Put Away The Dollhouse: Part One
Dollhouse has just been cancelled. And for all of us who watched Firefly killed in its prime, that’s undoubtedly a reason for unhappy mumbling and irate Tweeting. But with a first season so clumsy and flawed, were the problems of Dollhouse fixable, or was there something at its core getting in the way of real success?
Whedon fans beware - I adore the man’s previous TV work with the love of a twice-incarcerated stalker, but if you’re of the opinion that Dollhouse is, so far, a work of similar or equal genius, this piece is going to be pretty painful for you. As such, I ask you to hold on until part three, where the slagging-off will ease a little.
This piece has been written without yet seeing a single episode of season two, and I’ve wholly avoided spoilers for it. I’m hearing ‘improved, but not wholly fixed’, but whatever its qualities it wasn’t enough to halt the crash-diving ratings.
Series one spoilers aplenty, though, in this first part of Put Away The Dollhouse, Or: Who Am I Supposed To Identify With Here?
Meet The New Meme
If nothing else, Dollhouse was right at the centre of the zeitgeist. It’s a world of avatars. Gamer was in cinemas recently, along with the drab Bruce Willis-starring Surrogates, James Cameron’s Avatar is on the way, and certain themes also surfaced in John August’s underrated existence flick, The Nines.
Then there’s the honey-coated network pitch - “she plays a new role every week - many of them action or sex related!” - which is pretty irresistible. The ‘Charlie’s Angels goes sci-fi’ campaign, with cute outfits aplenty, pretty much Photoshopped itself.
But here’s the thing: Is the life of the avatar ever going to repay a viewer’s investment of time, energy and emotion? Is the Active’s journey the right one to be following?
The False Starts
All Whedon projects seem to have awkward beginnings. The ill-judged Buffy film - and if you read the script it’s not like it’s just the direction of the final flick that’s at fault - led to a self-funded TV pilot, and then a first season that managed to be sharp, funny and surprising...but didn’t really get to grips with the genius it really could be until the Angel episode, half-way through the first 13.
The Angel spin-off itself spent almost an entire season trying to be a detective series, a fantasy X-Files, before giving up and taking on the tropes it truly needed to become brilliant just in time for the season finale. It became a brilliant demon-y soap opera wrapped around a tale of rebellion against a multi-dimension evil corporate empire. There’s even the Matrix/Star Wars/All Things Ever ‘destiny’ for the hero. (Here’s looking at Shanshu, kid.)
And Firefly? The first feature-length pilot was so overwhelmed with characters and stories - and back-stories - that it struggled to cram in even a basic ‘deal gone bad’ plot over its run-time. The least-necessary (and twice-shot) pre-titles sequence ever doesn’t help: who needs to see why Han Solo dislikes the Empire? Isn’t it apparent after spending five minutes with the guy?
That wasn’t the first episode most people saw broadcast, of course. But The Train Job - the episode which took on the role of pilot when the feature-length original failed to impress the network - didn’t do much better. It wasn’t until mid-way, with Our Mrs Reynolds that the show found a way to hit one to the fences - and episodes were dropped to get that show on air sooner.
Dollhouse shares these issues, but unlike its predecessors never found a way to smack a home run in season one. But at least, by the end, it was putting guys on bases. (I’m British, so this baseball schtick may not be wholly authentic. A short stop’s like an interval, right?)
It’s interesting to note that while Angel kicked off with too few characters - a mere three regulars - Firefly kicked off with far too many, a total of nine. Too many, too few...which way did Dollhouse go? Well...
The Challenge Factor
Whedon has always been a showrunner who wants to challenge himself.
Having been endlessly praised for brilliant, twisty dialogue, he wrote Hush, the Buffy episode which rendered its characters mute. When everyone applauds the emotional impact of his shows, he tries for the most gut-punching episode ever, The Body, without the support of a score. Think you can’t do a musical episode that goes beyond novelty value? Think again.
So when people tell the guy he’s created three shows that make you ache with love for their characters, what does he do?
He kinda makes a show without characters.
In Dollhouse, Echo is presented as the lead. But after the schoolgirl who saves the world between homework assignments, the ensouled vampire who battles evil and the misanthropic pirate captain who cares for his crew, she’s not offering us a lot to hold on to. Hardly her fault, being brain-wiped and all, but there’s a clash between our desire for an immersive, subjective experience and the blank-slate heroine we have.
Echo was pitched as the one operative who was different from the others, who was starting to become a full human being again. And while this process was taking place, it was happening with agonising slowness.
Echo’s growth in the first season was clumsily handled. Unlike the girl looking to stop the apocalypse and still be on time for gym class, there are no clear character desires. She shows no signs of wanting to remember, wanting to claim an identity. Her conflicts are either episodic - issues her temporary identity has to face - or abstract, flashes of something she has no ability to comprehend. What does she want? Who knows.
Worse, though, is the way we were watching the journey rather than experiencing it. Echo’s growth was happening to someone who’s incapable of being anything other than indifferent about it. Those anticipating the tension of an individual trying to carry out their work while struggling to hide their world-changing secret were disappointed. Echo’s indifference essentially remained after a dozen episodes.
So who can we follow?
That FBI Guy
Ballard. Tedious, tedious Ballard.
The lack of a driven, plot-advancing lead character forced the show to go elsewhere for its drive - and wound up with the same problem that blighted the almost-excellent Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Both shows suffer the same issues. Back-foot heroes running ‘from’ rather than ‘to’ (or not running at all), and so, by the nature of the situation, the writers end up having to hand screen time to a near non-entity simply so that someone can be seen to be doing something. The quest of the obsessive federal agent was the dullest content in T:TSCC and it was the dullest stuff here. In a world of big problems - cyborgs from the future or deep-level mind-swaps of the high-tech kind - the FBI guy (even more so when he goes rogue) is smalltime, a ‘Book em, Danno’ investigator so irrelevant to the promise of a coming apocalypse as to be insulting in his quantity of screen-time.
And he’s dull. God, he’s dull. Turn Ballard to view him from a different angle and you just get more of the same. Dogged, frustrated, obsessive, unintentionally creepy. Yet he’s the only hero character. The only one who has a strong enough through-line, who makes progress and takes hits every week and carries the audience along with him.
Trouble is, his isn’t a journey we’re interested in. We don’t want the Dollhouse found, we want the show to go on - because no Dollhouse means no show. So we’re following a quest even as we will it to fail. (Come the finale, of course, this would be diffused - not before time.)
The Gang’s Not All There
Wherever you look, there’s another character whose show Dollhouse definitely isn’t.
It’s not the story of the dolls. One episode makes a good attempt - by reworking the ‘waking up without memories’ episodes of Buffy and Angel - but, bottom line, you can’t identify with a blank slate.
It’s not the story of the Dollhouse manager/runner, Adelle, despite her running a pretty shoddy operation. There’s an angle here, but she’s a speechifying, crack-pasting character who struggles to hold our empathy, and the tale never belongs to her.
It’s not the story of Echo’s handler Boyd. Harry J. Lennix makes this Watcher-esque role rich and layered, and the character does the right things - questioning the nature of the work, showing fatherly concern - but he’s a Dollhouse employee, not a man on a mission.
It’s certainly not the story of security chief Dominic, who’s so obviously an untrustworthy scumbag it comes as no surprise at all when he’s revealed as an untrustworthy scumbag. It’s a nice role for Reed Diamond, though - the cast of Dollhouse is rarely less than great - but he’s surely down to guest appearances now.
It might have been the story of the doctor asked to patch up the Dolls. Amy Acker’s contract notwithstanding - she only appears fleetingly in season two, apparently - this could have been an interesting angle. “I’ve just found out that my employers are brainwashers” has potential, with the same ‘doing the job and sabotaging the job’ themes Echo promised but never delivered - there’s a show in that.
But Dr. Saunders is already in deep when we meet her...and that’s before she’s revealed as a Doll herself. So much for that.
It could be genius/geek Topher’s show, for similar reasons as above. But, again, as we join the in-progress tale he’s entirely too complicit - it’s lightly implied that much of the tech comes from Topher, and there’s no sign of the Frankenstein story playing out especially effectively.
Topher also channels the geeky archetype so beloved by Whedon fans - myself included - as a representation of self on-screen. Xander, Andrew, Wash, Topher. But, these days at least, it’s us rather than Whedon up there.
The writer once claimed that he began Buffy seeing himself as Xander and ending up as Giles, and if you look at the way the show begins by idolising Buffy and ends up slightly pitying her, that carries some heavy resonance.
So Topher has been (incorrectly) seen as Whedon’s representation within Dollhouse. But, like Xander before him, the character is doomed to be the Zeppo. It ain’t his story.
Not that it matters, because you’ll find Whedon elsewhere...
Coming up - Whedon’s true on-screen roll in the Dollhouse.