Let’s Watch Dollhouse ep.1: Joss Whedon Brings All The Girls To The Fridge

Dollhouse

After the chart-topping success of my Patrick Rothfuss Let’s Read series (“more penis jokes than you can shake a lute at” -Time Waster Magazine, “It certainly is a blog” -Blogging Monthly) I decided to start another one to run simultaneously, because I just can’t get enough of making fun of things on the internet.

Instead of another book I decided on a tv series. And if I was going to do a tv series the obvious choice would be a Joss Whedon show. And of course if we’re talking Joss Whedon there’s really only one option- Firefly!

But then I remembered that something about the look and feel of Firefly makes me never want to watch, think about or be in the same room as that show ever again. So I chose Dollhouse instead.

Some caveats before we start. I’m going into this totally blind- I don’t know anything about this show beyond (sort of) the basic premise. Like I said with my Name of The Wind series, this isn’t necessarily going to turn into a Lets’s Hate. I could very well end up falling in love with this show and singing it’s praises in every post.

That, um, didn’t happen with the first episode. But it still might! Also this took way longer to make then my usual posts so don’t expect them on a regular schedule.

We open with a pretty compelling scene where Eliza Dushku has a mysterious conversation with an English woman from the 1950s named DeWitt. It seems Eliza is in a spot of bother and is being offered some sort of second

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chance by entering into a five year contract to do….. something, only she doesn’t seem to feel she has any choice in the matter. As cold openings go this is quite compelling – there’s lots of mystery but it’s not heavy handed, we can tell Eliza Dushku is in some sort of dire situation even if we don’t know what it is and the “contract” is presented as

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both an escape from and punishment for some kind of past mistake which adds a nice bit of ambiguity to the whole thing.

Unfortunately this scene also presents what I have a feeling is going to be Dollhouse’s biggest flaw: Joss Whedon cannot write dialogue.

Well, okay. That’s not exactly fair. The man has a reputation for loading his screenplays up with non-stop quips and zingers, and that’s not always a bad thing if you an pull it off. I found a lot of the Avenger’s dialogue fairly amusing. But in Dollhouse we get shit like this:

“I’m talking about a clean slate.”

“You ever try and clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.”

Anyway the mystery-room scene ends and we’re immediately thrown into Eliza Dushku having an illegal-looking motorcycle race with her boyfriend as part of one of those ostentatious birthday parties pop culture tells me that rich people like to throw. They dance a bit and exchange more terrible dialogue about Eliza Dushku sexing him up kinky-style, then she leaves and climbs into a black van full of cheap looking fake computers.

So here’s the setup to Dollhouse as far as I can work out: the Dollhouse is an organization that employs, if that’s the right word, women(?) whose memories and personalities are erased to make them essentially empty vessels. Rich clients hire out the “Actives” to perform services for them, which might involve being their fake girlfriend for the weekend or (judging by the show’s promotional photos) kicking people in the face. The reason the Actives are so uniquely suited to this job is that they’re given false memories and personalities for each assignment, and somehow this can also grant them specialized skills and abilities Matrix-style. I’m kind of wondering why this technology hasn’t completely reshaped human society already, but okay.

I’ll give the show this, it’s an interesting premise. I’m sure some sci-fi author somewhere has used the concept before

3 but it feels fresh enough, and lends itself well to tragedy. We learn that the dolls don’t actually realize that the personalities they’re given are fake while on assignment, so Echo returns to base talking about how the client who essentially rented her for the weekend (who she’s been brainwashed into thinking is her long-time boyfriend) is “the one” only to have her mind wiped seconds later.

This presents a rather obvious problem at the same time. The people who run and operate the Dollhouse and their clients are, by any reasonable measure, clearly totally evil and yet they’re also the main characters. I’m curious to see how, or if, the show handles this.

The nerdy tech guy operating the mind wipe chair has some absolutely god-awful banter with Echo’s handler/supervisor, Boyd Langdon, and then we cut to a business guy having a conversation with his 12 year old daughter over the phone. They both talk like they were created in a factory designed to produce human quip machines and their dialogue is so hilariously unrealistic and awkward I started to seriously, literally wonder if the girl was some sort of AI-style cyborg kid or an adult in a child’s body.

Robot-girl goes into her room and lies down on her bed, then manages to get one last zinger in before three beefy dudes materialize out of thin air and chloroform her. Now I realize this is a sci-fi show so I have to clarify that they did not literally teleport; I say they materialized out of thin air because the camera pans over the entire room when she enters, clearly showing it to be both empty and devoid of hiding places, and yet the instant the girl’s head touches the duvet one of the kidnapper’s arms shoots out from the side of the screen as though he had been standing there the entire time. I can only conclude that being off-camera renders them somehow invisible.4

(If my description of this scene comes off as just a tad creepy, well, we’ll get to that later)

It turns out robot-girl’s dad is a rich Mexican businessman who moved to America precisely to avoid the possibility of criminal gangs kidnapping him or his daughter for ransom, but I guess they followed him to the US. Because kidnapping a kid in a foreign country you’re not familiar with wouldn’t be insanely risky or anything. Dadbot seems suspiciously reluctant to either pay the ransom or contact the police, possibly because he’s an enormous douche-bag, so he goes to the Dollhouse to get a hostage negotiator. During the meeting DeWitt says that discussing the Dollhouse or the active’s actual nature after the assignment-personality has been uploaded might make them flip their shit and freak out, which to me doesn’t sound like the sort of liability you want when sending someone into a highly volatile situation where the slightest mistake could end in infanticide.

Also of note is that DeWitt appears to be very sympathetic to dadbot’s plight, promising earnestly to do everything in their power to rescue girlbot. I had assumed just based on the premise that the Dollhouse staff would be cold, detached sorts who are just in it for the Megabucks, but I guess not? That seems oddly incongruous.

The Actives live in quite a nice pad where they get access to personalized medical attention and massages and stuff, which I guess makes sense as you’d want them to remain in absolute peak physical and mental health. This reminds me a lot of Never Let Me Go (or if you’re not familiar with that, The Island), where the people raising the clone-kids are totally obsessed with maintaining their health since they’re going to be used as organ donors when they grow up. I’ve seen people ask why, in this sort of human-trafficking-people-who-are-dehumanised-for-science-purposes plot you wouldn’t just treat the clones/actives/whatever as cattle to cut down on expenses, but if your main source of income is essentially the person’s body itself and they can’t be easily replaced the way a slave could be it would make sense that you’d want to keep them as healthy as possible.

During this scene the following exchange occurs between Echo and a doctor whose face is covered with cool scars:

“Would you like a massage?”

“They’re relaxing.”

“Yes.”

Throughout the episode blank-Echo talks in this simplistic, child-like manner that comes across like someone’s idea of how an adult with developmental problems would speak. It’s extremely irritating and presents some…. issues that I’ll talk about later.

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Echo wanders off and stumbles on a naked woman getting zapped with science-machines and screaming. This is the initial mind-wipe to create a new Active, a process that apparently takes place in an unlocked glass-walled room in plain sight of all of the other Actives. Nerd dude from earlier explains this to Echo using simplistic, infantile language that pushes the skeeze factor of the whole setup into stratospheric levels.

“Something fell on me.”

“I bet it was something great!”

…… uh.

We then cut to an FBI agent guy, who’s trying to investigate the Dollhouse, in the middle of getting grilled by his superiors for being a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules and is out of line and shit. I wonder if he and Echo will become rivals and have recurring sexy encounters over the course of the series? During this bit the show makes the mistake of having the FBI dude’s superior point out how illogical the Dollhouse’s business model is, which brings up several plot issues I probably wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Scenes of FBI man’s verbal sparring are intercut with scenes of him in a kick-boxing match, because do you see (apparently he fights at a gym where neither of the combatants wear head protection and you’re allowed to knee people in the face full-force).5

Echo gets mind-uploaded to go on the negotiation mission, which involves considerable backup from her handlers in the form of wire tapping and other trendy cyber-sleuthing measures. They talk about how she’s not to try and “bring anyone to justice” which again seems to imply that the Dollhouse is (or considers themselves to be) some sort of vigilante organization in addition to basically an extremely high-tech escort service.

We see Echo in hostage-negotiation mode, which jarringly highlights the fact that Echo’s different personas all sound like basically the same person (there’s a reason for that but I’ll get to it later). Echo and dadbot trade some more stilted, unrealistic robot-dialogue for awhile, then the nerd guy back at the Dollhouse (Topher) explains that the personality imprints are basically copies of multiple real people combined into one so the original template’s weaknesses and mental hangups also get uploaded to the Active’s brain. This is also explained in stilted, unrealistic robot-dialogue filled with quips and zingers and nonsensical metaphors. I’m really starting to suspect the script for this episode was written by having a group of people tap-dance across a giant keyboard and then produce whatever random nonsense comes out. I should mention that Topher is really fucking creepy and stares at all of the women whenever he’s talking, including Scar Doctor.

Oh, and the personality upload gave Echo asthma, because apparently this technology can reshape a person’s body at a whim? I really wonder why this isn’t being used for medical purposes.

Echo’s hostage negotiating technique appears to consist of antagonizing the kidnapper (who, like all mexican bad guys, has a hair-trigger temper and yells a lot) in a way that I think we’re supposed to find vaguely titillating. Now I know jack shit about hostage negotiation, but I suspect “make the kidnapper really pissed off” probably isn’t in the official playbook. Echo wears a very low-cut blouse during all of this, makes everyone call her “Miss Penn” and threatens  to “scold” Dadbot’s head of security. Maybe the Dollhouse accidentally uploaded a dominatrix personality instead of a hostage negotiator and she thinks the whole kidnapping thing is just an elaborate roleplaying session.

Since Dadbot is a fucking idiot he starts needling Echo about her true nature, causing her to have flashbacks of the woman getting zapped with the science machine from earlier. Immediately before this we learn that Echo’s hostage negotiator persona (who, remember, is based on a real person) was kidnapped and raped as a child. The implication seems to be that Echo thinking about her (fake) memories of being sexually abused in the past triggers a flashback of the other woman being turned into an Active.

Hmmmmmmmmmm.

FBI guy- who can also also do the off-screen invisibility thing- Jack Bauers a Russian mafia dude into getting information on the Dollhouse for him.

During the hostage transfer everything appears to be going swimmingly, but then it turns out that the head kidnapper is actually- wait for it- the dude who kidnapped Echo’s current personality all those years ago! This is so contrived and idiotic I nearly broke my keyboard when it happened. Echo has a panic-induced asthma attack, Dadbot gets shot and the kidnappers run off with the money and the girl. If you’re going to use a real person as the template for your badass hostage negotiator it might be a good idea to see if they have massive latent PTSD around the subject first.7

Echo tells  Langdon that they have six hours before the kidnapper murders his accomplices and vanishes with Girlbot, this apparently being the same MO he used with her (well not her but you know what I mean). Echo and Langdon immediately start coming up with ways to save Girlbot, but unfortunately there’s that whole imminent-mind-wipe thing and Langdon guy must make a Choice between his loyalty to the Dollhouse and his desire not to be a dickhead by leaving the girl behind.

(In case you’re wondering, the uploaded personalities seem to have some kind of false memory implanted that makes them contextualize the handlers as a recognizable part of their current situation. In this case Echo seems to assume he’s her hostage-rescue partner or superior of some kind. Likewise, the mind-wipe is presented as some sort of medical treatment that she needs to go in for periodically).

Of course  Langdon barges into DeWitt’s office to plead with her not to wipe Echo before they save Girlbot. DeWitt acquiesces at the last possible moment for maximum drama and Echo charges off to save the day. Langdon isn’t allowed to come though, because he’s getting too personally involved. In case you couldn’t tell, this show operates almost entirely on cliches.

Topher tells Langdon that the person whose personality gave Echo the PTSD attribute killed themselves a year ago and for some reason Langdon gets all choked up and questions what they’re doing, as if this is a huge problem but all the other shit is totally cool. I kind of assumed the Dollhouse would have screened these people to make sure they don’t have mental problems or other issues that could cock up the Active’s assignment, but apparently not.

Anyway Echo manages to turn the other two kidnappers on the ringleader by telling them that he’s going to murder them and discovers that in order to keep Girlbot quiet they literally stuffed her into a fucking fridgeand I have to wonder if this is Joss Whedon’s attempt to be, 9I don’t even know, subversive? Or something? Just as they’re leaving the Active who was getting zapped by the science machines earlier (Sierra) blows the door open and totally shoots the other two kidnappers in the face with her enormous handguns, because setting off explosives and firing weapons around children is always a great idea. And Dadbot survived, so yay! But DeWitt has a scary file marked “Alpha” which is apparently scary for reasons! Then a naked guy kills two people and watches a video of pre-mind wipe Echo that might have been more interesting if I actually gave a shit about Echo’s past. The video of Past!Echo seems to be from shortly after she graduated from college, and she ironically announces that she wants to “do everything” so I guess she got her wish, as long as by do everything she meant go on sexy adventures and sleep with rich douchebags.

The episode ends with the Actives going to sleep in these crazy underground bed things. Two of them are men which is interesting because absolutely everything I had heard, seen and read about this show prior to watching it seemed to indicate all of the Actives were women. Roll credits.

DUN DUN DUH DUH WOOOOOOOAAAAHHH Joss Whedon is a fucking hack

Review and analysis

Where do I start with this?

The dialogue. Oh the dialogue. Someone on twitter described Joss Whedon’s approach to dialogue as “a series of interlocking quips” and that’s certainly true. If people aren’t throwing out quips and one-liners and delivering zingers then they’re talking like robots who have never experienced human emotions before. The exchange on the phone between the kidnap-girl and her dad is probably the most egregious example in the episode- when I said I thought she was supposed to be a robot I wasn’t kidding, I really did think that.

Ironically the Dollhouse itself suffers from a massive identity crisis. Their set up is interesting but their actions don’t seem very coherent or consistent- are they a team of sci-fi vigilantes? Human traffickers? Just the show’s basic premise imples cold, clinical inhumanity, but we don’t really get that from them the first episode. It can certainly be interesting to show people doing evil but trying to be as benevolent about it as possible, but that only really works if they believe their actions are necessary or they’re trying to minimize the cruelty of a pre-existing system that they lack the power to outright stop- see the aforementioned Never Let Me Go for an example. But the Dollhouse workers are in it purely for the profit. They claim they’re trying to help people, but if that was the case they wouldn’t make their services so expensive that only the super-rich could afford them.

I mentioned that I found Echo’s different personas unconvincing. We see three of them in the first episode, not including personality-free blank Echo: girlfriend mode, hostage negotiator mode, pre-mind wipe mode. They come across as the same person trying to act like different people as opposed to completely different personalities. Now to be fair, this would be difficult for even an exceptional actress to pull off, and Eliza Dushku is not an exceptional actress. In fact, she’s not even a very good actress. Actually she’s pretty god-awful. Her performance in this episode was probably the worst I’ve ever seen from the lead actor of a major TV show.

I realize that’s harsh, and she’s certainly not the only person phoning it in here (the dude playing Topher is pretty bad as well), but I was honestly shocked at how wooden her acting is. Even her portrayal of blank!Echo, which requires her to do little more than walk around slowly and look at things with an expression of vague curiosity, was stilted and unconvincing. This alone more or less sinks the episode, because while I would hesitate to describe it as “character-focused” in the sense that the characters are in any way complex or compelling, the show’s entire premise is built on Echo transforming herself into different people at the Dollhouse’s request and Dushku appears to be nowhere near skilled enough for the task. Okay, it’s just the first episode, maybe she’ll get more comfortable with the role later on, but right now I’m not feeling especially confident.

I know it’s not very helpful to insist that a TV show or book or what have you would be better if it was something totally different from what it is, but I have to wonder if the format of the plot was a wise choice. The audience is given enough different character perspectives to essentially have an omnipotent view of the story, which clashes with the over-arching narrative they’re clearly building up of Echo slowly gaining awareness of her situation and retaining memories of her assignments. We already know the answers to the mysteries she’s encountering and there’s no particular drama surrounding Echo finding out, because as far as we know the Dollhouse will just wipe her memory again or cancel her contract early and restore her original personality. The Dollhouse is in a position of absolute authority over Echo but there’s no tension arising from that dynamic because their first priority is to keep her unharmed and happy, and therefore profitable, at all costs. Echo wandering about the facility and finding things she shouldn’t offers considerably less tension than a high school student doing the same thing.

Now let’s talk about how skeevy this episode made me feel, for all sorts of reasons.

I have to begin by asking a rather pertinent question that the episode itself comes close to engaging with but coyly shies away from at the last moment: to what extent are we supposed to view the Active’s assignments as being analogous to involuntary prostitution? Certainly the “pretend to be my girlfriend and have kinky rope sex” assignment that Echo is on at the beginning of the episode is more or less this, and on the way to have her mind wiped afterward she briefly passes by an Active dressed as a Geisha. Which in reality wouldn’t necessarily mean anything but to douchebags with Asian fetishes usually signifies super-prostitutes with exotic oriental sex skills. If we accept that the Actives are supposed to be sex workers- and the show appears to be all but compelling us to come to that conclusion- then Echo’s flashback to Sierra’s “creation” triggered by memories of childhood sexual abuse suggests a highly abusive dynamic between the Actives, the Dollhouse and their clients. This means that all but two of the recurring cast members we’ve been introduced to so far are complicit in what is basically sexual slavery.

Now you might argue that the Actives agree to the whole arrangement voluntarily, but I dispute that on a few grounds. Firstly, we don’t actually know how much Echo was told about what her “engagements” would entail before signing on. Secondly, she seemed to believe she didn’t have a choice in the matter which means DeWitt was basically taking advantage of an emotionally vulnerable person with her back against the wall instead of just helping her. And thirdly the whole idea of consent becomes a bit dubious when you add personality-wiping and mind control (which is a fairly common fetish, by the way) into the mix. If pre-mind wipe Echo consented to the whole arrangement does that still count when her post-mind wipe personality is basically a completely different (very much infantalized) person? I don’t think the “blank slate” Echo would even be capable of giving consent for anything as she appears to have the awareness and mental state of a toddler.

Earlier I mentioned that the part where Girlbot gets kidnapped creeped me out a bit, as I couldn’t help but interpret the way the scene was shot and framed as being deliberately reminiscent of a sexual assault. This combined with the juxtaposition of Echo’s fake childhood abuse memories and Sierra’s ordeal and taken together with the infantile nature of the Actives brings us to the conclusion that the show isn’t just working in subtext about sexual abuse, but specifically sexual abuse of children, and given how all of the victims of both real abuse, attempted abuse and symbolic abuse in this episode are female, sexual abuse of girls in particular. That might seem far fetched but it’s the only explanation for the infantile nature of the Actives, something the second episode explicitly calls attention to several times. If there’s a less squicky interpretation of all of this, I’d love to hear it.

Am I going somewhere with this? Well that depends, is Joss Whedon going to go somewhere with it? There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing about such edgy material by using a lot of subtext but you absolutely cannot expect your audience to also get off on it at the same time, and I think we are meant to be getting off on Dollhouse. The show’s opening credits emphasize Echo changing into revealing outfits and the camera practically salivates all over Eliza Dushku throughout the episode.

Maybe I’m being unfair to ol’ Joss here. Maybe his original draft was a deep, thoughtful and respectful examination of sexual abuse but then the Networks that are apparently always stepping on his toes forced him to sex it up and include Eliza Dushku acting like a dominatrix.

Or maybe this is just a deeply confused and sloppily written first episode of a series that appears to be fundamentally flawed at a basic structural level. I guess we’ll find out.

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4 thoughts on “Let’s Watch Dollhouse ep.1: Joss Whedon Brings All The Girls To The Fridge

  1. welltemperedwriter

    I saw the first episode when it originally aired because I was quite a Whedon fan at the time. The first episode was all I ever saw and, while I still like some of his stuff (I do dig Buffy despite its problems), it was pretty much when I stopped watching anything he was involved in simply because he was involved with it. I think that, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, I was realizing something of braak’s point 1, up there, and the show’s apparent lack of interest in saying anything substantive about all this “edgy” stuff it was doing disturbed me.

    And Pat Cadigan was doing better stuff with implantable personalities in the 80s.

    Reply
  2. Orryia

    Nice commentary. I’ve never watched Dollhouse and I never intend to, but it’s interesting enough to read this.

    Reply
  3. braak

    The thing about Dollhouse — actually, I guess two things. Well, no, actually there’s a million things about Dollhouse, so, TWO things about Dollhouse are:

    1) It very much falls into that trap of clearly trying to be a commentary on something without actually offering any commentary on it. “Don’t you see! Sexual and psychological slavery!” “Yes, okay, but what about it?” “It’s…I’m commenting on it.” “Okay.” “You’re complicit in it! We’re all complicit! Just by watching the show!” “Come on, man, I’m only watching it because you told me it would be good. You’re the one that made it into the Eliza Dushku Fetish Parade.”

    2) It showcases Whedon’s writing at its worst, which always struck me as, I guess, being intensely needy. That’s at the root of all the quips I think; they’re never in character, they’re rarely particularly expressive, they seem like just a kind of bit of show-off jokeiness (the bit with the slate is a prime example: firstly, human beings don’t talk this way; secondly, when would Eliza Dushku ever have had to wipe off a slate?; thirdly, actually, you can wipe a slate clean you just need a little water; fourthly, what the fuck are you even talking about?). Jokes are things that characters tell; quips are things that writers do.

    It’s almost as though Whedon, as a writer, is so desperate to keep the audience interested or entertained that he’s unwilling to let any number of minutes go by without somebody saying SOMETHING quippy, even if there’s no fucking reason for it and it doesn’t make any sense.

    Reply

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