Apocalypses, Personal and Otherwise (part one)

Posted: August 13, 2009 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

Wonderful sci-fi site io9 is wondering if NBC has given up on science fiction shows, implying that Dollhouse 1science fiction is dead on network television. I would argue that’s hardly the case. With that in mind, let’s check out the two best science fiction series newly available via DVD, “Dollhouse” and “Torchwood”.

First up, “Dollhouse“:
Watching week after week of re-explained premise and variations on the same basic plot, it became increasingly difficult to defend “Dollhouse” without sounding a bit like a deluded Whedon apologist – even going so far as to rationalize, “Well, really, it’s his second seasons that are good,” as though that’s an incentive to sit through an uneven series that isn’t likely to get a second season.


It turned out nobody was more aware of this than Whedon himself, who made great pains to put out the word that episode six, “Man on the Street,” was far more in line with what he wanted to do for the show in the long term. And sure enough, it delivered – faster-paced, funnier, more philosophically-minded (or at least, less tin-eared than previous installments where people say things they’d NEVER say just so we could get those “Oh I get it, the word ‘echo’ here has two meanings” moments that seemed shoe-horned into every episode)…and it did more in 50 minutes to advance the master-plot than the previous five issues combined. “Man on the Street,” it turns out, is the second best unofficial pilot the show had.

Thanks to the recent DVD, it becomes obvious that the first-best unofficial pilot was, not-so-shockingly, the first pilot Whedon made. Which was rejected by Fox for not assuming that the people watching it were stupid.

Dollhouse 2I swear to god. That is the major difference between Whedon’s original pilot, and the one made with Fox-mandated “suggestions.” The original clarifies the premise in its first five minutes, as house-mother Adelle pitches to a client while we watch Echo in action under several different guises. And then it MOVES THE FUCK ON.

I suspect Whedon knew at the outset what became glaringly obvious over the course of the first five episodes (or “the five pilots,” as he witheringly explains on the ep.6 commentary) – explaining the premise of “Dollhouse” over and over does not make it any easier to buy into. If anything, the more time spent trying to justify a shaky premise, the more time an audience will have to spot just how shaky it is.

What Whedon does in the first pilot, rather than trying to make made-up science sound plausible, is introduce the more interesting philosophical/ethical questions the rest of the show would wrestle with. When one character, disbelieving the existence of the Dollhouse/mind-tweaking technology, says, “Just because they hooked electrodes to a monkey and made it tango, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world,” FBI agent Ballard bluntly replies, “Yes it does. Because that’s what we do. Every time.”

It’s a devastatingly cynical through-line to the show that, because of Fox’s focus on making each episode new-viewer-friendly, got lost in the shuffle until the back half of the season. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the season’s real beginning and ending – the “real” pilot, and the finale/post-script, “Epitaph 1” – went unaired.Dollhouse 3

In many ways, these two ghost-episodes form a bookend on the season, as Ballard’s gloomy premonition about the apocalyptic potential of the Dollhouse technology sure enough comes to nightmarish fruition. It’s also interesting how the characters are reflected in these episodes – Adelle’s protectiveness over the house and its staff becomes very personal ; and Topher’s cheerful amorality at the start very much bounces against the devastating comeuppance he’s destined to receive.

I’d bet that the downright epic and astonishing postlude, “Epitaph 1” (and yes, that is me saying you need to Netflix the show – or at least, the fourth disc), was written with the impression that the show would not get a second season; now that it’s gotten one, I’m fascinated to see how Whedon & Co. jibe “Epitaph 1” with the upcoming story.

Next up: “Torchwood: Children of Earth”

  1. cschack says:

    Haven’t seen Dollhouse yet, so I can’t comment, but didn’t FOX mess up “Firefly” too, for the exact same reason – assuming the audience wuld be too stupid? You’d think someone would say “hey, you think maybe this guy knows what he’s doing?”

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Yup – Fox aired the pilot episode of “Firefly,” the one that introduced every character, the larger stories and mysteries the series would explore, and effectively showed the universe the audience would need to know about – last.

    Which is why people were pretty panicked at Whedon going back to Fox for “Dollhouse” (wasn’t really his call – Eliza Dushku had a development deal there) in the first place.

    Ideally, the upswing in critical support after Whedon started doing things his way, along with the DVD sales, will convince Fox to just back the hell off for a while.

    Oddly enough, “Fringe” found itself in a similar position – interviews with the showrunners indicate they had planned on rolling out the alternate universe stuff much more slowly, but realized the audience was ready to move on a lot earlier.

    Go figure – scifi viewers are a pretty clever lot.

    Now, SyFy viewers, on the other hand…

  3. Lisa says:

    Looking forward to watching all the episodes in quick succession, especially the later episodes that I missed some of here & there.

    Also – I must take offense to the “SyFy” viewers comment… While I agree that the name change is completely retarded and the drivel that they call movies make the world a stupider place, Eureka (despite it’s tendancy to have an episode revolve around not so subtle product placement) and Battlestar Gallactica have been 2 of my favorite shows of the last few years. Both excellent scifi shows in addition to having wonderfully talented casts.

    Wow I just realized how long that sentence was.


    Maybe I am getting stupider by watching SyFy.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh, I was just kidding about SyFy viewers. Not even viewers, I just like to make fun of the name. Though it is one letter easier to type, so I’ll grant them that.

    I also like to make fun of “Mansquito.” Actually, I just like to say “Mansquito.”

    And everyone seems to love Eureka. At some point, I will get to watching that one.

  5. Megan says:

    I found when I work in entertainment everyones a artist.

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