When we posted Ed Connor’s essay “Psychology Bad” (from The Psychology of Joss Whedon) last week, I couldn’t help being impressed how prescient Ed’s essay was. He labeled neuroscience as the bad guy in Firefly and Serenity, and identified it as a major theme in Joss Whedon’s work—before Dollhouse was even a glimmer in Joss’s or Eliza Duskhu’s eye.
Here’s Ed extending the ideas in his essay to Dollhouse:
My major thesis in this essay was that River dramatizes what it means for us to be simultaneously neural and human. Neural, in the sense that we are brains—unimaginably complex wetware computers with rich potential and tragic vulnerabilities. Human, in that we are capable of love, courage, sacrifice, and self-determination. These two states of being are often viewed as irreconcilable, and for me River is a moving personification of how they are equally miraculous and truly identical.
I don’t know how Joss would react to this analysis, but as always his work speaks even more eloquently than the man himself. Dollhouse is an entire show devoted to exploring this same question of what it means to be both neural and human. The dramatic stakes are raised and the philosophical issues are more mind-bending, because in Dollhouse neural control extends all the way to the core self. If Topher’s chair can make me in every sense a ninja assassin, complete with memories, beliefs, and skills, then what am I—the person I went to sleep as, the assassin I woke up as, or just so much neural putty in Topher’s hands? It will fall to Echo, as it fell to River, to answer this central conundrum.
Another point of strong continuity in Dollhouse: Neuroscience remains the “big bad” (to quote Spike)—the counterpart to black magic in Buffy and Angel, the darkest art in the current Whedonverse. Take one brilliant but morally vacant neuroscientist (Topher), add several layers of increasingly shadowy, increasingly malignant power players, top it off with the eternal unpredictability of the human mind, and you get “Alpha”—Alan Tudyk’s marvelous turn as an operative gone wildly wrong. For starters. To glimpse the global mayhem that may follow, check out the lost episode “Epitaph One” on DVD or iTunes. It is a masterpiece of neural fiction, and heartrendingly human.