Dollhouse: “Ghost”

Scattered thoughts on this:

1) The biggest surprise, I think, is the tone, which is very different to all of Whedon’s other TV shows. There are almost no overt jokes (indeed, the most Xander/Wash-like character is described in the casting notes as someone “whose talents exceed his morals”), and the whole episode reeks of unease, and not just in the new-show-finding-its-feet way. The show’s premise — set within an organisation that reprograms beautiful young women and men (“actives”) to meet the needs of exclusive clients — unavoidably draws your attention to, and makes you question, what it is you’re enjoying about what you’re seeing, and why.

2) That, of course, is what’s not a surprise about Dollhouse — it was clear from the first announcement of the show that the whole thing was going to be a metaphor for how social roles are imposed on everyone — but I’m impressed that they made as much as they did of the tension between exploitation and empowerment offered by glossy action-adventure TV. When Echo takes on a new assignment, she’s essentially being transformed into the omnicompetent protagonist of a new show (and I did appreciate that what Whedon chose to showcase in the pilot is a thinking protagonist), but the constant, nagging undercurrent that refuses to let you embrace events on the screen is that the whole thing is a dishonest fantasy.

3) The trajectory for the first few episodes at least is plainly going to be Echo discovering her own identity, which could water down that tension somewhat; but a more immediate problem is that until that happens, Dollhouse is a show with no central character. This had sort of occurred to me beforehand, but it’s one thing to think about it academically, and another thing to see it on screen. At the moment, Echo is a blank. We get a couple of glimpses of the person she was before signing up for the Dollhouse (something she clearly did out of desperation), and one of the sub-plots of “Ghost” is the induction of a new Active into the team, so we get a sense of how Echo’s origin story might have looked, but other than one moment of inquisitiveness, there’s no sense of her, right now, as a person in her own right — which of course contributes to the unsettling nature of the episode.

4) I guess the question I’m circling around is, what on Earth does Whedon thinks is going to bring a mass audience back for a second episode? Dollhouse doesn’t even have a clear style of its own at this stage — while I think there’s a decent chance I could recognise a frame from one of his other shows on the basis of the lighting and framing, and I know I can recognise the score music, this seemed much more generic. (The Dollhouse itself looks a bit like Wolfram and Hart’s office in season five of Angel, for instance.)

5) This is not to say I didn’t like it; I did, or perhaps more accurately, I was intrigued by it. Though apparently set in the present Dollhouse is, in a way that even Firefly was not, actual science fiction. Nic called it a thought experiment, and I think that’s right, to the extent that that’s the level you on which you have to buy into it in order to want to watch more. Given I often read on the level of idea, rather than character or story, that’s not a problem for me — I want to see Whedon’s takes on all the problems of identity that this sort of sf traditionally deals with; one thing that strikes me, for instance, is that given Doll technology exists, there is a level on which none of the characters can be trusted to be who they appear to be, which could, if Whedon and the other writers want, make Dollhouse an even more destabilizing show to watch than it already is — but I’m only too aware that most other people don’t consume narrative in that way.

6) Judged purely as a single episode of TV? It was OK. None of the cast amazed me, though Dushku was better than I’d expected. In principle I approve of the fact that it’s “Remote-free TV“, but in practice I’m not sure it made the best possible use of the additional minutes; indeed it felt a little slow at times. I liked the little moment of dissonance when Echo-as-negotiator claims “I’ve been doing this all my life”, and I appreciate that her force of personality is meant to outweigh the obvious incongruousness of someone so young making such a claim, but I’m not sure it quite came off. And the choice of an abduction/abuse plot was perhaps a little more heavy-handed than was required; in a way something more obviously glossy might have been more effective.

7) So yes, it’s doomed. Half a dozen episodes, maybe? But I’ll watch them all, and hope that I’m wrong. I enjoy, and think I understand, the grammar of a Joss Whedon TV show more than is the case with most other TV; as is perhaps obvious from the fact that I’ve written this post at all.

8) Of course, I could just be over-thinking it.

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Posted in SF, TV. Tags: , , , . 20 Comments »

20 Responses to “Dollhouse: “Ghost””

  1. chance Says:

    Echo discovering her own identity

    Dear Niall,

    She used to work for Greenpeace or Peta or some such. She is not very interesting.

    love,

    me.

  2. Niall Says:

    Well, I was really thinking of her personality, rather than her job. Is she joyful, melancholy, bold, cautious, charming, dour, what? Right now, all we’ve got to go on is a little bit of curious.

  3. chance Says:

    I was really thinking of her personality, rather than her job.

    I’m surprised that you think a person’s job has nothing to do with their personality.

  4. chance Says:

    (and more specifically, I think she got into this mess because she committed some sort of activism that broke the law and she got caught, which I think says a lot about the sort of person she used to be, and presumably still is under her bland blank slate.)

  5. Niall Says:

    I’m surprised that you think a person’s job has nothing to do with their personality.

    I don’t believe I said that. What I think is that a person’s job is not the be-all and end-all of their identity.

  6. chance Says:

    I don’t believe I said that.

    You made personality and job into disconnected sets (I was thinking of X, rather than Y), so I think you said something close to that.

    What I think is that a person’s job is not the be-all and end-all of their identity.

    And I don’t think I ever said that.

  7. Niall Says:

    Well, I disagree on both counts. I don’t think X, rather than Y, implies disconnected, merely different; and I do think that responding to “discovering her own identity” with the suggestion that because she worked for Greenpeace (if she did!) she is by definition not interesting implies that you think her job is, if not the totality of her identity, the major part of it.

    To get back to the actual show, it seems to me the distance between what someone does and who they are is likely to be something of a theme.

  8. Tony Keen Says:

    I just want to know if it opens with the theme to Joe 90

  9. Liz Says:

    I thought it was OK but if I hadn’t watched previous Whedon shows I don’t think I’d be back for more. The premise is interesting in theory, but I don’t think they pull it off. There are situations where you might want an active, where you won’t be able to find a person willing or able to do what you want, or where you want them to retain no knowledge of it afterwards, but I don’t see hostage negotiator is one of them, and Agent Helo didn’t sell me on it either.

    More generally, what attracted me to Buffy/Angel/Firefly was that it had strong, interesting characters right from the start, and the snappy Whedon dialogue, and Dollhouse so far doesn’t have either of those. I’m also not that impressed with a show which is all about the exploitation of young beautiful people spending so much time putting them in skimpy outfits and showing them in the shower.

  10. Niall Says:

    Tony: Afraid not.

    Liz:

    here are situations where you might want an active, where you won’t be able to find a person willing or able to do what you want, or where you want them to retain no knowledge of it afterwards

    I don’t think the argument is that actives are there when you can’t find a person willing or able to do what you want; I think the argument is that actives are better than regular people, because you can build them to spec, so there’s less room for error. I can buy it as a service for paranoid rich people. Well, about as much as I buy vampire slayers and space smugglers, anyway.

    I’m also not that impressed with a show which is all about the exploitation of young beautiful people spending so much time putting them in skimpy outfits and showing them in the shower.

    Whereas for me, as I said in the post, there was enough emphasis on the fact that the actives are the victims of exploitation to make me notice and feel uncomfortable about standard televisual exploitation of beauty more than I would do usually. I wouldn’t quite say that anyone who found the shower scene uncomplicatedly sexy (or thought it was meant to be uncomplicatedly sexy) either wasn’t paying attention or has something wrong with them, because peoples’ mileage on this clearly can and does vary, but I’d be tempted.

  11. Liz Says:

    I don’t think the argument is that actives are there when you can’t find a person willing or able to do what you want; I think the argument is that actives are better than regular people, because you can build them to spec, so there’s less room for error.

    If that’s the case, then the example of the hostage negotiator seems even worse, because instead of being free from the baggage that a normal expert would bring to it, they gave Echo the triggers of someone else’s personality anyway because that’s the way it works best.

    Whereas for me, as I said in the post, there was enough emphasis on the fact that the actives are the victims of exploitation to make me notice and feel uncomfortable about standard televisual exploitation of beauty more than I would do usually.

    This is an extra layer of meaning which I don’t buy, and also I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it.

  12. Niall Says:

    instead of being free from the baggage that a normal expert would bring to it, they gave Echo the triggers of someone else’s personality anyway because that’s the way it works best.

    But they also — I thought — created a negotiator with a personality and talents specific to that situation, who was the best possible negotiator for that case, and who was immediately available. That was what was on the other side of the scales to the past trauma.

    also I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it.

    I think you can give people cake that leaves a nasty taste in their mouth.

  13. Abigail Says:

    I’ve been thinking some more about this show, and it occurs to me that the skepticism being voiced about the concept of actives is very familiar – the same doubts were raised at the idea of Companions in Firefly. In both cases Whedon takes a real-life fact – that the very rich will pay for exclusive, custom-made pleasures – and takes it to its (il)logical conclusion, so that we get custom-made playmates or hookers trained in languages and swordfighting. It’s not an entirely unreasonable logical leap, but in both shows Whedon appears to be trying to deconstruct prostitution (Echo’s first assignment in “Ghost” is precisely the sort of job Inara used to do) by removing or ignoring its fundamental seediness, and I’m not sure that’s possible.

    Of course, now that I realize that Dollhouse is essentially Whedon spinning off Firefly‘s most problematic and unconvincing plotline into its own show, I’m much less hopeful about it.

  14. Niall Says:

    Much as it causes me pain to admit that io9 has a point about anything, at this point Echo’s story does seem more like River’s than Inara’s. Mostly because I don’t accept that Dollhouse attempts to remove or ignore the fundamental seediness of its proposition.

  15. Abigail Says:

    It does in the sense that no taint is cast on the clients, just the people who made Echo what she is. The two clients in “Ghost” are portrayed quite positively – the playboy who seems genuinely fond of Echo and regrets their parting, and the distraught father who finds time to wonder about her as a person. That’s something that may very well change – what I’ve heard about this week’s episode certainly suggests so – and I do accept that there’s some River in Echo’s makeup as well. But you were talking about the believability of the show’s core concept, and there I see more similarities to Inara.

  16. Niall Says:

    the playboy who seems genuinely fond of Echo and regrets their parting

    !

    Good lord, I found that one of the creepiest parts of the episode — the fact that he was so clearly complicit in what had been done to Echo, and so clearly didn’t care except in the sense of being wistful that she can’t stay and be his slave for longer. That plus the sight of Echo getting docilely into a black van seemed an absolutely savage undercutting of the sexy dancing and romantic exchanges of a couple of minutes earlier.

    The distraught father, I agree, is more desperate than anything else.

  17. Abigail Says:

    I thought the client in the first part of the episode was cast in much the same light as Inara’s clients, most of whom the show treated with, at worst, condescension for wishing they could believe her affection was real. And surely the fact that at the time Echo is a person who feels genuine affection for him is intended as validation of his feelings.

    You’re right that the appearance of the van undercuts the romanticism of the earlier scenes, but all that accomplishes is to make them – and the client – seem more positive by comparison while placing the blame on what’s happening to Echo on her ‘employers’. You’ve even got her handler, who knows exactly what’s going on and has been positioned as the voice of morality, treating the encounter wistfully.

  18. Niall Says:

    I thought as I was watching it, as someone who knew the premise of Dollhouse in advance, that it was going to turn out that one of his friends (or a group of them) had bought him Echo as a birthday present — precisely because his feelings seemed genuine. But then we get that scene where he talks about her having to go at the stroke of midnight, before she turns back into a pumpkin, and it becomes clear (for me, horrifyingly clear) that he bought himself a doll, that he knows exactly what was done to her, and that the only thing he cares about is his wistful feelings. I don’t think that scene paints him in even a quasi-sympathetic light, and I find it hard to imagine that it was intended to do so.

  19. Nic Says:

    “I’m also not that impressed with a show which is all about the exploitation of young beautiful people spending so much time putting them in skimpy outfits and showing them in the shower.”

    I’m with Liz on this. Problematic exploitation is still exploitation, cake with a theoretically-nasty-taste-if-you-think-about-it-in-the-right-way is still cake – and I’m so. very. tired. of seeing it on TV that it’s difficult for me to be any more than ambivalent about it. (Particularly since, as I said at the weekend, the show is so clearly bowing to TV conventions in the casting of its ‘dolls’; I find it impossible to believe that an operation which clearly runs to clandestine fixing, as well as high-class escorts, would not find it essential to stock some older or less physically striking/more unobtrusive dolls. There are some ‘engagements’, surely, that cannot be carried out easily by people who look like 21-year-old models. As, indeed, Echo the Hostage Negotiator amply proved in this episode… the time she spent having to assert her authority in the situation was time wasted.)

    Re. the first client, I agree that he’s much creepier than he at first appears. The problem is that the episode is so concerned with setting up the opening twist of Echo is happy! Echo is mind-wiped! Echo was just programmed to be happy! that the creepiness of the client is basically lost while you’re watching. (It’s definitely there if you think carefully back over the episode, but do you think the average viewer does that?) Also, I agree with Abigail: I saw the giving of the pendant as the client buying into the ‘happy hooker’ myth: okay, so I bought her for the weekend and had her tailor-made to fake it perfectly, but hey… maybe she likes me anyway for my natural charm! Maybe she’d be with me if I wasn’t paying her (bosses)! Maybe, therefore, I’m not all that complicit!

    Which is creepy (and dumb) in its own special way, but leaves room for him to look kinda sorta not a complete monster – more wilfully deluded.

    I find the Dollhouse set-up deeply creepy, intellectually, but I’m not convinced that the creepiness really there on screen, or that it outweighs the self-serving, disingenuous displays of female flesh. Yet. But I’m willing to give it more time. :-)

  20. Nick H. Says:

    The best I can say for Dollhouse is that it is perhaps a victim of conflict between the show Joss wanted to make, and the show Fox wanted him to make. And it doesn’t work at all.


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