We as an audience are searching for her identity, but she is more searching for the concept of identity, at first.
— Joss Whedon (New York Times, 8 February 2009)
I’m good with people. I put them at their ease.
— Miss Penn/Echo (Eliza Dushku), “Ghosts”
“We can take care of this mess.” Mm-hmm. Echo (Eliza Dushku) looks appropriately skeptical when Miss DeWitt (Olivia Williams) offers such a grand and sinister assurance. At the same time, Echo looks predictably stuck. “I don’t deserve this,” she mutters, “I was just trying to make a difference, trying to take my place in the world, you know, like she always said, and now…” Her voice trails off. Echo has no choice, her “mess” is that big. You don’t know what that mess is, how she arrived in it, or how outrageous Miss DeWitt’s offer is. But you do know, during this first scene in Dollhouse, that Echo will take the deal.
And so she does, just as if she’s walked into mash-up of La Femme Nikita and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, with a dash of Bionic Woman to boot. According to Echo’s five-year contract, she undergoes regular treatments to “wipe” her memory, each time emerging without any sense at all of who she is or where she’s been (see: 50 First Dates). This sounds unnerving, but Echo is soon adapted to her routine, serene as she leans back in the lab chair and a dancing-blue-lights gizmo zaps her head while Topher (Fran Kranz) earnestly “maps the tissue.” (It’s unclear how she’s keeping track of her five years, as she has no sense of time as past or future, only now-now-now.) Echo is surrounded by other young beauties, all lifting weights and running on treadmills when they’re not being massaged, queried by Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker, a.k.a. Fred) about how they feel, or slipping into coffin-like cubbyholes in the floor for a few hours’ sleep. (See also: The Matrix.)
These lithe athletic bodies are called “actives,” and they remain in constant preparation for missions and watched over by handlers. Echo’s is Boyd (Harry Lennix), whose investment in her and the broader “business” is complicated. That is, he takes Miss DeWitt at her word when she says the operation she oversees means to “help people,” and sees this aspect of the great experiment to be at least as important as keeping the operation secret (as the company provides special services to the ultra rich, who always have something to hide, if only their true financial worth). Though Echo (see: Blade Runner) has no notion of what he’s up to mission-to-mission, or even that she knows him in between missions, she and Boyd share an essential morality that sets them in some tension with their more business-minded employers. You know, like Sydney and Dixon on Alias, with Echo acquiring new memory imprints each week instead of new wigs. A parallel and soon-colliding plot has an investigator, Paul (Tahmoh Penikett), looking for the Dollhouse, and presuming its nefariousness: “What we’re talking about,” he tells his own skeptical employer, “Is people who are walking around who may as well have been murdered, which to me sounds pretty bad.” It does sound bad, but it’s not yet clear exactly how much Echo participates (see: the Bourne movies).
Even as Dollhouse sounds like other TV shows and movies, it is also utterly strange, its premise literally ridiculous and intriguingly metaphorical. The “actives” employed and housed as the Dollhouse are, of course, much like conventional actors, each job requiring that they adopt new more or less coherent personalities and faux memories, and each establishing a new goal. At the same time, Echo herself will have an arc, as she begins to figure out she’s the subject of this radical experiment in employee-control-and-containment, and so Dushku — aided by her collaborator-mentor-writer-director Joss Whedon — appears to have landed herself the ideal episodic TV job: developing a character over time while playing different characters. It helps that she’s a charismatic and flexible performer, equally convincing as a bike-zooming, mini-dressed lover girl (as she appears in brief intro segment) and a schoolteacherish hostage negotiator with asthma, as she plays in the first episode’s central adventure.
If such adventures are necessarily contrived (Echo, playing the negotiator Miss Penn, is afflicted with her own child-kidnapping trauma, which enables her to crack the case with unlikely alacrity), the discussions and cover-ups around Echo, among other Dollhouse employees, are invariably interesting. Topher, a seemingly standard-issue nerdy tech, likes to poke around in the philosophical disarray of his assignment and equipment. He has made Miss Penn nearsighted, he tells Boyd, because “Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack. You can’t have one without the other. Everyone who excels is overcompensating, running from something, hiding from something.” And so he compiles a personality for each “active,” drawn from other people’s memories, selected and remixed to form a human simulacrum. “It’s not a Greatest Hits,” he insists, “It’s a whole person.” That is, it is a Greatest Hits, but according to Topher.
Again, the metaphor is more compelling than the imagined implementation. If Miss Penn’s trauma (her “flaw”) helps her do her job, it also plainly distresses her, and of course, not everyone turns her flaws into strengths (i.e., many abuse victims become abusers or otherwise self-destructive). But as Dollhouse kicks around ideas about how personalities and experiences are structured, how memories might be wrong or confused, they nonetheless tend to effect action or reaction, however unconsciously. In other words, the human simulacrum is the norm, not the freak experiment, and the Dollhouse team is only recreating daily processes, with advanced software and old-fashioned voltage displays.
Thus it ever is in the Whedon-verse, where fantastic premises and symbolic locations (the Hellmouth, the Serenity, Wolfram and Hart) occasion increasingly meta examinations of seemingly basic concepts, like identity and community, memory and responsibility. As Dollhouse starts with the meta, what follows is already meta meta.