Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”

In another world, Dollhouse is one of the best and most significant TV sf series ever made. In our world … well, we got what we got. It’s still Whedon’s most ambitious and provocative metaphoric construct, but rather deeply flawed; something of a stitched-together monster shambling towards the finish line. The second half of the show’s second season is, though only “fast” by the glacial standards of most American serial television, rather inelegant; as with Serenity, you can see where they’d have stretched things out, given more time (that “three months later” was a dead giveaway), and where compression has prevented them from dotting every narrative i and crossing every t. And, perhaps most damaging, there’s a lack of attentiveness to the givens of the original premise, the pervasive, corrosive suffering that comes from treating identity as a commodity, in favour of Excitement. (Of course the show was never all that attentive to such things; but less and less as time has gone on, I feel.)

So we come to “The Hollow Men”, which wraps up the present-day thread of the story with Our Heroes taking out Rossum’s HQ, and at this point if you don’t buy into the underlying argument being developed, things really have become somewhat incoherent. But thematically it’s all there. The story we have been watching, the story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow), turns out to be a story told by the villain, all the characters – dolls like Whiskey and originals like Topher alike – dancing to his tune, as they have had dolls dancing to theirs. And said villain himself isn’t exactly a free agent, rather running scared of the brainpocalypse, trying on the one hand to bridle the technology he’s brought into the world, to delay the inevitable, and on the other to create an escape route. It’s for the latter that he tells his story, constructing the “specialness” of Caroline and of Echo out of his own obsession, which of course makes it meaningless – hollow – a closed loop. So the confirmation that the genie is out of the bottle is predictable, but worthwhile, the last nail in the coffin of Echo-as-saviour. Nobody in Dollhouse is free; society is the shambling beast, working out its death knells through the characters. The slingshot of the last two minutes takes us ten years into the chaotic, dystopian future, the setting for “Epitaph Two” which will (presumably) provide some mitigation of all this bleakness; although I for one hope that it calibrates the amount of consolation it provides very carefully.

2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions

1. Star Trek is not that good. It has its virtues, certainly: a certain amount of verbal and visual pizzazz (the closing credits look like a series of John Picacio paintings); decent performances, if not really ones that I feel able to hold close to my heart (Karl Urban probably the best, for my money); headlong, yet not quite hectic velocity, even if sometimes sustained by utterly extraneous set-pieces (Kirk being chased by ice-planet monsters, say). I laughed, I enjoyed, and I haven’t felt as strongly that I was watching a culturally significant piece of science fiction since Doctor Who’s “Rose”. And yet. It is really, epically, heroically stupid, and I’m not even talking about the science (though the disregard for scientific plausibility felt distastefully wilful at points, in contrast to the disregard-for-sake-of-plot that defines the archetypal moment of Treknobabble), but about the plot, which rests on convenience and coincidence upon convenience and coincidence. Think about it for more than thirty seconds and the whole house of cards fall down.

More fundamentally, I find myself uneasy about what that nagging feeling of cultural significance might mean: something in the cross-breeding of shameless, box-ticking nostalgia and gung-ho shininess doesn’t sit well with me.. This is something of a surprise. I’ve never thought of Trek as being particularly important to me; I’ve seen a lot of it, of course, but with the exception of Deep Space Nine much of it was watched just because it was there, not because I was actively seeking it out. And yet. Much has been made of Star Trek as a return to a bright, colourful, boundless universe, a celebration of an optimistic vision of the future, in contrast to the miserabilism of (say) Battlestar Galactica. But the brightness and colour of Abrams’ Star Trek indicate a fun film, no terrible thing in itself except that it feels like a hollowed-out version of the vision that made Trek first appealing, which was – and I can feel myself turning into one of the Onion News Network’s outraged Trekkies as I type this – that it was inspirational, aspirational, a vision of a better world. This Trek doesn’t feel like it’s set in a better world, particularly; as has been widely observed, diversity is somewhat noticeable by its absence. I find myself missing that nerdy, unfashionable (and, let’s be realistic, often terrible) aspect of Trek much more than I would have expected. I cannot see this incarnation of the franchise, for instance, centering one of its instalments around diplomatic shenanigans and a peace process, as The Undiscovered Country did – indeed, I expect Star Trek 2 to be KLINGONS RARR (with a side-order of Uhura coming between Kirk and Spock). And that feels like a shame.

2. Dollhouse is not that bad. It has multiple and serious flaws, certainly; even allowing for everything positive I’m about to say, there is a hesitancy to the show’s development of its argument, a caution that often looks like damaging reticence. I would go so far as to say that the first season is, taken in the round, a failure, with only two episodes – Joss Whedon’s own “Man on the Street” and “Spy in the House of Love”, written by Andrew Chambliss – that really work, a second tier — “Needs”, “Briar Rose”, “Omega” — that have some things to recommend them, and a majority that range between half-hearted and shockingly inept. But my feeling is that it’s an interesting, worthwhile failure, not a worthless one.

Three reasons. First, the premise – what happens when identity becomes a commodity? – is simple to grasp, and strong; fertile angles of attack fairly spring out of the ground, and you can see where the writers were going with episodes like “Stage Fright” and “True Believer”, even if they singularly failed to make anything of them. Second, it is more ambitious than anything else Whedon has done in what is, I think, a key area – a structural critique is built into the bones of the show, whereas both in Buffy (with the Watcher’s Council) and Angel (with Wolfram & Hart) such elements were grafted on later, never entirely successfully. My knowledge of Marxist theory could kindly be described as rudimentary, but consider: Dollhouse concerns the exploitation of one class of people by another; the exploited class is literally alienated from their work, with no sense of the overall nature or purpose of the system within which they reside; the individuals in this class are literally treated as things, as dolls, and are made to believe they are freely choosing what is in fact being forced upon them; and through this make-believe, the dollhouse itself provides a frame story that alienates us, as viewers, and makes us aware of much of what happens in each episode as a constructed text. (The clearest example of this being Mellie’s parody of empowerment in “Man on the Street”, but I think it’s there in every episode; it’s always clear that the clients’ fantasies – the stories the show tells – arise out of a basic power imbalance. I even think there is a strand of self-critique on Whedon’s part running through Dollhouse, having to do with the value and authenticity, or lack thereof, of the fantasies of empowerment he has previously created.) So I think it functions productively as a particular critique of the society we live in, which is why I was so pleased that the finale showed an imprinted doll claiming the identity that had been imposed upon them: for the metaphor to work fully, we have to understand the subjective experiences of the imprints as valid, they have to be like us (hence, perhaps, Boyd’s comments that the dollhouse are murderers as well as pimps). Third, although there is much in Charlie Anders’ analysis of the show at io9 that I disagree with – particularly with regard to the characters, where I think what’s interesting is not that the dollhouse employees are morally ambiguous, but that they have good, even likeable qualities despite their decisions not being in the slightest ambiguous, being entirely reprehensible – I think she puts her finger on something important when she notes that the focus of Dollhouse is not going to be Echo/Caroline’s journey to regain her individuality, but an exploration of the corrupting effects of doll technology. I don’t believe it’s intended to end with liberation; I don’t think it could do so, not without dishonestly stuffing a genie back into its bottle. I think it’s about an inexorable slide towards the dystopic future we’ve had signalled a couple of times now, in which individuality is extinguished, and everyone is interchangeable; a pure science fiction horror story, about the absence of political agency.

(That said, of course, if someone at Fox happens to be reading, and is dithering between renewing this for a second season, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a third, then go with Sarah Connor, and don’t look back.)

Dollhouse: “Ghost”

Scattered thoughts on this:

1) The biggest surprise, I think, is the tone, which is very different to all of Whedon’s other TV shows. There are almost no overt jokes (indeed, the most Xander/Wash-like character is described in the casting notes as someone “whose talents exceed his morals”), and the whole episode reeks of unease, and not just in the new-show-finding-its-feet way. The show’s premise — set within an organisation that reprograms beautiful young women and men (“actives”) to meet the needs of exclusive clients — unavoidably draws your attention to, and makes you question, what it is you’re enjoying about what you’re seeing, and why.

2) That, of course, is what’s not a surprise about Dollhouse — it was clear from the first announcement of the show that the whole thing was going to be a metaphor for how social roles are imposed on everyone — but I’m impressed that they made as much as they did of the tension between exploitation and empowerment offered by glossy action-adventure TV. When Echo takes on a new assignment, she’s essentially being transformed into the omnicompetent protagonist of a new show (and I did appreciate that what Whedon chose to showcase in the pilot is a thinking protagonist), but the constant, nagging undercurrent that refuses to let you embrace events on the screen is that the whole thing is a dishonest fantasy.

3) The trajectory for the first few episodes at least is plainly going to be Echo discovering her own identity, which could water down that tension somewhat; but a more immediate problem is that until that happens, Dollhouse is a show with no central character. This had sort of occurred to me beforehand, but it’s one thing to think about it academically, and another thing to see it on screen. At the moment, Echo is a blank. We get a couple of glimpses of the person she was before signing up for the Dollhouse (something she clearly did out of desperation), and one of the sub-plots of “Ghost” is the induction of a new Active into the team, so we get a sense of how Echo’s origin story might have looked, but other than one moment of inquisitiveness, there’s no sense of her, right now, as a person in her own right — which of course contributes to the unsettling nature of the episode.

4) I guess the question I’m circling around is, what on Earth does Whedon thinks is going to bring a mass audience back for a second episode? Dollhouse doesn’t even have a clear style of its own at this stage — while I think there’s a decent chance I could recognise a frame from one of his other shows on the basis of the lighting and framing, and I know I can recognise the score music, this seemed much more generic. (The Dollhouse itself looks a bit like Wolfram and Hart’s office in season five of Angel, for instance.)

5) This is not to say I didn’t like it; I did, or perhaps more accurately, I was intrigued by it. Though apparently set in the present Dollhouse is, in a way that even Firefly was not, actual science fiction. Nic called it a thought experiment, and I think that’s right, to the extent that that’s the level you on which you have to buy into it in order to want to watch more. Given I often read on the level of idea, rather than character or story, that’s not a problem for me — I want to see Whedon’s takes on all the problems of identity that this sort of sf traditionally deals with; one thing that strikes me, for instance, is that given Doll technology exists, there is a level on which none of the characters can be trusted to be who they appear to be, which could, if Whedon and the other writers want, make Dollhouse an even more destabilizing show to watch than it already is — but I’m only too aware that most other people don’t consume narrative in that way.

6) Judged purely as a single episode of TV? It was OK. None of the cast amazed me, though Dushku was better than I’d expected. In principle I approve of the fact that it’s “Remote-free TV“, but in practice I’m not sure it made the best possible use of the additional minutes; indeed it felt a little slow at times. I liked the little moment of dissonance when Echo-as-negotiator claims “I’ve been doing this all my life”, and I appreciate that her force of personality is meant to outweigh the obvious incongruousness of someone so young making such a claim, but I’m not sure it quite came off. And the choice of an abduction/abuse plot was perhaps a little more heavy-handed than was required; in a way something more obviously glossy might have been more effective.

7) So yes, it’s doomed. Half a dozen episodes, maybe? But I’ll watch them all, and hope that I’m wrong. I enjoy, and think I understand, the grammar of a Joss Whedon TV show more than is the case with most other TV; as is perhaps obvious from the fact that I’ve written this post at all.

8) Of course, I could just be over-thinking it.