Put Away The Dollhouse: Part Two
With character issues at its centre, what else was making Dollhouse stumble when it should have been dancing?
Spoilers continue in part two of Put Away The Dollhouse, Or: Showing Contempt For Your Creation.
(Missed Part One? It's right here.)
It’s My Dollhouse Now
Within the Dollhouse - and within Dollhouse - Whedon isn’t represented on-screen by Topher, the character-creating programmer. Nor is he Active, handler or manager.
The renegade Active, programmed with myriad minds. He built his show machine out of cobbled-together parts, unsure yet how to really get it working at its best - and in the meantime he winds up the Dollhouse residents from afar, influencing actions, observing constantly, both encouraging responses and seeking to sabotage.
His is the eye that watches.
The pleasures of Dollhouse - and there are many - often come from moments that, generally, mean little to anyone on screen at the time. They matter to us, the observer, not them, the participants without self-awareness.
The statement “I am a doll” isn’t in the show’s vocabulary (yet). “He/she is a doll” is the main perspective. Compare to the series-defining statements “I’m the captain” and “I’m the slayer”.
This is a programme all about observation. It’s all on the viewer. The gasp moments for you - reveals, discoveries, shocks - are often ones of indifference for the characters. Which is an odd thing indeed. Think of all the big impact moments in Buffy, Angel and Firefly - then imagine them if the characters didn’t care.
It says something, certainly, but...there’s a gratification missing from Dollhouse. And having inactive Actives, directionless protagonists, is at the core of it.
Good drama is made up of characters beating personal obstacles, facing challenges that will make them better - or at least different - people. And it never gets to happen in Dollhouse. Because these aren’t the Actives’ goals. It’s ‘just’ their bodies that are in danger.
Show me their minds in trouble, then we’ll talk. How can we be happy for a girl getting her dream to sing, or a consultant facing her troubled history with kidnapping, when it’s not a real dream, a real history?
It’s like sport where you don’t support a team. If you love the game, you can find beauty in it, but you’re never gonna punch the air. And Whedon...well, his shows had me beating the air to a pulp.
So I’m watching a beautiful game being played well, but the only team I’m on is Team Whedon. I’m cheering for the sport, because the players do nothing for me.
Nowhere is this more pointedly obvious than in the DVD-exclusive final episode, which jumps into the future to show us the ultimate outcome of brain-programming technology. Which is, once again, damnably interesting, but it asks us to be omniscient - to know more than anyone on screen. When you apply what you’ve learned here to the second series, you’re not travelling with the characters.
You’re their all-seeing, silent god.
Never before have you heard so much dialogue created specifically to make you aware that even the show’s makers aren’t too keen on their subject matter. Make no bones about it, nobody thinks the Dollhouse has a moral or humanitarian leg to stand on.
Key to this is another basic premise flaw: the dolls are working for rich folks. Buffy, Angel and Firefly were all about the little people in a big system. Angel helped the hopeless, not those with the dough; Buffy’s friends were the school rejects, a cast of outcasts - a group that the crew of Serenity reproduce, writ large.
While it’s interesting to look at the belly of the beast from the inside, it didn’t help the weekly stories to do so. Pop stars with stalkers, rich old ducks who want to solve their own country house murders...ugh.
The ‘all-LA, all the-time’ setting wasn’t helping, either. Dollhouse carried the repetitive week-by-week visuals of crasser shows - knockabout stuff like Charlie’s Angels and The A-Team - without bringing their fun. From episode one’s unconvincing ‘South America’, we know we’re in trouble.
Bizarrely, the Angel-commanding Charlie’s philanthropic status would have been a wiser starting point for Dollhouse. A benevolent financier would have allowed the Dolls to take low-end assignments for the sake of human betterment, rather than just the cash. This would have allowed the same moral questions the show really wants to ask - about agreed slavery, removal of will, control - without that niggly ‘just for the rich folks’ feel. Which the programme seems in no hurry to discuss.
Except it was discussed - in the original, semi-rejected pilot. During a spot-on tension-at-work conversation between Saunders and Topher a brilliant wrinkle is introduced: that altruistic missions make the operatives feel better, in some deeper, more fundamental way than the programming provides. The removal of this concept lost the show the chance it had to get beyond the all-for-cash problem. Bring it back!
The pilot has a stack of similar good things about it, by the way. It kicks off the prostitution discussion immediately - a programmed Echo is used to prevent a girl being lured into the oldest profession by a sleazebag boyfriend. And in that one scene the ideological conflict is better realised than anything we got in the subsequent episodes - damned, no doubt, by the network’s interest in putting Dushku in fishnets whenever possible.
But don’t go away thinking the original pilot is overall a better show. The series certainly wouldn’t have been better off using it as a starting point. It’s a slow and ponderous 44 minutes, and ultimately better off ditched. It spends so long talking about the concept it forgets to prove the concept, except in the self-interests of protecting the Dollhouse. Sheer self-perpetuation isn’t really the stuff series are made of.
But it does nail certain points in a way the rest of the series never would.
We may be in the villain’s lair with the show, within Wolfram and Hart or the Empire, but indifferent leads and a gently negative ethos - ‘we don’t like this any more than you do, it makes us feel icky’ - aren’t helping to make it fun. Fascinating, but rarely fun.
BSG at least took the sensible route of having the Cylons start out as seeming bad, the more complex truth coming through as we went along. Dollhouse starts out saying it’s uncertain, and that uncertainty is both academically excellent - it’s a really, really bright show, and it has interesting, intelligent things to say - and dull.
This Organisation Totally Tolerates Failure
So what else is up?
Well, this is a pretty fucked-up branch of the Dollhouse business, what with all the deaths and failures. While Whedon can joke on commentaries about how it kinda needs to be to keep the stories coming, imagine if the CSI team spent their days investigating each other every week, trying to cover themselves. Or what if The West Wing prioritised the drama of political arse-covering over outside-world problem solving?
Then there’s the dialogue, which really does surprise in its almost total unwillingness to really sizzle. Buffy was hysterical at times, and the snap to Firefly’s banter - even during faltering early stories - was fabulous. So what’s this earnest drone masquerading as Whedonism? It’s not that he’s not allowed to ‘just be serious’, it’s just he hasn’t found a way to make us love the characters without it.
Inevitably, while establishing a new mythology the show runs into some pretty clunky logic flaws. Some episodes behave like there’s just one Dollhouse, others make a big deal of the network and hierarchy. Things that this ’House does for the first time don’t seem to be communicated to the others. When they hit trouble, they don’t call for help from outside. Why not? If there’s a programming/science problem, isn’t it likely that the experts in the other dozen houses might be able to provide insight or suggest a direction? (To be fair, Buffy went back and forth on the plural of ‘hellmouth’...but Buffy was fun.)
There’s also some duff storytelling, even in the stronger episodes. Dominic is found to be a government spook, sending information out by having Dolls speak it to Tedious Terry the FBI agent. After deliberately getting him sacked. Huh?! If Dominic is an NSA insider, why isn’t he just, y’know, telling people? Or sending little invisible ink notes?
The Alpha history, too, is clunky. A fairly mediocre set-up - ‘he fell into the big chair’ (suggesting the science of brain-loading is insanely simple) - creates a ‘baddie in waiting’, which was something Buffy also struggled to make credible week after week. But where the mystical Buffyness - the sheer fantasy of it all - allowed some leeway, this more straight-science, serious-drama tone doesn’t.
Or how about un-programming Echo mid-mission via mobile phone? Actually a neat story, but it puts her life in major jeopardy - so what’s Alpha’s motive for doing it if, as it turns out, he likes her so much? And where the hell did he get the tech knowhow to do it on his hurried way out of the ’House, especially when Topher (and presumably the other programmers elsewhere, who knows?) couldn’t do it. And why on Earth wasn’t it followed up? If it happens once, it can happen again. Anyone gonna at least try 1471? (Yes, yes, okay: *69.)
And what’s with Saunders? She’s never heard of plastic surgery? All the science at the Dollhouse and she leaves her facial scars as they are? And how’s the morality of this one: the doctor’s a doll. So, eventually, she’s going to get her life back. Doesn’t what she went through - going from number one Active to patchwork puppet - void her contract? Isn’t she entitled to be sent home at that point?!
I know we’re on wobbly moral ground throughout, but in a 13 episode series that pulls the ‘actually, s/he’s a doll’ trick three times (with Victor, with November, and then with Whiskey - not counting the ‘bonus’ episode’s various bits of game-playing) it’s a gimmick too far, and one that opens up messy questions rather than setting us on an exciting new course.
But then, maybe we’re in such a mess because nobody was ever quite sure what Dollhouse really is...
Coming up - the show’s ironic identity crisis.