Shiny Shelf

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: Season Two DVD/Blu-ray

By Jim Smith on 14 October 2010

“It doesn’t have to mean anything. It just is.”

‘Dollhouse’ was, in case you are part of the  vast majority of the population that it entirely passed by, a short lived US TV show. It was about  people who are involved, in various assorted capacities, with the evil Rossum Corporation, which  ”hires out” a variety of young, attractive people who live in the titular ‘Dollhouse’ to the very rich as to do with as they will.

If you think that makes it sound like a show about institutionalised prostitutes and their  corporate pimps, you’d be, if we’re honest, more right than not. The SF twist on the concept is that the people hired out are ‘Actives’, docile creatures with, ostensibly anyway, no real personalities of their own but who can have personalities which suit each “assignment” imprinted onto them.

‘Dollhouse’ was created by Joss Whedon, he of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ fame, and starred Eliza Dushku, who memorably featured in both ‘Buffy’ and its spin off ‘Angel’ as rogue bad girl slayer Faith. It ran for two short seasons before being cancelled, with the second season itself coming as a surprise to the production team, who expected the series to be canned after the first season. (The final episode of which, ‘Epitaph One’, was never screened but still managed to pick up a nomination for the Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form Hugo Award.)

In some ways, with its pop-culture reference dialogue, attractive cast, female lead and season long arc plots, it’s a natural successor to Whedon’s signature show.  In others, particularly in regard to the sleaziest aspects of its premise, it feels like Whedon playing against  his reputation for creating and writing strong female characters and dealing with complex character and social issues through metaphor and analogy.

In ‘Dollhouse’, the series’ central concept is exploitative rather than empowering; the main character ‘Echo’ (Dushku) is an ‘Active’, hence one of the ‘hired outs’ and she’s played by a lads’ mag favourite. In practice these means a lot of lingering shots of an attractive young woman playing dress up and/or humiliating herself for the gratification of others. The problem comes when it’s unclear if those others are the characters using the dolls or the audience for the series itself. This is a series ickily stuck in a situation whereby in order to be portray something voyeuristic and exploitative it has to, at best, veer very close to being voyeuristic and exploitative itself. The ’sexy’ stuff is ill-advised, to say the very least.

The second problem is audience expectation related to Whedon’s aforementioned skill in using metaphor; in ‘Buffy’ the metaphorical demons of adolescence were rendered as actual demons and High School really was the worst place in the world, with surviving it a triumph in its own right. ‘Dollhouse’ is, according to someone on wikipedia anyway, about “the disastrous consequences of what could happen if the ability to wipe away a person’s entire being could be put in the wrong hands”.

Well, er, quite.

It’s trying to  say things about the nature of personal  ’identity’, but never gets beyond “ooh, identity’s a bit more complex and tricky than you might think, innit?”. Set in a world where personalities and memories can be stored on a memory card and flicked on and off with about the same effort it takes to turn off a light switch, ‘Dollhouse’ struggles with how to use its central conceit thematically.  The characters are permanently having crises related to the concept of ‘identity’ but said crises don’t function as illuminations of human behaviour or have any, even vague, relevance to the real world. They just are. For a science fiction series with a premise that tries to cut to core of what makes a human being human, it’s a staggeringly literal programme.

Season premiere, ‘Vows’ has to introduce a large numbers of characters with convoluted histories and relationships, and it mostly does this by having people tell each other things they should already know.  Of the vast number of regular, semi-regular and recurring characters, by far the most interesting and best played is clearly sexy, deluded hypocrite and middle manager of evil, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who runs the house. The basic plot (‘Echo’ doubly undercover as the new bride to an arms dealer that her Dollhouse ‘handler’ Ballard wants to bring down) is simple but sound and it does give you an idea of what the series is meant to be like. It’s slightly baffling that Guest Star Jamie Bamber (formerly of ‘Battlestar Galactica’) can no longer convincingly speak in his own accent, mind.

‘Vows’ is also the only episode of the season written and/or directed by Joss Whedon, who also supplies an engagingly honest and forthright commentary.  In this  he discusses, with occasional alarming frankness, the making of the season in general and the episode in particular. Subjects touched upon include the reduced budget, the sheer surprise of getting a second season (and the retooling of the series that was required to make such a thing work at all) and a scheduling conflict which resulted from Fox requiring him to both attend Comicon and direct an episode in the same week.

The thirteen episodes of the season don’t vary greatly in quality despite the numerous writers and directors involved. The overarching plots of Echo’s emerging self-awareness and turning against the Dollhouse, the political fighting between various branches of the Dollhouse and between the Rossum corporation and its enemies within and without course through most of them. Most episodes have some sort of individual plot too. ‘Instinct’ sees Echo sent undercover as the deceased mother of a young baby, a relatively simple assignment during which her programming starts go wrong. ‘The Public Eye’ and ‘The Left Hand’ bring to a head a plot, running since ‘Vows’, about attempts by Senator Perrin (Alexis Denisof) to expose the Dollhouse to the world. ‘Belle Chose’ tries to draw parallels between the Dollhouse and a serial killer (they both manipulate people) but doesn’t manage to use the situation to great thematic effect. ‘A Love Supreme’ sees the return of rogue Active ‘Alpha’, brilliantly played by Alan Tudyk. ‘Meet Jane Doe’ finds Echo as an on-the-run good Samaritan to an  abused Hispanic woman.  ’Stop Loss’ focuses on Active ‘Victor’ (the consistently superb Enver Gjoka) as he’s released back into the real world at the end of his contract with the Dollhouse. ‘The Attic’ shows us what happens to Actives who fight the system while ”Epitaph Two: The Return’, a finale partially culled out of cut scenes from earlier episodes is a sequel to the unscreened season one finale. It leaps forward ten years into the future, to allow us to see the final (?) results of ‘Echo’ and company’s battles against their exploiters.

‘Belonging’ is the real highlight. It features the first of several appearances by the ever excellent Keith Carradine and a cameo by Clyde Kusatsu (a minor US TV actor I’ve always liked). It’s a chance for Dichen Lachman, who plays Active ‘Sierra’ to shine, as we discover the how she came to be in the Dollhouse. It also uses a ludicrously over complicated structure to sell an incredibly straitforward storyline and shows us Adele becoming disgusted at the actions of a particular customer. Her cognitive dissonance over someone who is, broadly, no different to the rest of her clients, isn’t sold by the script, although the actress works very hard to make it come across. Dushku barely features at all here, demonstrating the extent to which this is an ensemble show, not a vehicle for her. (It also demonstrates, of course, the inherent problem in a series where the protagonist is not meant to be able to remember the events we witness them taking part in). Sierra’s revenge on the man who has been abusing her is is incredibly satisfying, thanks in part to clever direction from former ‘Star Trek’ stalwart Jonathan Frakes. Frakes carefully avoids the voyeuristic trap that often bedevils the series. Perhaps working intently on one of television’s most optimistic properties for so long gives Frakes the distance to make this episode work? ‘Belonging’ has the same ingredients as the other episodes but feels assured in its purpose and judgement in a way that the others often don’t.  It isn’t sleazy. It doesn’t seem “in” on the nastier aspects of the series in the way some others do. At times, it’s even sweet.

‘Dollhouse’ looks great (the lighting, in particular, is beautiful)  and the ongoing plot is engrossing and absorbing. Yet it’s convoluted rather than complex, if you see the distinction.  It has a lot of elements, but absolutely no depth. There are multiple subplots and counter conspiracies. Characters are written in and out. They change sides. They plot. The love.  They fight and die. They have fantastically over detailed backstories which come back to haunt them. None of them are particularly sympathetic, even when they start fighting the system that previously paid them to commit atrocities, but they’re all terrifically well played. The cast are absolutely excellent, quite amazingly high powered for something so unselfconsciously ridiculous.  (Other Guest Stars include Ray Wise, Summer Glau and Amy Acker)

There’s a lot going on, on the surface, and  you do keep coming back to the series until the end, because you want to find out what happens. The series ends with a satisfying and appropriate plot ‘click’.

Yet the sheer scale by which it fails to be about anything thematically speaking is staggering, especially coming from so many of the team behind ‘Buffy’, a show that couldn’t have done “hollow”‘if it tried. The very concept is abstract to the point of meaningless. “What if identity could be switched on and off?” isn’t an engagement with a real issue any more than Garth Marenghi’s “What if rats could drive? And then stole a bus? And then crashed it into the House of Commons?” is.

‘Dollhouse’  has a lot of drive, some terrific action sequences and is hugely entertaining. It’s just not about anything.

Actually that’s not fair;  it’s about 542 minutes. It’s also about fifteen quid on amazon. On balance, it’s definitely worth it, for the entertainment value alone. Just don’t expect to be enlightened or enriched by what transpires in the Dollhouse.

Line Break

One Response

  1. SK says:

    I suspect that what Whedon was trying to do, thematically, was not really to do with identity but rather something about the difference between desire and need: everyone, from the woman who runs the Dollhouse to the guy trying to expose them, has something they want and something completely separate that they need.

    I can’t help but wonder if the series was supposed to be his answer to the number of times Buffy, the Vampire slayer fans took against him for not having storylines go in their preferred direction. ‘Look,’ he’s saying, ‘This is the price of fantasy; this is what you get when you demand that people (even fictional characters) play the roles you demand of them; they stop being people and become shadows, less-than, mere projections of your own desires.’

    Certainly that seems to be the message of the stand-out manifesto episode of the first series, which delves into the motives of the guy who’s trying to save Eliza Dushku from the Dollhouse: does her really care about her qua her, or does he just want to play the white knight and therefore need her to be a damsel in distress (sadly a thread which doesn’t recur when the do get together in series two, as he swiftly suffers one of the programme’s trademark bizarre fates before the question of what, exactly, is driving the relationship between these two people who, effectively, have never met can really be explored).

    Unfortunately this attempted theme swiftly collapses under the sheer madness of the setting and the technology — you can kind of see them still groping towards it, as the baddies’ final plan is clearly the result of a compromise between trying to find a big evil plan and something that can if you squint be vaguely related to the theme (they want to gain immortality by hopping from body to body — that doesn’t really give away anything that isn’t obvious form the set-up — so in that crushingly literal way you identify, their desires literally involve turning other people into mere reflections of their own personality).

    But basically I think this is programme is, when you come right down to it, Whedon’s attempt at revenge on his own fans.

    Which makes it kind of ironic that none of them watched it.