Welcome to the Dollhouse

Joss Whedon’s latest television venture, Dollhouse, just completed its short first season on FOX, after much drama, production problems and attempts to wade into a rapidly changing television market. While it did so, it showed that Whedon can still produce some of the most compelling television stories out there, an entire level above almost everything else that’s been screened for audiences.

Dollhouse was a tough sell. I first came across Joss Whedon’s work with the movie Titan AE (for which he had a writing credit) but it wasn’t until I watched his fantastic show Firefly that I realized just how the television can be used to tell a story. Firefly was fantastic, and like many, I lamented its cancellation, although its short, bright run has made it a classic amongst fans, and is almost universally loved by geeks. So, it was puzzling to many people when it was announced that Whedon would be returning to television with a new show to FOX, even though it was largely perceived that FOX sabotaged Firefly. And that’s before we even get to the story of Dollhouse.

Firefly was an easy sell. When asked, I’ll tell someone it’s a Western in space, a character-driven science fiction story that is full of humor, darker characters and some fun story lines. Dollhouse, when asked, takes a little more consideration and thought. The story revolves around an active, Echo, who is part of the Dollhouse. The Dollhouse is part of a network of facilities where a person can be made to order. Whatever you need, they can provide, whether it be sex, a specialist or a friend, all thanks to some sort of technology that allows for a human to be wiped clean and reprogrammed from a number of personalities or composite personalities. The actives are ostensibly volunteers, who signed up for a couple of years for whatever reason, and live a life of luxury in between times of being someone else. When this story picks up, there is a rogue active named Alpha who’s recently escaped after killing several people, an FBI agent, Paul Ballard, who is trying to find out what the Dollhouse is and to take it down for its ethically dark activities, and Echo, who is special, somehow.

It’s a very dark story, but it is the most important one being told on television right now. As to be expected from Joss Whedon, the show is extremely well written, with layers of meaning between the actions and dialogue of the characters in the show, revolving primarily around ones identify, humanity and soul. Frequently, a character will state that they know exactly who they are, only that they have been programmed ahead of time. The result is similar to watching the film The Matrix for the first time, and wondering, in the back of your mind, just what is reality? This show does much the same for me, and certainly presents the certainty of ones own identity and personal history in a new light.

Furthermore, the show is a classic example of the boundaries that Science Fiction often explores, the delicate relationship of scientific knowledge and religious faith, of knowing versus believing, of technology versus organic life. Just what is a person? is a question that seems to come forward a lot. Are they something that can be programmed at will, if one believes that a person is merely a series of electrical impulses? Or is there something more to that? It’s a question that this show will never satisfactorily answer, but the fact that it even approaches the level of storytelling that can approach such an issue is remarkable.

The show is not without its problems. The first half of the season started off slowly, due to network insistence’s and the need to tell the story while trying to attract an audience to an otherwise difficult story in the first place. The story of Dollhouse is a complicated one, probably more suited towards a science fiction novel, rather than a television series, because of the complexity and difficult nature of the show and the intelligence of an average television viewer. (Pretty low, if the extraordinary success of American Idol is anything to go by). Thus, while the momentum has taken a little while, so has the patience of the audience, who dropped out after a couple episodes, and leaves the show’s future hanging in the balance. Fanboys will likely point to FOX straight off and place the blame firmly at their doorstep for dumbing down the show to being with, but I’m going to point at Joss Whedon for blame here – he’s created an extremely complicated, interesting and extraordinary show that is above and beyond intelligent and fascinating, which is sure to drive away an audience. (LOST seems to be the anomaly in this instance.) But the show is also at times too ladened down with a message, it’s too self-important and too self conscious of what it is trying to do.

Now that the show is over, the waiting game is about to begin as to whether there will be a second season, and I honestly hope that there will be, because Dollhouse is the sort of intellectual wake up that the television market needs, and while there is a certain pretentious nature to the show, it’s just the thing that shows that there is still a heart and soul to the television industry.

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