Dollhouse, science fiction, and television culture
Posted by Gospel X
Science fiction television, and the related subgenres, does not seem to last very long anymore. It’s kind of disappointing. When I was younger, every week had a new Star Trek episode. There were special science fiction miniseries on various channels. Heck, science fiction movies used to air on local networks on the weekends. Science fiction, for better or for worse, was something people wanted to see.
What happened? The various Star Trek series tapered off, and shows living in the outer layers of science fiction started taking off. Lost fits in with most science fiction, although many viewers refuse to admit it. Heroes may be wavering in its quality right now, but the first season’s mash-up of X-Men powers and storylines with prime time drama tropes made for must-see TV among the usually unenthused. Then there’s Fringe, which I think only gets watched because it has an X-Files vibe and is made by the same people who make Lost. And now we have FlashForward, a show that I enjoy quite a bit despite some pre-release crap about its not being science fiction. Explain to me how a show with the premise that there was a worldwide epidemic of people suffering blackouts and seeing their lives six months in the future is not part of the genre.
That’s a handful of shows on TV today, but none really push what science fiction is supposed to be. FOX, a channel reviled for its practices, actually supported the production of two great series that just weren’t meant to last. Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles was basically about time travel, sentient robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and the making of a hero. The show died just before its story could kick into high gear. Then there’s Dollhouse, for which I should not have to remind you about my love. The story deals with a place that can rent out the person of your dreams for the right price, the price paid by the participants, the price paid by the staff, and ultimately the price that will be paid by a world in which the technology to erase and rewrite the mind exists – especially in a world with such a great divide in class and power.
Great science fiction like the aforementioned shows gets overlooked because of not only the complexity of the themes but also the complexity of the story structure. The old series Hill Street Blues popularized the current serialized nature of television, but these shows that aren’t making it seem to take the serialization to another level. It’s not just about paying attention to multiple storylines from episode to episode. It’s about paying attention to the details. These are shows that work great on DVD, where the viewer can flip back and forth between episodes as if they were chapters in a book. That structure doesn’t work out so well for weekly television, especially to the casual viewer.
I’m bringing this up, with an unnecessarily long introduction, because FOX is going to cancel my favorite television series of the past year. Dollhouse’s ratings since the beginning of the season have been poor. They’ve been so poor that FOX is pulling the show during the November sweeps and replacing it with reruns of House and Bones. The show will come back on in December with back-to-back episode airings as FOX tries to rush through the remaining episodes. This is very, very bad news.
It was expected news, however. The only reason the series was renewed was because the Hulu and DVR numbers were promising in the first season. They thought that they could build upon that, and Joss Whedon promised to cut the price-per-episode. I doubt the numbers will be enough this time around to ensure an extension to the current season, let alone a renewal for another season.
And I can’t pretend I don’t know why people aren’t latching onto the show like they should be. Dollhouse is really good, but it’s complicated – Philip K. Dick complicated. The whole series is based on questions of morality and ethics, not to mention what it takes to be a human and what it means to be an individual. And power. Power is a huge theme being investigated this season, especially in the two most recent episodes. Episode 3, “Belle Chose”, explored the falsehoods of men in power suggesting that the victims are the ones in power and basically bring things upon themselves. The participants in this exercise were a serial killer with dangerous mommy issues and an English professor who enjoys the whore in Chaucer’s bathhouse just a little too much. Episode 4, “Belonging”, explored how Sierra ended up in the Dollhouse. As alluded to in season one, there was a very powerful man who wanted her but was rejected, so he did everything he could to turn her into a whore. Meanwhile, we have members of the Dollhouse staff who find him repulsive and wish to save her from him – but what kind of moral ground do staffers in what one could deem far more questionable than prostitution have in this kind of situation? And what is justice?
A few years ago a pop psychology book called Everything Bad is Good for You came to my attention. It was about the development of the complexity of multimedia and the subsequent mental development of the viewers. The more complicated television becomes, the more it pushes the viewers to process and work their brains closer to their limits. Hill Street Blues was cited as the example for complex television, running a couple of serialized storylines alongside the episodic elements. That was in the 80’s. An example of how complex shows have become was The Sopranos, with several serialized storylines running at once during any given episode.
I just wonder where a series like Dollhouse would fall into the author’s discussion of complexity. Due to the abbreviated nature of each season (13 episodes), there isn’t much time to develop subplots. As it stands, the subplots exist but are pretty understated. The real complexity comes in the form of the episodic elements and the questions the viewers face every week. This is not too different from the original intent of Star Trek, but the commentary often found itself obscured under the loud makeup and hammy acting. (That which we love, by the way.) However, Dollhouse treats the viewers like the dolls/actives themselves. Since you consented to watching the show, it’s going to treat you like its whore and ram you headlong into everything it has. The show doesn’t hesitate to tell you that the actives are often prostitutes. It doesn’t hold back in it story about rape and being enslaved in the Dollhouse. It doesn’t even lie to you and tell you that the people who work in the Dollhouse are pure and working for the greater good. These people are possibly wicked. What does it say about you when you want Adelle Dewitt, a rich slave driver with no link to the real world, and Topher Brink, a sociopathic genius, to succeed week after week?
People don’t like questions like these and tend to avoid them. The ratings for Dollhouse are reflective of that. I just wonder if viewing a series that is even remotely philosophical like this could be good for people in the long run, as would be suggested by Everything Bad is Good for You. Or maybe people aren’t watching because they just aren’t ready for that level of complexity. Yet.