As a fan of Joss Whedon’s science fiction western Firefly, I’ve also been watching his most recent television creation, Dollhouse. Five episodes of the series have now aired, and some of the complex back-story is starting to come clearer. However, I’m still finding that I have mixed responses to the show, alternately disappointed and intrigued. And since I was particularly interested in the explicitly western elements of Firefly, I keep hoping that Whedon’s knowledge of the western genre will come out in Dollhouse as well. Thus far, that hasn’t happened, although I can see the possibility of a western “sensibility” emerging from the show. At the very least, “True Believer,” the most recent episode, was set in Arizona.
If you haven’t seen Dollhouse, the dolls are living humans who have had their personalities erased. They are kept in the “dollhouse” in a state of blank mindless activity (they spend a lot of time showering), physically functioning but personality-less. When the dolls are sent out on missions, they are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are then erased at the end of the mission).
The doll whose adventures we follow is Echo. In the first episode, she was imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In the episode that aired this past Friday, she was imprinted with the personality of a religious cult follower in order to infiltrate the cult. These missions are at the center of each episode, and because they are framed by the various goings on behind the scenes at the dollhouse (there are scientists and handlers and leaders and showering, lots of showering), the missions operate as a kind of episode within a episode, a play within a play, which sometimes leads to interesting “echoes” between the machinations within the bureaucracy of the dollhouse and the events of the mission.
However, the dullest part of the show thus far are the missions. Each mission is a short genre drama, with a different action genre providing the plot conventions each week. In addition to the Hostage Negotiation Plot, we’ve also had The Most Dangerous Game Plot (hunter client wants to hunt the most dangerous game of all—man, or, more precisely, woman, in the form of Echo), the Heist, and, most recently, the Undercover at a Religious Cult (in the past few years, I’ve seen both Veronica Mars and Monk use this plot device, both to much more interesting effect). Because the missions are mini-episodes within the larger episode, there’s not much time or space for exploration or innovation, and the missions as a result have been competent but bare-bones versions of genre set pieces that we’ve seen time and time again. Generally, this is what Joss Whedon does very well, take conventions of a genre and reinvent them, but the missions themselves are pretty straightforward repetitions rather than reinventions.
The interesting stuff seems to be going on in the frame. We’ve learned that there’s a character known as Alpha, a doll who has gone renegade, and who may be in the process of sabotaging the work of the dollhouse bureaucrats. And there are indications that Echo may be following in Alpha’s path. The most interesting part of the most recent episode was when Echo broke character, and rather than playing the devotee as she was programed to do, she punched the cult leader in the nose.
In the future of Dollhouse, we may eventually move away entirely from the missions (which is what I’m hoping for). However, before that happens, I hope Echo at least gets sent out on some sort of western adventure.