Last Friday, the final episode of Dollhouse ended, leaving viewers with the end of a story, but like with Firefly, the feeling that there was more to tell. While it certainly wasn’t as much fun as Joss Whedon’s other short-lived wonder Firefly, it outstripped it with potential and stories that really felt like they were going places. Dollhouse is a show that will be missed immensely, and while I was thrilled to see it get a second season, and even happier that the production team was able to get the story wrapped up fairly neatly, there is the inevitable pang of the loss of a good science fiction television show.
From the start, Dollhouse has had a rough time, and it is a bit of a wonder that the show made it as far as it did. Delays, reshoots, the show almost never made it out the gate, and slowly limped along from first to second seasons, before the plug was finally pulled. After watching the first episode, I was reminded of one of my favorite science fiction novels, Altered Carbon. In Richard K. Morgan‘s first novel, an implant (a stack) is used to download a person’s consciousness and place them into another body as needed, opening a whole world of possibilities for characters and stories. In this instance, it was a noir-ish murder mystery set in the future, with a rich patron hiring the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, to find out why he killed himself.
Dollhouse falls much within the same sort of hard science fiction cyberpunk that Altered Carbon occupies. Some of the plot parts are the same, but at the same time, Dollhouse seems to be very typical of a Whedon show: where possible, there’s a constant reminder of a message that is being put forth by the story. In a way, it is one of the best cautionary tales that I have seen in a very long time, becoming a model of what science fiction should be: a modern day story, wrapped up in an environment that is just out of context enough for an audience to extrapolate some sort of message from the show. It worked well in True Blood, with the issue of same-sex marriage and relationships, and with Battlestar Galactica, for several issues, such as the Iraq War, torture and wartime conduct.
Dollhouse certainly had its ups and downs. The first half of the first season followed an active mission of the day, which worked marginally well. It helped introduce the concept of the Dollhouse, but did little to really delve into the main storyline until the very end of the season, and things really didn’t kick in until viewers hit the unaired episode, Epitaph One, on the DVD set, when the real stakes of the show are laid out: the technology of the Dollhouse will spell the end of the world, if unchecked. Unlike the world that Altered Carbon and its sequels, where there seems to have been a progression and maturing relationship between technology and society, Dollhouse’s work demonstrates the raw, unchecked and irresponsible power that technology can have in the place for those who aren’t ready to wield it. As has often been quoted from Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility.
In a way, Dollhouse is the perfect story for the last eighteen months. For anybody who has followed the news in the United States, the entire world has fallen onto hard times because of the sheer power that has been wielded by lending firms, largely motivated out of greed and profit. While this crisis hasn’t turned a large part of humanity into mindless zombies, it is an example that so clearly resonates from the TV show, on an even deeper level: corporate greed, a theme that permeates so many other science fiction novels, television shows and movies. Paolo Bachgalupi’s The Windup Girl, Duncan Jones‘ Moon, and even elements of J.J. Abram’s show Fringe share this story element, amongst many others in the genre, helping to demonstrate that science fiction is an incredibly relevant and important segment of the arts.
While I don’t know that Dollhouse rises to the absolute top with the acting and some of the stories, the overall storyline and conception of the show bring it to incredible heights. Not only is it a cautionary tale towards the problems with technology in the wrong hands, it examines other important themes and storylines: the role of consent and individuality, but even the deeper themes of the soul: what is personality, and can it be replicated, duplicated and swapped out like a machine part in a person? Together, these major themes hold up the show and propel it much further than most science fiction shows ever make it. Unfortunately, while the baseline ideas of the show are amongst the best that the genre has to offer, the show faltered in its execution: the slow start to the show, the wooden acting from some of the actors, and the unfinished potential that was shown as the producers rushed to tie off the show. There are hundreds of stories left untold, after watching the finale, Epitaph Two, and I would like to see more from this world, even in other mediums.
While lofty space epics can be fun to watch, with long lasting storylines that bring on years of stories, I don’t know that I’ve actually seen a television show that takes on such personal issues. Dollhouse was the best sort of science fiction series in the way that it acts as a mirror: we see ourselves and how the world functions in very terrifying ways, showing us what is plausible, possible and even probable.