Dollhouse is a science fiction television show created by Joss Whedon and produced in 2009. The story follows a series of “dolls,” which are essentially indentured servants who have signed away their consciousness, personality and memory for five years in exchange for a large sum of money. These dolls, also called ‘actives,’ are temporarily implanted with various personalities and skill sets stored on hard drives, and rented by rich clients for specific purposes, (often as escorts, prostitutes, or lovers, but also as thieves, stand-in-wives or mothers, demolitions expert, etc.)
Whedon intended for the show to examine our inner-most fantasies and the forbidden, intimate areas of sexuality. This stands out from the prime-time television of its moment, as the show deals with concepts of consent and agency, the implications of “rental” of the actives on consent (in a later episode, a woman’s participation in the program turns out not to have been consensual at all as a result of a rich man’s attempt to ‘own’ her), and what can or cannot be purchased with enough money. The actives seem to have a traumatic background in common, and the show is at its most interesting when the immorality of dollhouses is explored (though the actives are also used for good.)
In interviews, Whedon notes the difficulty of exploring intimate, sexual content, and the paradox of media comfort with sex but not with the nuances of intimacy, sexuality or its consequences. The show was produced before the popularity of Netflix, and before television shows like Game of Thrones or House of Cards were as prevalent with mainstream TV audiences. Dollhouse lends itself to comparison to the show, Humans, for its portrayal of sex and of technologically advanced prostitution. Humans, produced almost eight years later, is much more visual about sexuality than prime-time shows in 2009, and the difference in comfort with displays of sexuality is notable.
Dollhouse quickly develops into an exploration of identity and of the self. If personality and memory can be stored on a hard drive and uploaded and altered, what is it that stays with each active as his or her personality and memory are wiped at the end of each episode? Further, the dolls, particularly Echo, the protagonist, seem to develop personalities of their own in their blank, ‘wiped’ states.
Whedon’s thematic concerns are informed by the rise of a customizable self, owing in part to the developments of the technology of his time. Facebook and Twitter have begun to make an impact, and the customizable online presence is very much in existence in 2009 in the form of blogs, Youtube channels and social media.
What makes Dollhouse most interesting is its take on the existential threat of technological consumption. Artificial Intelligence ala Humans is not a central preoccupation in 2009, and the show is instead concerned with the lengths we will take to achieve pleasure, entertainment and indulgence. The series ends with an apocalyptic future of human making in which the active technology, enhanced and more deeply outlined in each episode, advances to horrifying extremes. The concern that we are becoming more pacified and more vulnerable to corporate or totalitarian control is explored less frequently in contemporary science fiction television but runs free in Whedon’s Dollhouse.