Friday, March 06, 2009

Dollhouse episode 3: Stage Fright

Spoiler warnings apply. If anyone is caught up with America on BSG I had a few thoughts about the latest episodes here

If anyone ever asks me when I started loving Dollhouse, I'll tell them "When Eliza Dushku hit a singer with a chair and said "Friends help each other"

I don't feel like Dollhouse is great TV yet, but I do think it'll get there, and this episode showed me that the writers are interested in some of the things I'm interested in.

I really appreciated the scene between Dr Saunders and Boyd - the trust that is building between the workers of the dollhouse mirrors that building among the dolls. I'm glad they're taking the position of the workers seriously, as deeply compromised as it is. I'm also glad they're building worker solidarity against management, because there's no such thing as too much of that on TV.*

The FBI plotline was marginally less boring this week - mostly because of the reveal that Victor is an active, and because the Victor character is amusing. I'm not enjoying the patheticness of Mellie. I feel the same way about her and Paul as I did about Kaylee and Simon: "I get that you want this guy, but I can't get behind it because he's not into you and not into you is not fun" (although clearly I cared a lot more about Kaylee than I do about Mellie).

While I really enjoyed the scene where Rayna and Echo talked about being grown in a lab, I do think it demonstrates what may be a permanent weakness with the show. The subjects of the Episode of the Week plotline are likely to continue to be obscenely rich people. I think it's very difficult for plotlines where obscenely rich people and brainwashed people explore their similarities to also talk to those of us who are neither brainwashed or obscenely rich. I think we could have identified with Rayna, and I still think we could identify with the dolls. But I think it's hard to find the common ground with either of them when their similarities with each other

Thinking about it, this problem was exacerbated, and the episode was weakened, because Rayna's problems were told us by Rayna, rather than shown. I think if we'd just seen snippets of the consequences for her of not toeing the line - of not being just rebellious enough - then the episode might have soared.

But the heart of this episode was obviously none of this, but the relationship between Sierra and Echo, and I don't really have anything to say about that except I that it made me very, very happy. I'm OK with the dolls coming to conciousness being messy, complicated and dangerous, and for violence to be a part of it, but I want building relationships to be part of it too.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Maurissa Tanchareon (of "there are no Asians in the movie") co-wrote this episode and two of the main characters in this episode were non-white women.** Although it's problematic that Eliza Dushku ends up rescuing them both. The casting description for Sierra worried me: I was afraid she was going to be Orientalised, but clearly she hasn't so far. The potential of the concept of actives to play with and against and through stereotypes is an awesome one (and I do wish they'd actually cast a heavy active). Maybe if the show continues they'll take more advantage of that with the actives they cast.

I read somewhere (and I really can't remember where or I'd link) that Sierra is the Women of Colour best friend cliche. An idea which makes me think of Wonderfalls and Gilmore Girls and shows like that (Felicity? I'm trying to remember any of the other characters. I think the role and the relationship, and presumably how much they'll come to both need the relationship, mean that it doesn't map perfectly. But I can see where the parallels are, particularly as Echo is both the centre and the more aware character. I think Sierra will be much more likely to fall into this stereotype if they continue to only show her on engagements where Echo is the primary. Even if a show is centred around one person it's possible to demonstrate that the characters aren't centred around that one person. What do other people think?

Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, the writers of this episode, co-wrote Dr Horrible's sing-a-long-blog and also Commentary! The Musical. So it isn't surprising how well the songs worked, but it was very satisfying, particularly at the end.

The end was even better than the middle. The tabula rasa makes the smallest movement more powerful, a change of direction and a head shake.

* I briefly started watching Grey's anatomy because George refused to cross a picket line, and thereby wasted hours of my life

** I think the only other time you will find two non-white women talking together in the Whedon-verse is somewhere in Season 7 of Buffy. That's operating under the assumption that Rona and Kennedy spoke to each other (or Chao-Ahn) at one point. I don't like Season 7 enough to know, or check. But it's pretty appalling anyway


  1. "I think the only other time you will find two non-white women talking together in the Whedon-verse is somewhere in Season 7 of Buffy."

    Weren't there any scenes in Firefly where Inara talks to Zoe or River?

    I love coming to your blog to figure out how to look at Joss's shows! :)

  2. Aw thanks Lauren - I'm a wee bit obsessed :)

    Inara and River definately had a relationship (although I don't think Zoe and River or Zoe and Inara ever did, that was one of my issues with the character of Zoe. I think it's entirely possible that Zoe and Inara never had a conversation, although I'd have to check each ep to be sure). I think River was played by a white actress and read as a white character (although it might have been more complicated if we hadn't seen her brother and her family confirming her ethnicity). I think it's more complicated with Inara, Morena Baccarin is from South America of Italian descent, and her character didn't look WASPy, but there was no noticeable ethnicity different from the other characters (and the only cultural difference between her and the other characters was that she came from a more powerful planet). I wouldn't consider either Inara or River a WoC. Although there was some exocticsation of Inara, which you could argue tends the reading of her towards non-white.

    The issue about the difference between an actors' ethnicity and the ethnicities of the characters they play has been interesting me. Because Tahmoh Penikett is indigenous Canadian, but that doesn't necessarily mean Paul Ballard is. I think that gets even more complicated in a sci-fi universe where we don't even know the way race is constructed anymore.

  3. Summer Glau, who played River, is Chinese. But you touch on points I think about when I think about race in Firefly. I don't think River was particularly played/written as a WoC, partly because, like you said, we see her family background, she has a white brother, etc . . .
    And Inara probably wasn't either. And, honestly, I even wonder if Zoe was. Because in this future world of Joss, race seems to be a "non-issue." Or, maybe that's not the right way of putting it. But, like you said, it's constructed differently. In the new interplanetary universe, the social and material relations are not the way they were on "Earth that Was," and a lot of people seem kind of disconnected from Earth's history. So there's no context of belong to a people that were once slaves or immigrants or exiles. Joss even mentioned in a commentary somewhere that he liked having Simon and River played by actors of different ethnicities because it emphasizes his vision of the Firefly world where ethnicity is kind of inconsequential.

    Like you said, with Inara, there was no noticeable ethnicity in the way her character was presented. And there wasn't really in Zoe or Shepherd Book or The Operative either . . . . it's interesting . .. . it's like, in making a sci-fi future world TV show, you get to play to the liberal idea that we can eventually just make race go away . . . .

  4. hmm, well maybe I was wrong about Summer Glau being Chinese. Wikipedia says she is Scotch-Irish/German. I thought Glau was a Chinese last name.