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October 18 2016

Joss Whedon's ambitious near-future dystopia doesn't get enough respect. The Av Club looks back at Dollhouse's vision of the future.

The show does seem to be on a critical revival path at the moment. Cheers for the link.
Maybe the hype around Westworld will bring some people over to the "hey, this whole identity/awareness thing was a really cool thing for a show to deal with" side.
Dollhouse was messy and very uneven but the highs were really high. Epitah One is one of those highs.

Having said that, I preferred the show when it had a more noir tone with the detective, the shady corporation and moral grey areas. The original pilot, Echo, and Man On The Street were great examples of that.

By the way, Man On The Street has gained some real life weight with Patton Oswalt recent personal history.
I know this is definitely a minority opinion, but I was not that impressed with the Epitah episodes. Maybe it had to do with growing up in the '50s, in the shadow of the threat of nuclear war, and being a science fiction fan, but it seemed to me just another post-apocalypse, plucky band of survivors trying to stay alive and rebuild civilization storyline. Different cause, same apocalypse.
barboo: I'm close to your age, sort of, and totally see your point. I guess I just don't get tired of that plot hook, and heck, there are only so many different story ideas in existence. (Heck, my entire Ice Age Buffy ficverse is inspired by the Epitaphs, and I even brought in an alt version of Bennett.)
What impressed me was the logic of the development. While the Dollhouse premise is very far from being hard s-f- in itself, Joss used extremely hard story logic to show the inevitable end of such a technology.


Ricardo L. I agree with you on enjoying those episodes more as such. I just knew there had to be a deeper aspect.
D-e-f- ... I've only seen the tail end of one episode of Westworld but was immediately struck by the thematic similarity with Dollhouse.

I remember being fairly meh about Dollhouse when it was broadcast, although the last half of that first season was a big improvement over what had come before. It was Epitaph 1 that sealed the deal for me; had I known that that was the sort of narrative potential that they were striving for, I would have been much more invested from the beginning.
I wasn't impressed by the Epitaph episodes either. Maybe something to do with the fact that 50% of fiction these days seems to be a zombie apocalypse story. I also found it to be pretty cheesy; characters like 'Zone'. Slang phrases like 'log off' and 'power down a sec' were pretty ridiculous and there was a city called 'Neuropolis'. Only saving grace for me was Topher's loco arc and his redemption. But yeah I found the rest a little cringeworthy.

My favourite part of dollhouse was the mysteries and twists, but the episodes that followed to explain them always let me down. The episode where Alpha turns out to be Tudyk's environmental nutter? Awesome. The episode after where Alpha turns out to be a little lame? Not so much. The one where we are trying to figure out who runs Rossum and it turns out to be Boyd? Blew my mind. The one after where the reasoning behind it makes no sense and feels like it was thrown together because the show was ending so why not? Not so much.
Ricardo, when Patton Oswalt's wife died, I had the same heartbreaking thought about that episode. I'll have to find a friend with HBO to checkout "Westworld."
It's been a while so my memory is probably fuzzy, but I recall I wasn't as keen on the Epitaph episodes either. There was some great stuff, to be sure. Topher and Dewitt. The dolls running around with various personality and skill upgrades to be ready for whatever situation, the new characters. I just remember how rushed it felt being my first disappointment, but the second being that the bad guys plan was really pretty stupid. Mass wipes? What does that do? What was scarier to me where the ideas of the company behind the Dollhouse using the tech on our representatives, as they did with Senator Perrin or the idea of the rich taking the bodies of the young so they can basically live forever. And what could anyone really do to stop it since most people wouldn't even believe it was true? Or once someone did, they could have their mind changed and never know it?

It was an amazing, terrifying, too big for the small screen idea that was just messed up.
One of the interesting things about Dollhouse to me was that it wasn't just about a possible technology, but about a possible technology that was, in a way, a metaphor FOR technology. The Doll-tech distilled to its essence what is scary and problematic and liberating about technology and its relation to power and desire: technology enables us to remake ourselves, expand our powers, but it also creates power differentials, thus enabling us to enslave others and subject them to our whims, and it also enable us to enslave ourselves (as well as liberate ourselves)--in fact, it makes us confused sometimes about the difference between liberating ourselves and enslaving ourselves--and it ends up not only changing us even as we use technology to change the world, but it ends up encouraging us to regard ourselves and others as one more thing to be manipulated, i.e. to think of _ourselves as_ technology. All of those ideas seem to be nicely encapsulated in and capable of being explored through the idea of the doll-tech and the show's premise built around it. From this point of view we can see that it is the product of the same mind that saw the horror and demon metaphors in the high school experience. (Joss is so brilliant).
[Of course, I don't really want to say that _all_ technology does all these things at once in exactly the same way... But still, I don't think there is anything I described above that isn't applicable to many technologies we already have, and to the way we often think of the whole idea of technology. I suppose Joss was many interested in the power aspect, and as the article said, the desire aspect. ]

[ edited by barzai on 2016-10-21 12:42 ]
Great points, barzai. I also saw the series as a metaphor for TV storytelling. So many of the original reviews said something like 'Why should you care about the imprinted personalities when they're not real?' The scripts made it explicit that the imprint characters' experiences are made-up memories, and that they don't live outside of the episode you're watching, and people got so frustrated. I find that alone really interesting.

I guess I'm one of the few people who got really into Dollhouse when it was on, even watching episodes more than once before the next one was shown. I like the Epitaph episodes, but I really didn't think the technology needed to be taken to that extreme to be fascinating and chilling. Looking at how wiping and imprinting affects individual identities can take the questions deeper than when you're talking about a mass erasure, although the series never got to take its original concept to its full potential.

Any story that deals with identity so centrally will always speak to me. It's why I like Orphan Black, which has that place right now. I haven't had a chance to see Westworld yet but now I'm intrigued. If people are starting to rediscover Dollhouse, I'm thrilled.

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