Monday 25 March 2013

Dollhouse: Season 2

Contains season one spoilers, season two spoilers, anguished cries of "WHY?" and cursing of the name of Joss Whedon. You have been warned.

So, everything hurts and nothing is okay. Why do we do this? Why do we, as humans, enjoy getting our feelings ripped out and shoved in a blender in the name of entertainment? Is it because we learn to deal with the highs and lows that life throws at us, in a safe environment because it's not real? Perhaps so, but sometimes even the fiction can break our heart and make us feel actual physical pain which is generally not considered enjoyable. And yet we go back for more. Joss Whedon is known for being the master of emotion-manipulation, and is simultaneously loved and cursed for it.

Funny I should say this about a television series that I initially described as "engaging my brain more than my heart." Somewhere along the line, Dollhouse changed and I started caring. Really caring. Season two is overshadowed by a sense of doom, as we know what the future has in store, thanks to Season one's finale, "Epitaph One."

It was a risky decision to have a foregone conclusion, but in this case I think it worked. "Epitaph One" showed a post-apocalyptic world where the dollhouse technology has ended up in the hands of those who use it as a weapon in an attempt to achieve immortality - by wiping minds and imprinting new personalities at the touch of a button. "Epitaph One" could almost stand as a series finale, if necessary, if a very bleak one, but it does not mean that we know everything in season two before we watch it. We know what the Dollhouse-verse will look like in 2019, but not how it got there. This flash-forward gives every little advancement in Dollhouse technology or power an ominous significance.

Season one took its time to get started, the first few episodes following Echo in various assignments in order to give a sense of how the Dollhouse works when it's running smoothly (er, if you don't include that unfortunate incident with rogue "doll" Alpha that had happened shortly before the beginning of the season, or any of the self-contained misadventures that befall Echo, Sierra or Victor while they are out on an engagement) before gradually developing into a bigger story arc. The series seemed to be a different show every time I watched it. Season two shows the plot escalating much faster. There are fewer assignments-of-the-week, with a greater focus on the Dollhouse itself and its sinister parent corporation Rossum.

I wrote in my first review that I didn't understand the love for Adele DeWitt, head of the LA Dollhouse. She is externally a very hard, cold woman, and when her authority is threatened, she becomes harder and colder. Dollhouse does not have easily classifiable "good" or "bad" characters, and Adele's motivations are unclear for much of the season. Is the welfare of her "dolls" and house her top priority, or is it her own power? I hated her for a few episodes, really believing that her character's story was a study in the corruptive nature of power and the dangers of constantly crossing and redrawing one's moral boundaries until there is nothing left. But no. Adele may have lost control for a while, but her apparent worst act of betrayal all turned out to be part of an intricate plan to attempt to bring down Rossum. After this revelation, my jaw was hitting the floor for the last five minutes of the episode. Yes, she is a complex character, double- and triple-crossing the dolls, Rossum and the viewers, the Severus Snape of Dollhouse, but with a better haircare regime.

It seems funny now, that I was so surprised that Adele was not a traitor (to us, anyway) after all. It doesn't seem like a twist at all, not compared with the following episode's bombshell.

What did I write about Boyd Langton before?
"...a fairly decent, fatherly type of character who seems to be conflicted about the organisation he works for [...] 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."
Er, quite.

Except for being the head of Rossum itself. No no no what no what what no (continue over the episode's entire closing credit sequence and you'll have my reaction.) Boyd was the one character I felt I could count on, a quiet but steady figure among a cast of morally ambiguous figures who it would be folly to trust completely. I did not see that coming!

Or did I? It seems I hit the nail on the head when I commented that I trusted Boyd because I was seeing him through Echo's eyes, who was specifically programmed to trust him with her life. So were we! And even knowing the truth, hearing him say and watching him do terrible things, that programming overruled my senses. I couldn't hate him. I couldn't look into his face and see a bad guy, despite all the evidence, even while I was shouting at the characters not to trust him. And I grieved at his death. I grieved the character I thought I'd known, even though he'd never really existed. (Yes, this is a character who never really existed on a deeper level than everyone else I've grieved who never existed other than in fiction.) It hurt.

But not half as much as the final episode: "Epitaph Two: The Return." Not due to the death of the supposed main love interest (who I didn't realise had even been absent for a few episodes until he reappeared, that's how much of an impression he made on me.) Partly thanks to the apocalyptic nightmare world of 2019. Partly when I saw Priya (doll-name Sierra) at Safe Haven among many other faces - but without Anthony (formerly known as Victor.) Their love story had transcended the many personalities imprinted on them. Whoever Sierra and Victor were from week to week, they always found themselves in love with each other, even when in blank doll-state. It even touched my hard heart. But where was Anthony? Why wasn't Anthony with them? This wasn't right, this was very wrong! It wasn't the worst, though. He was alive, but their marriage was in trouble, because Anthony had become addicted to all the technology that was the reason for the predicament the world had come to. And they had a child, and Priya had tried to shield him from all that stuff, and given the choice, Anthony chose the tech. They managed to sort things out in the end, though, thankfully. I couldn't have borne it otherwise.

But what really broke my heart was poor Topher, who was driven mad by the knowledge of his role in hastening the thought-pocalypse ("Is brain-pocalypse better? I figure, if I'm responsible for the end of the world, I get to name it," he said before he broke completely.) If ever I wanted to hug a TV character until everything was better, it was Topher. But hugs provide no comfort, because he's right. It is partly his fault: Topher developed the technology used in the terrible war that brought the world crashing down. Honourable motives don't change that.

After "Epitaph One" I knew that Topher would not survive the series. I thought I was prepared for his death as soon as I realised I liked him - Joss Whedon has a way of killing off not the heroes, but well-loved supporting characters. (Still not over his "leaf on the wind" trick! WHEDON!!!!) I wasn't prepared. Oh, it had to happen, and it was the best ending for him, I think, sacrificing himself putting right the damage he had inadvertently caused. People On The Internet have wondered how come a genius who can remotely wipe and programme people's personalities, can't invent a remote detonator for an explosion. I think it's not a case of can't, but won't. I don't think Topher could live with his guilt any more. Besides, his brain, his technology, had been his whole life, and now he'd seen the effects of that, I don't know what kind of life he would have had, forever in fear that anything he did might bring about a repeat of this devastation. His story had to end this way - but I howled.

Still, the fact that Dollhouse affected me so strongly has got to say something about its quality. It was a week ago that I finished watching the series, but the story has stuck in my head. It was quick to capture my imagination, but the characters were sneakier, worming their way into my affections without me really noticing. It shows the power of storytelling that it can both make one think and feel deeply, though now I feel emotionally exhausted.

My friend wants to show me Whedon's Cabin in the Woods, but I've resisted so far because I'm not into horror movies. But she is trying to use my love for Topher Brink to persuade me, because actor Fran Kranz is apparently just as lovable in a similar role in that movie. Perhaps not right away. I know how that film ends. I think it's time for something lighter.

I've been watching a lot of Avengers movies recently. Again, I blame Joss Whedon for getting me into that. I've been adamant that I don't do comic books. (Then Sandman happened.) And I certainly don't do super heroes! (Er, how many super hero comic-book film adaptations do I have on DVD now? The lady doth protest too much. Iron Man 3 is out soon. Yay!)

Friday 8 March 2013

Cardiff, The City & The City, Warm Bodies, Penelope

Hello, all. I've finally reached the end of a book that feels as though it has taken me forever to read, and looking back I realise I haven't written anything about my earlier reading or adventures.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to visit my friend Anna in Cardiff, staying in a hotel with a marvellous breakfast. I can very much relate to Miranda Hart's hotel-appreciation, though unlike her, I left my hometown to indulge myself. Anna took me to the Doctor Who Experience, which was a treat: getting a ride in the Tardis, threatened by Daleks, and then looking at various props, costumes and toys that had appeared on the show. I was pleasantly surprised to find on entry that, contrary to my expectations, the queue contained more adults than children. 

The reading material that kept me company on my travels was China Miéville's The City and The City. I've been meaning to read Miéville for years, after being recommended Perdido Street Station, but never seemed to get around to it, thanks to its bulk. But after reading Willa's review at Wicked Wonderful Words, I decided to try this author through one of his more slender but intriguing novels. The City and The City of the titles are Beszel and Ul Qomo, which occupy the same space. One house could be "in" Beszel, while the next could be in Ul Qomo, but it is illegal to go from one to the other without leaving one country and entering the other. To pass from one city to the other willy-nilly is "breach" and calls down the wrath of the sinister, Orwellian Breach justice force. Sounds impossible? Citizens of Beszel and Ul Qomo are trained from birth to "unsee" what is right under their noses, but on the rival city's territory. The story itself follows Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a young woman, in an investigation that delves into conspiracy theories and crosses the borders between the two strange cities. The narration is in the dry and gritty prose that marks out an urban police procedural, slow to get started, perhaps, but compelling due to the peculiar setting and the shadowy threat of Breach looming over Borlú,waiting for the inevitable slip-up. Beszel and Ul Qomo together make a fascinating setting - or should I say settings? - and once I'd engrossed myself in this book, I found it affecting the way I thought about the world. I will certainly be reading more work by Miéville.

Also while in Cardiff, I went with Anna to see the much-hyped film adaptation of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, which I had just finished reading. It was the movie trailer that had caught my interest at first, with its snarky, undead narrator, and I was prepared for a comic read. And though Warm Bodies, the novel, is filled with wit and humour, I actually found it somewhat melancholy. One doesn't tend to see inside a zombie's mind very often, because the general consensus is that that mind is gone. But in Warm Bodies, we see a zombie whose mind is only mostly gone. Protagonist "R" is not lacking in thoughts - otherwise, what would the prose consist of? "Urrrrrrrghhhh.... brains...."? But his thoughts are smothered in a grey mist and despite the eloquent prose, I could really feel what it must be like. (Perhaps much like mine today, when the sun has forgotten to rise and caffeine is a poor substitute for sunlight for waking me up, but on a huge scale.) Warm Bodies is an intelligent, sometimes gruesome, simultaneously amusing and heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful tale of zombie-meets-girl. But hands up who else went through half of the book (or movie) before identifying Warm Bodies' most famous literary ancestor, and then felt like the world's biggest fool? I bet we all had the same realisation at the same page. Clue: the girl R falls in love with is named Julie. 

The movie felt very different in tone, to me. I suppose it is inevitable. Although we get to see inside R's mind thanks to the aforementioned snarky narration, we mostly see him and his walking dead associates from the outside, and what we see is grubby-looking chaps and chap-esses lurching around groaning, occasionally managing to form words. I'm not sure it is possible to make that not hammy, and so the filmmakers focused more on the comedy aspect. And actor Nicholas Hoult, who plays R, has a glorious comically-expressive face. Hoult's performance was certainly the highlight of the film. However, I felt that the film lacked the depth of the book, not quite sure whether it fit as a humorous example of the interchangeable-magical-boyfriend-creature teen fiction genre (in which case, squick!) or as a parody of it. Many of the darker elements of the book were omitted, and Julie became a fairly standard feisty-girl character, rather than the really damaged, angry girl from the book. Warm Bodies the movie was great fun, but ultimately it could not live up to the book as far as I was concerned. To be fair, though, I don't think it would be possible for any film adaptation to do that. Some things just work better on the page than on the screen, and as far as I'm concerned, zombies fit into that category.

I made the mistake of taking only one book on holiday with me, and so of course I had nearly finished The City and The City before I left Cardiff. Why is it that if you've got a huge to-read pile, every other book in the shop wants to come home with you, but if you need a book, none of them appeal? This was my experience in Cardiff that day. I realised that I'd read several gloomy books in a row, and wanted something more cheerful, but not badly-written, and not romance. Difficult specification for a book to meet (any suggestions, people?) and I spent ages in the bookshop before settling on Penelope by first-time novelist Rebecca Harrington. Its whimsical cover caught my eye, and the blurb made me think that maybe this was the book for me. The novel follows quirky girl Penelope through her first year at Harvard, in what I expected to be a kooky, John-Green-esque celebration of nerddom.

It wasn't.

I wasn't sure what to make of Rebecca Harrington's narration, which was very simple, breaking the sacred "show, don't tell" rule. Perhaps this was a stylistic choice, reflecting Penelope's disconnection from everything and everyone around her, in which case it was successful - too successful. It's a brave and dangerous choice to make the audience feel the protagonist's alienation too well, because you are in danger of alienating the reader, too. Though simply written, and less than 300 pages long, I took 11 days to finish Penelope, because I didn't care enough to pick up the book, and would watch the Avengers movie (or Firefly, Game of Thrones, or the Avengers again) instead. The problem is that Penelope is a very passive character. The quirks that drew me to her and the novel (love of Tetris, odd conversation-starters and Hercule Poirot) take up little more space in the book than on the cover blurb, as Penelope suppresses her personality, choosing instead to try to fit in among people she doesn't really like, and who don't really like her, by being agreeable to everything, not drawing attention to herself by having her own opinions. Likewise, the blurb promised an eventful, chaotic freshman year full of "the mysteries of life, love, inappropriate tutors, marionette operation and how to kiss on both cheeks and avoid disaster." Well, all of these things are featured in Penelope, but as passing mentions, almost footnotes. What the book is really full of is small talk. Banal, stilted small talk that made me want to scream and tear out my hair at times. Oh, I really wanted to love this book, and I wanted to love Penelope, but ultimately I was just glad to reach the end.

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