Saturday, May 16, 2009

Omega: the semi-finale - Dollhouse review

While I was watching Omega I enjoyed it quite a lot. The pacing was good, and the dialogue was great – at times it was fantastic. But at the end, with the montage and music, I felt nothing. And when writing this review I’ve had very little interest in watching the episode, or even any of the individual scenes, again.

For me this was a huge disappointment. I’ve always thought that season finales were Joss’s forte. Although I love some of the series, and season, openings they’ve never been the strongest episodes. I wasn’t surprised when Dollhouse started slowly. But endings, that’s completely different. There are scenes from Buffy season finales that I’ve watched over 100 times* – every single Buffy finale Joss wrote would be a contender for one of my top 10 Buffy episodes. Maybe, when I finally see the thirteenth episode, my faith in Joss finales will be restored. But Omega wouldn’t even be in my top 5 Dollhouse episodes.

The more I’ve thought about this episode, the more I’ve realised the ways in which an episode of television can fail slightly, and the culmulative effects of these failings. I’ll be focusing my review on the issues that I had with this episode, not because I thought it was irredeemably bad, but because I want to know how the season finale of a show I have become so engaged in in such a short time can leave me so cold.

I thought there were several serious execution problems, which I’ll cover first. But also that the underlying concept would have never made a season finale of the strength that I’d come to expect. Even if it had been perfectly executed, this episode was never going to be a Becoming, Gift or even Not Fade Away.

My first big problem with the execution surprised me. I thought the Whiskey/Dr Saunders plot was the strongest part of this episode. But I really, really didn’t like the reveal, or more importantly the sexy killing someone scene immediately after the reveal. It may seem strange, at this point in the series, to start complain about objectification. Eliza Dusku started the series in a dress that wasn’t, and that hasn’t changed.

But, until the scene with Whiskey and Alpha, I’ve felt that the camera remained neutral in these scenes. Yes Eliza Dushku in particular wore some ridiculous clothes, but the camera didn’t say ‘oh look Eliza Dushku is a dominatrix you must think that’s sexy’. Instead we get to choose whether we think the short pleated skirt and ugliest stockings in the world from Echoes were sexy, or whether we just spend time laughing at Matt, for being a dick. The only exceptions to that neutrality were the scene with French-Tango in Needs, where Tango’s objectification is emphasised by the camera to demonstrate Echo’s horror at the Dollhouse. And when Hearn tries to rape Mellie, where I felt there was a concerted effort to not eroticise that scene.

When Whiskey and Alpha torture the guy I felt every choice about the directing and editing was eroticising the scene. For the first time I felt that the show was leaving no room in the scene for the fact that the dolls were unable to give meaningful consent, and was actively promoting an eroticisation of sexual violence.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to call this an execution problem – but I wanted some Victor/Sierra. The shot of them getting into the pods together at the end of this episode is the first time they’ve shared a scene or a shot since the end of Needs.** I am so invested in Victor and Sierra’s relationship, and there was such an opportunity here – for her to be the one comforting him. I was really disappointed they didn’t take it.

A lot of my other problems were with the ending at the power station, which felt v which felt very anti-climatic. Some of these problems were less severe in the shooting script (which is available here and is well worth a read). These cuts are pretty obvious watching the episode, with the non-appearance of bounty-hunting Sierra and November. In the shooting script, Alpha doesn’t just drop Caroline because he feels like it, and the entire end sequence is less perfunctory. I think cutting the end, rather than the sexy torturing someone scene, or editing down some of the flash-backs, was a very poor one. It reduced the impact of the ending, and the episode had enough plot-holes without introducing more.

Plus Sierra and November are many times more awesome than Alpha.

I was pretty annoyed that they ended with Ballard saving the girl.*** In fact I felt this episode undid all the interesting things that they had been doing with his character over the last few episodes.

I would have been Ok if Ballard’s arc for this episode had been that he came to realise that actives were people, and his attitude towards Caroline was everything Joel Myner had said it was, and this led to his changed his attitude towards Mellie. It’s not where I would have gone with the character, but I wouldn’t have minded if they’d done it. But instead they just ended on him choosing Mellie, as a twist. In Haunted and Briar Rose, the character had gone to a dark place, but a necessary and inevitable dark place. But rather than develop that they just ignored it. It was a cheesy catch, a hand-shake with Madeline (sorry about that time I knew I was raping you) and that’s it. I didn’t think his reasons to start working for the Dollhouse made much sense, but their sense-that’s-not-ness paled compared with his change in attitude.*****

Although that plot-line left me in a bit of a quandary, because I think it’d be better from a story perspective if Madeline left, but I really love Miracle Laurie. I’d be very sad if she wasn’t in season two.*****

And Ballard wasn’t even the character whose actions made the least sense in this episode. How did they get Echo back to the Dollhouse?

When she talked with Wendy as Caroline composite-Echo had decided that she wanted to put Caroline back. Once Ballard had caught the wedge, why didn’t she go downstairs and fulfil the plan? I don’t care what sort of arc Ballard was on, there is no way he wouldn’t have sided with her, and given her herself back if she’d wanted to. Or why didn’t she walk off into the sunset? It’s no good suggesting that Boyd came up to her and said “Do you need a treatment?” If that could work with a composite then they would have done it with Alpha. To have composite-Echo decide on what she wants to do and then just ignore it is lazy writing of the worst kind.

I think the only reason that this didn’t hit me harder when I first watched it, is that I didn’t believe the scenes between composite-Echo and Wendy-as-Caroline. I’m inclined to blame this on Tim Minear, because the dialogue for Wendy-as-Caroline was terrible. Caroline, even the most pathetic, analysis-lacking, Caroline that I could imagine, does not respond to the possibility of freedom from the corporation that shot her boyfriend, held her hostage and she ran from for two years with: “I did sign a contract.”

Tim Minear is a libertarian, so it’s possible that he likes to think that he’d honour a contract signed under such duress (not that he would sign a contract under duress, because there’s no duress when it comes to contracts, they’re shiny), but Caroline is not, and so she wouldn’t.******

Neither the dialogue nor the performance convinced me I was watching Caroline. I liked the actress, but for those scenes to work, we needed to see an Enver Gjokaj as Dominic sort of performance, where there was never any doubt who we were watching. I don’t know if that was the actor’s choice or the director’s, but we’d seen enough of Caroline that Wendy could have embodied her (except when saying the stupid contract line), and it was a real problem that she didn’t.

The reason it was such a problem, the underlying problem of the episode was Alpha. Dangerous psychopaths don’t automatically have resonance, they’re not automatically interesting. If you’re going to make the big bad interesting you have to make the story that you’re telling about the main characters, the ones we already care about. Not just stories that include the characters, but that matter to them. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a mutant enemy production – I know they know this. I have no idea why they thought Alpha was interesting. Why was anyone supposed to care about some psychopath?*******

To make it worse, I felt that every decision they made about Alpha’s character this episode made him less interesting rather than more - made this story less about anything that might resonate.

Alpha’s obsession with Echo – that we were supposed to get the answer to this episode – appears to come down to he thinks she’s pretty.******** It would have been much more interesting to me if Alpha has been angry and resented the Dollhouse, and had identified with Caroline’s anger and resentment (and prettiness). That would have been a starting point that had depth and potential.

The ‘composite event’ that I’ve been wondering about all season was actually just a technical glitch, a literal technical glitch that can be reproduced, and didn’t bear any necessary relation to Alpha’s self-awareness, that had already been referred to. It didn’t say anything about self, awareness, or the nature of what the dollhouse was doing. It’s just something the chair can do.

Then, my ultimate disappointment – ‘Alpha was always a psychopath’. Neither compelling nor resonanant. And worse – that’s what they’ve got to say about people? Some men just want to cut up women – it’s in their essence, they’ll always want to do it and you can’t stop them, even if you wipe their brain.

I don’t understand the need for a ‘big bad’ – everything in the show that has been interesting so far has been about the evil normal people do (and the resistance normal people do). Introducing a homicidal maniac to end the season shows a lack of faith in Dollhouse’s strengths.

I think Needs would have made a much more fitting and compelling season finale (although I think as a season finale, with no certainty of renewal, I would have needed a smidgeon of hope at the end)

There was one plotline that was interesting and resonated with me – and that was Dr Saunders and Whiskey. I thought that was interesting, resonant and well done. It had been very well sign-posted in the rest of the series. Hitting the balance between something that feels right, and is surprising is one of the glories of TV, but it’s very hard. Dr Saunders’s line: “Echo wasn’t always the best” has a completely different meaning now. My only fear that the potential in this concept won’t be fully explored in the second season********* because Amy Acker has another job.

I was particularly impressed with the scene between Topher and Dr Saunders at the end. It was an interesting and powerful scene that asks so many questions, and the acting was fantastic.

But I felt it didn’t get much space in this, already overloaded, episode. I think it should have had an episode for itself. I understand that Dr Saunders’s origin story was connected to Alpha, but that didn’t seem enough reason to include it the same episode. There didn’t seem to be significant thematic unity between the story of Alpha that they ended up telling and Dr Saunders’s, and our, discovery that she was Whiskey.

More than that, I felt they weren’t doing the questions they raised justice. Why do scars render Whiskey unhireable? I don’t think that’s a given. Even if you assume that every sexual fantasy requires beauty, and scars cannot be part of beauty (and I don’t think either assumption is supportable), many of the engagements we’ve seen haven’t been sexual. Whiskey could have been any of Sierra’s imprints, or a hostage negotiator, cult member, Taffy, the person who beat up Ballard, a NSA agent, a spy-catcher, Adelle’s friend, or Susan.

I don’t necessarily think that makes the Whiskey story line untenable. I can think of many reasons why the Dollhouse wouldn’t hire out scarred Whiskey, besides there being no assignments. I don’t want to theorise about what they might be here. I’ve got a long post, which started out being about race and the dollhouse and has become about identity embodiedness and the dollhouse (it’s that long), and I will explore these ideas more now.

I felt that they hinted at some of the interesting ideas about bodies that they could explore with the first scene between Dr Saunders and Victor, where he wants to know how to be his best, and she takes out her anger with him. To me, particularly given the meaninglessness of dolls idea of their best, that scene could have been the beginning of something interesting. But they didn’t develop it. There’s this big well they’re circling round, and so many interesting ideas they could explore. But by not going far enough I felt this episode ended up normalising the idea that scars are disgusting, more than it said any of the interesting things it hinted at.

I know I’ve made it sound like I hated the finale – and I didn’t. I just didn’t love it, and wanted to know why. I’ve mentioned most of the aspects of this episode I liked somewhere in these rants (although I don’t think I’ve mentioned the scenes in the imprint room when Sierra and November were being imprinted, which were very well done). While I was watching Omega I was really engaged. But it hasn’t stayed with me. I don’t think it reflected what was great about previous episodes or what is interesting about the show. And the greatest dialogue and pacing in the world won’t save you from that (although “…and I’m smarter than everyone in this room – but not as scary” tries pretty hard).

* the end of Becoming II starting from the fight between Buffy and Angel and the sharing the power moment of Chosen, for those curious

** That scene of them going to the pods is cannibilized from the original pilot. So I guess I can’t blame them for not including Victor and Sierra in that scene, since they’d shot it months before.

*** Although a special shout-out to Adele’s “Alpha’s a genius” when explaining to Paul why Alpha could get out and he wouldn’t. No, Mr-Mind-Control-? is not a genius.

**** And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more going on with his decision to join the dollhouse than we know at this point. But if there’s not, it’s not earned at all.

****** la-la-la I can’t hear you

****** Oh and while I’m on it the “especially we now have a black president” is the worst line of the entire season. The line itself was ridiculously stupid, but Caroline’s response was incromprehensible. Given the likely dates of her capture by the dollhouse surely the most likely candidates for first black president would be Condeleeza Rice and Colin Powell. I would guess that Caroline’s politics would fall somewhere on the “Shill for the Democrats to Ignore Electoral Politics, Change Happens in the Streets” scale – that’s not a scale that decides to live because Colin Powell might be president

******* I decided to relegate this rant to a footnote, because I know people who read this don’t necessarily want a complete history of Buffy. But the Master wasn’t automatically interesting, that’s why they had to make the story about prophecy, Buffy’s fear of death, and the role of her friends. Angelus is interesting, because Buffy cares about him. Faith is more interesting than the Mayor, so the story in Graduation II is about everyone banding together to fight the Mayor, not about the Mayor himself. The Initiative was never interesting, and Adam sucked all the interesting from a two mile radius. That’s why the finale of that season is Restless. They know this stuff. Joss has talked about it in every commentary that I’ve ever listened to. How did they forget it?

******** Although there was something awesome about the scene where he kissed her and she kept talking. His sexual violence had no meaning for her, and therefore lost its power and control. This was underscored by his Handler’s complicity.

********* la la la la la I can’t hear you

********** I’ve always liked Fran Kranz as Topher, but I’ve read a lot of negative comments, mostly I think because Topher is really annoying. I think this scene made clear that Fran Kranz is more than capable of creating the layers

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Briar Rose: Dollhouse review

I don’t like the first part of two-part episodes. It’s fine when you’re watching them on DVD (unless it’s late and you know you shouldn’t watch another one, but you do it anyway and then it turns out to be a cliff-hanger so you have to watch the next one as well), but a week is a long-time between Echo walking out the elevator with Alpha and finding out what the hell is going on.

Or at least I don’t like the first part when I haven’t read spoilers, which has happened to me exactly once (I’ve been spoiled for every show that I was a fan of since 1995). I’m not sure that’s a good sample. But I’m sure I hate it.

But reviewing the first part of a two-parter is particularly difficult. So much of the meaning and point of this episode depends on what happens next. This episode raised far more questions than it answered, and while there is a lot to talk about, there’s a lot I won’t comment on (like who was Echo when Alpha left with her. We’ll all know in a couple of days, and speculating on it wastes precious review time that should be spent laughing at Paul Ballard). So consider this the first part of my review as there are many things that I am reserving judgement on, although my cliff-hanger won’t be as exciting as the show’s.

The theme of this episode - an inversion of Sleeping Beauty - couldn’t have been more clearly signposted if they’d spelled it out in flashing neon lights. But I think I liked it. I found the literal inversion of the sunken tower quite a compelling image.

I’ll talk more about the general ideas of rescue and waking when I talk about the whacky cop adventures of Ballard and Alpha. But I really appreciated that in the end Susan was the only person in this episode who rescues anyone. And she does from a place of solidarity and support, not from chivalry.

I liked the counter-point between the men’s selfish attempts to capture Caroline’s body, and Susan’s advocacy of rescue. Because obviously Ballard’s ridiculous effort to save Caroline needed to be undercut. But I don’t think that’s enough – to reject rescue without offering an alternative is dangerous individualism. The way Susan reached out to Susan shows that there is an alternative

This felt like a reworking of some of the ideas of Ghost, and generally I think this episode was a much stronger take on those ideas. But the similarity between the two did bother me. I find it hard to find the language to describe what I mean, so I hope people will understand the point I’m trying to get at. To me, it feels exploitative, how extreme the abuse depicted in this episode and Ghost. The abuse that Susan, and Eleanor Penn experience is a stand-in for abuse, rendered less real by its enormity.*

Also, I think the issues that Ghost brought up are still sitting there - while there was no space in this story to explore the ethics of inserting memories of abuse into people, I hope they will acknowledge it at sometime in the second season.** Because, no matter how altruistic the assignment, forcing memories of abuse on people is horrific.***

But what was strongest about this plotline was what Susan offered Susan. And it wasn’t help retelling the story, (although I enjoyed the Firefly reference) or giving up her knife, but the hope that she represented, the hope that she was. Hope.

I know everyone has said it, but Enver Gjorkaj was mind-blowingly amazing as Laurence Dominic in that chair (and his “people were fighting on me” is possibly my favourite line of the series). It was a deeply, deeply creepy scene that worked because of his acting.**** It was a great way of showing the power, reach, and creepiness of the Dollhouse.

One of the questions I’m not going to leave unasked, even though we better know when the finale airs, is what did Dominic mean when he said “Whiskey” to echo. Whiskey like Echo, Sierra, Victor, November, and Alpha is part of the military alphabet. He clearly wasn’t asking for a drink. I still like the theory me and my friend Betsy developed that she’s an ex-doll (or maybe doesn’t know it, since she thought he was asking for a drink). But it’s looking possible that she is actually a doll. Which by itself doesn’t make much sense, since they can surely hire a doctor for a lot cheaper than the labour that they’re foregoing by having her not active, but we’ll see where it goes.

But the centre of this episode was Ballard and Alpha – the relationship and resonances between them.

Like everyone on the internet I knew that Walsh was playing Alpha. I was really annoyed when watching the episode that I’d been spoiled.***** I loved the conspiracy-theorist-environmentalist-stoner-misogynist persona of Alpha for most of the episode – hilarious and familiar. Although it did leave me wondering how Alpha worked. Are there different imprints competing in his brain – had the Dollhouse once imprinted him with the character we saw, or someone who could act like the character we saw? Or can he create imprints in his head, the way Topher can on the computer? Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

I’m sure the nature of Alpha will be explored more next episode, that wasn’t really the point of this episode. This was about Alpha, and Ballard’s quest to rescue Echo, Caroline, and maybe just Eliza Dushku’s body.

And Ballard’s version didn’t come across as righteous. Ballard has reclassified Mellie as a thing, not a person. It was clear in the break up scene and when he talked about her with Loomis – she called Mellie a victim – he called her a doll. And it was horrible to watch not because it was strange, but because it was familiar. Ballard doesn’t trust the women he knows because she’s in the same state that makes the stranger Caroline pedestal-worthy – that’s a nasty truth showing.

Ballard had a purpose to his actions; he was breaking Mellie’s heart, so he could use her reaction to find the dollhouse. That makes it worse to me – he has no more respect for the dolls humanity than Topher. And now, because of Ballard’s actions, she is, in all probability, dead.

When he actually finds Echo he has no respect for her as a person, or her autonomy. He talks to her slowly about being brainwashed, as if that’ll make a difference.****** And when she doesn’t come he drags her where he wants her to go, just like Alpha.

In fact, Echo made a choice, and fought against him.******* I loved the ridiculous over-signalling of Ballard’s eventual down-fall through the steps by Stephen’s fear (a combination of very fine writing from Jane Espenson and fantastic acting from Alan Tyduk), and that his downfall was at Echo’s hands.

I think there’s a lot packed into that fight, because people do choose oppression over alternatives, and for many different reasons. This episode makes it clear why Echo sides with Boyd over Ballard, and makes you side with her - partly it’s lack of information, partly it’s relationships, partly it’s that the alternative isn’t any better. None of those are fixed, none of those are impossible to overcome, but they all exist in our world as well as in that fight.

But my favourite part of this episode was that it revealed that Ballard is also programmed – he has had less agency than Echo. Everything he has done since the beginning of the show he has done because someone wanted him to, either the dollhouse, or Alpha.********

There is much more to say, but that’s the thing with reviewing the first half of a two-parter. You’ll have to wait to find out the rest of my opinions, just like you’ll have to wait to find out why Alpha wants Echo.

* and I really don’t mean that abuse over a less extended timeframe is not enormous – just that it’s comprehensible to the viewer.

** There will be a second season. La-la-la-la-la I can’t hear you.

*** Although Jane Espenson did a very fine job with Topher’s characterisation. It was very clear that Topher’s pride came entirely from his programming skills. But clearly that wasn’t the place to explore the ethics – because Topher does not care

**** I quite enjoyed Sierra’s character, and loved Topher’s explanation that she was exposition central because he hadn’t had much time. But Dichen Lachman has been imprinted to fill the plot-hole in every episode since Needs, and she’s capable of so much more than that

***** and feeling guilty. I told my friend Betsy about Walsh playing Alpha in much the same way I told her that Fred was playing Dr Saunders. Bad me

****** One of the things that cracks me up, that I’ve never mentioned before, is that in Ballard’s web of Dollhouse obsession there’s a post it that says ‘Mind Control?’ I don’t know what’s funnier, that Ballard isn’t sure whether or not the Dollhouse involves mind control, or that they’ve shown that post-it at least half a dozen times

******** In a fight where a table broke. Every time a table breaks during a fight on this show, I expect someone to pick up the remains and stake someone with it.

******** At this stage I think Alpha was using the NSA chip to imprint the messages. If so my special review stop-watch action was pointless.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Today on the picketline in Wellington



The Wellington picked to support the Zeal workers was help outside the AirNZ holiday shop (the photos in the post are from the EPMU).

All the workers I talked to were on strike for the first time. They came up and said thank you for coming when I arrived. They had painted a wide selection of placards and gave me one to hold. As the day went on the young women (most of the striking workers were young women) got more confident on the megaphone. Theoretically I know that strikes can give workers strength and confidence. But it's always more true when you watch it happening.

The picket was well-attended 40-50 (probably more because people came and went) of many of the usual suspects - unionists and political radicals. But the support was much wider than that. Not just tooting either:

I watched this guy join the picket, and I'm pretty sure that he was just passing by (although I wasn't close enough to hear the conversation, so I can't be sure). He wasn't the only one who stopped, talked and stayed a while to show his support.

It was particularly good to see non-Zeal Air New Zealand workers on the picket line. As I said yesterday, what Air New Zealand is doing with Zeal is a threat to all workers' wages and conditions.

There is still no bank account details for lock-out donations, although EPMU are trying to get an 0900 set up. When they get it up the details will be here. On such low wages many of the workers won't have a buffer, anything you can give will help them stay strong, and win this fight.

Now you know you're underpaid but the boss says you ain't;...

So when people like our bosses at Air NZ call us greedy for wanting a larger increase in our wages, most people tend to get around 4% and we’re asking for 26% it looks horrific in a percentage but when you take 4% of the base salary we’re on it still isn’t livable with a 24% increase that would bring us up to the equivalent of our domestic counter parts at Air NZ.
If I work a ten hour flight duty, 5 days a week, I get my $360 after tax and $48.70 for every day, that’s a totall take home pay of $603.50 per week keep in mind dry cleaning the uniform, a pair of stockings for work costs $8 so if you snag one of those thats 2 hours of pay gone… then theres make up and petrol all requirements for work. our Air Nz counter parts have allowances for these…for us it’s all inclusive in our $4.87 per hour.
Once you take out the work related costs, your rent and basic foods that’s it, it’s all gone! these are the numbers circling my head all night and the incoming doesn’t add up to my out goings all I need is one electrical bill or a phone bill to upset this balancing act!

This was from Zealgirl a new blog set up by a Zeal workers, who is about to go on strike.
If Air NZ can get away with paying some of its workers tens of thousands of dollars less by hiring them through the subsidiary, then they will. Not just that they will use more and more low-paid Zeal workers and fewer and fewer works who are on the better wages and conditions. And they won’t be the only company to do so

Workers’ unity is not just a political ideal – it’s an imperative, a survival imperative.

The strike was scheduled to last four days, and the company has locked the workers out for that time. There are solidarity rallies today (Thursday). Going down is an important way of showing your solidarity and showing the workers and the bosses that an injury to one is an injury to all:
Auckland: 0700 – 1000 at Victoria Park Market, opposite Air NZ Head Office, 185 Fanshawe Street. 1200 – 1500 at Auckland International Airport, main drop off area.

Wellington: Rally on Lambton Quay from 1100 to 1300. Meet outside Air NZ Holidays shop, corner Grey Street and Lambton Quay.

Christchurch: 1100 – 1200 at Air NZ Holidays shop. South City Mall, 549 Colombo Street

The other, vital, way you can support Zeal workers is financiall.Zealgirl’s blog outlines the financial reality for Zeal workers:
There is no room for error or any unexpected bills, a lot of the crew rely on eating aeroplane food as they cannot afford groceries, if you don’t do any flying as a junior you take home just over $360 a week after tax that’s less than most peoples weekly out goings (for everything)



Here’s a full list of pickets and protests over the next four days (check the EPMU website for updates):
Auckland
Thursday, May 7:
0700 – 1000 at Victoria Park Market, opposite Air NZ Head Office, 185 Fanshawe Street.
1200 – 1500 at Auckland International Airport, main drop off area.

Friday, May 8:
0600 – 1000 at Auckland International Airport, main drop off area.
1200 – 1600 at Auckland International Airport, main drop off area.

Sunday, May 10:
1200 – 1600 at Auckland International Airport, main drop off area.

Contact: Strachan Crang, 027 590 0049.

Wellington
Thursday, May 7:
Rally on Lambton Quay from 1100 to 1300. Meet outside Air NZ Holidays shop, corner Grey Street and Lambton Quay.

Contact: Glen Mitchell, 027 610 8552.

Christchurch
Thursday, May 7:
1100 – 1200 at Air NZ Holidays shop. South City Mall, 549 Colombo Street

Friday, May 8:
0800 – 1000 at Christchurch Airport, totem pole on Orchard Road near the entrance to the airport grounds.

Sunday, May 10:
1400-1600 at Christchurch Airport, totem pole on Orchard Road near the entrance to the airport grounds.

Contact: John Kerr, 027 591 0042.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Haunted: a comparatively short dollhouse review

At this point, I think the character I feel most engaged with is Mellie. She doesn’t know what’s going on, she doesn’t know that she’s a doll that was programmed not to understand the word left-over. I want her to be happy and free, and she could never be either, let alone both at the same time.

I think they needed to show Paul raping November, and they definitely needed to make it that ugly. I’m glad that they showed that he had a choice, that he made a choice, but I think the story needed to turn him into what he hated, and I think it was that hatred for himself, not the dollhouse, that drove him.

What I found most powerful, about those scenes, was the speech Mellie gave

I like being with you, I love it actually. And you say everything is fine and so I’m going to stop asking if it is. If that means lying next to you while everything is not fine, then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you what you need, and let you take it from me. If you want to give back, give back, but it doesn’t have to mean anything.
I doubt Topher had to work hard when constructing that imprint. To find a woman who believes that love is one way, and her only role is to give. We’ve all been imprinted, after all.

The first time I watched the scenes with Topher/Sierra* I was filled with anxiety about where they were going to go. To me having sex with Sierra, knowing that she was forced into the Dollhouse, is a whole level of vileness. I didn’t necessarily mind the show going there; I like hating Topher, but until I knew what they were doing I was anxious.

But instead the story was infinitely more pathetic. Topher wasn’t looking for someone to have sex with, he was looking for someone to play Laser-force and eat cake with (some people never got enough 9 year old birthday parties). All the employees of the dollhouse seem so atomised, some to the point of complete derangement. The abuse they’re carrying out doesn’t make the happy, or fulfilled, or whole, it just gives them power. And power won’t eat birthday cake with you.

The parallels between Topher and Paul were emphasised by the way the scenes were paired together throughout the episode (in the beginning of the episode scenes with Paul directly followed scenes with Topher). By the end of the episode the white night has chosen to rescue. Whereas it becomes clear that the amoral dick doesn’t want to rape and active. Which doesn’t make him virtuous or even sympathetic, but it does make him interesting.

I do have theory I want to share with the world, so I can say ‘I told you so’ if I’m right. I think there are many signs that Topher didn’t just construct a friend, he imprinted Sierra with himself (which just ups the pathetic level). I’ve wondered why Alpha would have been imprinted with the skills to construct imprints, in order to use them in a composite. I think that Alpha was Sierra last year, or the year before, and had been imprinted as Topher to help Topher celebrate his birthday. That’s why he can do remote wipes.

You may notice that I haven’t yet talked about the main plot of this story. There’s a reason for that. The idea of Dollhouse having the capacity to provide eternal life was a fascinating one. But in this episode I felt that they squandered it on un-engaging characters and incredibly cliched jokes (‘she was nothing like mother’). While I appreciated the thematic unity around connection and isolation, it didn’t make the story of the very rich dead woman interesting to watch.

I remain uninterested in the problems of rich people. Particularly as clich├ęd problems as ‘I’m not sure if my much younger and poorer boyfriend married me for love’ and ‘I never showed any love to my children and now they resent me for it’ (clearly not just a rich person’s problem, but I find the story much less interesting when the origin of the distance is an abundance of money).

I could maintain interest in monsters of the week stories on Buffy (sometimes I’m not going to stand up and defend ‘go fish’), because they always involved with or related to to the characters that I knew. I think actual procedurals, the stories that make an episode of House, or the interminable cop shows, require a different sort of story-telling, one that the people of Mutant Enemy aren’t necessarily very good at. The episodes where we dealt with the woes of a one off character, were never the strongest episodes of Buffy, Angel or Firefly (Inca Mummy Girl, She, or The Message, for examples). How to introduce, make us care about, and resolve a person’s story in 25 minutes or so, is a really big challenge. The Dollhouse one shots I’ve enjoyed so far, I’ve enjoyed because there’s been some glitch in the imprint and we’ve seen Echo or Caroline underneath (The Target, Stage Fright and the Grey Hour). If they can’t do that each week (and they probably can’t) they need to work on making the stories great.

* Dichen Lachman was, again, fantastic (although she could do with a little more to do). I particularly loved the way she talked about the ‘sleepies’, and the whole sequence was hilarious.