are rewarded with large sums of money.
The Dollhouses are a division of giant pharmaceutical conglomerate the Rossum Corporation. The huge profits generated from renting imprinted perfect dates or perfect operatives to the rich and powerful fund Rossum’s research and the Dolls contribute to it as docile test subjects or as highly skilled workers who conveniently forget what they were working on after completing it.
The science behind the writing in the series is fantastic at best but is also based on technological advances currently being made.
“I call it a disruptor.
That’s not too Star Trek, is it?”
— Topher Brink, Dollhouse programmer, explaining one of his inventions
The imprinting technology used in Dollhouse required a specialized chair, lots of creepy forehead needles and some murkily defined psycho-pharmaceuticals. It’s explained as having sprung from the discovery of ECC, encephalic communication and coding. Encephalic is a fancy word for something having to do with the brain. Think of the communication part as being less like conversation and more like what happens when you transfer files between your computer and your iPod. The key word is coding, which refers to how Dolls are “programmed.”
What the ECC of Dollhouse meant was that the most powerful computer in existence, the brain, had been effectively hacked into. To accomplish this, special architecture needed to be installed to allow the brain to sync with the outside technology. The mechanics were never specifically defined but would likely be similar to existing electrodes, which can allow a paralyzed person to move a computer’s cursor to communicate.
The scanning technology, which provides the new personalities the actives are imprinted with, is considerably advanced for the narrative purpose of the show. Advanced scanning technology does exist, which can detect dishonest intentions and damaged tissue. A device that can reveal a subject’s preference between two simple items does, too. It works through the detection of differing levels of oxygen in the blood.
“We’re pimps and killers,
but in a philanthropic way.”
— Boyd Langton explaining the Dollhouse MO
Memory and mood manipulation are currently possible with varying degrees of success. Through the inhibition of enzyme CaMKII, specific and rapid erasures can be performed on mice. Less possible is the instant memory insertion aspect so integral to the Dollhouse universe. If you want the ninja skills, you need to learn them the old fashioned way — from an old guy with a long beard up some mountain.
Mood regulation might not sound very ominous, but some tests involving “neurological pacemakers” have shown it is possible to regulate depression and even cause orgasm through manipulation of micro implants. As we gain more control over the biological state of “happiness,” important ethical concepts will need to be reevaluated. If a person’s head chip makes them like what someone is doing to them, would that make that action okay, for example. Which is oogy. Morally speaking.
“You have always thought of people as playthings. This is not a judgment. You always take very good care of your toys.”
— Adelle DeWitt, head of LA Dollhouse
We’d like to think of researchers as paragons of ethics and unbiased conclusions, but we know from scandals as recent as the arsenic bacteria and measles vaccine drama that they often don’t live up to this ideal. The Rossum Corporation of Dollhouse caricatures the collective social distrust of such organizations.
The majority of the scientists and researchers employed by the corporation have bought into that classically seductive ethical solution where ends justify means. Rossum piggybacks their profits from the coercive Dollhouses with breakthrough advances in debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease in order to retain some semblance of ethical normalcy.
“Can’t. Shouldn’t. Did.”
— Topher on how a dangerous situation could have occurred, given his previous conclusions
Eventually, the science takes on a life of its own. It falls out of Rossum’s control into the hands of anti-social elements and governments who realize entire and perfect armies can be created as easily as broadcasting a signal. The world descends into chaos reasonably quickly once actives begin being sold as anatomy upgrades and the imprinting technology goes wireless.
The examination of technological ethics is what made Dollhouse a really interesting example of unconventional television. It celebrates scientific advance while asking itself where that mythical uncrossable line should lie. It remains just close enough to the realm of possibility to appeal to the conspiracy theorist in us and leave its viewers somewhat unsettled.