From a historical perspective, even the most modern of entertainments are descendants of ancient stories and ideas. Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse, though marketed as a science-fiction/spy/action series, is at heart a Gothic story, a genre that dates back to the eighteenth century, but updated to the 21st century.
To do Gothic, first you need a house. The Dollhouse isn’t the traditional crumbling castle on a bleak barren heath; it actually looks like a slightly sinister day spa, hidden beneath an office building in modern-day Los Angeles. The series’ lead, a woman codenamed “Echo” (Eliza Dushku), is one of the dolls, or Actives. They are “programmable people”, imprinted with the skills and memories to be whatever the clients need, from soldiers to sexual fantasies. In between engagements, they are kept in the Dollhouse in a child-like, amnesiac state, beautiful and helpless, their every physical need met and under constant surveillance. It’s not unlike Laura Antoniou’s underground slave training Marketplace, or the Club, an island BDSM paradise, of Anne Rice’s Exit to Eden, “…where the lights never go out and you’re never alone.” Some of the more masochistically-minded readers might be wondering where they can sign up
But Gothic houses are all about secrets, and the Dollhouse is crawling with them. Much of season one is the progressive revelation of a traumatic event in the series’ past, when one of the dolls went berserk, slaughtered a bunch of people with only a kitchen knife, and escaped. In the aftermath, the Dollhouse ticks along, but no matter how hard the staff tries, it can’t quite resume perfect equilibrium, perfect control. There are always flaws, secrets, hidden agendas, traces of imperfection. It even has the requisite “mad woman in the attic”, Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), a physically and mentally scarred rejoinder to the Dollhouse’s regime of beauty and order.
Another tenet of the Gothic is irrationalism. Everybody in the Dollhouse has their obsessions and secrets, things they should know better than to do, but do them anyway.
Echo’s bodyguard, Boyd, loves her like a father, but his devotion is tainted with codependency and guilt. Echo’s would-be rescuer, FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), is an obsessive, paranoid thug, as much her stalker as her saviour. The techie who runs the mind imprinting technology is an Asperger’s case who studiously blocks out moral consideration of his work with layers of rationalization. The ice queen who runs the house can’t help fishing off the company pier.
The dolls themselves are supposedly volunteers who will be well compensated when their terms are up, but recruitment seems to seek out candidates who are desperate enough to sign over their mind and body to this shadowy organization. No matter how perfect the institution’s control, human nature is still disruptive, for better or for worse.
A large part, perhaps most, of the Dollhouse’s business is what are termed “romantic” engagements. Echo, in various personae, does BDSM as both top and bottom. Victor, another doll, regularly serves as a wealthy woman’s lover. Some of the most common requests are same-sex encounters for closeted celebrities and millionaires. The Dollhouse itself is more than a bit kinky, inspired by fantasies of slavery, prostitution, mind control, medical fetish and ageplay, of benevolent authority figures and helpless innocent submissives. The dolls even sleep sealed up in little boxes. The Gothic is also a way of subversively exploring alternate forms of sexuality.
As this is a dramatic series and not a sexual fantasy, that power is deeply problematic. In Gothic stories, power disrupts personal ties. In Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an nineteenth-century novel that used Gothic tropes for abolitionist purposes, the true evil of slavery is that the institution breaks up slave families by separating parents from children and husbands from wives, and hinting at the threat of rape.
In the Dollhouse, this power is corporate. Dolls are programmed to trust their handlers utterly, and this trust is horribly abused in one case. Victor’s innocent crush on another doll is treated as a problem to be mind-wiped away. Boyd and Echo’s service to the Dollhouse beyond the call of duty is “rewarded” by separating them, ending a relationship that comforts both of them. Those frustrations and conflicts drive the story.
Echo is a descendant of a line of Gothic heroines, women who struggle to maintain personal freedom in the face of overwhelming institutional power.
The heroine of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa is used as a bargaining chip in the marriage market by her depraved family. Lovelace, a smooth-talking rake, offers her escape. Instead, Clarissa winds up imprisoned in a brothel, her communications intercepted and under constant surveillance by Lovelace and his minions. Lovelace has Clarissa’s body completely under control, but he wants her to give up her principles willingly, and Clarissa resists. Lovelace eventually drugs and rapes Clarissa, which reveals himself as a brute and a coward. Clarissa’s own faith in human nature is shattered.
Likewise, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom struggles to live a virtuous, Christian life on Simon Legree’s hellish plantation. Legree wants Tom’s willing obedience and adoration, and beats him to death attempting get it.
Despite mindwipes and personality imprints, Echo struggles to make her original self, an idealistic animal rights activist, come through. It’s Echo’s ability to exceed her programming that makes her both extremely valuable to the Dollhouse and a danger that must be controlled, as she threatens another violent outburst or to escape and expose the operation. She is, potentially, both the Dollhouse’s salvation and its destruction.
While Dollhouse has plenty of fights, chases and other action, the real conflict is psychological and emotional. This makes the series, in a sense, more “feminine” than Whedon’s earlier Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Despite a rocky start and uninspiring ratings on a Friday night timeslot, Dollhouse’s first season garnered critical support and won a surprise renewal for the fall. With a second season, this premise can be further explored, not least in its sexual ramifications. There have already been hints of putting minds in different bodies, or same-sex encounters.