By Bob Clark
At the heart of every plausible dystopia in science-fiction, there must always be an element of paradise. After all, the root term for the very word stems from St. Thomas Moore’s satirical novel “Utopia”, which in its own way was really attempting to describe the fallen state of man’s world by painting an ideal society so perfect it could not possibly exist even in our wildest dreams– a literal “no-where”. Fueled with a religious notion of our post-lapserian world, one might even be tempted to see the Garden of Eden as a classic dystopia, filled with all the pleasures of the senses, but at the expense of any kind of recognizable human freedom. When the Snake first suggested that God’s favorite creatures taste the forbidden fruit, was he invading that hallowed territory as Milton painted him, an avenging angel of the fallen sort, or could he have instead been described as a revolutionary figure on the behalf of mankind, instead? Was the plan he hissed through the licks of a forked-tongue intended to doom us into an eternity of misery on the wasteland plains of greater creation, or did he truly wish to liberate us by activating the sleeper-agent program of free-will?
Either we were tricked out of a genuine utopia, or freed from a gilded cage, but only with just as much preparation for the outside world as a chimp set loose from a zoo, or experimental laboratory. In the end it doesn’t really make much difference if Adam and Eve were led astray or merely misguided by good intentions– the centuries of misery since then have been the same. That’s how it tends to be at the end of any dystopian fiction when the hero escapes their prison, that nagging doubt of “what happens next”, like the anxious silence of a young fool in love and a runaway bride sitting in the back of the bus. Running away from paradise, no matter how heavily policed by angels with swords of fire, must always arrive with at least a tinge of regret. When Robert Duvall escaped the subterranean electronic-labyrinth of THX 1138, it provided the perfect capsule image for this motif– a bald-headed silhouette climbing out on a desert landscape bleached by the sunset, a world heavily implied to be an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland, very much like the wilderness Adam and Eve must’ve walked out into, their blessed existences cut short by the new half-life of mortality. The question then is whether or not the prize of free-will is worth the price of suffering the consequences of original sin, or at least if it’s better than living it up in the lap of luxury while tied to a short leash.
Off hand, I can’t think of any true dystopian fictions that reach any conclusion other than freedom being a good thing– it may ultimately be a brass-ring forever out of reach, but even authors as bleak-minded as Orwell and Huxley can appear to agree that straining yourself to let your fingers graze its varnish is better, or at least more honorable, than simply riding the carousel until your turn is up. Even merry-go-rounds can break down, however, and when you’re left with that kind of end-of-the-world aftermath, it’s easier to see the dystopian dilemma put into stark relief– is it better to live in the frying-pan of a police-state, or the post-apocalyptic stove-top itself? As millennial concerns go– from the charmingly innocent fears of Y2K to the jaw-dropping horrors of 9/11, 7/7 and other shock-and-awe campaigns– it’s interesting to see how the Cold War fears of a nuclear holocaust have segwayed into our more modern anxieties over Big Brother in the War on Terror, particularly due to how inexorably linked they are not only in political propaganda, but also in our own sci-fi imaginings of dystopian worlds as well. The Matrix probably offered the most noted choice between living in the virtual-reality dreamscape under the thumb of dictatorial machines, or fighting the good fight in the bombed-out “desert of the real”, with the forbidden fruit changed to the pharma-rave imagery of taking the blue or red pills, either choosing to believe the old hallucination or embrace a new one.
With the advent of VR, the Garden could now be articulated as an Shining-style hedge-maze, haunted with its own ghosts in the machine. In the realm of computers, a utopia or dystopia literally can be “no-where” after all; or as cyberspace poet William Gibson said, “There’s no there, there”. The choice has seldom been clearer in sci-fi, especially in this past decade of genre entertainment. From Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Proyas’ Dark City to Bad Robot’s Lost and Kon’s Paprika, we have seen a steady synthesis between the fiction of lucid dreamworlds and nightmarish apocalyptic landscapes, as though our sleeping heroes all awaken only to find their world set precariously on the dried out shells of tortoise corpses, instead of the slightly more comforting sight of turtles-all-the-way-down. And nowhere has that stark contrast between idyllic fantasy and bleak reality been more provocatively put to the screen, small or otherwise, than in Dollhouse, which may just be Joss Whedon’s finest 26 hours of television yet, despite the loudly-voiced misgivings from even the most die-hard fans of previous shows like Buffy or Firefly. Though just as action-packed and imaginative in its overarching mythology as those prior shows, Dollhouse at first glance appeared to lack many of the things that his cult had grown to love, and to a large extent expect from his works– strong central characters, tight-knit teams kept together by emotional family-dynamics, and instantly quotable dialogue. Indeed, with its more straight-laced writing and ambiguous heroes, morally and psychologically, it could be hard to tell at first that this was a Joss Whedon production, at all.
No wonder I was curious from the start. When the show first came out, I was more or less dogmatic in my disliking of Whedon’s previous productions. While some of the characters intrigued me in Buffy, I found myself turned off by the show’s very odd mix of comic-book superheroines and teen-drama soap opera, not to mention the overdose amounts of pop-culture quip dialogue and absolute campiness (it also didn’t help that I don’t really give a damn about vampire stories in general). And though I would eventually warm to Firefly, it took me a long while to get past the sometimes unlikeable bent of its future/retro slang and the aggressively individualist philosophy of its characters. Right from the first descriptions, however, Dollhouse hooked me with its clever premise, in which pretty-young-things are continually brainwashed to become different personas for a kind of high-class and higher-tech escort service– sent on engagements ranging from romance and sex-fantasy to hostage-negotiation and murder-mystery– and resting between missions being pampered in a luxury-spa environment while existing in a memory-free blank-slate condition. A high-concept blend of Charlie’s Angels and The Prisoner, it recalled both the paranoid sci-fi classics of Phillip K. Dick and modern-day dissections of memory and identity in works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If the principal brain-architects of Total Recall were scientists who could design a Martian adventure and “remember it for you wholesale”, then the puppeteers of the Dollhouse appeared to be something of a reverse– they’d have somebody else do the remembering, and then make sure to forget everything as soon as the clock tolled twelve.
Right away I could see the potential of such a concept taking shape, allowing for individual stories-of-the-week unfolding in the foreground– the various Dolls (or Actives) assuming new personalities each episode in a kind of ensemble repertoire for Twilight Zone style anthology drama– saving the master-plotting for the B-stories of sinister staffmembers operating the Dollhouse behind the scenes. As a blend of procedural episodic storytelling and long-form serial narrative, it looked as though it could possibly take television by storm in the same way that Lost did with its flashback device. More than that, however, it represented a truly original concept from Whedon after the more obvious genre homages of Buffy (Van Helsing in a sports-bra) and Firefly (a libertarian version of Star Wars), even looking to be a masterful meta-commentary on the medium of television itself, and a fine blend of soft action-adventure and pure, hard sci-fi. With the kind of ambition baiting that finely sharpened hook, it seems almost painfully obvious just how destined the show was for some kind of failure, and indeed Whedon’s fans were expecting the program to crash and burn in the same way Firefly had, thanks to Fox’s mismanagement. To a certain extent, Dollhouse represented at least an attempt for the network to smooth things over with the creator, commissioning him to create a series that could satisfy both longterm serial ambitions and short-term episodic demands, specifically contoured around veteran Whedon actress and Fox line-up darling Eliza Dushku (she of Buffy and Tru Calling, respectively).
Bankrolling the construction of a life-size set of the Dollhouse itself before anything was even shot, Fox gave Whedon ample time to put together a roster of talented character actors and scope out the world he intended to explore. Though an early pilot was scrapped for a more mainstream one (echoing Fox’s decision not to air the two-hour premiere of Firefly until it had already been canceled), prospects were surprisingly good for the show’s outlook, at least as far as such experimental fare ever manages on network television. The real question was whether or not it would be a creative and critical success, if not a commercial one, and surprisingly the jury’s still more or less out, even amongst Whedon’s core base. Without his trademark zinger-filled writing and sharply defined character-drama, the show came under fire from fans and critics alike in a way that is perhaps only comparable to the flack that Lucas caught for his Star Wars prequels, or the Wachowski Brothers endured for their Matrix follow-ups. The key difference is that those films succeeded in spite of the strong criticism, and Dollhouse eventually folded in the face of somewhat milder scrutiny. Actually, what was suffered was far worse than anykind of fanboy hate or bashing– with the exception of a dedicated core of followers that make Firefly‘s Browncoats look positively mainstream by comparison, Whedon’s latest program was greeted by a rather middling kind of apathy, more than anything else. Instead of hated, it was, more or less, abandoned.
And yet if anything, it’s Dollhouse that perhaps deserves more attention or analysis than anything from its creator’s canon, and maybe even finally earns all the rabid, cultish fanaticism that has followed him ever since he first found a home on the WB. While sometimes lacking in the cinematic storytelling that could be found throughout Firefly at its best moments, Dollhouse shows off some of Whedon’s most striking visualizations yet, and offers some insightful contributions to a decade that has seen more than its fair share of masterful sci-fi works. The studio-set of the Dollhouse location itself is an impressively downplayed masterstroke, turning a seemingly innocuous, even warmly inviting upscale day-spa into a quietly sinister cage for so many penthouse pets turned experimental guinea-pigs– it may be the most subversively cheery dystopian locale since McGoohan turned a sleepy Welsh resort-town into the Village, or Peter Weir shot The Truman Show on location in Seaside, Florida. With its warm, maternal-red wooden varnish tones contrasting with the cold-blue of the laboratory computer-tech, there’s just enough sci-fi elements standing out to make the new-age atmosphere feel occasionally like a well-baited trap, without ever quite looking like it on the surface. Like a ghostly memory leaking out after a personality imprint, the show’s aesthetic communicates the dystopian theme on a subliminal level, carefully weaving a carpet under the viewer’s feet before finally pulling it out– a tasty bait for a mindfuck trap.
Mis-en-scene throughout the series helped contribute to the subtle subversion, as well. Though sometimes leaning a little heavily on long stead-cam takes that merely center on conversation (the Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk approach, so well-worn in television it breaks through the very sole of its shoe), Whedon and his directors find plenty of compositions and angles that make excellent use of the design and architecture of the locations without ever quite betraying the show’s calm, mainstream workplace-drama veneer. Particularly striking is that repeated, almost iconographic high-ceiling shot of the Dolls sleeping in their coffin-like pods, built into the floor in a flower-design that evokes both an inverted pentagram (in the opening credits sequence) and the operating bed from Revenge of the Sith where a charred Anakin Skywalker is transformed into the robotic Darth Vader. Much of the series’ visuals at times nod to classic science-fiction dominated with depictions of robots– the venetian-blind filled offices of the Dollhouse’s madame recalls the various expressionist film-noir interiors of Blade Runner, where Ridley Scott borrowed Vittorio Storaro’s lighting from The Conformist to imply a dystopian future where corporate despots have replaced fascist ones. Tron is name-dropped after a breakout from “The Attic”, where “broken” Dolls are sent to live in perpetual hive-mind nightmares that help power the system’s mainframe computers.
Even the Dolls’ tabula-rassa state between engagements has a ring of both the emotive unemotional Mechas of A.I. and the aggressively ignorant militarist overtones of Starship Troopers— given army code-names like “Whiskey”, “Tango” and “Foxtrot”, and prone to communal co-ed showers, the inactive Actives have a peculiarly endearing innocence to them that makes them all the more vulnerable. As the series’ mythology begins to take over and the clouds of a coming war begin appear on the horizon, one almost looks at the brainwashed souls here as a lost generation adrift in a children’s crusade, doomed to wander a world set-ablaze while all the grown-ups “played with matches, and burned the house down”. And indeed, when we get to witness the eventual apocalyptic aftermath of all the show’s endgames, that’s when it really begins to take off and maximize its potential. As the series’ thirteenth episode, “Epitaph One” portrayed a world just a decade hence from the main events of the series, in which the Dollhouse’s brain-imprinting technology has gone worldwide and weaponized to become a bizarrely existential brand of doomsday device. With half the world’s population mind-wiped into programmed killing-machines or amnesiac zombies and the other half either roaming the wasteland on survival mode or holed up in isolated pockets of civilization, fiddling like Nero before the bonfire of Rome, Whedon and his team imagine a marvelously plausible technophobic nightmare of a future, one that puts the rest of the series into perfect contrasting context.
Or at least it would have, for most viewers, if Fox had decided to put it on the air. Pushed back instead to the first season’s DVD release as a piece of supplementary material almost as worth the purchase as the main content itself, the episode quickly gained a cult-popularity of its own, helping to renew interest in a program that had found itself all but abandoned even by the most zealous of fanboys. One of the bleakest post-apocalyptic landscapes seen since James Cameron’s Terminator movies (the second of which being a key root for Whedon’s trademark brand of ass-kicking women) or Nicholas Meyer’s television-movie The Day After, it helped put Dollhouse in the same family of a recurring motif throughout millennial sci-fi as mainstream as The Matrix and as serious-minded as Children of Men or Synechdoche, New York. On television, it was matched in its fatalistic tone only by the Ron Moore’s seminal reworking of Battlestar Galactica for SyFy and the cult-hit Jericho (which experienced more or less the same neglect on CBS that Whedon did on Fox). What made Dollhouse different was the way in which it offered only brief snippets of the end-of-the-world scenario faced by its characters, focusing more on the slow and gradual build-up to the “thoughtpocalypse” than the actual aftermath itself. Like Lucas’ prequel trilogy, Whedon spent a great deal of creative capital merely spinning his wheels and setting his tables for a grand show that almost never found its way onscreen at all. Indeed, with the flash-forward to the times of “Epitaph One” ingrained into the show’s mythology, any time spent in the present could begin to feel like a prequel to its own narrative, merely filling in the blanks before catching us up to the more interesting main course.
It’s a narrative strategy that was part of a whole vogue for flashbacks and flashforwards, spearheaded on television by Lost with constant weekly revelations on the matter of characters’ pasts and the shape of things to come. When Dollhouse followed suit with their apocalyptic oracular vision, it injected an essential dose of energizing direction to the second season that helped bring the series’ master plan into better focus, especially when it settled into the larger political fabric of its world. Pairing the decadence of fantasy wish-fulfillment and identity confusion of Seconds and the sinister thought-police brainwashing of The Manchurian Candidate, with a wicked twist on the series’ Doll/handler relationship that might’ve even made Mrs. Iselin herself blush. Throughout those more serial-minded episodes, Whedon and his team borrowed much of the content and style of Frankenheimer’s conspiratorial science-fiction, with plenty of press-conference picture-in-picture compositions enhancing the program’s meta-commentary on television itself as a system for disseminating thinly, though expertly veiled propaganda. Hints of Cronenberg rose up, however, when the show delved deeper into the parent-organization for the Dollhouse, which supplied its essential memory wipe/imprint technology, partly to provide a supply of high-end hookers for the powers-that-be and, more importantly, to provide a testing ground for their ultimate nefarious plans of things to come. The latest in a long line of proverbial “Big Bads” throughout Whedon’s canon of mythology-driven series, the umbrella-company bad-guys provided that essential antagonistic force that was often lacking in the first season (yeah, there was the rogue Doll with schizophrenic personalities known as Alpha, but he was a small fish in a deep ocean), as well as layers of additional meaning for those well-versed in science-fiction lore.
Take the very name of “The Rossum Corporation”– an homage to Czech playright Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, which told the story of a world run on the slave-labor of artificially constructed human beings who eventually rise up in rebellion against their capitalist masters. Not only is it in keeping with Dollhouse‘s repeated themes of exploitation and corporate evil throughout, but it makes a canny nod to the genre’s history by referencing the work which introduced the very word “robot” into the modern lexicon. (rooted in words for work and servitude in various Eastern-European languages). The fact that the Dolls are not that far removed from Capek’s original, biologically crafted (rather than purely mechanical) creations helps sink the connection’s importance even further– like the Phillip K. Dick’s replicants, Whedon’s “robots” are not only robot-like in their behavior, but are actually more robot-like in their inception, closer to the original definition of that term, than most popular visions of them tend to be (they also, like the a few Nexus 6 models of Blade Runner, are “gifted with a past” of implanted memories). It’s a way of reminding the audience not only that robots are intended to be symbols for what can happen to mankind when they become too heavily regimented by society and industry, but that indeed they are, or at least can be, one and the same. This notion of humanity reduced to mindless cattle for the elite comes into clear focus when you process the Rossum higher-ups’ plans to achieve a sick kind of immortality by downloading their personalities and memories into one Doll after another, surviving the wasteland by most severe kind of existential exploitation possible. It’s a thought that was planted early on in the series, whenever multiple Dolls were imprinted with the same personality, or when the mind of a dead woman is installed into an Active in order for her to solve the mystery of her own death. Though it paves the way for Armageddon, the Dollhouse technology also offers a transcendental path for eternal life.
It’s something which grows increasingly complicated when considering the series’ primary character of “Echo”, the lone Doll who learns to gradually maintain her identity after imprints, becoming a near-superhuman accumulation of dozens of personalities evocative of a post-Golden Path, pre-sandworm Leto Atreides II in Frank Herbert’s Dune books. For a long while she seemed the weak-link of the show, mostly thanks to the limited range of Eliza Dushku, an actress who’s fine at Faith-style badass bitches, but not very good at conveying anything else. Confined mostly to her blank-slate non-character or any number of shallow mission-of-the-week identities for the first season, it was hard to make any real emotional connection with her superficially schizophrenic character, and considering that she was intended to be the central figure of the show, it only helped make the outlook for its longevity that much more bleak. Gradually the series shifted to spread more of its time amongst the ensemble players, and it must be said that the cast was one of the best for network sci-fi– Harry Lennix of Julie Taymor’s Titus as Echo’s handler Boyd, Olivia Williams of Rushmore as Dollhouse madame Adelle (not to mention Kevin Costner’s wasteland bride in The Postman) and Tamoh Penikett of Battlestar Galactica as dogged FBI agent Ballard all filled out the supporting roles with a remarkable depth and diversity for a Whedon production. Standouts like Fran Kranz as the increasingly conflicted mad-genius Topher, and the pair of Enver Gjojak’s “Victor” and Dichen Lachman’s “Sierra” as Dolls who learn to fall in love even as blank-slates helped bring a much-needed emotional core to the series that was lacking whenever Dushku was asked to play anything outside her comfort zone of wisecracking action-heroines (which was more or less every week).
However, by the time the second-season’s overall arc began to develop, “Echo” began to move away from the episodic imposed-personas of the first season and was allowed to truly develop into a more interesting, independent figure of her own, neither a mere collection of accumulated minds nor the original persona before she was first wiped, a radical-terrorist bent on bringing Rossum and the Dollhouse down. Finally, Dushku was able to fill out her ambiguous role in a manner both mature and sophisticated enough for all her hard-won emotional agency to feel earned, and spontaneous enough for her to fight a whole army without it seeming out of character. Like many Whedon productions prior, Dollhouse suffered from some obvious issues with pacing early on, never quite finding the voice for a particular season until halfway through (indeed, it took the DVD release of “Epitaph One” to put everything into context). This problem increased several fold in the second season, where the writers appeared to be cramming the entirety of their five-year plan for the series into little more than a thirteen-episode run, aware that they probably wouldn’t be given a third chance to finish their story. And yet despite the rush, or perhaps even because of it, “Echo” manages to rise above Dushku’s shortcomings and become one of the most intriguing female characters on television of this past decade. Not merely a mild-mannered cheerleader turned goth superhero like Buffy or a traumatized little girl whose insanity masks psychic powers like Firefly‘s River Tam, this was a figure of fascinating conceptual, psychological and emotional contradictions, a sleepwalking anarchist whose rebellion survived by becoming subliminal.
In the end, this may be the most intriguing artifact to come from the Dollhouse experience, that in the character of “Echo” and the institution she is exploited by, Whedon can finally be seen coming to terms with the ambiguous brand of sexist-feminism his works have endorsed for the better part of twenty years. Like many a tramped-up superheroine in form-fitting spandex or even scanter outfits from comic-books, his female figures have always had a fairly fetishized aspect to them that made them less independent of the dominant male-power paradigms and more a subtle kind of embodiment of them. Buffy may have led the Scooby Gang, but she still managed to sleep her way through
What sets “Echo” apart isn’t that she doesn’t share the same sexualized/damsel aspects of Buffy or River, but instead that Whedon has become more self-aware of them, and for the first time holds them up for close inspection. At its best moments, Dollhouse becomes not just an impressive piece of original sci-fi storytelling or a commentary on the medium of television, but a key work on the nature of psychological, societal, emotional and especially sexual exploitation. There are times when the fragmented psyches of men and women abused by the Rossum corporation begin to resemble the damned souls trapped in the psychogenic fugue-states in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire— indeed, though it seldom takes full advantage of the Los Angeles locales in the same way that David Lynch did, the series may stand as one of the slyest indictments of the Hollywood system– pimping out doe-eyed starlets fresh off the bus, only substituting the brainwashing-chair for the casting-couch, a sci-fi spin on the Fleur-de-Lis brothel of L.A. Confidential. Here, all the kick-ass action that Whedon’s starlets are thrown into finally feel as empowering as they’re meant to be, as they’re no longer fighting against mere vampires or Evil Empires, but something much more sinister– the Man, himself. At times a persecuted victim, at others a triumphant leader, and at some sublime moments rendered into a state of near religious bliss by her newly rewritten mind, like Renee Falconetti hearing the voices of God or Anna Karina watching her in tears, she was both an avengingly angelic Joan of Arc and the poor frightened soul she sought to save. And though those action-sequences may remain at least somewhat sloppy and choppy, the cathartic effect they sustain throughout Dollhouse is enough to make you a true believer even without a remote-wipe. With “Echo”, Whedon finally moves past the superficial thrills of “girl power” to slowly develop and celebrate a hero who sits somewhere on the shelf between a Doll and an action-figure. She is Eve, Lillith and the Archangel with the Fiery Sword in one, both seeking to free the prisoners of Eden and protect that garden from those who would seek to mow it down and put up a parking lot. Like Chaka Kahn, she’s every woman.
*A note to address the rampant misunderstanding this line has caused– I am not belittling or demeaning Buffy by mentioning her sexual history, but bringing it up to point out how the show consistently portrayed her in a sexually objectifying manner. Obviously this wasn’t the best example in the world, as it clouded up everything to the extent that everyone commenting (myself included) lost track of the original point it was in service to, but I still have to question whether or not her sexual activity is there to present her as “sexually liberated”, or to present her as just plain “sexy”. She’s not a slut, but she is at least partly a wet-dream fantasy figure, like many other such figures from the 90’s. As I said before, River isn’t any better herself, being an almost completely neutered, infantile character, despite her numerous powers. Echo represents a step forward beyond the “sexy ass-kicker/baby woman” paradigm of Whedon’s previous protagonists, thanks to how self-aware Dollhouse is of both sides of the spectrum.