Entry updated 8 April 2019. Tagged: TV.
US tv series (2009-2010). Mutant Enemy Productions and Boston Diva Productions for Fox. Created by Joss Whedon. Producers include Whedon, Tim Minear, Chris Cheramie, Eliza Dushku and Kelly A Manners. Writers include Whedon, Andrew Chambliss, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Tracy Bellomo, and Jane Espenson. Directors include Whedon, Minear, David Solomon, and David Straiton. Cast includes Eliza Dushku as Echo/Caroline, Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt, Enver Gjokaj as Victor, Dichen Lachman as Sierra, Fran Kranz as Topher Brink, Harry Lennix as Boyd Langton, and Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard. 27 one-hour episodes, including an unaired pilot.
Genre auteur Whedon's first attempt to return to television after the cancellation of Firefly (2002) can most charitably be summed up as an interesting failure. A messy, directionless experiment, it seemed ill-suited to its medium, and was ill-served by its network, Fox, which imposed limitations on Whedon – shelving the show's original pilot episode in favor of one that placed less emphasis on its overarching storyline, insisting on starting off the series' first season with a sequence of standalone episodes – that watered down Dollhouse's appeal to longtime Whedon fans eager to commit to his latest vision without rendering it any more inviting to casual viewers. Nevertheless, the show's core failures are rooted in Whedon's muddled vision for it and the story he was trying to tell through it.
Set in the present day, Dollhouse posits the existence of Technology that allows one to record and imprint memories and personality on the human brain (see Identity; Identity Transfer). The dollhouse is a shadowy, exclusive establishment which caters to the very rich, providing the services of its "actives" – people whose own personality has been stored and erased, making them capable of receiving artificially created personality imprints, or the recorded personalities of real people. One of these actives is Echo, who in her previous life as Caroline had hounded the dollhouse and its owners, the Rossum Corporation. Her fate is our first indication that the actives are not, as dollhouse administrator Adelle DeWitt and her chief technician Topher Brink insist, volunteers who are amply compensated for their five-year term of service, and as the series draws on we learn the backstory of other actives and discover that nearly all of them were exploited or manipulated into signing up. FBI agent Paul Ballard believes, as his superiors and colleagues do not, that the dollhouse is more than an urban legend, and when he comes across Caroline's story he has the lead he needs to find it. His investigation, as well as the dollhouse staff's increased questioning of their superiors' motivations, sheds a light on Rossum's ultimate purpose for the doll technology, for which the dollhouse is merely a source of funding.
Dollhouse's premise and its treatment of it raise interesting questions in several directions. At its most basic level, the show can be read as an investigation of prostitution (though the series goes to some lengths to argue that dollhouse clients employ actives for reasons other than sexual or romantic gratification, none of the alternative applications it suggests are particularly persuasive), pitting the dollhouse employees' insistence that the actives have entered upon their contracts of their own free will with our growing understanding of just how limited that freedom is, and more broadly, of the changing face of labour relations in hyper-capitalistic systems (the name of the dollhouse's owner corporation is a reference to the play Rossum's Universal Robots by Karel Čapek, in which human workers are replaced by manufactured people). It can also be taken as a deconstruction of the image of powerful, kick-ass femininity, in which so much of Whedon's previous work had traded. Echo is often heroic and can be imprinted with great physical prowess, but that heroism is imposed upon her, usually by men, and her strength is a by-product of her enslavement. The question of the imprints' personhood, and of their rights to the bodies they've been placed in, is also raised – the dollhouse doctor (played by the always-excellent Amy Acker) discovers that she is an imprint crafted by Topher, whom she despises for his cavalier attitude towards the other actives, and flees the dollhouse for fear of being erased, and as Echo evolves she begins to fear Caroline's return, which she had previously been working towards. The first season finale, "Epitaph One", which was not aired by Fox and became available to fans only when the season was released on DVD, flashes forward ten years into the show's future and reveals a world in which doll technology has run amok, used for everything from providing young, healthy bodies for the rich and powerful to transforming peaceful civilian populations into ravaging hordes – a world, in other words, in which the connection between mind and body has been permanently severed.
Unfortunately, Dollhouse's treatment of these questions, and of its overarching plot, was halting and haphazard. The imposition of a standalone, episodic format on a series whose central concept was rooted in the denial of so many of the conventions of the episodic storytelling – most of the characters are not who they think they are, and the situation they've been placed is often also constructed – resulted in flat, uninvolving stories that only served to further distance the audience from a main character who was anyway deliberately made devoid of any recognizable personality (not helping matters was the fact that Dushku, a fan favourite for her portrayal of the evil vampire slayer Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2003], and who developed the idea for Dollhouse with Whedon, was one of the most limited performers in an otherwise very strong cast, incapable, as so many of her co-stars were, of inhabiting a different personality every week). In addition, many fans were enraged at what they saw as an inherent hypocrisy in the show's treatment of Echo's exploitation – even as it purported to decry her enslavement (and most particularly the sexual aspect of it – it was a frequently voiced complaint that the series never used the word "rape" to describe the actives' experiences), Dollhouse derived much of its appeal from portraying it. Meanwhile, as exciting and suggestive as "Epitaph One" was (it was nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form) it created limitations on the series, which in its second season returned to the present day and began working towards the future seen in the flash-forward. When Dollhouse's cancellation was announced, its writers began scrambling to bridge the gap between the show's present and the "Epitaph One" future, jettisoning, in their haste, much of the complexity of their characters, as well as their complicity in the dollhouse and Rossum's actions. The series finale, "Epitaph Two: The Return", again flashed forward to the future, but only in order to tack a happy ending on the series by magically undoing all the damage caused by doll technology. It is this ending in particular, and the failure of nerve it represents, that relegates Dollhouse to the realm of interesting failures. The series has done great damage to Whedon's reputation, both in Hollywood and among fans, and it may be some time before he is again allowed his own television show. [AN]
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