Joss Whedon, 2009-2010
Last time I wrote about how Breaking Bad
fell into a trap endemic to American television series: it kicked off with
a nifty beginning, but then instead of proceeding to the ending, turned into
a shaggy dog story as renewal after renewal stretched out the middle
indefinitely. Dollhouse didn't have that problem.
No, Dollhouse had other problems. Before it even began, the creators
found themselves in conflict with Fox; the original pilot was tossed and
replaced with a significantly inferior one; the second episode sucked; and
by the time the series finally found its footing, its ratings were, like,
under the toilet. It came as a major surprise when the show got
picked up for another half-season, and it was pretty well understood that,
barring a miracle, that would be that: Whedon and company had thirteen
episodes to tell their story. The pony failed to appear, the show was
canceled, and thus we got to see what happens when TV writers have to
cram several years' worth of storylines into two months' worth of shows
rather than the other way around. It was kind of exhilarating.
There was one episode in particular that was rather striking, and I got
about halfway through the first draft of this paragraph before realizing
that perhaps not everyone reading this has seen the nineteen episodes
that preceded it. So, a quick recap. The premise of Dollhouse,
as introduced in the first season, is that under a skyscraper in Los
Angeles is a complex inhabited by a few dozen "dolls." These are people
who have signed over five years of their lives, during which their minds
are wiped. They spend most of their time in a seemingly lobotomized
state, participating in various spa activities and having affectless,
simplistic conversations ("I like pancakes"). But every so often one or
more of them will be summoned to the big chair that imprints them with
different personalities. Most often they are designed to be dream
dates for ultra-rich clients, but they also frequently get loaded up with
combat skills and sent on black ops missions. The protagonist was a doll
named Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, and initially the series looked like
an inverted version of Quantum Leap — instead of her
mind jumping from body to body, Echo's body played host each episode to a
different mind. As the basis for an anthology show, that premise could
play out indefinitely.
Jump forward to the seventh episode of season two. In the previous
installment, Echo, minus an imprint, had removed her tracking devices
and escaped. The story resumes with Echo still in doll state, trying
to survive, having a run-in with the cops, recalling an imprint, getting
away. We jump forward in time. Now Echo, no longer in doll state, works
at a hospital as a nurse. When she returns home we learn that she's spent
the last three months training with Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who had
tried to expose the Dollhouse for most of season one. She also now has
the ability to recall any of her previous imprints at will, though she's
prone to crippling headaches as a result. As she and Paul try to rescue
an abused female prisoner, it becomes pretty clear that this was meant to
be the status quo for an entire season. Partnering with Paul, gaining
the random-access ability, the headaches... all of these would have been
slowly introduced over the course of several episodes. There would have
been many altruistic adventures rather than this one jailbreak. But with
the show canceled, the entire story arc instead begins and ends in under
an hour. And while covering
may have been a little too fast, I couldn't help but think, man, better
one than twenty-two. That was another premise that could have played out
indefinitely, but we had the idea and it was time to move on.
You might well ask, what's the point of watching the series at all, or
any series for that matter, if it's such a chore that you'd rather watch
as few episodes as possible? And to me that question calls to mind
Pattern 25, which suggests that movies
and TV tend to be experience delivery systems more than they are stories.
What experience did Dollhouse promise that kept us tuning in?
Well, what was its most successful moment? My answer, and from what I saw
on Twitter that of a lot of other people as well, would be when the mind of
scientist Topher Brink was loaded into the body of the active called Victor,
allowing actor Enver Gjokaj to unleash a scarily dead-on impression of actor
Fran Kranz. One commenter on my list called it the best impression he'd ever
seen anyone do of anyone. It really was as if Topher's mind had jumped bodies.
Dollhouse needed more of that.
For one of the criticisms of the show early on was this: who wants to follow
a bunch of characters who act either (a) radically different than they did
last week or (b) like they're under hypnosis? I do, actually, but for those
who find this a problem, I think I have a solution. Here's how I would have
done Dollhouse, assuming that I owned the network and didn't have to
rush everything for fear of being canceled before the setups could pay off:
First, every actor cast as an active would have to be a chameleon like Gjokaj.
That means Dushku would have to go — she always seemed like the
same person no matter whom she was playing.
The premise would not be given away for quite a while. At first all we'd
know is that there's a mysterious agency that supplies people to perform all
manner of services. Each episode we'd meet a new operative in the lead role,
and each would take place in a wildly different genre: one week you'd get a
war story with lots of stuff blowing up, the next a lighthearted romantic
comedy, the next a tale of high-stakes international diplomacy, etc. This
would be the most difficult stretch to get through, because these episodes
would have to stand on their own — without the behind-the-scenes
sequences to add interest, they'd have to be really good. But then,
perhaps just in time for November sweeps, we'd get the watershed installment:
one of the previous actors would return, this time playing a different
one of the characters we'd met. Like, maybe the shy girl from the "socially
inept dotcom geek finds true love" episode returns, only this time she's the
one in Afghanistan shooting down helicopters. Do one or two of these, and
then finally the big reveal with the sleep pods and the communal shower and
the imprinting chair. And then we'd start seeing multiple actives per
episode, each time with shuffled personalities.
How would this solve the "acting different every week" problem, to the extent
that it's a problem? The answer is that there wouldn't be different characters
every week — there'd be a consistent group of characters we'd get to
know, only each week they'd be in different bodies. They'd be rolled
out slowly, but by the end of the season I imagine we could have a dozen or
two. And so when, a couple of years down the line, one of the actives gained
the ability to call up any of the personalities she'd been imprinted with, it
wouldn't just be a line when she said "I have forty people in here with me."
It would be forty people whom we knew, a lot better than we ever got to
know Eleanor Penn or Esther Carpenter.
As a measure of how cool this could be, consider the DC Comics character
Black Alice. Introduced by Gail Simone in Birds of Prey #76, she
is a teenage goth with the power to transform herself into a goth-girl
version of any magical character in the DC Universe. She first changes
and that's cool enough... but then comes the part when she catches her
boyfriend cheating on her, and as she storms away he chases after her,
telling her that she brought this on herself and otherwise berating her,
and after a few panels of this she wheels around and, stretched past her
breaking point, shouts:
And as I read this, I thought, "Oh, shit." Because I don't know
much about the DC Universe, but one thing I do know is that that word means
one hellacious power-up. In retrospect, it was the only way that scene
could have gone, but because DC has thousands of magical characters, I
never saw it coming. The sadly untapped power of Dollhouse was
that it could have done the same sort of thing. Even with only a few actives
and a couple dozen imprints, you'd have enough potential combinations to keep
the show running for many seasons. Much as Black Alice remains interesting
because every appearance there's the chance to see the goth-girl version of
Amethyst or Wonder Woman or the Spectre or...
One of the elements of interactive fiction that makes it simultaneously
fun and daunting to create is combinatorial explosion: every time you
add a new verb you have to figure out how it should affect every object,
and every time you add a new object you have to figure out how it should
react to every verb. And you have to figure out how these interactions
should differ depending on which character is performing the action. And
in which location. (For instance, one of the fun parts of programming
Narcolepsy was figuring out how
all the different non-player characters should react when you squeeze the
talking iguana in their presence.) Dollhouse could have taken
advantage of this: every week we could have thrilled to new and unexpected
combinations of actives and imprints. "Squeee! They put Topher's brain in
Juliett this week!" Now, would my version have been been any more
popular with viewers or, for that matter, with Fox execs? No idea. But
I would have enjoyed it more.
And that's what I have to say about Dollhouse. Shall I go now?
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