Monday, August 24, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Echo"

When Dollhouse first came out on DVD, I vacillated about buying it. I'm someone who needed to purchase every single season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the day it was released, so my not so urgent need to get Dollhouse was a bit... odd. I blame, mostly, "Omega" - an episode I now realize I never got around to reviewing.

But, it's Joss, and I love Joss, and I liked Dollhouse, and I thought Dollhouse could improve, and my Whedon collection must be complete at all costs to the point where I bought the seasons of Angel I adamantly disliked, so I went ahead and got the series.

And then I ignored it for a while. Until a friend of mine (this friend, actually) asked me if I'd watched the unaired pilot and/or "Epitaph One" and that I should watch them back to back. So I went on vacation, came back, waited a week, and then did it. Which, obviously, as yesterday's post pointed out, blew my mind. Well, "Epitaph One" blew my mind.

"Echo" is illuminating, entertaining, immensely frustrating, and a bit disconcerting. It was disconcerting, because so many scenes that had been flung into different episodes were found here; and since I'd already seen those actually aired episodes and in some cases quite liked the way those scenes were integrated into those other works, seeing them here in rapid succession was a bit strange. And yet, I'm pretty sure I liked it, a lot. Echo and Sierra weren't quite as annoying as Actives during their lunch meet here as they are later in the season, because the episode moves so fast. Ballard's rusty flirting with Loomis does more to illustrate who he is than the fight montage of the first aired episode. Topher and Boyd's bison conversation lets us into a problem (for the Dollhouse, and them) already in progress. Which is where the 'immensely frustrating" part of this comes in.

A conversation that doesn't take place until episode four is already in full swing midway through this episode. Likewise, there is something very 'gah' worthy over having the last word spoken in your pilot episode be the same word spoken (by the same person, in basically the same circumstance, because it is the same freaking scene) last in your (aired) season finale. This? Is the problem with "Echo". Or, more specifically, the problem with Dollhouse. "Echo" puts it all out there, succinctly. It isn't the best pilot I've ever seen, or even the best Whedon pilot I've ever seen. But it is a pilot that quickly moves down the line to not only introduce the characters and the major interpersonal and philosophical issues the show hopes to ruminate upon, but also drops us into a story already set in motion. This Echo? We can care about her right off the bat because she's already evolving. Echo, Caroline, whomever, is already making her presence known to us because she is already affecting the world around her. She is already making choices and connections, even if those are ones she doesn't fully understand. If the series were to have started from this point, we could have potentially ended up lightyears down the line (on the other hand, the show could have been cancelled). Since we didn't start at this point, we were basically spinning our wheels all season long. The end is, quite literally, the beginning. Musing over the missed opportunities is enough to give the serious fan (ie, me) a coronary.

It also is a pilot that begins by putting forth Whedon's most asked question. Echo, as an unnamed person, tells Hayden, a drugged out girl who's pusher has been pimping her out, "This is why I'm here. To save you", and Hayden questions, "Well, what if I'm not worth saving?"

For Whedon, when humanity is not worth saving anymore seems to be the ultimate question. His answer? Seemingly, it is that humanity is never not worth saving. No matter what we do to degrade ourselves, no matter what degrading thing is done to us, we are, all of us, always worth saving. Because he operates, like Mal ("I've staked my crew's life on the notion that you're a person, actual and whole") and like Dr. Saunders ("Dr. Saunders is operating under the radical theory that those people are still people") under the theory that there is an inherent worth to people, that because there is no great god in the sky or overarching plot to the universe, we as individuals matter. And no one can strip us of our worth, because no matter how much the world tries to makes us (mostly, in Whedon's fictional world, us=women) into objects to be used and discarded, there is still a spark present. River, Buffy, Echo/Caroline are all still people, actual and whole, even though the worlds in which they operate treat them as tools.

Which is why Topher is easily the most interesting person in the pilot. At the Cambridge forum, Whedon said:
It's very easy to look down on faith when you have none. Just as it's very easy for every single religious person I've ever met to laugh in my face because they assume that because I do not have a a belief system they understand, I don't have a system of belief. I don't have a moral code. I do. I try to be a decent person. I do this because I think what I do matters. Because it's what I did. And not because it's in a grander scheme, that's just what I think. I think, uh, if I hurt somebody, whether or not I'm ever punished for it, I hurt somebody. And in order for our species to continue, there has to be something in us that goes, 'That's not okay, because somebody might do it to me', and also because as we evolve we realize, 'Oh, that's also not okay because I just don't want that. I don't want to hurt people'.
Topher is, or is presented as, a guy (not a man, as Boyd said they weren't men) without a system of belief. He is the Joker's mask to Whedon's intense humanist belief. Topher is the guy without faith in a higher power, and he is the guy we have to fear because he doesn't have that faith in a higher power. During this exchange:
TOPHER: Does that tie keep you warm?
BOYD: What? No.
TOPHER: No, it's just what grown-up men do in our culture. They put a piece of cloth around their necks so they can assert their status and recognize each other as non-threatening kindred.
BOYD: So what is this, the 60s? Are we gonna burn our draft cards?
TOPHER: You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs every morning but never at night. You feel excitement and companionship when rich men you've never met put a ball through a net. You feel guilty, maybe a little suspicious, every time you see that Salvation Army Santa. You look down for at least a half a second if a woman leans forward. And your stomach rumbles every time you drive by a big golden arch even if you weren't hungry before. Everybody's programmed, Boyd.
BOYD: Damn. You really spent some time on your self-justification.
TOPHER: Not the case. I don't care. Tis is an awesome gig. This is cutting-edge science in a house full of hot chicks. Morality is programming too.
he is the prototypical atheist. He is the reason atheists can't get elected to public office. Because he believes that we are all programmed, and he mistakenly believes - because he has not yet grown up - that he is if not above the programming then he is still more aware of it. After all, he never wears a tie, and eschews things like stairs as the proper mode of transportation. And therefore, superior. And because he is superior, then he holds some measure of control over those who are not aware of the programming.

This is the dark side of the humanist's dilemma. Both because it is - generally - what the world sees when it looks at us, and because none of us have the easy answers for why people matter. Religious people have their book, and have the faith that God wrote morals onto (or perhaps into) men's hearts. Those of us without it? Well, we don't have the easy answers of "some great omnipotent being told us to". We have, generally, a lot of questions and not many answers. I may espouse to Whedon's life affirming "We matter, because our insignificance makes each life infinitely significant", but just like religious fervor has an extreme negative side, so does a lack of religious belief. For every Whedon, there might very well be a Topher. Even lurking inside a Whedon.

What becomes interesting is the fact that although Topher is extremely immature, he is still amazingly aware. His potential self-loathing, brought out into the light in Epitaph One and even earlier in Omega (and possibly in Spy in the House of Love) is illuminated earlier here, when he asks Dr. Saunders if she thinks he's a monster. His own revulsion of Saunders, and Saunders' face, are interesting considering that he built her. He built her to wear that face, and to hide in the shadows. And perhaps most importantly, he recognizes what all the players in their little conspiracy theory are:
BOYD: This whole operation is based on not being reckless.
TOPHER: Nonsense! We walk the wire, man-friend. We live in the Dollhouse, which makes us dolls and the people playing with us little children. Children break their toys, Boyd.
Topher lays it down on the line for all of us. He's up front with the notion that all of them will be, in some way, broken. Because they are all not only complicit in the Dollhouse, but objects of it themselves.

It could have been a hell of a show. Hopefully, now it will become that.

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