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'Dollhouse' Should Be TV's Next Big Sci-Fi Epic

Joss Whedon, who gave us Buffy, is building a rich parable for the info age.

Peter Tupper 25 Sep 2009TheTyee.ca
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Eliza Dushku as Echo: Season two of 'Dollhouse' starts tonight.

Joss Whedon's breakout TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer included its high-concept in the title. His latest offering, Dollhouse, is not such an easy sell. You end up saying things like:

"Well, it's about brainwashed prostitutes...."

"Once you get past the first five episodes, it's much better...."

"The characters are 'pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way'...."

"To really understand it, you have to watch this episode that was never aired on TV and only appears on the DVD box set...."

If there was ever a show born under a bad sign, it's Dollhouse. But once you accept the moral and intellectual challenge, you realize that Dollhouse may by television's next big science fiction epic. It's an epic parable for the information age, when personal identities are bought and sold.

Stumbling out of the gate

When Dollhouse was renewed for a second season by the FOX network, it surprised everybody, even its creators. The show was plagued by low ratings on a Friday night time slot and a premise that would make some people scratch their heads and others squirm: a young woman (Eliza Dushku) has her mind erased by a shadowy corporation so she can be "imprinted" with different personalities and skills, hired out as everything from assassin to midwife to courtesan. In between missions, she lives in the titular underground complex as a child-like amnesiac code-named Echo. If the issues of forced prostitution don't turn you off, there's the question of how to relate to a character who has no consistent personality.

Another liability was the usual teething pains of new TV series. Even the most ardent fans say you have to be patient to get through the first five episodes of recycled TV action show plots. Like the lead character, Echo, the series struggled to find its authentic voice under the pressures of a corporate entity, the FOX network. Fans anticipated another show lost to a conflict between Whedon and FOX, just as FOX had cancelled Whedon's cowboys-in-space series, Firefly, in mid-season, which later became a cult hit on DVD. Even loyal Whedon followers had a death-watch attitude to Dollhouse.

Dollhouse's stumbling ended with episode six, "Man on the Street," written and directed by Whedon himself. Not only did it consider the moral and existential questions of the Dollhouse's technology and business, it delivered mystery, drama, plot twists, action, romance and the trademark Whedon humour. No longer a "pretty spies" show, it was more akin to The Sopranos or Nip/Tuck, people living in a glamorous but dehumanizing culture.

Whedon's family hour

The second half of the first season continued to explore these themes. "Needs" showed just how thoroughly the Dollhouse controls its property, answering not only their doll's physical requirements but their emotional ones too. "Haunted" imprinted Echo with the mind of a murdered woman, and the mystery plot was secondary to the melancholy realization that she wasn't quite the benevolent matriarch she thought she was. The season ended with a two-parter that showed the return of Alpha, a doll who went berserk, killed a dozen people with only a kitchen knife, and escaped.

Whedon has said that his series are all about creating family, and his previous work is often about taking premises that lend themselves to loner heroes and adapting them into ensemble casts. Buffy Summers, Angel and Mal Reynolds are saved from their self-destructive tendencies by their relationships with their friends and followers.

However, another recurring theme of Whedon's work is his anti-authoritarian streak. While chosen families are generally good, hierarchical organizations are at best ineffectual and at worst corrupt and corrupting. Witness the Watcher's Council in Buffy, Wolfram & Hart in Angel and the Alliance in Firefly. Their agents can only redeem themselves by leaving the organization.

Quite a collection

These two themes collide in Dollhouse, setting the stage for intrigue, betrayal, secrets and conspiracies. It's a family, but a hideously dysfunctional one, with every relationship distorted by the pressure of the corporate environment. Boyd, Echo's bodyguard/driver, loves her like a father, but it's tainted with guilt and co-dependency. Topher, the programmer who creates people to order, carefully insulates himself from any moral considerations with layers of distraction and rationalization. Adelle, the House's ice queen madam, is the ultimate stage mother, ruthlessly protective yet controlling. Echo's fellow dolls are like deliberately stunted children with the bodies of beautiful adults, programmed to trust their handlers completely but forbidden personal connections. "Don't think of them as children. Think of them as pets," instructs the Dollhouse's chief of security. Delivered in the mild tones of a corporate briefing, that one line speaks volumes about what happens when unfettered corporatism is combined with the technology to rip-mix-burn the human mind.

The Dollhouse's imprinting technology is handled in a relatively realistic and consistent fashion. In real life, there are already consumer goods that can change human character, like Prozac and Ritalin. Other experiments and technologies suggest that enzymes can control memory formation, or that brain pacemakers can regulate moods.

The staff of the Dollhouse takes the imprinting technology as just part of the job. Several characters point out that imprinting technology is mainly used to satisfy the whims of rich people, but there are examples of more altruistic missions, if only to assuage the organization's collective conscience.

Complex technology

A technology with the potential to turn the world upside down, kept a corporate secret and used as rich people's toy -- this is what separates Dollhouse from "science run amuck" shows like Fringe or Eleventh Hour, which generally treat new technology as disruptive. If someone creates a transgenic animal, it must be dangerous and it must run amok and kill people, implying that science is just opening Pandora's box again. It can't actually do anything useful like generate medicine, or become a permanent part of the world. Even Battlestar Galactica abandoned the premise of technological post-humans, turning the cylons into just another kind of human.

It's a rare science fiction TV show or movie that takes a nuanced view of new technology rather than the same old Frankenstein myths, though Dollhouse has more than a few references to Frankenstein and other cautionary science fiction tales. The Dollhouse's parent corporation is named Rossum, borrowed from Karl Capek's classic play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), which told of humanity being surpassed by artificial people.

The latent possibilities of imprinting technology spread out of control in the so-called "lost" episode on the DVD box set, "Epitaph One." It was made on a shoe-string budget when the future of the series was in doubt and Whedon wanted to make a coda to resolve at least some of the storylines. Dollhouse changed identity once again, becoming a near-future science fiction epic that could rival Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica in scope and complexity. A series of flashbacks sketch out the series' future, as the mind imprinting technology grows out of control, spreading through telecommunications systems and converting most of the population into helpless drones or mindless soldiers.

While some of the future characters take "Smash the tech!" as their watchword, the story also shows that the imprinting technology may be the only thing that can save humanity. Multiple copies of Echo in different bodies carry the hope for immunity from imprinting, or that imprinting can be done without destroying the original personality.

It's a bold move for Whedon, showing the highlight of a TV series that doesn't exist yet, but Whedon has always experimented with the format of television as well as the content. When Dollhouse begins season two tonight, Sept. 25th, "Epitaph One" will be no longer the series' coda but its overture. What's to come will combine the toxic glamour of Mad Men with Lost's intrigue and explorations of identity.

Critics previewing the new season's first episode, "Vows," report that, without the constant threat of early cancellation and network meddling, the series has relaxed and found a stable identity  [Tyee]

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