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October 19 2009

A Dr Who writer reviews Dollhouse. Paul Cornell looks at which shows from this year may get nominated for next years Hugo award. There might be spoilers about some characters if you are some way behind on a show.

This is an extended article covering almost all this year's 'telefantasy' shows, mainly the shows from the start of the year as the new series have mostly not begun screening in the UK yet.

Unfortunately there is only one paragraph on most shows, including Dollhouse, but it is interesting to get the view from a completely different writing tradition.

I like Paul Cornell, his Wisdom mini-series is one of my favourite ever comic books. Nice to read his thoughts on Dollhouse so thanks for posting that.
Yeah i've also got time for him. That bit about identifying with war criminals is good stuff. Pretty much agree with the whole 'Dollhouse' paragraph.

Not so much on SGU which i'm underwhelmed by so far. Still watching because Carlyle is brilliant and it has buckets of potential (some of the characters - including the black soldier Cornell mentions - could be really fresh takes on old staples of the genre) but it just seems not as joyful as "Stargate: Previous Incarnations" and not as complex (so far) as BSG, it's falling between two stools (and the first 4 have, a few moments aside, been very flat IMO - darkness and grit are great but you still have to tell compelling stories). The end of Friday's ep had a very nice "sense of wonder" element though, glad to see they haven't lost that from the earlier series ().
Great read, thanks for that. Very smart and engaging.
He seems a great guy, very entertaining read indeed.
Thanks for the link. I still haven't figured out which other genre shows to watch (currently I'm only watching Dollhouse and Lost, and plan to watch Caprica). I think I'll give SGU and Flash Forward a try.
I dig the stuff of his I've seen (Wisdom,episodes of Doctor Who, and I think he does those novels about a PI in a world where the supernatural at some point became just natural?) but I sort of disagree with his reading of Dollhouse.

For one, I don't think the series has really done that great of a job making viewers support the reprehensible characters outside of the Dollhouse. Patton Oswalt aside there hasn't really been a single sympathetic client that really stands out (aside from maybe the father in Ghost and Addie's dead friend in the horse episode). Unless he is describing the people within Rossum as basically being war criminals.

Also I've never really seen people appreciate Epitaph One specifically since there's concrete good or bad roles so that confuses me a bit. Unless, in hindsight, he actually means the Omega episode? And again, I'm not really sure I've seen people praising that single episode as particularly greater than any other.

Then another minor little quibble, while I like Echo (Caroline not so much) I still feel as though Victor and Sierra are such ciphers that I find them much more interesting to watch and just as sympathetic. Maybe even more so since we don't know their back stories, but we've delved into Caroline a bit and I personally don't have much interest in her, as a sort of dimmer pastiche of people I knew in high school and undergrad.

This greater interest in secondary characters might just be as a result of TV conditioning though, where I know that show runners are much more likely to take bigger risks with development or continued existence of side characters than they are with the lead/co-producer.
This show entirely depends on Eliza Dushku giving us an empathy figure, and the only (sort of) good person to root for, in her 'unreal' characters of the week and as a kind of trace element in Echo.

How is Echo the only empathy figure available? What about Victor and Sierra? Or Claire? Or Mellie? Or Boyd?
Doctor Who writers + Joss Whedon writers = oh my God I think the world would come to an end. THAT would be the Best.TV.Ever.
Overall, I seem to disagree with the author. I like dark or light, depending on the story. I've never understood the need for all stories to be dark and their heroes deeply flawed. While I love the flawed BDHs of Firefly/Serenity, and I liked most of BSG, I thought SG-1 (and its not-so-flawed heroes) was the first true successor to the original Star Trek in spirit and depth. And Eli in SG:U I find annoying in a Wesley of ST:NexGen fame way, not charming and sympathetic!

The main thing that originally drew me in to Buffy was the intermix of humor and serious. I (still) don't care about vampires or such, but I did enjoy BtVS. SG-1 did a lot of that, as did the best of the original Star Trek. Firefly was of course brilliant at it, although in a very different spirit.

I like Doctor Who and Torchwood for the most part, although I feel they've lost some of the magic they started out with.

And my wife and I make a point of catching FlashForward every week, but we're biased since one of my friends is Executive Producer and writer for it. :)
This show entirely depends on Eliza Dushku giving us an empathy figure, and the only (sort of) good person to root for, in her 'unreal' characters of the week and as a kind of trace element in Echo.

How is Echo the only empathy figure available? What about Victor and Sierra? Or Claire? Or Mellie? Or Boyd?


Agreed - or what about Topher and Adelle, even? I think they have moments where they inspire a great deal of sympathy (Topher on his birthday/the comment about him not being able to make friends, Adelle as Miss Lonelyhearts). Nothing is black and white in this show, and all the characters are very flawed and very human... it's easy to find several to relate to in different respects. Echo's definitely not our only hook. If she was, the show wouldn't work.
Well, he does also mention that the show asks us to sympathize and like bad guys, so I think his statement is more that Echo is our primary entryway for empathy.

I disagree to a degree about Lost, which I still think it is overrated, although it has been steadily improving, year after year, since its second season. I'm looking forward to the final season--even if I don't find it entirely satisfying I'll enjoy it.
Well, add me to those who're giving SGU a chance. Not previously a Stargate fan, but the accessibility prompted me to pick it up as something to replace BSG.
How is Echo the only empathy figure available?

Where does Cornell claim that Echo is the only empathy figure available ? The quoted sentence doesn't say that, it says she's the only "(sort of) good person":
This show entirely depends on Eliza Dushku giving us an empathy figure, and the only (sort of) good person to root for, in her 'unreal' characters of the week and as a kind of trace element in Echo.

Unless he is describing the people within Rossum as basically being war criminals.

Well yeah, surely ? Didn't occur to me that he was talking about the clients, he surely means Adelle, Topher, Boyd, the other Rossum dudes etc. ?

Also I've never really seen people appreciate Epitaph One specifically since there's concrete good or bad roles so that confuses me a bit. Unless, in hindsight, he actually means the Omega episode?

Where he says "The fans who say 'I really liked that last episode, you know, the one with the clear cut moral lines' are missing the point." I don't think he means a specific episode, it could be any "last" (as in 'the previous') episode where people commented they preferred it because the morality was clearer i.e. he's making a point that it's not about clear-cut moral lines, quite the reverse. That's ambiguous though in fairness, I can understand the other reading too (maybe that's more a UK usage of 'last' ?).


Discussing articles in detail is great IMO, it's why we're here. But reading them carefully is a big part of that.
While the Dollhouse-paragraph was indeed a nice read, I'm always skeptical of round-ups that round nearly everyone up. In order to know what it means for him to have Dollhouse in there, I'd have to know what telefantasy is not in there.
Do you mean he seems to like everything ? There may be an element of not dissing his peers in public there I guess (though he does mention how the previous Stargates weren't his thing, even if some of his criticisms are unfair - there were several more or less permanent and very affecting deaths in 'Stargate: SG1' and in some of the non-permanent cases that element was actually turned into a storytelling virtue).

(he posts a bit more detail about 'Flash Forward' in his next post BTW. Made me smile because I wondered exactly the same thing re: the flash-forwards, seems obvious to the extent that I think it might be an actual plot element)
I don't expect that aspect of FlashForward to be resolved, to be honest. As a show with a time-'travel' element in it, I expect it to be just the regular "It's genre TV."-case: If they would deal with that, I fear the whole mythology might implode. Same goes for the "Why has nobody tested it by explicitly trying to prevent their flash Forward?" question.
Same goes for the "Why has nobody tested it by explicitly trying to prevent their flash Forward?" question.

Well, Benford so he's trying (because he presumably doesn't want to accept the future he sees as inevitable, for several reasons). But that's one of the big elements of suspense on the show - can they be prevented (Dimitri being the central character with the apparent most to lose) ? - so I don't see it being resolved yet but I most definitely expect it to be resolved (though not necessarily in an entirely clear-cut manner). I mean, apart from anything else we're (AFAweK) going to see the flashforwards occur (or not) before season's end.

What I mean by plot element to none of the flash-forwards having people going "Whoopee, it's my flash-forward, I love this bit coming up" is that I wonder if it might be an alternate universe, one possible future, an instance of multi-verses crossing over into each other briefly ? So that the flash-forwards were never originally going to occur in this (i.e. their) world.

(but yeah, at some point you have to just accept the wibbly wobbly nature of time otherwise the plot becomes unmanageable. Or you make 'Primer' ;)



ETinvisitext a minor spoiler.

[ edited by Saje on 2009-10-20 12:36 ]
I essentially agree with him regarding boring/nice characters on (sci-fi) TV shows in the 90s. Think of all Star Trek, Lois and Clark, X-Files, Sliders.
None of them had any really bad character traits or were forced to make questionable ethical decisions (one's we as an audience were free to make up our minds about).

Compare this to Lost, Heroes, Dollhouse, BSG and so on where the lines are so blurred for most characters and their actions we're never sure what the writers want us to think of this or that action. In my opinion, the latter makes for much better and more watchable TV.

I wouldn't limit this change to sci-fi, however. Shows like The Wire, The Shield and so on continue to ask the same questions and allow the audience to come up with their own answers.
Regarding "Flash Forward": given the number of fans asking "why didn't they realise it was their flash forward?" the writers have to address this at some point.
I like the premise of the show, since I think the question "If we knew our futures how would this effect our attitudes in the present?" is a really interesting one.

I also think the impact of Lost on television will live on for a long-time. In my opinion, it used flashbacks and forwards in a way that made sense for a show based purely on an island- juxtaposing their 'normal' lives before-hand and how these were changed dramatically when they reached the island. The bad way to do it, is to show one event that completely changes this person's life and makes sense of every action they ever carry out. (Like not getting a bike for Christmas = lifetime of cynicism)
Also, the first flash forward in Lost also has to go down in history as one of television's all time greatest moments.
How did you know about the bike I never got ? ;)

Re: questionable characters, there's room for both kinds IMO, not every show needs to be gritty or filled with people that remind us of ourselves, sometimes I want to watch characters that are better than me, characters that already know what to do and just do it. I know how the world really works and that people are both heroes and villains, often within the same 5 minutes. I just don't always need to be reminded of that in my fiction.

(I wouldn't call it a change as such either, there're still many more shows with morally clear-cut goodies and always will be IMO. Most people use TV fiction to escape from reality, not to hold a mirror up to it)

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