Thursday, July 23, 2009

Epitaph One: Dollhouse Review (Spoilers)

I don’t understand by blogging habits anymore. I have thoughts, and half composed posts. Big events, blog-storms, and repulsive media trials come and go, but I just don’t prioritise writing them. But then comes a new episode of a Joss Whedon show and I’ve written thousands of worlds before I even know. (This is one of the reasons why the ‘why do people write about X and not about Y arguments never really work for me. I think writing, and what people have something to have something to say about is a complicated process)

Epitaph One is the mysterious 13th episode of Dollhouse, exclusive to DVD. Why is there a mysterious 13th episode of dollhouse I hear you ask? Because Fox has spectacularly bad taste in TV. Fox didn’t like the original pilot of Dollhouse. They thought interesting might confuse people and the skirts were too long (the unaired pilot was also included on the DVD and I’m going to be reviewing that next). So then Joss wrote a new first episode (the not very good Ghost) and the original first episode was scrapped for parts (many of scenes have been inserted in subsequent episodes). Fox (the network) had ordered 13 episodes of Dollhouse, but they included the scrapped pilot in that 13. Fox (the studio) wanted 13 actual episodes to put on the DVD. They were talking about a clip show, but instead Joss and Jed and Maurissa wrote Epitaph One. It was written to be cheap (it cost half of what a normal episode cost), to use existing sets, but not to rely on the main cast (who were busy shooting the actual series).

It is an exponentially better season finale than Omega, and worth the price of the DVD.

“Felicia Day is a tough yet tender freedom fighter in a post-apocalyptic future”

When I read that description of Felicia Day’s character, back in February, before a single episode of Dollhouse aired I thought “That Joss, he’s so funny”. Instead he was just letting us know what the first few seconds of Epitaph One would contain: burning cars + walkie-talkies + guns + tears = a tough yet tender freedom fighter in a post-apocalyptic future”

We only saw a small amount of the post-apocalyptic future future, but I found what we did the weakest parts of the episode. It was neither interesting nor convincing. The future we saw appeared to be more a logical extension of the ideas of the dollhouse than a coherent comment on current society. But as a logical extension what we saw didn’t really work for me. I can see that the rampant body-stealing and constant imprinting could develop from the technology we’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean that it would. New technology is controlled, and used to uphold the power structures in society.* Media which shows technology leading to anarchy (of the scary fictional sort, which bears no relation to what anarchists believe), says more about the fears of the people creating it, than it does about history and society.

This isn’t necessary a criticism of the future that’s envisioned, we only saw a tiny snippet of that world. Just because there is chaos and fear in one particular geographical area doesn’t mean the technology isn’t being used to uphold existing power structures. 2019 could turn out to be both interesting and convincing, it’s just that the few minutes they showed us were not.

On the other hand, I loved the weird new religion, complete with alters and prayer circles that had developed within the dollhouse. That sort of coping strategy made perfect sense (and Priya’s frustration with it was awesome).

They didn’t have/take time to develop the post-apocalyptic future in this episode, which is understandable given how much new material was in this (although the ‘dollhouse 101’ clip from the original pilot probably wasn’t necessary – if a viewer doesn’t know what the dollhouse is they’re very unlikely to understand the rest of the episode).

It’s hard to lean an episode so entirely on one-off characters, and I think this did a reasonably effective job. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the deaths, and the characters that had personalities and therefore were going to live were a little too strongly signposted. They made a very good decision to centre the story around the little girl. The twists were great, but it was more than that. When she became Caroline, the two threads of the story were unified in a very powerful way.

From the moment they mentioned ‘safe haven’, the story reminded me of Children of Men (although obviously Children of Men’s distopia is much better imagined, and more interesting).*** The ending, was inevitable from that moment, but important. (“Why are they climbing up” my friend Betsy asked “Because it’s better symbolism” I replied). There is no certainty, but there is hope.

But the tough yet tender freedom-fighters in a post-apocalyptic future were only a part of the story. Interwoven was the backstory and, for me, why I cared about any of this. In a series of flashbacks, each set at an unspecified time, most set after the end of Season 1, we saw the characters we know and love (and Ballard) and how the future came about. In these flashbacks we saw glimpse of the relationships between characters: Ballard and Echo, Dr Saunders and Boyd, Victor and Sierra, and Adelle and Topher.****

I am not at all sure about the glimpses we saw of Ballard and Echo’s relationship. Mostly this is because I’m still furious at the “creepy saviour complex? What creepy saviour complex” – turn around in Omega. The first scene, where Echo was Russian, was pretty cool. But I think it would have been more effective in a normal episode. There was a lot to take in Epitaph One, and just in that scene it was all: “He’s a handler now? Wow that changes things.” The more I think about it the more I’m not sure that particular revelation was necessary in this episode. Most of the moments we saw were ambiguous enough that I don’t think they necessarily took anything away by showing us now, but that scene was pretty specific.

Then there’s the meaning of the word ‘together’. I really liked the scene between Echo and Dr Saunders. I like that things between Ballard and Echo clearly got complicated. But if the intended meaning of ‘together’ includes a sexual relationship, I think I’d rather watch season 7 Buffy/Spike.

Turns out Topher was wrong a lot, but he was right about the possibility of scowly babies. I was much less disturbed than I expected to be about the implied relationship between Dr Saunders and Boyd. While obviously on some levels it makes Boyd a hypocrite (which he had always been, disapproval is cheap when you’re on the payroll), Claire Saunders’s awareness that she is a doll changes the dynamic a little. She can give meaningful consent in a way that Alice, for example, can’t. Her attraction to Boyd hasn’t been programmed. Although I’d wonder if either of them had even tried to justify what happened to the woman Whiskey had been, and her consent. *****

Here’s my guess what was happening at the end. The people who came down were Butchers, who are people who have been imprinted with a particular violent imprint (the army brought about in phone call that Topher talked of). I don’t think the gas that Whiskey let off was fatal (why would the dollhouse have a gas that would kill all its precious actives?), I think it knocks out people and wipes their imprints. When everyone wakes up the butchers will be blank. Whiskey has pointed the way forward before (and will again).

The question is why is she still there? Why does she say she must not leave? Caroline implies that Dr Saunders had decided that if she was going to stay there alone she’d rather be Whiskey than herself. But why did she make that decision? I hope it’s not just that she’s waiting for Boyd, because that would be mega-annoying. But perhaps, it’s also because she’s not prepared to give her body up to its original owner. Dr Saunders is an imprint after all.

But, for me, the most interesting relationship was between Adelle and Topher. On the timeline we’re dealing with now the workers of dollhouse are so atomised. Topher and Boyd’s man-friendship is the closest we get to solidarity. I found it very powerful that after the workers at the dollhouse had changed their position, and opposed Rossum, their relationships changed. The scene between Topher and Adelle in Topher’s coffin-alter was brilliantly acted and very effective.****** Poor Topher, he was unable to hold both his brilliance and awareness of what he’d done.

Victor and Sierra haven’t been in the same shot since the end of Needs, which is leaving things hanging more than a little bit.******* So I was happy just to see them in a scene together. Their history is vague in the episode, at one stage their relationship was sexual, although it did not appear to be so in this episode. The scene between them was extremely powerful. I liked that (in contrast to Adelle and Topher) a love that had survived complete wiping of personality, had still been affected by the stress and horror of the life they were living. I felt they hit a pretty perfect balance, of paying off what we’d seen in Needs, without telling us what was going to happen between Victor and Sierra.********

I loved what we saw of Priya – her frustration at the hippies, her determination to maintain her self. Everything we saw felt directly developed from the glimpse of Priya in Needs – where the character (and Dichen Lachman’s performance) did a good job of conveying that strength in the face of oppression was about more than hitting someone. She was the one that developed the tattoo as an act of resistance, and we saw that its use had spread.

Although what that scene also brought out was that both characters are being ridiculously underused. Personally I’d be happy to watch “The Victor and Sierra Show”. But if the writers aren’t going to give me that I hope that in season two Victor and Sierra won’t spend quite as much time infiltrating the NSA and horse whispering.

I loved this episode, and not just because Victor and Sierra shared a shot. While I think there was slightly more there than 50 minutes can do justice to, it was an amazing exploration of both the characters and ideas of the dollhouse.

Dollhouse was almost cancelled. Omega would have been an incredibly unsatisfying end. Epitaph One would have been a sketch of the rest of the series that never happened. As a final episode of the series Epitaph One would have been fundamentally satisfying (if superficially frustrating at what we never got to see). I’m very glad they made it. I’m very glad that if the show had been cancelled we would have had an ending.

But, of course, Fox forgot to cancel Dollhouse, so they’re making more of it, which raises some interesting questions about story-telling. We know bits of what happens next. How will that affect our experience of watching the show this season (and hopefully the season after)?

In some ways we know very little. We know that at one point Victor and Priya/Sierra were having a sexual relationship, and at another point they stopped. We know that something happens between Dr Saunders and Boyd. We know that at one point Ballard works as Echo’s handler, and they hide her level of conciousness. Then, sometime, things get complicated between them. These vignettes were definitely well crafted, they suggest a destination, but are very unclear about the journey.

However, there are dangers in showing us even glimpses of where the story is going. Not just because they may write their way into corner, or be unable to tell the story they want to tell for casting reasons (Amy Acker, who plays Dr Saunders, is only available for three episodes next season). But because for those of us who have watched Epitaph one (which will not be the entire audience), our knowledge of the series will change our understanding of the stories they tell. Will the flash forward we’ve seen Echo’s self-awareness reduce the impact of those developments? Will our knowledge that the main characters live dull the impact of some episodes? Will the way we wait for what we know is coming, change the way we see what’s happening? They cut off a lot of possibilities in Epitaph One.

Will the writers miss those possibilities? Will we? At this stage I don’t know. I think it’s possible to tell a story in a flash-forward framework (although harder if only some of your audience have seen the flashes-forward). I think the questions about storytelling will only be answered in Season Two.

In the meantime I’ll watch Epitaph One again, and hope that the series will realise its promise.

* My analysis is actually much more complicated and nuanced than this, but this is the point that is relevant to this review.

** I was convinced on first watching that she was Adele, but having rewatched it I’m not convinced that she was. Although some of the cutting implied it might be, it doesn’t seem to fit with where Adele (and her comfy cardigans) was in the scene with Caroline/Echo.

*** Children of Men is one of my favourite movies – my two favourite movie genres are politically conscious action movies and teen movies that don’t entirely revolve around males.

**** I could complain that all these relationships were hetro, but I think the episode made very explicit that the relationships we spent time with were not the only, or most important, relationships between these characters. Echo’s relationship with both Dr Saunders and Adelle were both given space.

***** There are so many interesting issues to explore there. What does Dr Saunders owe to the woman who was born in that body? Why didn’t she give the body back? I hope Amy Acker’s new series won’t get in the way of exploring these ideas

****** The earlier scene, when they realised where Rossum had taken the tehonology, was also very well done. They managed to convey what a pivotal moment it was for both of them in a very little time.

******* They were both in the last shot of Omega, but that was one of the scenes that was supposed to go in the original pilot.

******** And while I’m talking about Victor I need some kind of macro about Enver Gjorkaj’s acting skills. He transformed into Clive Ambrose.


  1. The episode does provide us with a plausible scenario to explain the "motivation holes" you identified in the finale though - they go back to the Dollhouse to dismantle it. Echo lets Ballard "save" her and become her handler because she needs a handler that is in on it. In a way, she needs a handler that she can "handle" not exactly original (Buffy/Watcher progression) but at least explicable.

  2. Agggh, is Dollhouse on TV in Aotearoa and if so, why am I missing it?
    Can you give me any clues as to where I can find it?