Tag Archives: dollhouse

Fractured subjectivities in contemporary telefantasy

Science fiction and fantasy share a history of being able to probe existential questions because of the distance afforded by their displaced representations of reality. Their worlds are slightly skewed from our own, allowing for greater allegorical play and deeper investigation into the assumptions of our society.  From Star Trek‘s notoriously unsubtle metaphors for racism and geopolitics to Buffy‘s high school is hell framing, telefantasy (a broad term for the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres) provides room for questioning what the world means and –occasionally–what it means to be human. [Note: from here on there will be spoilers (Fringe and  Supernatural season 6 especially) as I trying to analyze what I see as a recent trend.] Recently, it’s been the last issue that has captured the cultural imaginary in telefantasy: Fringe is using alternate universes to delve into what makes a person unique (or not), Supernatural has spent the first half of its sixth season interrogating the assumed necessity of a soul, and a few years ago, Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles both blurred the lines between programable machines and humans. This trend is perhaps part of a larger cultural shift as we spend more and more of our time interfacing with and expressing ourselves through technology and is certainly worthy of a larger and deeper investigation.  Though I can’t discuss fractured or multiple subjectivities without invoking postmodernism, for now, I want to lay the groundwork for future attention by examining one element  of the inquiry into what it means to be human: characters who articulate their sense of human self through fractured subjectivities, including Fringe‘s Walter Bishop, Supernatural‘s Sam Winchester, Dollhouse‘s Echo, and T:SCC‘s Cameron.  In this, I am relying on the characters and the various ways they say “I’m me” as the basis for their human self.  I’m not launching my own existential investigation into what it means to be human (yet).

Walter’s Humanity vs. His Mind

Fringe’s season 2 episode, “Grey Matters,” reveals that part of what drove Walter Bishop mad enough to be committed for 12 years was a three-pronged lobotomy to remove the memories of how he crossed universes. Throughout the series, Walter has been a fan favorite, a character formed from the mercurial mix of childlike glee and wonder, astounding genius, and tragic melancholy.  He is a man who struggles to locate himself after losing his mind, but it is in “Grey Matters” that we find that metaphor to be literal.

However sympathetic Walter’s character is, the narrative includes the understanding that he was once the kind of man willing to dangerously experiment on children.  Until “Grey Matters” and later episodes that included Walter’s alternate universe self, we don’t see that man, only know of him.  Then Walter is reunited with the three tissue samples taken from his brain, and the arrogance and antipathy toward other humans are suddenly undeniably present.  For a moment, he could be a villainous mad scientist instead of a doddering one. After the parts of his brain die and lose their connection, Walter is our Walter again–a point buttressed when the alternate-reality Walter enters the narrative, characterized so closely to that glimpse of the villain–and somehow more human for the absence of certain parts of his mind.  As if their absence provides room for his soul.

Sam Winchester: Body or Soul

In contrast to Walter Bishop gaining a sense of humanity through the absence of parts of his mind–both physical and metaphorical–Sam Winchester in Supernatural‘s sixth season tries to articulate how he is himself even without his soul.  Soulless Sam undermines the Aristotelian conception of the soul as an essence inseparable from  both the body and the self, but he also seems simultaneously more alive than Sam-with-a-soul.  Part of this is the early characterizing of Sam as primarily empathetic, a trait that (d)evolved into near-constant angst as the circumstances surrounding his life got more dire and tragic.  But there also seems to be something liberating about the lack of soul.  (One could read Sam’s increased sexual drive in psychoanalytic terms, linking his lust to his libinal drive as a conception of the self.)  Moreover, other characters repeatedly discuss the possibility of Sam’s self being hampered or even destroyed by the joining of his soul to his body.  Below is the clearest example of the warnings weighing Sam’s soul against his human existence:

Soulless Sam forces the question of which self is more legitimate: a soul, no matter how warped or broken, or the body, memories, and activities that encompass the practicalities of living.

Of course, the key element in this debate on the show is those few personal relationships Sam has forged and kept in his lifetime, relationships which I have previously argued for their centrality to Supernatural. By the mid-season cliffhanger, “Appointment in Samarra,” it has become clear that the soul is necessary for meaningful human connection, for it is Sam’s decision to kill his surrogate father Bobby that makes Soulless Sam no longer acceptable–both within the narrative and for the viewers.  Despite this ultimate decision in the debate, it’s important to note that Soulless Sam was a viable character for almost half the season and one that garnered both fan and critical approval.  The fractured subjectivity of Soulless Sam–material Sam topside and Sam’s soul still stuck in Hell–was compelling and challenging, and has found some duration in the implementation of a psychic “wall” created by Death between Sam’s self and his memories of his soul’s time in Hell.

Technological Imprinting and Humanity on Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Though few people watched Dollhouse–or perhaps because of the reckless capacity gained from imminent cancellation–it became one of the strongest investigations into what it means to be human on recent television. In the show, Caroline agrees to give over five years of her life to the Dollhouse, a high-end corporate entity that creates temporary identities that are imprinted on “actives” to fulfill the wish-scenarios of their wealthy clients. It’s indentured servitude, human trafficking, prostitution, and identity theft all rolled into one, but by the second season, one active has become self-aware, maintaining all the memories of her imprints and a gestalt self with and beyond them: Echo. To create actives, the brain becomes analogous to a computer system; thus, Echo becomes a metaphor for the singularity, a self-aware computer program. By the series finale, Echo fully occupies the body that once belonged to Caroline and Caroline is an imprint in the body of a little girl. What was once–or could have been again–a united subject, Caroline and Echo in one, becomes a point of existential crisis. Echo must decide if she is strong enough to not be lost should her original self become incorporated. In the end, she chooses her composite self, Echo, over Caroline, refusing what would traditionally thought of as her true self in favor of her fractured and experiential self.

The pairing of Dollhouse with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles invites us to compare Echo and Cameron, a terminator who over the course of two seasons seems to learn toward humanity. For both Echo and Cameron, their “programming” is overcome by their articulated sense of human self, though this sense of self is interestingly in contention with what would traditionally be thought of as their true selves and is for each character is applicable to different degrees. Cameron’s relationship with John Connor grows increasingly human throughout the series, with her proclaiming love for him–albeit as a probable survival tactic–at the beginning of the second season. She is learning emotions, or at least she is learning how to fake emotions. Her journey navigating between her nature as a cyborg and her seeming to learn how to be human is beautifully represented when Cameron discovers ballet and culminates in the episode “Allison from Palmdale.”

In that episode, Cameron glitches and loses all of her memory and identity as a terminator.  She is drawn to certain places and experiences memories of her human identity–before she became a terminator, an element of the mythos of the Terminator franchise that would take center stage in Terminator: Salvation–implying that there is always some element of humanity and the human self or soul that cannot be erased. Some form of essence remains despite the imposition of technology and programming. Humanity will out for both Cameron and Echo.

As I wrote earlier, it’s impossible to discuss fractured subjectivities without discussion postmodern theory. One of its tenets is challenging the idea of a unitary identity, instead turning to the ways the self is articulated in multiple ways. Multiple subjectivities undermine the meta-narrative of a pure self, and to an extent, that is what these telefantasy programs are doing.  They privilege the fractured self over the idea of the self before it was broken. Walter is a better human being for losing some of his grey matter, and Sam’s humanity can only survive through forced compartmentalization. Cameron and Echo both find humanity through but ultimately in opposition to memory of their past traditionally human and whole selves. The concept of the self and humanity is constantly being negotiated.

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Dollhouse and the question of (episodic/serial) identity

parts and a whole

Dollhouse is a show that will be written about more than it was watched.  As a text, it’s challenging, ambitious, flawed, prescient, interrogative, philosophical, troubling, exploitative, reflective, reflexive, and a hell of a ride.  From a production standpoint, it’s an interesting object of study regarding who has power over a program, the tug-of-war between “network” and “auteur,” and the limits of the latter’s plan(s) in the frame of the former’s goals.  With regards to reception, Dollhouse asked a great deal of its audience (in part due to the production imbalance): Joss Whedon, the show-runner, sent a missive to the press admitting the weakness of the first five episodes but promising a better show with episode six, implicitly requiring six weeks of patience from his audience; the most important episode of the series, “Epitaph One,” was never aired on television and could only be found on iTunes of the season one DVD set, forcing the audience to seek the episode out via alternative means; and perhaps most importantly to my thesis here, by the end of the series, the audience is rewarded for that patience and that multimedia savvy in not only the narrative but also the form, an aspect of television not often examined.

The shift from episode five to episode six of the first season is a shift from episodic television to serial television, and with that, a widening worldview within the series.  The first five episodes consist of closed narratives: Echo (Eliza Dushku), a human doll, can be programmed to be anyone and do anything, but her brain gets the tabula rasa treatment at the end of each engagement, returning her to her placid, anonymous doll state.  Each episode returns to the status quo for Echo and the Dollhouse, and that is the reach of the world.  Episode six, “Man on the Street”, however, begins with the dilation of this world.  Textually, the episode opens with interviews of supposedly random Los Angelinos about the Dollhouse, positioning the Dollhouse as an urban legend, a story existing out in the world, not just confined to the Dollhouse as an actual location.  (Admittedly, the “rumor” of the Dollhouse was part of the B-plot of these early episodes in which FBI agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) investigates the Dollhouse as his white whale, but his investigation is so tied with Dushku’s character that it doesn’t seem larger than the A-stories.) Instead, it’s a locus of rumors, fears, and meanings created by those who are aware of it, not unlike the show’s relationship with its viewers.  The form of these interviews further supports this meta-relationship; shot in verite style, with hand-held camera and degraded quality, they look strikingly like real-world evening news “man on the street” interviews.  This world may not be our world, but it could be.  Our eyes have been opened to both our world and the wider one within the program, undermining the supposed containment of the first five episodes.

"realism" complete with real-world news host

Moreover, this supposed containment within the text of the early episodes extends to the form, for the world’s containment reflects the formal containment in the episodic narratives.  The wider world behind the Dollhouse has always been there, but the veil was solid in the early episodes.  However, as the series progressed, especially regarding the big reveals in the later season two episodes, the early episodes become important because of the seriality of the later episodes.

We’re supposed to be frustrated by those first episodes, feel the tedium and exhaustion of not having a stable character with whom to identify, of always returning to an empty status quo.  We are thus able to identify–at least empathetically–with the dolls who lack any such stability.  Like those who tuned into Dollhouse expecting the serial (or at least the complex narrative) we’ve come to expect from a Joss Whedon show and were instead stymied by episodic–and kind of boring–stories, the dolls’ identities, compendiums of memories and serial stories of existing, are put on hold.  When Echo starts to actualize as a gestalt person instead of an empty vessel, holding onto her past experiences, those of us who endured the frustration can grab onto that evolution in the same way her incipient identity does.  This is perhaps the most difficult process Whedon and his team require of the audience, but the linkage of the form, the character, the story, and the audience is extremely sophisticated and rewarding.

another "Man on the Street" reward

I can’t say the show was perfect, or even overall a great series, but it was one of the most ambitious shows I’ve seen.  And when those ambitions were fulfilled and realized, it was astounding, pushing the form, narrative, and audience into uniquely interrelated analytical space.