I wanted to point out two excellent Dollhouse posts you should read (after you’ve read all of Maia’s Dollhouse posts here, I mean).
At Asking The Wrong Questions, Abigail discusses the original, unaired pilot episode, “Echo,” and also the unaired “Epitaph One” episode, and what they tell us about Whedon’s intention for the show (before Fox’s executives have at it).
“Echo”‘s emphasis on free will or its absence has the effect of downplaying the sexual aspect of the dollhouse. My biggest problem with the seemingly endless barrage of criticism directed at Dollhouse for allegedly failing to acknowledge that the dolls are being raped is that it seemed fairly clear to me–especially from those episodes intended to move the overarching story forward like “Man on the Street” or “A Spy in the House of Love”–that in the story Whedon was trying to tell sexual rape was merely a specific instance of the greater act of rape being committed against the actives–the rape of their mind, the complete stripping away of their personality and free will.
Via Abigail, I read this excellent post at Tiger Beatdown, which is a feminist defense of Dollhouse.
Whedon has done a lot of shows about magically powerful women and the men who protect them (Buffy had Giles, River had Simon and Mal), which is sweet – hey, at least they aren’t actively seeking to take power away from those women – but also paternalistic and troubling, and in Dollhouse he seems to know and specifically address just how creepy it is. Lots of parallels have been drawn between the “handler,” Boyd, who is a protective father figure to Echo, and Giles, who is a protective father figure to Buffy, and those parallels are correct. However, this time around, Boyd is also directly invested in keeping Echo powerless: he’s the guy in the creepy van, who takes her back to the Dollhouse to have her self taken away once she’s served her purpose, and if she were a whole person, she might not need him at all. The question of whether he loves her enough to help her free herself is continually raised. Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to “save” Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with “saving” a girl he doesn’t know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse client. The show doesn’t steer around that fact. You don’t hate these men – you love them, in fact – but Whedon is far more willing than ever before to implicate them in the oppression that he condemns. He’s toyed with ambiguity and complicity before, but this time around, ambiguity and complicity are what the show is about.
Because then, there’s Topher, the programmer, who is responsible for constructing the artificial personalities and implanting them in the dolls, who is a dorky blonde guy just like Whedon and who speaks in distinctly Whedonian cadences and lines, and who we are encouraged to dislike more than almost anyone else in the series. What you hear, when you hear Topher speaking about how difficult it is to construct a believable personality, how all of his creations have to be full and nuanced and have reasons for how they behave, how achievement is fueled by lack and he gave her asthma because that made her a more complete person and blah blah blah, is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon reflecting, very consciously and very obviously, on his life’s work – hiring gorgeous women and making them into who he wants them to be – and saying that sometimes, he feels kind of icky about it.
Dollhouse is interesting on all these levels, and Sady’s defense of Dollhouse is the most convincing defense I’ve read.
But I still think the show is, on the whole, kind of a failure. Fascinating themes are set up, but not stuck with and sometimes pointlessly undermined, replaced by boring cliches. For example, Sady is right that the character of Paul, in season one, is a brilliant and vicious critique of the male rescuer-hero. So why did they completely undermine that in the season finale, letting Paul become a conventional, and boring, heroic figure?
And no matter who’s fault it is (Fox’s or Joss’s), it’s impossible to ignore that too many Dollhouse episodes are not just filler, but extremely conventional filler.
Still, even though it’s a failure, it’s an interesting failure, which for me makes it TV worth watching. I’m looking forward to season 2.