Sunday, January 03, 2010

Dollhouse: One scene from Season 2

Bad idea to begin a post by discouraging people to keep reading, but I want to analyse a particular scene in the first episode of Dollhouse, Season Two. So, yes this post contains



The centrepiece of this first episode is a conversation between Topher (the genius who designs and uploads the artificial personalities into people's brains) and Dr Saunders, who has recently discovered that she isn't real - that she is in fact one of these artificial personalities.

I love this scene for three reasons:

1. It's long
2. It introduces a big idea that gets explored throughout the rest of the season
3. There are clear changes between the start of the scene and the end (in both emotion and character).

The scene begins as a seductive confrontation. Saunders (who despises Topher) tries to overcome her programming and make love to him. In the process of doing this, she acts like a doll, trying to be her best - basically adopting the role of everything she hates. Which raises the question of 'why'. Why is she doing this.

The scene immediately answers that, dancing through a complex series of beats that climax in Saunders identifying Topher as God. After all, he created her with a specific series of qualities. He obviously had a 'divine plan' in mind. Why should she fight it?

The next section of the scene is great: as Topher explains why he designed Saunders the way he did, there's the resonance of God explaining himself to his creation. Anyway, Topher resists Saunder's take on the situation. He tells her that he programmed Saunders to question and challenge him, not hate him. Saunders has chosen to do that.

It's a good end-point to the scene: identifying that Saunders has free will and she chose to hate Topher. A nice emotional twist that reveals a truth about a character. But the scene continues, and the material it begins to explore opens up a whole new dimension of understanding what 'Dollhouse' is really about.

That's the first reason I love this scene. It's unafraid to spend time with these two characters and dig into the hearts of what they're about, what's driving them, and what they're afraid of. Sure it's a little 'tell, don't show', a little theatrical. But screw it: I like plays.

So, the scene continues with Saunders wanting to know how she can continue living, knowing that that she's not even real, knowing that everything about what she is and who created her disgusts her.

But when Topher offers to give Saunders back her original personality, Saunders refuses.
And she refuses because she doesn't want to die. "I'm in someone else's body, and I'm afraid to give it up."

And that's the big idea that this season introduces: these artificial identities think of themselves as real. These 'imprints' have their own existence, their own drive for survival. It's an idea that's expanded on in the next episode, 'Vows', which features the first entirely successful (at least to me) assignment-of-the-week episode, and subsequent episodes dive into the concept whole-heartedly.

One of the reasons I admire love Dollhouse is that it's a show about big ideas that haven't been fully explored on TV before. A 13-part season is just about big enough to (a) explore the idea of self-preservation in people who know they aren't real, and (b) throw in an enormous amount of patented Whedon-esque plot twists and character reveals.

Finally the scene ends with this recognition: that Saunders knows she isn't real but doesn't want to give up her body to the personality it originally belonged to. And it ends with Topher appreciating the enormity of her problem. The scene moves from seduction to isolation, and from Topher being glib to being to move into another phase of his character arc.


debbie said...

I really liked that scene too. I think it made excellent use of the two actors. I'm not convinced some of the more OTT lines would have worked if it wasn't for Amy Acker being amazing. I totally loved this relationship and character development - why did they then not do more with it? There are many things that bugged me with more recent season 2 episodes but I won't go into them in case you haven't got up to them yet. That's kind of my problem with Dollhouse. When it's good, it's utterly compelling. It just has a large number of annoying scenes/episodes cropping up as well.

I have to admit though that season 2 has made me a Topher fan when I didn't think I'd ever become one.

Steve Hickey said...

I'm pretty sure Amy Acker got a bigger role on another show. She was due to make two more appearances this season, but I haven't had that confirmed yet.

I'm up to date on DH:2. Reveal your bugs!

debbie said...

Amy Acker leaving for bigger things makes sense.

Some of the things that have bugged me (not in any logical order, I'm just rambling here. It's likely to be spoiler-heavy in parts.)

1. The writers seemed to have run out of plausible scenarios for ‘romantic’ engagements for the doll and presumably are borrowing from bad 80s porn. Eg. the episode where the English professor engages Echo to be a hot bimbo who knows nothing about Chaucer. Even presuming that he had saved up his salaries for enough years to be able to afford a doll, why would he then have a fantasy that could so easily be played out be an ordinary hooker for much less. If a professor is really hankering for a dumb, ignorant hot girl, I’m sure a regular prostitute could play the part adequately for far less. (Plus I hated everything they said about Canterbury Tales and Chaucer in that episode. It would take too long to go on about everything that was irritatingly stupid but I spent a lot of time grumbling at the screen. My guess is the writer flunked out of a Middle English course when they were at college and wanted to get revenge on their old professor by writing him as a sleazy jerk and recycling the trite, incorrect points of their essays in the script).

2. The episode where Echo is out in the real world in a Doll state. Why do her kick ass reflexes always appear when she’s attacked (because if that was usual for Doll’s, Alpha wouldn’t have been able to attack the house so effectively and cut up Whisky etc) and yet no basic survival instincts seem to kick in when she’s starving. Then the plan that takes 3 months as posing as a nurse to break out the girl is the dumbest one ever. Echo is now meant to be able to access multiple personalities worth of skills and knowledge and that’s what she comes up with?! Besides, the security camera footage would have shown that it was Echo not the other girl who took the food. Did the girl receive not legal representation at all over the three months? Echo and Ballard could have easily arranged to get her out or have the charges dropped but basically there was no way that a shoplifting charge would have against the other girl would have stood up in court. Also the fact that she can’t speak English when she is trying to buy food or is being arrested by the cops but then can speak English to Echo. That makes no sense.

3. Echo’s equally dumb plan about the group-soldier mind thing.

4. The fact that it is becoming increasing obvious that the show should be about Enver Gjokaj. He is fantastic and can play anything or anyone. In fact, it would probably be better if that actor was just playing all the parts on the show.

5. Senator plot felt clunky and then was quickly wrapped up in a rather unsatisfying way. I was unconvinced by it but would have to rewatch to place my finger as to why.

6. Many of the twists are becoming too predictable. This means you see them coming and pick up all the details that don’t play right. Eg. Dewitt’s turn to the dark side but then it was all a cunning ruse and really she’s a good guy didn’t work for me. Storywise it’s fine but the execution of it felt wrong. She’s went too mean (rather than cold and pragmatic) too quickly and her drinking problem seems to have be real rather than staged (she’s passed out drunk at her desk while her employers (who it later turns out are her collaborators) work against her).

Matt said...

Like the beginning of The Piano, if you hold your fingers up in front of your eyes and watch Dollhouse through a selective partial blocking, it's a great show.

It's just a shame that if you move your fingers even a fraction of an inch something stupid will leap out at you...