Skip directly to content

Dollhouse and Science Fiction Films of the 1980s

on Mon, 01/25/2010 - 00:00

In the November 2008 Fast Forward Weekly article “Why you should be watching Dollhouse,” Kyle Francis briefly compares the Joss Whedon television series to some of the seminal sci-fi motion pictures of the 1980s. “The ’80s gave us Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, Aliens, The Terminator and RoboCop,” Francis writes. “Each one of these movies, while firmly bound by science fiction tradition, riffed on the genre in an interesting way. Blade Runner gave us a little existential crisis to go with our robot murder, The Road Warrior blended tropes of the American Western into its apocalyptic sci-fi milieu, and Aliens arguably remains the iconic vision for military-based sci-fi to this day. Dollhouse, to get back on topic, does a lovely job of sneaking in some surprisingly thoughtful ruminations on the nature of identity between all of its witty dialogue, well-crafted characters and inventive sci-fi conceits.”

Dollhouse has indeed “riffed on the genre” during its short lifespan, taking a taboo topic like high-end prostitution and transforming it into a dissertation on identity while likewise masquerading as a conspiracy thriller. Still, all good science fiction makes at least passing homages to the past, and many of the movies of the 1980s explored similar themes of “who we are” and “what it means to exist” as well as the inherent dangers of advanced technological breakthroughs.

The first of the science fiction movies that Kyle Francis mentions is Blade Runner, the 1982 classic based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film takes place in 2019—ironically the same year that the Dollhouse episode “Epitaph One” depicts—where mankind has perfected robots that are identical to humans. Called replicants, these genetically-engineered beings are programmed with a lifespan of four years, a failsafe designed to prevent them from developing emotions of their own. Banned from Earth, where professional police assassins known as “blade runners” track-and-kill them, four escape from another planet with the goal of having the failsafe death warrant removed from their programming.

In addition to the main plot, actress Sean Young portrays a female replicant named Rachael who has been programmed with a lifetime of human memories and is unaware that she herself is an android. The similarities between Rachael and Dr. Claire Saunders from Dollhouse are abundant. Saunders was originally an active named Whiskey, for instance, who had her face scarred by rogue-active Alpha. Because the real Dr. Saunders—an older male physician—was murdered during Alpha’s escape from the Dollhouse, the damaged Whiskey was programmed to become the new Saunders. Claire Saunders thus discovers late in season one that she, like Rachael, is not real and that her memories are nothing more than fabrications.

In the first episode of season two, Saunders confronts her creator—technological guru Topher Brink—much like the rebel replicants confronted theirs in Blade Runner. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker,” Rutger Hauer’s android tells the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the man responsible for his existence. Although that encounter ends in violent death for Eldon Tyrell, Dr. Saunders leaves Topher Brink physically alive but emotionally damaged in “Vows.” Hauer’s conversation with Tyrell concludes with a kiss, for instance, while Saunders begins her confrontation with Topher Brink by sneaking into bed with him. “Why shouldn’t I love you?” she asks when Brink inquires what she is doing. “Aren’t you loveable? Aren’t you Big Brother? Aren’t you the Lord my God?”

In RoboCop, meanwhile, Alex Murphy is a police officer in a future Detroit that has been overrun with crime. Much of the police protection duties have been contracted to a private company, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), which has developed the technology to build a “super cop.” When Murphy is killed while out on assignment, OCP uses his dead body and brain to create the first “RoboCop.” Just like Eliza Dushku’s active Echo begins experiencing memories of the different personas she is programmed with, RoboCop has glitches of his own when he begins to remember what happened to his original human form. As he figures out the pieces of his previous life, RoboCop goes rogue and embarks on a mission to not only bring Murphy’s murderer to justice but topple the high ranking OCP executive masterminding all of Detroit’s criminal activity. In Dollhouse, Echo uses her re-awakening to follow in the footsteps of her original self and bring down the Rossum Corporation, the private company behind the imprint technology.

Although not mentioned by Kyle Francis, Total Recall is another 1980s sci-fi film with ties to Dollhouse. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker on Earth named Douglas Quaid who begins having dreams about Mars. He goes to Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting memories of exotic vacations into people’s minds, but it turns out that Quaid was already programmed during a previous replacement procedure. As old memories begin flooding his brain, and spurred on by video messages left by his previous self, Quaid eventually gets caught in a conspiracy that inevitably leads him to the Red Planet.

While not philosophically deep, and more of a violent action film than anything else, Total Recall does have similarities with Dollhouse. The device used to imprint memories, for instance, is a chair remarkably similar to the one used by Topher Brink. Quaid has been given a fake wife whose job it is to keep tabs on him, just like unaware active Senator Daniel Perrin has a wife who secretly works for the Dollhouse and also serves as Perrin’s handler. More significantly, Schwarzenegger’s character is not willing to have his fake, imprinted personality erased when given the opportunity to have his former self returned. Part of this is because the “old him” was part of the evil conspiracy that the “new him” is trying to bring down, but it also has to do with not wanting to let go of who he now is, even if that persona was programmed.

Two characters on Dollhouse are in similar positions, Dr. Claire Saunders and Eliza Dushku’s Echo. When Saunders discovers that her personality is also not her own, she has the opportunity to access computer files that contain her true identity but does not take advantage of the situation. Topher Brink asks her why she didn’t open the file, and Saunders replies, “Because I don’t want to die. I’m not even real. I’m in someone else’s body and I’m afraid to give it up.” Echo, meanwhile, has similar feelings about her original identity. “I’ve been saving this body for her,” Echo says in regards to Caroline Ferrell, mirroring the words of Dr. Saunders. “But I’m not her.”

While The Terminator does not have any plotlines revolving around imprinted identities or personalities, its major theme of how technological advancement can lead to an apocalyptic future is also present in Dollhouse. In the sci-fi masterpiece written and directed by James Cameron, the artificial intelligence network created by Sky Net becomes self-aware and declares war on the human race. In Dollhouse, the imprint technology is eventually perfected to the point where anyone can be remotely wiped and reprogrammed, leading to the human race becoming eradicated due to a loss of identity. The brief glimpses we see of the future in The Terminator are eerily similar to those in “Epitaph One,” with the survivors from both worlds forced into hiding underground.

The Terminator franchise continued with a number of sequels and even a FOX television drama, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In both Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, protagonists in the present day attempt to prevent future events from unfolding by stopping Sky Net before they can build the network that brings about mankind’s destruction. Despite success in their attempts, however, the future continues to remain the same. During the Dollhouse episode “The Hallow Men,” meanwhile, Echo and her cohorts successfully prevent the Rossum Corporation from implementing its plans of world domination, but the end of the installment depicts a Los Angeles 10 years in the future that has indeed been devastated by the Dollhouse technology.

In his book Living Lost, author J. Wood argues that part of the appeal of the ABC drama Lost was its ability to “borrow” plotlines and make passing references to a litany of science fiction works from the past, in effect tapping into our collective cultural consciousness and thus adding to the viewing experience. In many ways, Joss Whedon has done the same with Dollhouse—despite similarities to science fiction films from the 1980s, he was still able to craft his television series into something unique and different in its own right, as well as worthy of standing alongside such sci-fi masterpieces as Blade Runner and The Terminator.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed