I've seen two episodes of Joss's new show Dollhouse, now, and I'm cautiously optimistic. The show is about an agency--the Dollhouse, natch--where people go and have their minds erased and re-programmed, temporarily, with new personalities and skills at the behest of rich clients. They're, like, made-to-order hookers.
Sensing a theme, here?
Yeah, so obviously the premise is a teeny bit troubling from a feminist perspective, but it is a sci-fi show and if every sci-fi show that was troubling was disregarded for that reason, there wouldn't be a lot of sci-fi on the air.* And I think that Whedon is taking a little pre-emptive heat for this because of his self-proclaimed feminist viewpoint.
But anyway, back to the actual show. The main character, played by Eliza Dushku, is Echo, one of the dolls whose reasons for joining the Dollhouse are unclear. In the first two episodes, she plays a party girl, a hostage negotiator, and a wilderness survival girl. Sex is involved in two of these assignments (hint: it's not the hostage negotiator), but the story of Echo isn't really about the assignments she's given, but her tentative steps towards regaining her agency.** As Whedon pointed out in an interview with NPR, if he's going to tell a story about a character regaining her power, the character has to start in a place without any power. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. For now.***
My problems with the show so far are not rooted in its treatment of women, but in its treatment of the characters. That's not an oxymoron. There's no character in the show just yet that I can identify with. Echo is, for obvious reasons, a cipher. We haven't seen enough of her past (when she was a young woman named Caroline) to know what was taken from her, and every day she's a new person, so there's not a lot for a viewer to hang on to.
The supporting cast aren't much better at this early stage--there's Langdon, who's Echo's minder and seems to have some trouble with the mission of the Dollhouse (which makes me wonder why he's there), and Topher, the scientist responsible for the mindwipes, who I think is supposed to be sort of charming and amoral but who comes off to me as sort of creepy.**** Then there's Agent Ballard, an FBI agent who's trying to investigating the Dollhouse to the great amusement of his fellow agents. He's, like, the Fox Mulder of the FBI at this point (and, frankly, if there's not a Mulder reference soon, I will be very disappointed in Joss). But right now, he's basically cranky and tortured and mutters all his lines like the world is actually resting on his shoulders.
In other words, from a character perspective, I'm feeling it's a little thin. Of course, this is a snap opinion--two shows is WAY too early to pass judgment, especially on a Whedon show, which are typically slow to get started. But here are the things I hope to see in the future shows:
1. other Dolls. Echo is a good focal point, but what about the others? And, especially, what about the male dolls? how are they treated differently? There's been a lot of reportage about the difference in treatment of male and female sex workers, and male and female models, how does that translate into Dollhouse world? Are male dolls less in demand because there are fewer women with the ability to pay for them? Or is there more of a male demand for male dolls for things other than sex, like sports, or business, or heteronormative male bonding?
2. backstory, and again, not just Echo's. Whedon has said that each doll has a reason for joining the Dollhouse, and I want to hear some of those. What would lead someone to do such a thing? I think that Whedon would have some really cool insights into this that would be intriguing from a story perspective.*****
3. relationships between the dolls. I don't know if this is possible given the way they are when they're inside the Dollhouse--they're basically sort of blank and dumb--but they spend all their time there, shouldn't they have relationships? Not necessarily torrid romantic ones, but interactions, at least? I'm thinking of things like the relationships that the kids had on Dark Angel, where they were children, but were also friends.
4. life after the Dollhouse. The term of engagement is five years--are there any dolls who have "aged out" of the program? What happens to them? How do they live? What adjustment problems do they have to live on the "outside"?
As you can see, there's a lot in the premise of the show that is ripe for explanation--it's really fertile ground, and not only from a feminist perspective. At this point, I'm hopeful that over the course of the next few episodes we'll start to see some of these things emerge.
* Or in books for that matter. Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, for example.
** That's not to say that there aren't serious problems with the underpinnings of the Dollhouse service. Basically, the people are hired out for sex (among other things) and then have their memories of that sex (and other things) erased. Incidentally, there are male dolls as well as female ones.
*** FOR NOW. Because the "well, if this is the type of story I want to tell..." excuse only gets you so far, right? For example, w/r/t Firefly, the argument could be made "well, if I want to tell a story that plays on the tropes of the Old West, then these are the roles that women have in those tropes," which obviously didn't work for me.
**** Seriously, I wouldn't trust him with people who couldn't remember things without major security camerage. I'd be concerned that he was getting up to some hanky panky with the Dolls when people's backs were turned.
***** Whedon is really good at plumbing the depths and coming up with twists on the viewers expectations of things. I'm thinking specifically of the later seasons of Buffy, after she dies and her friends raise her from the dead. The reactions you would expect from this scenario: gratitude, relief, joy, confusion, adjustment, and ultimately back-to-work-Team. Except Buffy doesn't feel any of those things. It turns out that she was in Heaven, that she died and went to Heaven, and her friends ripped her away from there and brought her back to a life filled with struggle and pain. WHOOPS. This is the kind of twist that I'm hoping we'll see in the backstories of Dollhouse.