Bernadette Lynn Bosky:
People have been made uncomfortable by Joss Whedon's series Dollhouse, as is only appropriate. We should be made nervous, even queasy, by both its premise and its execution, which demonstrate that Whedon has finally come of age as a science fiction writer.
One longstanding tradition in science fiction is the dystopia. Extrapolated from our present, these disasters will happen "if this goes on," to quote both a 1965 paperback anthology (edited by Charles Neutzel) and a story by Robert Heinlein (set in his Future History series). Such stories are not about the future, but about the present—as some SF critics, including Robert Scholes, have persuasively argued that all science fiction is. Such stories are warnings, based on choices we are currently making—or failing to make, functionally the same thing.
Despite a few outstanding exceptions, such as Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, this tradition has not fared well on the screen, big or small. Especially since the first Star Wars films and Star Trek's jump to the movies, science fiction films have more concerned wish fulfillment, human ambitions writ large and fulfilled. Exceptions to this approach, such as the Alien and Terminator series films, have tended to be genre horror more than science fiction; more importantly, the fear is in the thrill ride of "who will survive?" rather than more long-term questions of "what are we doing to ourselves?" For instance, in the Terminator films, the creation of the massive AI Skynet is a mistake, an unfortunate aberration, rather than a natural outgrowth of a decades-long defense policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. For social criticism, the main big box-office candidate is essentially a Young Adult film, John Badham's 1983 film WarGames, which had a moral simple enough to display on the movie's posters.
Thus, it’s not surprising that many viewers have taken Dollhouse as being, or intended to be, relatively uncomplicated wish fulfillment. First, that's what we're used to in our SF-viewing pleasure: creamy goodness that goes down with no unpleasant afterthoughts. Second, the ideas taken on their own may seem like wish fulfillment—and of a particularly creepy kind, just ripe for viewing with alarm.
In Dollhouse's near future, technology exists to download memories and personality for storage; the person can then have her or his own personality wiped, ready for a new imprint of memories and personality uploaded from the same machine. Research goes on in an enigmatic corporation named, in homage to the science fiction play by Karel Čapek, The Rossum Corporation; the series hints that the process could, among other benefits, confer immortality in a series of bodies. Partly to gain funding, the eponymous Dollhouse uses this technology to serve the desires of the rich and powerful, as mind-wiped "dolls" (also called "actives") are imprinted as whatever the client wants, from a hostage negotiator to a perfectly matched true love.
This trivial application makes as much sense as using a laser to open a cereal box, and yet that's not unrealistic: ask your parents (or grandparents) about the fad for X-ray machines in shoe stores. They were free, and kids used them again and again, to see how shoes fit or just how bones moved when you wiggled your toes. A friend pointed out that even now, lasers—though laser pointers, not deadly lasers—are commonly used to entertain pet cats.
And using a new technology in a way that exploits sex? When has that not happened? Some archaeologists even argue that the Venus of Willendorf and other Paleolithic goddesses were less religious than pornographic; that fact was featured in a New York Times article tracing the ways in which every new artistic medium has been turned to sex, sooner rather than later, including pornographic wax-cylinder recordings. This point is one thing the 1983 movie Brainstorm got right: any technology that can be used for sexual stimulation will be, no matter how off-label that is to its original purpose. As William Gibson writes in "Burning Chrome," "the street finds its own uses."
Here, however, it's not the street but the penthouse—or not the mean streets but Wall Street and perhaps Pennsylvania Avenue—and again that possibility seems all too credible. The clients are all rich and powerful, and their use of the dolls a natural consequence of this wealth and power—not in an 1890s-1920s, social-Darwinist "they deserve it" way, but in a post-Watergate, post-Investment Crisis "because they want to and no one can or will stop them" way. Like much popular fiction, such as Stephen King's, Dollhouse appeals to those who have lost faith in both business and government; clearly, it is designed to undermine faith in technology. What is left for the viewer to have faith in? Maybe nothing, but maybe the situation is not quite so bleak.
The differences between Dollhouse's pilot—"Echo," on the Season 1 DVD set—and the first aired episode, "Ghost," are striking. "Echo" is much more talky, foregrounding the ethical issues; "Ghost" is glittering, introducing the characters and situation piecemeal, with more violence and more beautiful flesh along the way. The Dollhouse, where the actives live between assignments, is elegant, at once luxurious and spare—open spaces that indicate a total lack of concern for real estate expenses. (We later learn that the Dollhouse is a secret installation under the ground, which may seem to make this element irrelevant, but the expenses of excavation and a self-contained environment bring it back.)
In the first five episodes, each focuses on a story, resolved in that episode, concerning the assignment of the protagonist, an active known as Echo (played by Eliza Dushku). As names of other actives are added—Alpha, Sierra, Tango, November, Victor, Whiskey—viewers will recognize the NATO Spelling Alphabet. Each active has a handler who monitors the active's bio-readouts from a nearby van and is supposed to intervene if the assignment goes wrong. In these episodes, backstory is doled out skillfully: we meet Topher Brink (played by Fran Kranz), the youngish nerd in charge of the wiping and imprinting technology; Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), very cold and efficient, the head of this Dollhouse but obviously answering to a bigger hierarchy; Boyd Langton (Harry J. Lennix), ex-policeman and Echo's new handler; and Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent on what his colleagues and bosses generally see as a quixotic quest against an urban legend.
We learn that all actives sign a five-year contract, getting their lives back—with no memories of the five years, but paid very well—at the end. Thus, the policy is that the actives have given informed consent. Or have they, even when the system works as it is supposed to? Is it really possible to give rational consent to something like this? The paradigm Whedon uses is clearly that of sexual slavery, the bait-and-switch kind of trafficking in which the victims, many of whom do not speak English, think they will get jobs, for instance, serving in a restaurant but instead are kept and used sexually. In this case, the actives do not want to escape, but that is as much a matter of artificial programming as is their willingness—and ability—to fulfill their various jobs.
Without the backstory, most assignment stories are fairly standard—action/adventure moves by a beautiful woman, exciting in the 1960s heyday of the Steed-Peel The Avengers, but old news now. Some episodes add interesting twists, such as "Stage Fright" (episode 3, written by Maurissa Tanchareon and Jed Whedon) in which Echo becomes a backup singer to guard a pop singer, and the full story of who is stalking whom turns out to be other than what the viewer, and Echo, thought. Episode 5, "True Believer" (written by Tim Minear), involves technology beyond that for wiping/imprinting: when Echo infiltrates the compound of a religious cult, her sight is commandeered by government agents and she is functionally blind. In "Ghosts" Echo is a hostage negotiator, and in "Gray Hour" (episode 4, written by Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft), she takes part in stealing ancient art.
The show might be worth watching for this adventure component, but Dollhouse stands or falls on its central concept. We learn that Alpha, one of the dolls, escaped violently; at first, he is said to be dead, but in episode 4 he is revealed as not only alive but capable of manipulating the wiping/imprinting equipment with great sophistication. In episode 1, it seems all actives may be female, but the rogue Alpha is male, as is the doll Victor. In fact, since the viewers had only met Victor in the personality of his assignment, finding out that he is an active comes as a shock, a surprise replayed with different characters later in the season.
The core story and adventure assignments combine synergistically in one way: anyone or anything may turn out not to be what the viewer thought. The dolls, especially Echo, manifest memories that are supposedly wiped irretrievably; at least two Dollhouse officials pursue their own agendas, inimical to the organization. Layers of deceit, planned and spontaneously emergent, combine into a gestalt with elements of both noir detective fiction and Philip K. Dickian reality bending.
The main subplot, in all episodes, is the search for the substance behind the rumors of the Dollhouse by FBI Agent Ballard—a moral man, concerned with what he views as illegal servitude and gross misuse of technology. Ballard's Achilles' heel, as well as his greatest strength, is his obsessive tenacity, which has led to a divorce and a dead-end assignment no one else at the FBI believes in. In episode 2, Ballard receives an anonymous package with a videotape of Echo in her real identity, Caroline. Though he may never have given up anyway, the effect of emotional focus on a specific victim is great: in fact, at various points in the season, even Ballard may not know if he is motivated by enmity to the Dollhouse or sympathy, even a kind of imaginary love, for Caroline.
The staff members at the Dollhouse evoke different reactions from different viewers, indicating that they are more complex and less simply stereotyped than many TV characters. Most seem emotionally broken to some degree. Topher, a Peter Pan of a nerd who views his job as an occasion to play with cool toys, may be coded as sympathetic for his combination of enthusiasm and social cluelessness, but can only strike the viewer as irresponsible. Adelle, always in control of herself and the operation, has an emotional rigidity that seems very brittle. Dr. Saunders, the general practitioner who oversees the health of the actives, seems the most emotionally healthy, which is ironic in two ways: her face is scarred from her encounter with Alpha, making her different from all the beautiful faces; and flashbacks during episode 12, "Omega" (written by Tim Minear), reveal that she is not exactly what we thought she was. Echo's handler, Boyd, seems like a generally admirable and emotionally competent character, except that he can give up neither his ethical objections to the Dollhouse nor his job benefiting from it.
From episode 6, "Man on the Street" (written by Joss Whedon), through episode 9, "Spy in the House of Love" (written by Andrew Chambliss), the main focus shifts from the assignments to the workings of the Dollhouse and its problems, including increased pursuit by Agent Ballard. In "Echoes," episode 7 (written by Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain), the actives are sent to quell an outbreak of a neurochemical to which they are relatively immune; that episode and 8, "Needs" (written by Tracy Bellomo), reveal more about the histories of the actives, including why Echo, Sierra (Dichen Lachman), and November (Miracle Laurie) became dolls. In episode 9, Boyd, still ambivalent, is promoted to chief of Dollhouse security.
The development of Ballard is both fascinating and horribly poignant. A hard, dedicated man, further emotionally injured by divorce, Ballard opens up to a sweet, caring woman whose apartment is across the hall—only to eventually find out, as the viewer already has, that the Dollhouse has been able to determine and deliver what he needs when he himself could not. When he knows but still gives in to his desires, his anger and self-loathing condemn the Dollhouse more than any immediate rejection could have. One major accomplishment of the show is that Ballard, admirable but not particularly likeable, becomes one of the most nuanced and sympathetic characters.
In fact, Ballard, Topher, and Adelle, all of whom we see on dates with imprinted actives, present various degrees of awareness of and discomfort with the artificial fulfillment those provide. In episode 11, "Briar Rose" (written by Jane Espenson), Topher seems happy with his encounter, a narcissistic play date with Sierra as his nerdish BFF, eating junk food and playing laser tag. The scenes are funny, yet tragic for their implication that Topher's is unable to make real friends. We see Adelle in another episode selling a client on the profound and genuine nature of such an encounter; yet on the most recent of what appears to have been a series of dates with an imprinted active, she refers to clients, presumably including herself, as "pathetic" and "self-deluding." She finally stops the dates, though the viewer is not completely sure why.
Episodes 10 and 11 blend the assignments well with the ongoing story, which by this point has been sufficiently explained to proceed with its own force. In #10, "Haunted" (written by Jane Espenson, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jed Whedon) the memory of a recently dead friend of Adelle's is downloaded, and her personality in Echo's body solves her own murder. "Briar Rose" (written by Jane Espenson) is rich with imagery and significant intercuts. In a pro bono assignment developed by Topher, Echo is imprinted to connect with a young victim of sexual abuse and start her healing. The term "victim" is applied both to the young girl and to the dolls, and imagery links Ballard's quest and white-knight complex with the prince in "Briar Rose." The connection between the use of the dolls and sexual abuse seems strong: both are "sleeping beauties," waiting either for rescue or for their curse to end.
The Alpha subplot ends the season in episode 12, "Omega." As it is set up to be, the Alpha subplot is the trump card of season 1: a mystery introduced in the first episode and revealed in the last, with frequent hints, flashbacks, and developments throughout the season. Yet the resolution is disappointing, in both Alpha's melodramatic megalomania and the barely credible final hide-and-seek in the Dollhouse. Moreover, the viewer does not get the kind of catharsis required regarding Echo's situation.
"Epitaph One" (written by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, story by Joss Whedon), the unaired final episode available on the season 1 DVD, offers an intriguing and hopeful next chapter for Echo's personal saga, summed up in the line, "I hope we find my body alive"—not something a TV viewer hears every day. That episode also offers the staunchest condemnation of the wiping/imprint technology, fulfilling the prophecy of a scientist featured in "Man on the Street" that such technology could, in fact, end the world. Somewhat farther into the future, the technology can be used on anyone at any distance, bringing immortality for some and oblivion for others. A small group of "actuals," looking for a haven before they also get wiped, happen upon the Dollhouse, partly empty and partly inhabited by shattered wrecks who now know what they helped bring about.
Dollhouse is far from perfect. For instance, reviewing the episodes for this piece made clear just how much pointless, prolonged violence there is to fast-forward through. The appeal to TV's demand for eye candy not only opens the show to charges of exploiting what it condemns, but also raises practical questions: doesn't anyone ever want a date with someone less than perfect looking, such as a teacher he had a crush on? However, the show does provide serious consideration of the ethics of technology, a central concern of science fiction that we could use more of. The characters and politico-social situations are naturally extrapolated from what has always been done with new developments—accomplishing some good, especially seen in "Ghost", "Stage Fright", "Echoes", "Haunted," and "Briar Rose", but always at least exploitative and never determined solely by long-term consideration of common benefit.
In some ways, the most daring and interesting aspect of Dollhouse is its lack of a clear moral center among the characters. In keeping with the idea that this technology is too tempting for anyone to totally resist, the show invites partial identification with many characters but condemns or undercuts total identification with—let alone approval of—anyone. The result is a reasonable moral stance, but one that requires unusual sophistication on the part of the audience, especially in an action/adventure-based genre that has accustomed viewers to clear heroes and villains.
Many conversations in the show provide realistic debates in which both sides score points: Ballard and a computer tycoon (Patton Oswalt) in "Man in the Street"; Boyd and Topher in various shows; Boyd and Ballard in "Omega." The final discussion is particularly interesting in its presentation of the age-old conflict of working in the system (Boyd) versus tearing the whole system down (Ballard). When a handler is discovered raping the doll he is assigned to, in some ways this is contrasted to what the dolls usually do, but in other ways it is compared, especially in a discussion between the handler Hearn (Kevin Kilner) and Adelle.
Of the two main arguments characters offer for the Dollhouse, one is practical and one is self-centered. The first is, for example, presented by Adelle to Hearn: that such a technology will be used, and the task is to use it well. The computer entrepreneur challenges Ballard with the second approach, saying that Ballard's desire to save Caroline is as much a fantasy as his desire to have his late wife back and is even more pathetic, apparently since Ballard does not acknowledge that it is a fantasy. Yet, given his chance to acquiesce to the lure of the Dollhouse, Ballard refuses, proving at least that he is capable of some kinds of denial.
On the other side, Ballard is the main advocate of the view that the Dollhouse is just morally wrong, exploiting some human beings for the benefit of others in a way that cannot be justified. Comments by FBI Agent Loomis (Aisha Hinds) in episode 11 make clear that official disdain for the Dollhouse case is due to thinking of it as an urban legend, and that if it truly exists, it does deserve to be taken down. Boyd and Dr. Saunders constantly raise questions, specifically about whether the actives are really well taken care of and whether their consent is meaningful. Thus, Ballard challenges the entire system, while Boyd and Saunders show its weaknesses even taken on its own terms.
Moreover, given that the victims of the Dollhouse are absent as people, the show goes out of its way to remind us frequently of their individuality and vitality, to gain our sympathy for them. Through Ballard, the viewer is deeply affected by the video of Caroline, wanting to make a positive difference in the world; and this impact is perpetuated as we learn more about the past lives of the dolls. Moreover, as actives they are not only used but consistently lied to: even the ritual lines upon the active's awakening are lies, as are the promises that they can go back to the assignment after their treatment. The combination leads us to sympathize with the dolls, the only innocents in the show.
The second-order ethical argument against the show is that "no no" is on its lips, but "yes yes" is in its heart: that the show covertly supports viewer titillation and enjoyment of what it overtly condemns. Certainly, this is an issue that must be looked at—for instance, it is, justifiably, a theme of criticism of the Gothic, from Matthew Gregory Lewis's seminal The Monk (1796) through the fiction of Stephen King. Some fans do seem to receive the show this way, identifying with Topher and thinking what a cool job that would be, with all the tech and all the babes and no need for social graces. However, this view does not seem to stand up well to close viewing.
For instance, Echo's assignment in episode 2, "The Target" (written and directed by Steven S. DeKnight), compares and contrasts different kinds of exploitation of women, juxtaposing the show's general template of sexual slavery with the "girl in peril" voyeurism of horror movies. The assignment is to be the perfect date for an athletic outdoorsman, and at first we get the doll as perfect call girl, because there is no pretense but only genuine desire. Then, the client enacts his own agenda, unknown to the Dollhouse staff: he wants to end the date by hunting the woman with a bow and arrow while she tries to escape. That latter part is shot like a standard horror film, including views of the victim from the point of view of the attacker, common since John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). The contrast makes clear how much the "date" could have been filmed to invite audience participation, but was not. Whether DeKnight chose to increase viewer identification for the chase or just followed genre conventions, the effect is to make the viewer even more queasy, implicated the most in what we can enjoy the least.
Once this becomes clear, the contrast is striking between how Dollhouse sexual assignments are filmed and how, for instance, soft-core pornography is filmed. Again, point-of-view shots in the latter invite the viewer to identify with the gaze of the camera and voyeur/partner it implies in a way that does not characterize the show. Even in shower scenes or when the dolls go to bed, their movements are graceful but not particularly sexual. If anything, the major principle of composition of scenes within the Dollhouse seems to be a kind of abstract geometry of beauty without desire—as at the end of the show when the dolls, in a symmetrical and semi-synchronized line, walk to their central beds, organized radially like petals of a flower. This echoes the minds of the dolls themselves, not a lascivious imagined observer.
Dollhouse cannot be completely absolved of charges of titillation, but it would be a shame if that became the focus of criticism of the show, because it has so much more to offer. The big message is that when a technology exists it will be used, often in ways that make our stomachs churn, and usually to benefit those with money and power at the expense of those who are essentially better individuals (such as Echo's real self). That's an aspect of technology that people, especially science fiction fans, need to think about, deeply and carefully.
In the Dollhouse episode "Man on the Street," the dolls and the Dollhouse clients are variously referred to as slaves, love slaves, whores, and johns. One word that is not used to describe the relationship between doll and client—a word so conspicuously absent that the show seems to be desperately trying to avoid it—is "rape." The complete absence of the word suggests either that the show is intentionally trying to preserve a sense of moral ambiguity about the Dollhouse where none exists (it takes a special kind of moral insanity to argue that the repeated rape of powerless victims can be offset by the "philanthropic" missions on which they may occasionally be sent), or that the show's creators genuinely do not perceive what is happening to the dolls to be rape. Whatever the explanation, the failure of Dollhouse to engage with the reality of what is happening to the dolls, and the responsibility of the Dollhouse's staff for it, presents a major stumbling block to thinking about the show on any other level.
Oh, also? A lot of the time, it's pretty boring, too.
Dollhouse, the latest project of television auteur Joss Whedon, imagines that technology exists that can wipe a person clean of memories, and then imprint that person with entirely new memories and skills. A shadowy organization has set up "dollhouses" around the world that reprogram people and hire them out on various "engagements" for a steep fee. The most common type of engagement is euphemistically deemed "romantic"—the "dolls" ("actives" once they have been imprinted with an active personality) are hired out as fantasy dates who can be "totally, romantically, chemically" in "utter and unexpected love" with the client, in the words of Dollhouse-boss-cum-proxy-rapist Adelle DeWitt. The dolls are also hired for other kinds of activities, such as bodyguard, master thief, or midwife. Though the Dollhouse staff describes the dolls as having consented to the arrangement, the dolls themselves appear to enter the Dollhouse by some combination of force or coercion: at least two "dolls" were mindwiped entirely against their will; another three were apparently blackmailed or otherwise pressed into service. In between engagements, the dolls are kept in a memory-less, identity-less blank state, where they wander around the spa-like Dollhouse in a state of vague docility. We're told the dolls are highly paid for their service, and that their original personalities will be restored after a period of five years—but we have never seen that happen (except when, on one occasion, the Dollhouse was forced to relinquish someone), and it is difficult to imagine how the Dollhouse could release any dolls who were physically forced into the Dollhouse.
The show centers on Echo (Eliza Dushku), formerly known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Faith. Those of you who are looking for Whedon's trademark verbal cleverness won't find much here—though occasionally his snappiness peeks out of the dialogue, most of the time, Dollhouse sounds like your average action-adventure drama; other than the presence of Whedon regulars like Dushku, Amy Acker, and, later, Alan Tudyk, there's little here that marks this as a Whedon show. Echo is a "doll" who, prior to entering the Dollhouse, was a recent college graduate and animal rights activist named Caroline. As we eventually learn, in the course of her animal rights agitation, Caroline committed some sort of crime against a corporation associated with the Dollhouse, and was forced to become a doll as a result for reasons that remain hazy. Echo is now one of the Dollhouse's most popular "actives," and—in a development that both intrigues and frightens the Dollhouse staff—is gradually gaining a consistent sense of consciousness and identity despite the frequent imprints and memory-wipes.
From there, the story unfolds. Echo receives various personality imprints, but at times seems to defy her programming by going beyond the mission parameters or retaining traces of memory from either her life as Caroline or her previous missions. As her consciousness develops, so do her clashes with the Dollhouse staff, who operate the Dollhouse not merely for profit, but also for some secret nefarious purpose.
In short, many of the people who become dolls never consented to enter the Dollhouse at all, and for all of these people, once they enter, they have no ability to withdraw whatever consent they may once have given, to refuse to participate in any particular engagement, or to refuse any particular sex act. This is, in other words, what one would call rape.
Not the Dollhouse, though. In the Dollhouse, it's prostitution or slavery—but never, ever rape.
And not in reviews, either. Most articles about the show—outside of the blogosphere, anyway—also have avoided using the word "rape" (this article in The Washington Post, for example, or this interview with Whedon in TV Guide), and repeatedly, inaccurately, describe the dolls as having consented to participate (as in this review at DVD Talk, and this one in h+ Magazine [p. 34]). Nor do the sex scenes as we see them in the episodes look like rape—in general, nothing in the camera work, music, or facial expressions would tell the viewer that this is anything other than a typical hot love scene for a 9 pm or later primetime show. (A fact of which Fox is unquestionably aware; it nixed Whedon's idea to have less-than-perfect dolls, and insisted that they all be young and sexy.) To perceive it as rape, the viewer has to add that word him or herself—because the show won't, nor will the reviews—and then keep it firmly in mind despite all of the visual evidence to the contrary and, often as not, a narrative where the rape isn't particularly important relative to other plot points. If nothing else, the fundamental failure of the show to acknowledge what is really happening to the dolls is . . . distracting. I find myself watching the episodes on the edge of my chair just waiting to see if this would finally be the moment when someone used the R-word, but—no! Foiled again.
Apart from providing fodder for one hell of a drinking game—sip every time someone could have said the word "rape," but didn't!—Dollhouse suffers from two major flaws in its DNA that it is only somewhat successful in overcoming. First, it's very difficult to imagine why clients would hire a doll for anything other than rape. For all the talk of custom-made personalities and guaranteed anonymity, there's really no reason to pay what we're given to understand are astronomical sums of money for a doll when you can get the real thing. So Dollhouse almost visibly struggles to come up with a suitable variety of assignments to sustain the premise—and it doesn't help matters that Dushku simply doesn't have the acting chops to believably inhabit new personalities every week.
The second flaw, purely from a narrative standpoint, is that if Echo takes on a completely new personality each week, there is no single protagonist to hold the audience's interest. Echo is the star, but even with her occasional signs of developing consciousness, there's no there there, and thus no reason to be particularly invested. And that's part of the reason why the mytharc episodes—the ones that focus on the Dollhouse's internal politics and its struggles with the outside world, or the episodes that make Echo's burgeoning consciousness a focal point rather than an aside—are the strongest of the season. It is only in the mytharc episodes that we get an Echo-ish throughline, and the ongoing war between the Dollhouse and various unseen foes allows for some fiendishly clever uses of the technology.
For example, in one of the stronger episodes, "Spy in the House of Love," written by Andrew Chambliss, it is discovered that there's a mole within the Dollhouse who is secretly smuggling information to the outside world. The dolls themselves are imprinted with the skills to ferret out the traitor's identity, and the episode raises intriguing questions about the dolls' self-awareness both in their blank state and in their imprinted one. We're also treated to a deliciously ruthless view of how the Dollhouse staff deals with those who would betray their trust.
The episode is not, sadly, without its flaws because—spoiler alert—it also contains a fairly extended rape scene (although the show, as is its wont, presents it as a love scene)—between Adelle and a doll named Victor, imprinted with the personality of a dashing, romantic hero who is apparently Adelle's ideal man. That Victor is being repeatedly raped is not in any way engaged by the text; instead, the focus is on how deeply sad Adelle is, because now that she's taken up prostitution, slavery, and human trafficking for a living, she finds she can't tell her friends how her day was. Or something.
In fact, Adelle's relationship with Victor—or, rather, Victor's imprint—is not unlike Captain Janeway's relationship with a holodeck character in the Star Trek Voyager episode "Fair Haven." In that episode, after a holodeck character strikes up a flirtation with Janeway, she modifies his personality and appearance to make him more to her taste, and begins sleeping with him because the isolation of command makes it impossible for her to form relationships. (Sidebar: During these events, the holodeck character never has the consciousness or self-awareness that sometimes characterizes artificial life in Star Trek.) The difference between Janeway's and Adelle's use of the equivalent of male wind-up dolls is that Janeway wasn't raping anybody—a distinction that Dollhouse doesn't seem to have grasped, in that nothing in the presentation of Adelle's relationship with Victor explores what is happening to Victor. Amazingly, "Fair Haven" deals more extensively with the ethics of the relationship than Dollhouse does. Or, to paraphrase a comment of a wise friend, Adelle is getting off on the wreckage of the man she destroyed—but the show is only concerned about her feelings. The destruction of whoever Victor was before he was Victor is not even a blip on the radar.
(The rape of Victor is turned into something of a punchline an episode earlier—in a brief window of true consciousness, Victor, in his "real" identity, discovers some of the fetish gear he's been wearing when on assignment. In a moment of pained embarrassment that is apparently meant to be comical, he hastily conceals it before anyone else can see.)
"Man on the Street," written by Whedon, is another of the stronger mytharc episodes, and comes closest to directly confronting the evil of what the Dollhouse does. The episode is punctuated by a series of faux TV news interviews, in which ordinary residents of Los Angeles comment on rumours about the existence and nature of the Dollhouse. Meanwhile, the Dollhouse staff discovers that one of the dolls has been raped—yes, actually raped, using the word and everything—because this particular rape was unauthorized, in that it occurred while she was in her blank state rather than while imprinted with a compliant personality. And while all this is going on, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), an FBI agent obsessed with finding Caroline and the Dollhouse, confronts one of the Dollhouse's rich clients. Though Ballard calls out the client for enslaving women (not raping them, of course), it becomes increasingly clear, in a decidedly creepy conversation, that Ballard's obsession with Caroline and the Dollhouse is just a flipside of the type of obsession that drives clients to the Dollhouse in the first place. The implication is that the Dollhouse is so overpoweringly addictive that it corrupts anyone who falls within its orbit.
Unfortunately, that latter theme never plays out in a satisfying way—Ballard's eventual cooption by the Dollhouse comes far too easily (either that or it was a ploy to manipulate the Dollhouse from the inside—which just means that they're all idiots for believing him), and the Dollhouse too often uses physical force rather than seduction to accomplish its aims.
There are other instances of potentially rich ideas being raised and then allowed to peter out. Throughout the series, one of the Dollhouse's main antagonists is a former doll known only as "Alpha," who apparently went insane, slaughtered everyone he could reach, and is now masterminding a plot to bring the Dollhouse to its knees. At first, the show suggests that Alpha's psychosis was brought on by the Dollhouse itself, an inevitable byproduct of repeatedly forcing one group of people to live out the unrestrained fantasies of another. The reality turns out to be far more pedestrian (although, it must be said, the actor's performance for this storyline is top-notch).
Moreover, many of the episodes do not engage the mytharc and instead focus on Echo's personality-of-the-week, with unfortunately trite results. A low-rent version of "The Most Dangerous Game"? Seriously? Didn't they do that on Charlie's Angels? And Xena? And Gilligan's Island? Too often, Dollhouse seems like nothing more than an excuse to dress Dushku up like a Barbie doll—and some viewers seem eager to perceive it that way. Look, she's a burglar in sexy leather pants and spike heels! Look, she's a hostage negotiator in a sexy tight suit with deep cleavage! Look, she's a back-up singer in a sexy skimpy skirt! Look, she's a dominatrix in sexy fetish gear! Look, she's a birthday present for a rich dude in a sexy skimpy . . . well, it's supposed to be a dress but I rather suspect you could be arrested for indecent exposure if you wear it in public. Look, she's wearing only a bra—for no obvious plot reason whatsoever!
One failed standalone, "Haunted," written by Jane Espenson, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, is Dollhouse's attempt at a whodunit. Echo is imprinted with the personality of one of Adelle's friends, who has been murdered. Echo attends her own funeral at a richly-appointed manse in order to determine whether it was Professor Plum in the library or Mrs. Peacock in the conservatory what done her in. The only possible justification for this storyline would be if the writers were able to devise a uniquely clever mystery. I'll spoil the surprise: they weren't. And in the B plot, we're invited (again) to sympathize with the rapists while caring little for the rape victims—in this case, when creepy little misogynist Topher (the Dollhouse's resident genius) is revealed to be just a lonely boy who can't make any friends.
Now, to be fair, at least some of the problems in these episodes are reportedly the result of meddling by Fox executives, who insisted that the series begin with standalones before the mytharc could be fully engaged. But Whedon claims that disasters like "Haunted" were his own call, and even the mytharc episodes falter when they attempt to delve into supposedly deep philosophical questions, like whether you can consent to slavery, especially now that we have a black president (no, really). The result is that Dollhouse can't quite seem to make up its mind about what it's trying to say. Women should save themselves rather than have men save them! Except that then the men save them anyway. Men "invent" their idea of the perfect woman and then project that ideal onto the dolls, which is bad! Except that Caroline is then reduced to a computer disk, with an implication that even within the context of the show, her actual self isn't much of anything at all. None of this is helped by the fact that from what we see of Caroline, she's a singularly unlikeable person—self-righteous, judgmental, and narrow-minded—which is probably a product of the fact that Whedon, for all his pretensions to raise deep questions about identity and slavery, really isn't all that interested in Caroline or, by extension, the people who enter—and are being exploited by—the Dollhouse.
Which brings us back to the rape. Rape—and particularly the rape of women—is omnipresent in the series, yet never denoted as such and barely confronted. Of the dolls we come to know, three are women, and only one is a man. Echo forms a particular bond with her handler, Boyd, who I guess we're supposed to find sympathetic because, unlike other Dollhouse staffers, he feels really bad about repeatedly dragging Echo off to be raped. A client comes to the Dollhouse—one who is supposed to be sympathetic, and who is seeking a doll for a non-rape engagement—yet as a throwaway, we casually learn that he often hires "the twins" to relax. In another episode, we see two dolls returning from their engagements, in full costume. One is dressed as a soldier fresh from the battlefield; the other in a cabaret outfit with a visible garter belt. Guess which was male and which was female?
And this matters. We already live in a culture that consistently fails to recognize rape when it occurs. From the odious rape scene in the movie Observe & Report—described, inaccurately, in a New York Times article as consensual—to the Stargate Atlantis episode "Irresistible", in which it was hilarious when a guest character drugged women into sleeping with him, to the Torchwood episode "Everything Changes" where Owen did the same (the scamp!), to the two episodes of Supernatural ("Simon Said" and "Wishful Thinking") where men brainwashed women into sleeping with them only to have the stories focus on what a nice unassuming guy the rapist was (in the former episode), or the deep loneliness experienced by the rapist (in the latter), pop cultural representations of rape do not name it for what it is. And though Dollhouse unquestionably presents the activities of the Dollhouse as sinister—it comes closest to actually dealing with its rapey premise when we learn how the doll Sierra came to enter the house—the fact that it makes rapes visually appear sexy, plays them for laughs, presents the Dollhouse as morally ambiguous instead of morally black, gives us far more reasons to sympathize with the rapists than with the victims, and fails to identify what is happening as rape contributes to this general climate of minimizing the seriousness of rape.
In other words, Dollhouse fans congratulate the show for moral edginess, but it is no groundbreaking feat to get people to sympathize with rapists. It happens all the time. And, by constantly referring to the dolls as "consenting" both on and off the show, it's almost as if both the creators of Dollhouse, and the reviewers, are carefully reading rape out of the premise. Fox sure seems to consider the sexytimes a selling point—not only do the ads feature a nekkid Eliza Dushku coyly posing for the viewer, but during the network upfronts, when Fox sold commercial time to advertisers in advance of the new season, the network signaled to the assembled audience that Dollhouse had been renewed by flashing a picture of Dushku's naked legs, upturned in a "V." These are the people who are making decisions about Dollhouse and ultimately exercising control over its content—and it shows.
It shows even more when you compare the pilot episode, "Ghost," with the unaired original pilot included on the DVD set. This original pilot, "Echo," was scrapped at Fox's request (although bits of it were cannibalized for use in later episodes), and the most obvious thing about it is that there's a lot less rape. Sexual missions are mentioned but barely seen, and—in sharp contrast to the aired episodes—the camera does not lovingly linger on Dushku's womanly curves and bare skin. And what rapes do occur are treated with due horror—in one brief scene, we see a doll returning dazed and disoriented from what was apparently a sexual mission, suffering from a nasty head injury. In other words, she looks like a rape victim. Instead of reading her pain out of the story—as the aired episodes tend to do—the unaired episode places the victim's pain front and center. Sadly, however, "Echo" suffers even to a greater degree from the other weaknesses inherent in the show's premise—not only is there endless exposition and fairly banal philosophizing, but we get even less of a sense of Echo's character, which leaves the whole thing uninteresting and directionless.
The second unaired episode on the DVD, by contrast, is a little bit of genius. "Epitaph One" is sort of an orphan—after Fox rejected "Echo" and Whedon used it for parts, Dollhouse was left with only 12 full episodes. A thirteenth was needed for the DVD set, and so "Epitaph One" was born. It's set in a post-apocalyptic near future, and I hate to give away too much, but it takes Dollhouse to its natural conclusion, opening up array of fascinating questions about identity and consciousness that are far more extensive and probing than anything that has yet been raised in the actual show. The technology is used as an existential form of travel, to move people's consciousness in an eyeblink, to turn friend into instantaneous foe, creating horrors both for the original people—all of whom get far more attention in "Epitaph One" than in any other episode of Dollhouse—and the personalities who travel from body to body. And all this is accomplished, I might add, with almost no rape at all.
But though "Epitaph One" may be an excellent series coda, there's a rather large distance between it and where the story's at in the present day. We can only hope that in the second season, Whedon plays more to Dollhouse's strengths—and, P.S., those strengths don't include endless shots of a brainwashed Dushku in her underwear.
Bernadette Bosky, a teacher and writer, lives in the New York City area with her two husbands, Kevin Maroney and Arthur Hlavaty, and ten pet rats. Mainly known for criticism of fantasy and horror fiction, she has been published on topics from seventeenth-century alchemy to self-esteem or serial killers.
GK spends far too much time watching television and probably should get out more.