Is neuroscience still the bad guy in Dollhouse? (Duh.)

By November 10th, 2009 1 Comment

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.

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1 Comment On "Is neuroscience still the bad guy in Dollhouse? (Duh.)"

  1. Oliver

    What neuroscience is doing in these shows is I think more complex: it is acting in the same way that destiny did in Buffy. Buffy is endlessly conflicted between who she is as a person and what her destiny is. The destiny is problematic because it is at the same time the source of her powers and the source of what she sometimes thinks is her inhumanity. The dyad of humanity/destiny is less stark than the humanity/neuroscience dyad is in Firefly and Dollhouse — Buffy is much of the time very well integrated in a way that River and Echo are not — but it has definite similarities. Especially so when Buffy’s destiny turns out, through what we learn about the First Slayer, to be something imposed on her by men without consent, as the neurological ministrations are in Firefly and Dollhouse.

    The solution to the problem is to stop seeing the person as isolated (because the siolated person is readily reducible to neuroscience) and more as social. Throughout Buffy it is sociality that defines her and thus saves her; in the crisis of the finale this is taken further as destiny, also, becomes distributed, as humanity has always been. Without knowing, possibly never knowing, what the resolutions of Firefly and Dollhouse might be, I’d suspect that they too might have similarities in that respect, with neuroscience, like destiny, in some way transcending the individual in order to be reconciled with humanity through group identity.


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