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Put Away The Dollhouse: Part One

Dollhouse has just been cancelled. And for all of us who watched Firefly killed in its prime, that’s undoubtedly a reason for unhappy mumbling and irate Tweeting. But with a first season so clumsy and flawed, were the problems of Dollhouse fixable, or was there something at its core getting in the way of real success?

Whedon fans beware - I adore the man’s previous TV work with the love of a twice-incarcerated stalker, but if you’re of the opinion that Dollhouse is, so far, a work of similar or equal genius, this piece is going to be pretty painful for you. As such, I ask you to hold on until part three, where the slagging-off will ease a little.

This piece has been written without yet seeing a single episode of season two, and I’ve wholly avoided spoilers for it. I’m hearing ‘improved, but not wholly fixed’, but whatever its qualities it wasn’t enough to halt the crash-diving ratings.

Series one spoilers aplenty, though, in this first part of Put Away The Dollhouse, Or: Who Am I Supposed To Identify With Here?

Meet The New Meme

If nothing else, Dollhouse was right at the centre of the zeitgeist. It’s a world of avatars. Gamer was in cinemas recently, along with the drab Bruce Willis-starring Surrogates, James Cameron’s Avatar is on the way, and certain themes also surfaced in John August’s underrated existence flick, The Nines.

Then there’s the honey-coated network pitch - “she plays a new role every week - many of them action or sex related!” - which is pretty irresistible. The ‘Charlie’s Angels goes sci-fi’ campaign, with cute outfits aplenty, pretty much Photoshopped itself.

But here’s the thing: Is the life of the avatar ever going to repay a viewer’s investment of time, energy and emotion? Is the Active’s journey the right one to be following?

Active Located. She's just there, see?
Active Located. She's just there, see?

The False Starts

All Whedon projects seem to have awkward beginnings. The ill-judged Buffy film - and if you read the script it’s not like it’s just the direction of the final flick that’s at fault - led to a self-funded TV pilot, and then a first season that managed to be sharp, funny and surprising...but didn’t really get to grips with the genius it really could be until the Angel episode, half-way through the first 13.

The Angel spin-off itself spent almost an entire season trying to be a detective series, a fantasy X-Files, before giving up and taking on the tropes it truly needed to become brilliant just in time for the season finale. It became a brilliant demon-y soap opera wrapped around a tale of rebellion against a multi-dimension evil corporate empire. There’s even the Matrix/Star Wars/All Things Ever ‘destiny’ for the hero. (Here’s looking at Shanshu, kid.)

And Firefly? The first feature-length pilot was so overwhelmed with characters and stories - and back-stories - that it struggled to cram in even a basic ‘deal gone bad’ plot over its run-time. The least-necessary (and twice-shot) pre-titles sequence ever doesn’t help: who needs to see why Han Solo dislikes the Empire? Isn’t it apparent after spending five minutes with the guy?

That wasn’t the first episode most people saw broadcast, of course. But The Train Job - the episode which took on the role of pilot when the feature-length original failed to impress the network - didn’t do much better. It wasn’t until mid-way, with Our Mrs Reynolds that the show found a way to hit one to the fences - and episodes were dropped to get that show on air sooner.

Dollhouse shares these issues, but unlike its predecessors never found a way to smack a home run in season one. But at least, by the end, it was putting guys on bases. (I’m British, so this baseball schtick may not be wholly authentic. A short stop’s like an interval, right?)

It’s interesting to note that while Angel kicked off with too few characters - a mere three regulars - Firefly kicked off with far too many, a total of nine. Too many, too few...which way did Dollhouse go? Well...

The Challenge Factor

Whedon has always been a showrunner who wants to challenge himself.

Having been endlessly praised for brilliant, twisty dialogue, he wrote Hush, the Buffy episode which rendered its characters mute. When everyone applauds the emotional impact of his shows, he tries for the most gut-punching episode ever, The Body, without the support of a score. Think you can’t do a musical episode that goes beyond novelty value? Think again.

So when people tell the guy he’s created three shows that make you ache with love for their characters, what does he do?

He kinda makes a show without characters.

In Dollhouse, Echo is presented as the lead. But after the schoolgirl who saves the world between homework assignments, the ensouled vampire who battles evil and the misanthropic pirate captain who cares for his crew, she’s not offering us a lot to hold on to. Hardly her fault, being brain-wiped and all, but there’s a clash between our desire for an immersive, subjective experience and the blank-slate heroine we have.

Echo was pitched as the one operative who was different from the others, who was starting to become a full human being again. And while this process was taking place, it was happening with agonising slowness.

Echo’s growth in the first season was clumsily handled. Unlike the girl looking to stop the apocalypse and still be on time for gym class, there are no clear character desires. She shows no signs of wanting to remember, wanting to claim an identity. Her conflicts are either episodic - issues her temporary identity has to face - or abstract, flashes of something she has no ability to comprehend. What does she want? Who knows.

Worse, though, is the way we were watching the journey rather than experiencing it. Echo’s growth was happening to someone who’s incapable of being anything other than indifferent about it. Those anticipating the tension of an individual trying to carry out their work while struggling to hide their world-changing secret were disappointed. Echo’s indifference essentially remained after a dozen episodes.

So who can we follow?

That FBI Guy

Ballard. Tedious, tedious Ballard.

The lack of a driven, plot-advancing lead character forced the show to go elsewhere for its drive - and wound up with the same problem that blighted the almost-excellent Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Both shows suffer the same issues. Back-foot heroes running ‘from’ rather than ‘to’ (or not running at all), and so, by the nature of the situation, the writers end up having to hand screen time to a near non-entity simply so that someone can be seen to be doing something. The quest of the obsessive federal agent was the dullest content in T:TSCC and it was the dullest stuff here. In a world of big problems - cyborgs from the future or deep-level mind-swaps of the high-tech kind - the FBI guy (even more so when he goes rogue) is smalltime, a ‘Book em, Danno’ investigator so irrelevant to the promise of a coming apocalypse as to be insulting in his quantity of screen-time.

Hmmm, huh? Did you say something? Sorry, I was too busy being MASSIVELY UNINTERESTED.
Hmmm, huh? Did you say something? Sorry, I was too busy being MASSIVELY UNINTERESTED.

And he’s dull. God, he’s dull. Turn Ballard to view him from a different angle and you just get more of the same. Dogged, frustrated, obsessive, unintentionally creepy. Yet he’s the only hero character. The only one who has a strong enough through-line, who makes progress and takes hits every week and carries the audience along with him.

Trouble is, his isn’t a journey we’re interested in. We don’t want the Dollhouse found, we want the show to go on - because no Dollhouse means no show. So we’re following a quest even as we will it to fail. (Come the finale, of course, this would be diffused - not before time.)

The Gang’s Not All There

Wherever you look, there’s another character whose show Dollhouse definitely isn’t.

It’s not the story of the dolls. One episode makes a good attempt - by reworking the ‘waking up without memories’ episodes of Buffy and Angel - but, bottom line, you can’t identify with a blank slate.

It’s not the story of the Dollhouse manager/runner, Adelle, despite her running a pretty shoddy operation. There’s an angle here, but she’s a speechifying, crack-pasting character who struggles to hold our empathy, and the tale never belongs to her.

It’s not the story of Echo’s handler Boyd. Harry J. Lennix makes this Watcher-esque role rich and layered, and the character does the right things - questioning the nature of the work, showing fatherly concern - but he’s a Dollhouse employee, not a man on a mission.

It’s certainly not the story of security chief Dominic, who’s so obviously an untrustworthy scumbag it comes as no surprise at all when he’s revealed as an untrustworthy scumbag. It’s a nice role for Reed Diamond, though - the cast of Dollhouse is rarely less than great - but he’s surely down to guest appearances now.

It might have been the story of the doctor asked to patch up the Dolls. Amy Acker’s contract notwithstanding - she only appears fleetingly in season two, apparently - this could have been an interesting angle. “I’ve just found out that my employers are brainwashers” has potential, with the same ‘doing the job and sabotaging the job’ themes Echo promised but never delivered - there’s a show in that.

But Dr. Saunders is already in deep when we meet her...and that’s before she’s revealed as a Doll herself. So much for that.

It could be genius/geek Topher’s show, for similar reasons as above. But, again, as we join the in-progress tale he’s entirely too complicit - it’s lightly implied that much of the tech comes from Topher, and there’s no sign of the Frankenstein story playing out especially effectively.

Topher also channels the geeky archetype so beloved by Whedon fans - myself included - as a representation of self on-screen. Xander, Andrew, Wash, Topher. But, these days at least, it’s us rather than Whedon up there.

The writer once claimed that he began Buffy seeing himself as Xander and ending up as Giles, and if you look at the way the show begins by idolising Buffy and ends up slightly pitying her, that carries some heavy resonance.

So Topher has been (incorrectly) seen as Whedon’s representation within Dollhouse. But, like Xander before him, the character is doomed to be the Zeppo. It ain’t his story.

Not that it matters, because you’ll find Whedon elsewhere...

Coming up - Whedon’s true on-screen roll in the Dollhouse.

About this entry


Sounds like the spoilers don’t really matter! Looking forward to the next instalments.

Tanya Jones's picture

By Tanya Jones
November 26, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

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Thank you for the time and effort you have clearly put into this article - although waiting till you had your own opinion on season two would’ve been interesting, are you planning a follow up piece?
I’d be interested and would definitely read it.

I don’t agree with your views, but then since i disagree with you about Buffy, and especially the Firefly pilot, that’s no surprise, but you give a lot here to cause pause, to think through and i appreciate that.

I do agree that Dollhouse had weaknesses, dodgy episodes, untried writers and odd bungles in the editing suite but the scale of these is easy to exaggerate (imo).

one thing, can we stop the myth of the ‘diving ratings’ please?

i hope this comment doesn’t sound too negative, i honestly enjoy well thought out critical pieces like this - i just wish there were more glowing articles too.


By wytchcroft
November 27, 2009 @ 3:22 am

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You hit the nail on the head over and over with this article. Bravo for doing it so articulately, and for recognizing the good while so succinctly categorizing the bad. My feelings about it are almost identical.

I’ll disagree about Firefly though. I think its pilot was a masterpiece, with the exception of that opening sequence, which, you’re right, was totally unnecessary, and even grating.

If one character on Dollhouse could have been the main, it should have been Boyd. Harry Lennix is a fantastic actor and writes so much between his few lines, he would have been perfect. Boyd was part of the Dollhouse but was also in the position of learning about it, too, so he would have been the ideal character for the audience to follow. Too bad, and in season 2, his character has been reduced further.

You haven’t seen Season 2, but, they seem to have made Topher that character now. He’s growing a conscience, and he’s the one that looks at the events of each episode and thinks about them now.

Once again: great article.

By John Doe
November 27, 2009 @ 7:17 am

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I love your article.

What I have been saying all along about this show is there is absolutely no characters that I can really care about to make me love the show. I continued watching from time to time hoping for something to change because I liked all of Whedon’s past work.

Avoiding spoiling season two I will say there are two remarkable episodes. The BEST and I mean the best episode and one that I enjoyed very much was a Sierra-centric episode (Belonging) which if most of the episodes were of that caliber I think this show would have been easily renewed for another season. Also it shows that it seems that Sierra would have been a much better focus for the show than Echo. Not to say anything bad about Eliza Dusku but Sierra has proven to be much more interesting. When you see that episode you will know what I mean. A friend of mine said they should have just skipped making the show and just made a feature length film based on the episode “Belonging”.

I really don’t care much for this show but I am okay with it enough that I am going to continue to watch until the end.

By Joshua Banker
November 27, 2009 @ 8:31 am

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That is the best review of Dollhouse I’ve seen, the blame is put squarely where it belongs, on the writers.

However points would be made if you’d pointed out how Whedon’s politics made Caroline into such an unlikable character. I mean why would the world want another eco-terrorist back in the world?

November 27, 2009 @ 9:44 am

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Wait.. is it a big thing that people don’t like the Firefly opening scene? Really? Cause I thought it was fucking awesome. Seeing Mal doing his whole hero thing only to have the battle surrendered over his head? That’s why I care about him in the first place.

By Fred
November 27, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

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> Wait.. is it a big thing that people don’t like the Firefly opening scene? Really?

I wouldn’t like to say what ‘people’ think - it’s hard to find Firefly analysis that comes from general viewers rather than fans - so what you have here is my opinion.

Certainly the idea that that scene is ‘the reason’ we ‘care about him’ I’d massively dispute - but if it’s your own reason, fair enough. What you feel when you watch, how you react, is all that matters and you don’t need the agreement of people to do it.

Me, I see enough smart character writing in the rest of the episode, and certainly in those that followed, that I have no trouble empathising with Mal without it. And, in and of itself, I don’t think either version of the scene is especially ‘good’.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
November 29, 2009 @ 2:15 am

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Question…how are we so sure ballard was actually the hero?

By J
November 30, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

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> Question…how are we so sure ballard was actually the hero?

Question: who said he was? (Okay, I did, but only in the sense of ‘protagonist’. Doctor Horrible’s the hero of the Singalong Blog story.)

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
December 01, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

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The network Suits have been overruling Joss from the beginning when they got rid of the heavy actress portraying Willow. Joss is more powerless now than he was then. We can’t criticize Joss for supposedly making choices he was never permitted to make.

By Stiever
December 04, 2009 @ 4:28 am

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Despite the problems mentioned above, and Whedon’s traditional slow start, I became almost fanatically devoted to Dollhouse due to the development of one single character. I don’t want to include anything spoilery in this post, so please watch season 2! I’d love to see what you make of it.

By Thiefree
September 22, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

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