I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story as spectacularly ill-conceived as Dollhouse, and I choose those words very specifically. I knew going in that the first five episodes were supposed to be not great, a victim of executives forcing episodic storytelling on the show, so it was shocking when it seemed like every step it took in those episodes was the wrong one. They told a story about a group of experts in a field invented specifically for the story, and then kept hinging the plots on huge mistakes and unforeseen situations. They put in Ballard, an Inspector Javert character who pursues the Dollhouse relentlessly; it makes sense to give him a poor reputation in the FBI so he can heroically prove them all wrong, but they decided to make him totally incompetent, having never closed a single case. Perhaps worst of all, the central premise of the story makes absolutely no goddamned sense and requires some massive leaps to buy into, and the show does everything it can to undermine my suspension of disbelief. How is the Dollhouse simultaneously so top secret that only the absolute rich and powerful have access to it and something basically everyone on the street has heard of? How exactly does ‘selectively renting out elaborately brainwashed sex slaves we store in a resort’ work as a business model? I suspect “rich people who are evil enough to hire a sex slave but guilty enough about it to hire one who’ll actually enjoy the process” isn’t a particularly viable demographic.
There are two points where Dollhouse takes a notch up in quality: “Man On The Street”, where the plot begins moving, and season two’s “The Public Eye”, where it hits the accelerator and never slows down again. But even then, there are fundamental creativeissues that made this show a chore to watch, all the way up to that stunningly stupid final twist capping off “Getting Closer”. Plotwise, for all its originality, this is downright standard television plotting, where twists depend on revealing some information to the viewer that recontextualises everything we knew up until now. There’s things like the history of the woman who gave her body up to create our protagonist, there’s the inner workings and history of the Dollhouse, and after season one there’s the mystery of how the future we saw in “Epitaph One” will come to pass. This often extends to the structure of individual episodes, especially post-“Man On The Street”; “Haunted” is basically an Agatha Christie mystery where the detective is the imprint o’ the week solving her own murder, with revelations and counter-revelations of who the murderer was. This isn’t inherently a bad idea – I actually love the idea of using a traditional structure to hold up a totally original idea and make it easier for an audience to grasp – but I feel like the series is limited in such a way as to make its twists predictable.
This series seemed to me to have no sense of home up until “The Public Eye”. The whole premise is that the heroes can do anything and will be anyone, which precludes character development on the part of the Dolls or interest in seeing the same process over and over a la hunting killers on The Shield or bounty hunting on Cowboy Bebop. Ostensibly, we could get pleasure out of the process of sending Dolls out into the field, and some of my favourite moments in the series come from the clever ways the characters use the rules of their world; my all-time favourite scene is when Topher, the scientist responsible for the Doll’s personalities, imprints them to outrank their handler Dominic purely to annoy him. It’s very strange to empathise with someone who is resenting the fact that he’s now incapable of ordering around the creatures he’s supposed to be the caretaker of without compromising the mission they’re on (“Sure. Now you’re experts. Four hours ago you were discussing your love for apple sauce.”). And some of the really fun twists come about as a logical extension of the rules we’ve already been playing with, like when Echo suddenly has her personality wiped in the middle of an operation, or when a spy in the Dollhouse uses Echo to get a message to Ballard. This place operates under some horrific rules, but if you follow them, you can go somewhere really strange and wonderful. On a meta level, too, there are a few different ideas it’s gleefully fooling with; there’s the pleasure of watching actors create a different highly detailed persona every episode, and the direction aims for stylised exaggeration along the lines of Scrubs, or a half-speed version of Edgar Wright. Unfortunately, it also exists to generate moral outrage.
That second shifting of gears allows that outrage to come to the fore. It was always present; Ballard the FBI Javert was the loudest proponent for the idea that the Dollhouse was inherently evil, and as the story goes by, it becomes apparent that we’re watching the story of a woman imbued with a special Goodness that gives her the power to take on industrialised evil. This is a kind of story I find tedious at best; if there is some objective Goodness out there, I don’t think we’ll find it in a person (sure as shit can’t find it in Joss Whedon), so I have no use for a story that runs on that assumption, and I’m just not gonna react in the way Whedon wants me to. And even then, it still grinds against the idea that Echo is increasingly empowered by her situation; the show somehow plays what happened to her as both a violation, and as a kickass bunch of superpowers that lets her hit some kind of psychological singularity (or, to put it another way, basically takes away anything cool or original about the premise of uploading personalities into a person and turns it into just The Matrix). Really, all of my problems with this show come from a single issue: I don’t think Joss Whedon thought this shit through properly. I think he came up with the initial idea of a place where people give themselves up to be brainwashed into spy-prostitutes, and he thought up all the different ways people might react to that, and he worked out the precise way he thought would make people react in a specific way, and he came up with preemptive responses to those reactions in order to beat the viewer’s reaction into submission.
In watching and thinking about this series, I started to think that Whedon and I have a lot of the same instincts. I think we’re both drawn to and fascinated by other people’s feelings, and I think we’re both theorisers. I think what Whedon does is come up with theories that will let him control people’s feelings, and I think that drives a lot of his career. His dialogue isn’t naturalistic, it’s an artful facsimile of naturalism. His initial works, Buffy and Angel, are aimed at teenagers, more likely to take his word at face value, more drawn to bold declarations of things they agree or half-agree with because they have so much less language for the feelings they possess than adults. Firefly is a straightforward genre work is a simple hook – make a space western where both halves of the equation are given equal importance – and that hook feeds into every moment of the series. The thing that stuck with me from my analyses of that series is how you religious fuzzy-wuzzies observed that everything quoted from the Bible in the series is actually just gibberish. I actually like the idea of that – that he can work out how Biblical language works and use its rules to generate more of it, and indeed much of the joy of the series is in how Whedon writes his dialogue in the spirit of cowboy talk. But it also speaks to the risks of living by theories. A theory without hard data is just a hypothesis, and at times it seems like it hasn’t even occurred to Whedon that his ideas could be, like, factually incorrect.
I was struck by a moment in the first episode, where Topher explains that they faked bad eyesight in Echo essentially by interrupting the signal between her eyes and her brain. I hopefully don’t have to explain that bad eyesight doesn’t work like that. If you make her brain interpret the signals from her eyes wrong, she’s still, you know, wearing goddamned glasses that should be fucking up her eyes (unless she’s wearing plastic lenses, which would be obvious to the people around her). I thought this was, like, literally elementary knowledge because it’s something I learned by grade four. Either Whedon doesn’t know how eyes work, or he thought it wasn’t relevant to my verisimilitude, but it was enough to make me question exactly how competent his characters were at any given moment (and I was already thinking, ‘man, I’m not 100% sold on the particular approach to hostage negotiation Whedon’s trying to sell me here’). Ideals are good, but ideals that either don’t take into account reality or actively fly in the face of reality are useless and dangerous. Whedon wants to inspire people, but he’s not always willing to do the actual work to do that.
- The other thing that struck me is how, at least in this series, Whedon seems incapable of writing someone who doesn’t think like him. Everyone in this series is a philosopher who specifically chose their worldview after careful consideration of the facts. There aren’t any Vic Mackeys who just react to things, there aren’t any Lems who feel a sense of wrongness and can’t really articulate that, and there aren’t any Ronnie Gardockis who don’t care about explaining themselves to others.
- I totally called Ballard’s neighbour being a Doll and the crusading senator being a Doll, but these were cases where it only made the reveal more awesome. I also called Boyd as a Doll, and man, was I wrong about that.
- Alan Tudyk is absolutely brilliant as Alpha. It takes his ability to switch objectives midsentence in an entirely new direction. I was vaguely disappointed when season two remade him as a generic smug supervillain.
- The concept of “Epitaph One”, both in plot and in structure, totally rules. In a way, it’s what Whedon should have done this whole time, letting him jump straight to the Awesome Speeches and ownage and let the viewer work out the connecting tissue themselves. Much of the weakness of the plot o’ the week stories is that they overexplain the lives of the client o’ the week, rather than feeding us more details to put together.
- Ballard reminded me of Mal, down to some of his lines having the same motivation driving them. I don’t care enough about him to think about that deeper.
- Of all the characters, I liked Boyd the best. I was sold on him in the second episode, where I totally bought his arc of deciding he loved Echo, partially because he started brutally owning anyone who threatened her. I really didn’t like the final twist of him turning out to be one of the cofounders of Rossum. Boyd was highly practical and businesslike to the point of having a stick up his ass; I could buy him slowly deciding he’d fallen in love with his family, but after the revelation he seemed to turn into a ten year old boy with a gun. That said, his death was vaguely sad. Not only was he the only one I genuinely liked, his death required creating a Doll and then convincing it to commit suicide, and by the time I got to the end, I had been completely sold on the Dolls as a a) their own person independent of the original personality and b) a symbol of both victimhood and innocence. Echo saved the day by passing on her violation to someone else and then tricking an innocent into suicide. You could say that I bought more into the premise than any of the characters ever did.