Friday, July 24, 2009

Alpha and Omega

Hey, you know what show could really use a bit more online discussion? Dollhouse! "Echo," the original, unaired pilot for Joss Whedon's by no means triumphant return to television, and "Epitaph One," the shelved thirteenth episode of its first season, are now viewable through various and sundry means. Taken together, they paint a very different picture of the show from the one arising from the first season. Not simply because they are both well-written, engaging hours of television--hardly stellar on either count, but certainly head and shoulders above most of the season's conventionally aired episodes--but because they illustrate how wide the gap is between the show Whedon envisioned and tried to create and the show he was allowed to make.

"Echo," which hews closely, but is not identical, to the script leaked soon after the show's television premiere, confirms the suspicion that Fox executives who demanded that Whedon retool it created another "Serenity"/"Train Job" scenario, but in Dollhouse's case the pilot switcheroo (and the reworking of the show itself which apparently accompanied it) had a much more profound effect on the series as a whole. You can work your way back to Whedon's original plans for Firefly simply by unscrambling its episodes, but there is no way that Dollhouse's first season could follow from "Echo" instead of "Ghost." Too much of what was spread out over the entire season was originally condensed into this single hour--Sierra is already an active, Lubov's introduction and the revelation that he is Victor happen in quick succession, Ballard receives Alpha's message about Caroline, then meets and fights with Echo, and is shot for his troubles. This is not an unmitigated good--someone coming to the pilot cold would, I suspect, find it a little too frenetic, and certain characters, Adelle in particular, are lost in the hustle and bustle of moving the plot along--but especially when one considers how glacially the first season advanced towards stories that "Echo" deals with in a single scene, it's hard not to regret the season we might have gotten, which could have taken the story to the next level instead of stretching its first chapter over a dozen hours of television.

"Echo" is also a great deal better than most of the first season at dealing with some of the icky gender issues that Dollhouse has raised, and for whose treatment both the show and Whedon have come under near-constant fire. Sady Doyle, in what is still to my mind the most interesting bit of writing about the show, argues that in Dollhouse Whedon is examining, and dismantling, many of the thoughtless and often paternalistic assumptions that underpinned his previous work, and that the show is a metaphor for the pervasiveness of misogynystic thinking in our culture, of which even the 'strong female characters' of Whedon's previous work are a product. "Echo," even more than the examples she gives, bears this observation out. Its second scene, and our first introduction to Echo (Caroline is almost entirely absent from the pilot, which is frankly all to the good) feels like the dark reflection of Buffy's opening scene, itself famously a skewering of conventions when it reveals that the seemingly helpless girl breaking into the school with her date and starting at noises is actually a predator who devours him once he assures her that they are alone. In "Echo," Echo interferes with a man's attempt to coerce his girlfriend into becoming a party favor for his friends, chases him off contemptuously, and forcefully but not unkindly persuades the intended victim to take control of her life. It's a portrait of feminine strength, and (assuming we'd never seen a promo for the show, heard anything about its premise, or knew that Dushku was its lead) it comes as a shock when we cut away to another engagement and discover that this heroine was simply a figment of someone's imagination, and more of a victim than the girl she rescued.

After "Ghost" aired, I took the concept of the dollhouse as yet another attempt by Whedon to deconstruct prostitution, a la Inara in Firefly, but "Echo" makes it clear that the comparisons others were drawing to River were more apt. Like River, Echo is a superhero whose heroism only becomes possible because of her own destruction, which is instigated without her (in Echo's case, full and uncoerced) consent. But whereas Serenity tries to create a disconnect between the profound violation and mutilation inflicted on River and the abilities that it bestowed upon her, thus allowing us to view her heroism as something inherent to her, for which we can cheer unambiguously, Dollhouse doesn't give us that comforting space. Echo is never shown as a hero without the pilot stressing that that heroism has been achieved by stripping her of her volition. The image of the super-powerful woman is never allowed to distract us from the misogyny of the culture that created her.

"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. This is borne out by "Epitaph One," which flashes forward to 2019, a post-apocalyptic future in which doll technology has been weaponized and made wireless. People are stripped of their personalities in the blink of an eye, to become host bodies for the personalities of others, or mindless drones bent on carnage, or simply blank slates, and the characters who discover the dollhouse are darkly amused to learn that "the tech that punk-kicked the ass of mankind was originally designed to create more believable hookers."

This is not to say, however, that the complaints that Dollhouse downplays rape or even uses it for titillation are unfounded. That Whedon's real interest was in telling an SFnal story about the dismantling of the fundamentals of what it means to be human doesn't change the fact that sexual rape is a real thing that happens, and is downplayed, all too often, whereas brainwashing technology isn't, and that using the former as nothing but a prop with which to highlight the awfulness of the latter is problematic to say the least (Doyle's argument that doll technology is a metaphor for misogynistic culture seems weaker in the face of the all-out post-apocalyptic "Epitaph One"). It also doesn't excuse the prurience with which the first season treated Echo's sexual engagements, or the fact that in its standalone episodes in particular the show seemed to be inviting us to tut sanctimoniously over the terrible things being done to Echo while enjoying her sexy shenanigans. Despite "Echo"'s emphasis on depersonalization rather than rape--Echo's engagements in the pilot are functional rather than sexual, and even the date she goes on is primarily intended to give the client someone awesome to show up with at his ex's wedding--it does a better job facing up to the fact that the actives are being raped in a single scene than the first season does in whole episodes, when it shows us Sierra coming back from an engagement, her forehead gashed, her gait unsteady, the shattered expression on her face leaving no question as to what has happened to her. Though it could be argued that this scene is, perhaps intentionally, drawing a distinction between a sexual act which Sierra's imprinted personality clearly didn't want and Echo sleeping with the wedding guest (and though it's more than a little disturbing that Sierra is apparently the go-to character when it comes to rape), this short, wordless scene delivers a more powerful punch than any number of Ballard's lectures.

If "Echo" is the ghost of the show Whedon wanted to write, "Epitaph One" is a glimpse of the story he is trying to get to. Though well done, it is, in itself, not much to get excited over. Its plot feels much like a retread of the mercenary plotline in Whedon's Alien: Resurrection, itself a rehash of many films that came before it, including the original Alien, and which Whedon had already cannibalized when he created Firefly--a rag-tag crew of misfits in an unfriendly future happen upon a piece of extremely dangerous technology and discover that it has been/will be used by the government against its citizens. The episode's opening scenes feel almost like a parody of Mad Max-type films, with the characters spouting dense 'futuristic' jargon at each other--"Green room is open but the party is crashed." "Any wielders?" "Negative. Just butchers and dumb shells, but it's pretty thick."--which only seems more ridiculous when one recalls Whedon's established skill at crafting believable patois. Things settle down a little once the group happens on the dollhouse and the characters are given a little room to stretch out, and the episode has some genuinely surprising twists, but this is still, at its core, a story in which people in a creepy location are picked off one by one by an unseen menace, interspersed with flashbacks to the previous decade that tell us something about the steps that led up to this situation but mostly give us more questions to ponder.

That "Epitaph One" is so striking, then, is mainly to do with the fact that though it is part of the Dollhouse continuity, it also seems to be the beginning of a completely different story, one which shares Dollhouse's premise but uses it for different ends. More than anything else, "Epitaph One"--which ends with the surviving characters leaving the dollhouse, guided by Caroline, to find a way to combat the wiping technology--feels like a pilot for its own show. As Dollhouse's first season finale, it is a profound statement about the story Whedon wants to tell--of the transition from controlled use of doll technology, through greater and greater violations of human agency, and finally to a nightmare realm in which the human consciousness and the human body are distinct, separable entities which one can mix and match. Though it should be noted that the use of flashbacks which reveal the current cast's future has the distinct whiff of Lost about it, and carries the risk of reducing the show's narrative to a quest for the connective tissue between different plot points--how did Claire lose her scars? Why did Victor and Sierra break up? What did Adelle do with Dominic's body?--this is by far a more interesting story than either the personality of the week stories or the season-long investigation which characterized the first season.

We shouldn't, however, be too quick to allow ourselves to be swept up by the double whammy of "Echo" and "Epitaph One." Just as the original pilot casts a light on the compromises Whedon had to make in order to get Dollhouse's first season on the air, the fact that "Epitaph One" was never aired makes it clear that there is serious resistance to the story Whedon wants Dollhouse to be. The finale's title suggests that there will be--or that Whedon planned for there to be--other epitaphs (the tomb is presumably humanity's), possibly revisiting the same characters, possibly flashing forward to other periods. Will they too be quashed? Will "Epitaph One" be cannibalized for scenes and plot points as "Echo" was? How can the second season cater both to viewers who have seen it and those who think of "Omega" as the season finale? It's pretty clear at this point that Dollhouse is by far the strangest, most challenging thing Whedon has ever tried to do, but that ambition doesn't excuse the fact that, whether due to network interference or inability on his part, what he's actually producing is sub-par, and unlikely to get any better, or move towards the strangeness Whedon is after, if Fox has its way. It's hard to believe that Dollhouse will ever be the story Whedon wants it to be, or that it will survive long if it is. Its unaired episodes, which have for the first time piqued my interest in the show, also leave me extremely dubious about its future.

10 comments:

Standback said...

Insightful as always... I haven't seen "Echo" or "Epitaph One" yet, though I have read the online Echo script, and you give a good overview of both.

Still, I'm having trouble putting my finger on what exactly it is that "Whedon wants to do" and that "Fox isn't letting him." I think Dollhouse is a rich enough premise that it shouldn't be difficult to write great stories within it even under tight constraints. Understanding what those constraints are could be a step in the right direction.

Is Fox opposed, for some reason, to portraying chaos spreading as more and more factions start using Dollhouse technology in more and more twisted ways? I can't imagine why they would be. Is Fox committed to keeping Dollhouse easily marketable and kept simple and accessible? Safe to assume they are. But I don't see why that needs to contradict the story Whedon's interested in.

I agree with your observation that Fox isn't letting Dollhouse go where Whedon would most like it. I don't think that's a death sentence, though. I think it means that if Whedon gets a good enough grip on what he wants and what Fox wants, he can write something that manages both.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

My sense is that Fox wants Dollhouse to be formulaic, and that the more positive spin on the sexual aspect of doll work in the first season's standalone episodes was a result of their interference. Whether or not that's an accurate reading, it seems to me that you have to have Lost-type ratings to be allowed to change the type of story you're telling the way that "Epitaph One" suggests that Whedon wants to, and I'm also wondering how depressing and uncomfortable he's going to be allowed to make the show, because the difference between "Echo" and "Ghost" suggests that there's a gap there too.

cofax said...

Great commentary, Abigail. I've been looking for responses to Epitaph One, hadn't found any yet.

I worry that you're right, and that Fox will continue to insist that Whedon tell the stories he was telling in season 1, which are sufficiently uninteresting to me that I won't be watching. I thought E1 was far more compelling (and less skeevy), and unless we start getting more of that, I don't think I'll be back.

Standback said...

Bear in mind, though, that Dollhouse managed to shake free of the most hated, extreme form of formula-obsession from "Man on the Street" and onwards. I can believe that those first five episodes were heavily influenced by Fox, a la "before you can do the show you want to do, you've got to have an 'assignment of the week' show, so viewers get used to this weird thing you're doing." Fine. Fair 'nuff.

But from that point on, at the very least that particular formula was tossed out the window - and the rest of the season explored different plots, episode structures, characters and topics. It didn't feel choked to me at all. The closest thing was "Haunted", which was centered around an assignment, but even that was very different - Echo, as a character, was non-existent in the episode, and the interest to the series was much more in terms of using imprints for resurrections and in terms of DeWitt's character than the introductory themes we got in the first five episodes. Plus, of course, "Haunted" was a pretty lousy episode, but I wouldn't rush to attribute that to formula - I think an excellent episode could have been written about an engagement with a "resurrection imprint"; it's a neat idea with lots of story and drama potential. The fact that "Haunted" was not an excellent episode feels to me like a failure of the writing, not of the network.

In addition, I think even the formulaic opening episodes have merit. I liked "Echo" better than "Ghost," but what I really liked about "Ghost" was the way it demonstrated how real the imprinted personas are. This was a major focus in "Ghost" - from Topher's explanations of how he's deliberately given Echo asthma, to the fact that the episode's big twist comes from the fact that the imprinted personality recognizes a stranger from the real world. To me, that drove home that the imprints are full, complex people, and this is more than just brainwashing/mindwiping - even the imprints are characters, that can and will come into play.

So for me, the formula worked for the pilot - it gave me something important about the series. The second episode, similarly, I read as answering the twin questions "So who wants to hire Actives instead of prostitutes anyhow? And isn't this whole thing terribly sick?" Yes, says "The Target," here's an engagement which seems par for the course, and yes, the only reason to hire an Active to begin with is if you're so ridiculously f***ed up that you can't really get what you want out of anybody real.

Neither example means the episode itself was spectacular. But I am trying to demonstrate that some degree of formula-adherence doesn't mean we can't explore the important, interesting aspects of the Dollhouse; this is all the more true if we don't reflexively assume Dollhouse will be cramped into such rigid formula to such an extent in the future.

Finally, Season 1 has left us with a whole bunch of great hooks for Season 2. Self-aware Whiskey, and following in her footsteps, scarred Victor. Alpha, one hopes, no longer the boogieman in the shadows justifying all the convenient plot complications; instead, he now represents the Dollhouse dream taken to extremes: ascend, become superior, by absorbing as many false, empty identities as you can. I think Dollhouse has found its stride, and I see no reason to assume Fox is going to drag Dollhouse down when it's come so far already in the same hands, and seems only to be getting stronger.

Janani said...

G'day Abigail! Just fyi, my friend and I have been discussing "Dollhouse" at length over at his film/TV blog, The Exploding Kinetoscope (the entries should be tagged as "Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, Television"). We're planning to tackle Epitaph One as soon as my DVD arrives...

Heath said...

Finally someone who didn't think that Epitath One was just perfect!

Standback said...

So now I've actually seen Epitaph One, and I think I'll stick by my earlier comments. Abigail, I can't sweepingly agree that "Epitaph One" is "is a profound statement about the story Whedon wants to tell." Yes, this is one facet of the Dollhouse mileau, but I think it clearly isn't the one the series is interested in focusing on.

Epitaph One had two main aspects I'd be willing to consider as Whedon's secret repressed wish for the series. The first is the post-apocalyptic future, in which wiping and imprinting identity is used as a weapon and runs rampantly out of control - and, one assumes, the process of getting there. The second is the flashforwards we've been treated to, which might give us all sorts of hints as to the type of story Whedon would like to be leading into.

Well, as for the post-apocalyptic future, I think what we saw in Epitaph One is taken much further than where Whedon wants to go, for the simple reason that it's a boring world. Epitaph One is after we've lost, after the story's over. So we're left with the getting there - which is fine, but I don't see why you don't feel that's being done as it is. If it's a story of transition, of gradual spread and exploitation, you've got to start from the beginning, which is what Dollhouse has done. Not only that, we've clearly laid down the groundwork for the technology to begin spreading - in establishing Rossum, the Life-After-Death use of imprints, and Alpha's remote imprinting. And not least - in the sense of the Dollhouse unbalancing, playing near the edge, with the essential barriers between it and "the real world" coming closer and closer to cracking. That's a good enough start to the process, if you ask me, and in "Epitaph One" we've laid out some further progression that seems both interesting and quite easy to fit within the show's current structure.

As for the flash-forwards, bear in mind that most of them are entirely of a piece with what we've seen so far. Almost all of the flashbacks seemed to me natural extensions of S1 - Ballard conspiring with Echo; Boid escaping; Rossum's new service; the Dolls regaining their selves. Do any of these look to you like scenes and plot developments that will be difficult to work into future episodes?

The ones I'm more skeptical about are the ones that seem closer to The End - the DeWitt/Dominic scene, the DeWitt/Topher, and Echo's return to the Dollhouse. They do hinge on the huge transition between Here and There that I don't know whether the show will get far enough to pull off (assuming, of course, that that's the plot it wants to stick to). But if they don't - well, that's fine with me. Most of those scenes were basically saying "Crisis! Crisis! End of the world!". Very effectively, in some cases, but I don't think that the entire show is meant to be about the ending.

My reading of the episode, if we truly want to take it at more than face value, is that Whedon's hedging his bets here. If he manages to keep Dollhouse up and filming as long as he'd like to, then he'll get to tell his full story, and yay for him. If not - then for the moment, at least fans will have Epitaph One as a kind of closure. A map we can imagine the rest of the series would go by, if only it wouldn't have been cut short. This doesn't necessitate that the show will stick to that map - but at least until it diverges significantly, then even if Dollhouse ends, viewers and fans can content themselves with the fact that they have at least outlines of the entire arc.

I'll be back for Season 2. And I've got reason to hope it's only getting better.

Anders said...

Very interesting post! And thank you for helping me avoid work for a few hours browsing your archives. I’m glad to find there are others not as unreservedly positive about Epitaph One’s qualities. It’s an alright consolation for a series finale should it have been canceled but hardly the best episode of the season as so many exclaim to my complete bafflement. This is also why I would disagree that it is a firm indicator of where Whedon wants to go. The circumstances of its conception seem much more a case of a couple of loose ideas of what could constitute the ultimate consequences of the technology that was then left to Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon to develop.

I also think the epic plot of the dollhouse tech plunging the world into chaos is secondary to the personal plot of Echo gaining self-awareness in opposition to said technology. For me this is the core of the series and I’d like to see it as an exploration of how accumulated experience comes in opposition to hegemonic ideology in a capitalist and patriarchal society but that’s probably a great deal of projection on my part…

jane said...

I wonder if Epitaph Two will continue where Epitaph One left off - with Caroline now in the body of a little girl, off to find her original incarnation.

There's a lot more to Dollhouse than meets the eye; Adelle says as much to us in the dialogue. You betcha that Lost has an influence, and not just structurally. Both shows are meditations on Death. The Alpha and Omega, that's a phrase right out of Christian eschatology. Of course Epitaph One had to show us a post-apocalyptic future, one caused by Dollhouse technology, and specifically through the damn Chair.

So what is it *really* like to sit in the Chair? Is this an experience not unlike death? Your life flashes before your eyes, and yes, it's like being raped - it's about *power*. And it's also like experiencing one-ness with everything and especially everyone (so it's also like *sex*) - hence the "composites" of Alpha and Omega, who are likened to gods and goddesses. How *neat* that in Gray Hour they breach a museum to steal a frieze from the Parthenon.

I do think we can cheer unambiguously for Caroline/Echo, for as we see in "Echoes" and then again in "Needs" it seems clear that Caroline has an underlying "spirited" intention to lead people to freedom. Again, how nice to see this play out at the end of Epitaph One, as Caroline leads survivors out a window and up a ladder.

Standalone: "...we've clearly laid down the groundwork for the technology to begin spreading - in establishing Rossum, the Life-After-Death use of imprints, and Alpha's remote imprinting. And not least - in the sense of the Dollhouse unbalancing, playing near the edge, with the essential barriers between it and 'the real world' coming closer and closer to cracking."

The Breach.

alixtii said...

The fact that the actress will be older would make it hard to pick up immediately from the end of "Epitaph One," I'd think.

Post a Comment