Skip directly to content

Dollhouse and Rossum's Universal Robots

on Mon, 02/15/2010 - 00:00

Rossum’s Universal Robots was written in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Capek and is most famous for introducing the word “robot” into the world’s vocabulary. It also laid the groundwork for many of the best and most famous science fiction works by crafting a tale of technology initially designed to assist mankind but that instead turns against its creator, leading in turn to civilization’s demise. In Joss Whedon’s FOX drama Dollhouse, meanwhile, the parent corporation of the underground fantasy organization is also named Rossum as a homage to Capek’s masterpiece. “Although technically you’re not robots, it seemed to fit,” one of the company’s co-founders explains in the episode “Getting Closer.” While the reference relates to the Dollhouse’s ability to wipe a person’s memory and replace it with a new personality—create “programmable people,” if you will—in actuality the similarities between the two works run deeper.

The founding of both Rossums is a prime example. In R.U.R., as the play is more commonly called, Rossum was the family name of father and son scientists. The older Rossum was the one who discovered how to replicate human life and devoted his years to recreating what only God had been able to do before. “For him the question was just to prove that God was unnecessary,” it is explained in the play. In many ways that description could likewise fit the main technological guru in Dollhouse, Topher Brink. During season one, Topher is an unsympathetic egomaniac with no moral compass. While he never speaks of a higher deity specifically, it is not a stretch to say that he indeed suffers from a God-complex in regards to what he is likewise capable of creating.

The older Rossum, however, is more directly linked to one of the Rossum Corporation’s founders in Dollhouse, a man simply named Clyde. Clyde is first seen in the season two episode “The Attic,” and reveals how he was eventually betrayed by his “best mate at university” shortly after discovering the technology to imprint people with new personalities. “He was the one who had a plan for it,” Clyde explains of his colleague. “I hadn’t even begun to imagine all the possible applications for the technology.”

In R.U.R., it is the younger Rossum who understood the implications of his father’s experiments and the one “who had the idea to create living and intelligent labor machines.” Just like Clyde was eventually regulated to “the attic”—a place where a person’s memory is hallowed out—the son locked his father away in a laboratory and took over the experiments himself. “Young Rossum successfully invented a worker with the smallest needs, but to do so he had to simplify him,” Harry Domin, one of the major characters of R.U.R., explains. “He chucked everything not directly related to work, and in so doing he pretty much discarded the human being and created the robot.”

Harry Domin is the central director of the play’s Rossum, and is a true believer in both the financial success and scientific advancements of the company. In his mind, the technology is a benefit to mankind as the robots free people from all forms of servitude, which will eventually result in a utopian world. “Within the next 10 years Rossum’s Universal Robots will produce so much wheat, so much cloth, so much everything that things will no longer have any value,” he argues. “Everyone will be able to take as much as he needs. There’ll be no more poverty. Yes, people will be out of work, but by then there’ll be no work left to be done. Everything will be done by living machines. People will only do what they enjoy. They will only live to perfect themselves.”

While the very nature of the Dollhouse actually depends upon human servitude—actives are mindless dolls, after all, with no free will—thus negating any such utopian visions for mankind’s future, the head of the organization’s Los Angeles branch, Adelle DeWitt, is just as much of a believer in the technology as Domin.

“The world is a very simple place at first,” she tells a client during the original, unaired Dollhouse pilot. “Then as we grow up, it grows around us. A dense thicket of complication and disappointment. Unbearable for some, and even for the luckiest of us still sometimes more than we can handle.” Thus enters the Dollhouse and its capabilities, for DeWitt believes the services she provides cuts through that thicket by giving clients—as she so often says during season one—not what they want, but what they need.

“An active doesn’t judge, doesn’t pretend,” she explains of the Dollhouse’s version of robots. “This will be the purest, most genuine human encounter of your life. It is a treasure. One I guarantee you will never, never forget.” While it might not lead to a worldwide utopia, Adelle DeWitt still believes that the Dollhouse technology can provide a personal one.

FBI Agent Paul Ballard, meanwhile, is the philosophical opposite of DeWitt. While the latter acknowledges the benefits of mankind’s scientific advancements, for instance, the former only sees its inherent dangers. “We split the atom, we make a bomb,” he remarks. “We come up with anything new the first thing we do is destroy, manipulate, control. It’s human nature.” The commentary holds true in R.U.R. just as much as it does in Dollhouse.

Although the manufacturers of Rossum Robots market their product as a workforce to assist mankind, the rest of the world does not see it that way. Human workers oppose the robots and attempt to destroy them, while governments realize that the artificial slaves can be programmed as soldiers. Just like Adelle DeWitt’s contention that the Dollhouse technology can be used for good ultimately proves wrong, the utopia that Harry Domin envisions does not come to pass either, producing a world in which the robots have destroyed mankind instead.

The irony in R.U.R., however, is that by killing off their human counterparts, the robots have also killed themselves. Without mankind, the formula to create new robots has been lost and the new “species” will thus die off as well. Still, the play ends on a hopeful note that also reflects one of the major underlying themes of Dollhouse—the concept of a soul.

“Robots are not people,” Harry Domin asserts in the play’s prologue. “They are mechanically more perfect than we are, they have an outstanding intellectual capacity, but they have no soul.” Topher Brink, meanwhile, makes a similar observation in the episode “Omega” regarding the Dollhouse actives. “You’d be wrong about that,” he replies when Paul Ballard contends that everyone has a basic essence—i.e., soul—that cannot be erased. In the end, however, both Rossum’s Universal Robots and Dollhouse embrace the concept that there is something inherent and esoteric that makes us who we are, regardless of any technological or cultural tampering.

For R.U.R., that distinction arrives in the form of two robots, Helena and Primus, who have somehow fallen in love with each other and, in the process, developed souls where none had previously existed. Dollhouse has two star-crossed lovers of its own—the actives Sierra and Victor—who, despite being erased or imprinted with new personalities, still find themselves attracted to each other in the same way as Helena and Primus.

“What did you ever invent that was great when compared to that girl, to that boy, to this first couple who have discovered love, tears, beloved laughter,” the last remaining Rossum employee exclaims at the end of the play. Dollhouse makes a similar observation, although more subtly and beneath its many layers, that despite all of mankind’s scientific breakthroughs, advancements and discoveries, in the end they all pale when compared to the nature of the individual. While forces throughout history have tried to both enslave and erase that sense of individuality, the essence of a person—regardless of whether one calls it a soul or otherwise—will always remain.

Dollhouse and Rossum’s Universal Robots ultimately share more than corporate names or even apocalyptic visions of a world where technology has run amuck—the true similarity between these two sci-fi classics are their portrayals of what it means to be human, and the optimistic viewpoint that the individual will always prevail in the end. And that’s not such a bad thing to have in common.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed