Warning: spoilers and intense geekery.
Hidden underground and spoken of only as urban legend, the Dollhouse, run by Adelle deWitte, is a place of needs and fantasies. Populated by Actives, volunteers whose memories are routinely wiped to allow their brains to be imprinted with new, custom-made personalities, the Dollhouse can provide anything from a hostage negotiator to a dominatrix for any engagement specified by their (extremely wealthy) clients. Kept in a blank, childlike state when not on missions, the Actives are supposed to have no residual personalities – but one doll, Echo (Eliza Dushku), begins to challenge that definition. As FBI Agent Paul Ballard endures the ridicule of his collagues to hunt down the Dollhouse, Echo begins to experience flashbacks to her previous life. What is real purpose of the Dollhouse? What role does the Rossum Corporation play in its operation? And what secrets are hiding in Echo’s past?
What with one thing and another, I only began watching Season 1 of Dollhouse this week, when our DVD copy arrived. I finished it last night, which meant that my efforts at falling asleep afterwards were thwarted by a strong desire to sit and think about the show. From the moment Dollhouse was announced, it has been the subject of extremely mixed reviews: people both love and hate it, but there’s also a strong middle contingent who like the later episodes, but not the first five, or who are resentful of various elements. One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen centres on the fact that Echo, the protagonist, lacks a personality, making it impossible to care about her development. Given that strong characters are a Joss Whedon hallmark, this has also lead to complaint within the geek community that Whedon has abandoned his strengths, and further, to the opinion that many people are only watching Dollhouse out of loyalty to his earlier work – that is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.
Given that I’m a fan of all those ealier shows, and having been knee-deep in negative press since day one, it’s something of an understatement to say that I’ve brought nerves and tredpidation to Dollhouse. I was braced for it to be awful or melodramatic, perhaps after the fashion of the Jasmine arc on Season 4 of Angel, of which I was not overly enamoured. In accordance with the views of various blogs, I was prepared to endure confused plotlines, bad characterisation, a proliferation of unnecessary detective/cop elements, cheesy sets and untenable ideas – not all at once, of course, because everyone percieves things differently, but I was keeping an open mind as to where the flaws would lie. In short, despite my great affection for Joss Whedon, I had donned the mental equivalent of mourning garb. Watching would be like attending a funeral: there would be moments of great beauty and sadness, but overall, the sense would be one of loss, missed opportunity and things gone wrong.
Instead, I loved every minute of it.
The writing is brilliant – wry, wacky, intelligent and with that subtle thread of poetry I’ve come to expect from Whedon’s work. The sets are beautiful. The acting is brilliant, as is the versatility and range of the actors. Superficially, it’s different from anything Whedon has done before, but the soul of the show is built around questions of identity, moral grey areas, the boundaries of science and the essence of human nature, which, quite arguably, are at the core of all his previous endeavours. In accordance with the universal dictum that nothing is perfect, the fight scenes, though choreographed with a certain savage beauty, are irksome. Unlike the equivalent biffo in Buffy and Angel, their length and extreme violence lack the justification of supernaturally strong protagonists. A better move might have been to borrow from Firefly, where the encounters were short, brutal and tended to result in actual, visible injuries. But as gripes go, disliking the fight scenes is hardly pivotal: what matters are the plot and characterisation, neither of which suffers for having Paul Ballard thrown into one too many tables.
For me, there is no truth to the assertion that Dollhouse is a major departure for Whedon. Going back to his earlier shows, it’s easy to see a genuine and prolonged fascination with questions of identity, choice, morality and human nature. Looking at Buffy, the show is rife with scenarios designed to make the audience think about who the characters really are. Though its mechanisms are different – robot copies, soulless vampire dopplegangers, split selves, bodyswaps, magical compulsions and spirit possessions all stand in for the mindwipes and personality imprints of Dollhouse – their purpose is the same: to show us the impact of different personas inhabiting the same body. In the Season 4 episode Who Are You, for example, Buffy and rogue slayer faith Faith swap bodies, allowing each to see how the other is nominally treated. By viewing herself from the outside, Faith literally comes face to face with the truth of her own crimes, such that, when she is forced to attack her own body, she lays into it with a vengeance, screaming obscenities, not at Buffy, who she is osentisbly fighting, but at herself. Compare this scene to the end of Omega, the 12th Dollhouse episode, where Echo’s body plays host to an amalgam of every personality imprint she’s ever used, while her original, pre-Dollhouse persona, Caroline, is downloaded into the body of a random girl. Echo tells Caroline that, in signing up for the Dollhouse program, she has effectively abandoned herself: that the person speaking is not a person at all, but only a ‘porch light, waiting for you to come home.’
Angel, too, plays similar games with our notions of identity. In Season 5, Fred’s body is hollowed out and ultimately stolen by the demon Illyria over the course of two episodes, A Hole in the World and Shells. Fred’s soul is destroyed, but Illyria still has access to her memories and can, indeed, mimic her behaviour exactly, forcing a constant evaluation of her own identity. At the same time, Fred’s lover, Wesley, finds himself constantly haunted by the physical presence of the woman he loved. Illyria is drawn to Wesley, and offers to become Fred in order to comfort him, but Wesley refuses: it might be the same body, he says, but Fred’s soul is gone, and anything Illyria offers him is a lie. By contrast, Episode 9 of Dollhouse, A Spy in the House of Love, sees a lonely Adelle trysting secretly with Victor, having fallen in love with one of his imprinted personalities. One poignant scene has Victor suggest the two run away together: Adelle knows this is impossible, but still talks longingly of a world without clocks, where it it just the two of them. The pretense ultimately proves too much for her: by the end of the episode, she orders the beloved personality shelved, all while watching Victor, now in his doll state, walk obliviously by.
It’s harder to make comparisons with Firefly. Not only was it shortlived, but it was also a different sort of show, arguably constituting a greater thematic departure from Buffy and Angel than Dollhouse has done, though certainly not in any negative sense. Even so, the episode Our Mrs Reynolds still manages to provoke questions of identity, when Saffron, ostensibly a naive young woman, stows away on Serenity, claiming to have been married to Mal the night before in payment for the crew ridding her settlement of bandits. As things turn out, ‘Saffron’ is a highly trained conwoman and assassin: her transformation from one persona to another makes for a fantastic twist, but also serves to highlight the difference a change of behaviour makes in our perception of the same person. To all intents and purposes, ‘Saffron’ never existed – like Echo’s personality imprints, she was a means to an end, but that doesn’t mean there’s noting underneath. More generally in Firefly, the technology used to turn River Tam into a psychic is an interesting predecessor to the Dollhouse chair. Both are tools with an immediate, illicit application linked to the murkier, higher purpose of a shadowy organisation: the Rising Sun Corporation in Firefly, and the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse. Given Joss Whedon’s penchant for naming all things with a purpose, the phonetic similarity hardly seems a coincidence.
To my way of thinking, the most powerful Dollhouse episodes in Season 1 are Echoes and Needs (7 and 8, respectively), which recall the very best of Whedon’s not inconsiderable abilities. As part of his continued seeking after identity, a favourite technique has been the addition of some new element, be it magical or chemical, which causes the characters to behave differently. In Echoes, this is a drug which causes a loss of inhibitions: Adelle, Dominic and Topher act like stoned children, while the supposedly immune Actives undergo traumatic flashbacks to events they were meant to have forgotten. In Buffy, there are many equivalent examples to choose from. Chief among these are Band Candy (Season 3), in which a shipment of enchanted chocolate causes the adults of Sunnydale to revert to their teenage personalities; Something Blue (Season 4), where a grieving Willow accidentally lays a series of magical compulsions on her friends; and Tabula Rasa (Season 6), wherein a memory spell backfires, causing every member of the main cast to forget who they are. Angel, too, has similar moments, although these play as direct counterparts to earlier Buffy episodes: Spin the Bottle (Season 4) sees our heroes revert to their teenage selves, while Life of the Party (Season 5) has Lorne in Willow’s shoes, unwittingly causing his friends to take his instructions to their literal extreme.
There’s a lot of mischief to these episodes, a topsy-turvey examination of the logic behind our actions, and – perhaps more significantly – the fact that our logic changes over time. Remove the guidance of earlier lessons, these stories suggests, and our behaviour certainly alters – but what of our personalities? In her original life as Caroline, Echo was strong, capable, a lateral thinker, compassionate and determined. We are given glimpses of this in flashbacks, but her core behaviours are also evidenced at moments of vulnerability, when the brainwashing of the Dollhouse breaks down and her real personality emerges. The extent of this phenomenon is explored throughout Dollhouse, but particularly in Needs, when several of the Actives are allowed to escape. The purpose of the exercise is to bring them emotional closure: once they find what they want, a sedative in their brains kicks in. They are then retrieved and restored to the Dollhouse, ready to be wiped.
What’s so intriguing about the show is the success with which it juggles the morality of the Dollhouse. We do not hate the sharp, wry Adelle, who runs the house, nor do we depise Topher, the babbling boy genius in charge of the imprint technology. Neither are we comfortable with the practise of what is, essentially, slavery. From flashbacks, we know that Echo signed a contract to spend five years in the Dollhouse, and that she knew exactly what she was getting herself in for. At the same time, we know that Sierra, at least, had no say in the matter, and that Adelle is not beyond turning her enemies into dolls. In at least one instance, we have seen an Active complete their term of service and leave, fully paid and unharmed, despite having no memory of what they’ve done. But this is still not an ideal solution: as Echo/Caroline struggles to assert her personality, it becomes clear that she won’t be whole until all her memories are restored to her – not just the ones she came in with, but knowledge of everything that’s happened to her since then. There are moments of moral clarity, and moments when we know, with absolute certainty, that something is wrong. But between these extremes are many shades of grey, and one which, so far, Whedon is doing an excellent job of exploring.
For all my doubts and preconceptions, I enjoyed every episode of Dollhouse. This is intelligent, challenging television, and an in-depth look at some of Joss Whedon’s most favoured and long-standing themes. I haven’t started Season 2 yet, not having access to it, but if what I’ve seen thus far is anything to go by, we’re in for some clever, moving and thought-provoking narratives – which is exactly what Whedon has always excelled at providing.