Friday 10 April 2009

A Short Story About Free Will IV - The impossible Tabula Rasa in "Dollhouse"

Adelle: "I'm talking about a clean slate." Caroline: "Have you ever cleaned an actual slate? You always see what was on it before."

Dollhouse: Pilot Episode ("Ghost")
In the season six episode "Tabula Rasa" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow tries to erase the memory of a fight from her girlfriend Tara's memory. The spell, due to her uncarefulness, goes wrong and instead she wipes out the memory of all of her friends, including her own, and even Spike's. They don't remember who they are and only find out about their names from their IDs (or, in the case of the titular heroine herself, who does not carry one, they make one up).
The literal translation of Tabula Rasa is "blank slate" and the philosophical concept behind is that human beings are the sum of their sensory perception and memory. Therefore, if you wipe out said memory, you end up with a blank shell, ready to be filled with new content.
Now, in the course of the aforementioned episode of Joss Whedon's first show, it turns out that probably there are some aspects of an individual that can not be wiped out along with the memory. As it turns out, Buffy still has a calling (she is a super-hero that kills vampire, even if her name is now Joan), Spike is still a vampire ("with a soul", as he notes, since he enjoys killing his own), Anya is still afraid of bunnies (and, after all her spells go wrong or rather, go bunny, she tells Giles "You think it's sensible for me to go down into that pit of cotton-top hell, and let them hippity-hop all over my vulnerable flesh?"), even though she does not remember how her name is pronounced correctly, and Willow and Tara are still in love, although following the assumption of Tabula Rasa, they are complete strangers to each others when they wake up.
The idea of showing well-known characters devoid of their memories also comes up in "Angel". In the episode "Spin the Bottle", the team wakes up as their teenage self, including uber-nerdy awkward Fred (who, surprisingly, ends up being the one to say the line "maybe we can score some weed"), very much out-of-place 19th century Liam Aka Angel, who ends up fighting tons of blinking demony monsters, speak cars, and back to his old thuggish self Gunn, devoid of all the character development. Naturally, the two characters that stand out most in these episodes are Wesley and Cordelia since we've followed them, at this point, for about six years, so the entire episode shows off how far they have come and how far removed Cordelia is from her early Buffy high school self.
Anyway. There is a history of "Tabula Rasa" in Joss Whedon's work, so consequently, "Dollhouse" seems like the ultimate take on it since this formulates the premise of the show. The Dollhouse is a secret organisations, with cells all over the world, that wipes human beings of all their memories and turns them into perfect agents called "Actives", who can be programmed with identities fit to fulfil jobs ranging from prostutition, posing as a wife for one day, being a midwife and several other things rich people come up with because they have no other place for their money to go. After they fulfil their mission, their memory gets wiped and what remains is the Tabula Rasa (or, as more people call it, the "child-like" state). They are not supposed to remember, to have any natural urges beyong wanting to eat, drink and sleep, and for this they are kept in a creepily stylish place that is an ironic turn on La Femme Nikita's cold metal paradise. It's like Wolfram & Hart's office all over again, evil (or is it?) hidden behind good design and fancy furniture.
While "Buffy", "Angel" and "Firefly" all focused on one group of people who were, at least in the beginning, on the same side and had a collective agenda, "Dollhouse" provides several perspectives. The main character is Echo (Eliza Dushku), one of the Actives, who at the beginning of the show starts to show signs of glitching - she seems to remember and shows more initiative than expected in an Active.
Within the Dollhouse, there are several other perspectives apart from that of the Actives. There are those who work for the Dollhouse and have different opinions on whether what is going on there is legitimate or not - Topher (Fran Kranz), a tech geek who handles the programming process, has a completely ammoral take on it and is completely unconscious of any consequences of their actions. Although his humour resembles that of Xander in "Buffy", his character is more in the tradition of some of the villains of previous Whedon-shows, like the nerd trio posing as Buffy's arch-nemesises in the sixth season (and one of them just happens to bring about one of the worst situation imaginably for the Scoobies, as one of their own turns into the big evil), or Knox in "Angel" who is responsible for Fred's death to bring about the rebirth of the demon Illyria, who takes over her body like a shell. Boyd (Harry Lennix) is Echo's handler, a position extremely important to dolls. In an existence that lacks memory, a handler is the only thing an Active always recognizes as trustworthy and poses therefore the only intended link and relationship. He is an ex-cop and, from the very first scene we see him in, questions if what happens at the Dollhouse is good. We find out about his motives later when the close relationship he has with Echo is shown, how he slowly grew into this important role. The counter-part to Topher is Dr Saunders (Amy Acker), the physician. She still carries the marks from when the idea of the Dollhouse went wrong and Alpha wreaked havoc, and feels responsible for all dolls - but this does not mean that it is her intention to free them, since they would be vulnerable like children in the outside world, but to try and keep up the peaceful illusion as good as possible. When some of the Actives are given their old personalities but not their memories back in order to provide them closure, her encounter with Caroline, the alter ego of Echo, leads to her saying "I am not your friend here". The head of the LA chapter of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) is a complete miracle so far, as we haven't learned anything about her background yet, but she seems to be above moral questions though, although not in the "it's so cool what we can do with technology here" way but with a "this is a corporation that focuses on profit" edge, not so far removed from Wolfram & Hart (but is she a Lilah?).
The other side of the game is Paul Ballard, a FBI-agent who is the only one left convinced that the Dollhouse exists, which he hunts obsessively and occasionally with questionable methods. So far, there have been hints at the connections the Dollhouse has to high government officials, senators and such, so it would appear that probably the FBI isn't that interested in revealing the truth about it, even if they believe or know it exists. But Ballard is not the shiny knight - in fact, as one client in a rather disturbing conversation explains, his idea of saving Caroline (someone made sure that he has a picture and a video of her, so as the give a human face to his obsession) is a fantasy for him, just as having a wife is for him. He can afford someone to play that role, while he breaks rules to get what he perceives is morally right. The situation becomes even more complicated when his lovely neighbour (Miracle Laurie) becomes his lover and, as is later revealed, she turns out to be a doll and part of some scheme to keep him distracted. That pretty much anyone could turn out to be a sleeper agend is slightly reminiscent of "Battlestar Galactica". BSG raised the question whether a programmed machine could have a soul, and with the "Tabula Rasa"-idea of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's new series has pretty much the same agenda: can people who are devoid of their memories still have an uncompromisable identity that can not be erased by a fancy machine and a nerdy technician? Even as Echo, Caroline shows more initiative than other dolls. We find out that she used to be an idealist in her former life, whose activities brought her to the very interrogation room she finds herself in the beginning of "Ghost", opposite Adelle DeWitt. At the end of the central story arc of the fourth season of "Angel", the titular character makes a hard decision not just for his time, but for the entire world. A demon (played by Gina Torres) might manage to end all wars and poverty and bring eternal happiness, at a seemingly small price - all humans worship her and give up on their own ability to shape their future (also, some of them will get eaten). Angel decides to end this utopia. Probably this message is central to the questions "Dollhouse" raises.

"Jasmine: "No. No, Angel. There are no absolutes. No right and wrong. Haven't you learned anything working for the Powers? There are only choices. I offered paradise. You chose this!"
Angel: "Because I could. Because that's what you took away from us. Choice."
Jasmine: "And look what free will has gotten you."
Angel: "Hey, I didn't say we were smart. I said it's our right. It's what makes us human."

Angel: Peace Out
Dollhouse, 2009-, created by Joss Whedon, with Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, Olivia Williams, Reed Diamond, Miracle Laurie, Amy Acker.

Angel, 1999-2004, created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, with David Boreanaz, Alexis Denisof, Charisma Carpenter, J. August Richards, Amy Acker, Andy Hallett, Vincent Kartheiser, James Marsters, Stephanie Romanov, Glenn Quinn, Julie Benz, Elisabeth Röhm, Christian Kane, Mercedes McNab, Sarah Thompson, Jonathan M. Woodward.

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