Tuesday 26 February 2013

Dollhouse, Season 1.

Last year, my best friend got me hooked on Joss Whedon's cult classic "space western," Firefly. This year she has introduced me to another, lesser-known Whedon series: Dollhouse. The titular Dollhouse is a top secret organisation which provides employees for very specific jobs. Kind of like a temp agency, you might think - except that instead of matching the job to the employee, they create the employee from scratch to be just what the client needs: inventing the memories, skills and personalities to provide satisfaction. But these new-made people are programmed into existing bodies, or "dolls," whose personalities have been erased to make room for these new people - backed up onto disc and removed from their minds. A "doll" can be a detective, or a wife (or husband), a pop star's backing singer, or a teacher - or a spy so convincing that even they don't know that they are anything other than what they are pretending to be. These aren't actors; these are people designed to specification. They fulfill their duties, return to the Dollhouse, where this personality is wiped and they return to their vapid, childlike state, ("Did I fall asleep?" - those words gets seriously creepy after a while.) floating around the house taking endless showers and eating banana pancakes, ("I like pancakes.") until their new role comes up and they go to be reprogrammed.

It must be an extremely challenging role to play one of the "actives," as each week, they are a different character. The series follows one particular "doll," codenamed Echo, and every time you watch an episode, you're in a different show - detective, conspiracy, thriller, romance, etc. The first episodes merely show her in her jobs, the dollhouse staff, and Paul Ballard, an FBI agent who is trying to find out all about the whole sketchy business. And then Echo starts remembering things that have not been programmed into her, memories from before she became an empty "doll," when she was a student activist named Caroline. And that is just when it starts getting weird. Um, weirder.

Dollhouse is a show that engages my brain more than my heart, at first, raising a hundred and one questions about what it is to be human, what makes an individual, and free will. But with a main character who changes personality every week, you need a flexible actress. Eliza Dushku plays Echo/Caroline adequately, convincing in each new role, but never really making me feel any attachment to her - probably because we never get to know any of the characters very well or for very long. But I care for the other "dolls" - notably Sierra and Victor - more. They, like Echo, are rewritten in each episode, but, like Echo, things seep through that shouldn't, making them more like "real people" than the Dollhouse intends.

And when many characters are in charge of an organisation that takes away people's humanity, often by coercion or force, making them do and say and be anything, with the belief that this is really their own choice, it is difficult to like or care for them. I do, however, like Boyd Langton, Echo's bodyguard, a fairly decent, fatherly type of character who seems to be conflicted about the organisation he works for. But he still works for the Dollhouse. Perhaps I trust him mainly because Echo's trust in him is so complete - and programmed into her. Hmm. But he does seem to have more of a sense of morality than the rest of the staff, who put their consciences to one side for science.

I'm also fond of Topher, the immature and rather bratty youthful genius in charge of actually programming the dolls. I understand he was a fairly unpopular character in the early episodes - though he does start to get a bit of poignant character development around episode 10 of the series - but for me he was some refreshing relief and humour in an unexpectedly dark programme. The morality of the Dollhouse doesn't trouble him much, because he is loving the unique opportunity to do what he loves and what he does well: messing around with cutting-edge technology and showing off. He is maybe arrogant, maybe irritating, but he has a childlike energy that contrasts with the stern, businesslike Adele DeWitt (who seems to be universally loved, but aside from her Britishness and occasional hints of vulnerability - and a wonderful comic scene in episode 7, I don't get it.)

 It's difficult to say much more without giving away major spoilers for the last few episodes. Just mentioning minor details highlights their significance, and I watched the first season entirely unspoiled, and that was awesome. But the entire point of writing about this thing is to rave about it. So, um. The big one, I guess, is the introduction of a character, played by an actor I knew from elsewhere, who turned out NOT to be what I expected from his first appearance in the show.

If you've seen the programme, highlight the white text below and watch my mind exploding in spoilery and semi-coherent squealing.

>>>WASH IS ALPHA! Alan Tudyk, guest-starring as a cowardly, hippy nerd afraid of backless staircases, turns out to be THE major villain of the entire series. And he is terrifying in the role. The transformation was one of the most stunning pieces of acting in the entire show, and probably the best thing I've seen him as. I started off thinking, "Oh, look, it's a Firefly cameo, sweet. I love Wash. Dear old Wash." and ended up half an hour later thinking, "hold on, that was Wash? I can hardly believe it."

And then, ALL OF EPITAPH 1. I mean, the fact that it is called Epitaph and not Epilogue started setting off the alarm bells in my mind. Episode 12 seemed like such a perfect finale to season one, that I could not figure out what episode thirteen had to add. (I later discovered that it was added on because Fox needed a thirteen-part series, and the pilot was deemed unsuitable.) And MY GOODNESS it is different. Flash forward ten years from the story-so-far, and the world is unrecognisable. The Dollhouse technology has been developed and advanced, before being taken over by hostile forces to bring about war and worldwide destruction. ("Children playing with matches, and they burned the house down." - *shudder*) "Epitaph 1" shifts the genre of Dollhouse the most dramatically yet from speculative/science fiction/alternative present to a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic horror. This is what the series is headed for. This is the unavoidable conclusion. Beware. I wrote earlier that the series appealed to my mind less than my feelings, but evidently I've grown fonder of these characters. "Epitaph 1" switches between the ten-year flash-forward, focused upon new characters, and a series of flashbacks hinting at the fates of the characters we've spent the last twelve episodes getting to know. And it is heart-wrenching. Whedon sure knows how to rip your feelings up. He broke Topher! Oh, poor Topher. I now realise that what he did to Wash "I am a leaf on the Wind" in Serenity was the kind option. CURSE YOU, WHEDON!!!!<<<

I've hidden the spoilers for the sake of people who haven't seen the series but want to. So far, I've only seen the first season, so please don't leave any season 2 spoilers in the comments. (Or if you absolutely HAVE to rave about what I haven't seen yet, I suggest coding it at rot13.com so that I can read it later on. Go ahead. Laugh at my ignorance of what is to come.)

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