I recently finished watching Joss Whedon's show Dollhouse. While the show was enjoyable (and very addictive), I would hesitate before calling it "good." For those who don't know, the premise involves a group of people, "dolls," who are wiped clean of their personalities so that they can be scientifically imbued with the personalities of other people.
In many ways, the show reminded me of Veronica Roth's recent novel Divergent. For the 0.2% of you who haven't heard of it yet, it's a YA dystopian novel about a society that divides itself into factions based on individual virtues. (My review is here if you're interested.) While the plot of Divergent isn't anything like Dollhouse, both of them contained an element of mind-control technology that was crucial to the story--and, in both cases, I found that technology problematic.
Note: This is not a rant or an attempt to bash either of these stories. This is merely a discussion.
However, in order for me to discuss this properly, I will have to reveal certain elements of the plot. So, yes, this discussion is FULL OF SPOILERS for both Divergent and Dollhouse. And no, I will not hide them.
And yes, I do recommend reading/watching both. Dollhouse is entertaining, and has good action and witty dialogue. Divergent also has a lot of action, as well as a believable romance. I also think both bring up good discussions, even if they are of the "this premise doesn't make any sense" variety.
So, anyway, mind control. In Dollhouse, people are implanted with new personalities and memories, while previous personalities and memories are completely forgotten--except in the case of the main character, Echo, for a reason that is never really explained. In Divergent, the society uses a "simulation serum" to put people into fearful scenarios that feel very real. However, certain individuals, called "divergents", are able to bend or overcome these simulations. Of course, the main character, Tris, is one of these unique individuals, as is her love interest and mother.
Tris' "divergence" means two things: first, that Tris doesn't fall primarily into one virtue--she embodies three of the five defined by her community; second, that she is strong-willed, which is what allows her to overpower the simulation serum. This itself doesn't make any sense. First of all, is it really that rare for someone to equally possess multiple virtues or character traits? Secondly, how does having a "diverging" personality mean that one is strong-willed?
Well, okay, so the above is more of a rant. But here is the real problem: Am I really supposed to believe that Tris is strong-willed?
It is true that some people are more in control of their emotions than others, but this doesn't mean anything about bravery. When faced with the simulations that were chemically designed to stimulate the amygdala, Tris could mentally lower her fear response faster than any of the other initiates. While this shows impressive emotional control, the fact that Tris knew she was never facing any real dangers means that this is a terrible way to show a strong will. A strong-willed person is someone who acts DESPITE their fear, not someone who can simply push it away. When I think of a brave, strong-willed character in Divergent, I do not think of Tris. I think of Al, who stuck to his morals despite the fact that his actions would have made him Factionless. ("Wait," you say. "But Al didn't stick to his morals." Personally, I felt his sudden transformation was a HUGE inconsistency in his character, and I refuse to buy it, no matter what Veronica Roth expects me to believe.)
At the end of the novel, the simulation serum is used to turn the entire Dauntless faction into an army of mindless killers. Tris, due to her divergence, isn't affected. In fact, if I'm remembering correctly, she doesn't even have to struggle against the mind-bending simulation. At this point, her divergence doesn't feel like a result of her strong willpower; it feels like a magic power.
The same is true for Dollhouse. Halfway through the second season, Echo discovers that she can slide into any one of her previously implanted personalities, even though they should have been erased. Not only that, but she can do this at will--this means that she can become a rocket scientist or a ninja or a diva or whatever she needs at the present moment. In other words, she goes into complete Mary Sue mode. The only possible explanation for why Echo (and one other character) can do this while others can't is that at one point she was simultaneously implanted with over thirty personalities at once--all of which were wiped afterwards. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest that Echo/Caroline is also strong-willed?
(And don't even ask me how she can mentally bring herself back from the dead.)
Basically, my problem with both of these stories is that they seem to be confusing "pseudoscience" with "character development." And when you're trying to write about strong will, or bravery, or anything, really, character development is indispensable.
Additionally, there are two other issues I had with mind-control scenarios.
1. Army of mindless/brainwashed zombies: I'm not saying you SHOULDN'T do this, but this basically turns your immediate enemies into cardboard cutouts; they don't need a reason to be evil because they're brainwashed. But wouldn't it be so much more interesting to fight against an army of real human beings? You know, people who believe in their cause as much as you believe in yours?
2. Mind-control can be overcome by the power of love--ugh, can you say cheesy? (Actually, this wasn't done badly in Dollhouse, but in Divergent it made me want to puke.)
I know believability in fiction is something that tends to be very subjective, so I'm curious to hear everyone else's thoughts.