Dollhouse

Dollhouse 01Dollhouse is an action-adventure series in a science fiction framework that strives to be much more than it actually is.  Created by whiz kid Joss Whedon and produced by its star, Eliza Dushku, the beautiful and well acted series jerks all over the map while consistently delivering fun, action-packed stories that mostly work toward a semi-coherent ending.

The Rossum Corporation (named in homage to the 1920’s play about robots, RUR, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is a gigantic, powerful medical company that takes advantage of their knowledge to manipulate and control active brain function.  They have created a technology that allows them to wipe a brain of all of its permanent memories, recording it onto a “wedge.”  Into this vacant brain, they install an “active” architecture that allows the subject to be implanted with a temporary personality and skills, easily wiped away once their assignment is finished.  They recruit volunteers who wish to forget their lives for a period of five years, during which they will be housed in a secret underground location called a Dollhouse.  Located in major urban areas, there are a number of dollhouses around the world.  They are also not above forcing their enemies into performing this function.  Periodically, each doll is served up a new personality paid for by the extremely wealthy for purposes ranging from a night of steamy sex to enacting a personal fantasy to performing complex business moves or even criminal actions.

The series focuses primarily on the Los Angeles Dollhouse, under the leadership of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Security Chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond).  Their principal technician is the brilliant, geeky Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).  Each Active is named according the Greek alphabet.  Unfortunately, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) suffered an accident in which all of his past personalities were imprinted simultaneously into his Active architecture, creating a schizophrenic, homicidal maniac.  He butchers many of the security personnel and some of the dolls before escaping.  Their primary female doll, Whiskey (Amy Acker), survives, but with her face mutilated.  Rather than waste her talents, they imprint her with the personality of a medical doctor (Dr. Saunders) and put her on the staff.  Alpha also spares Echo (Eliza Dushku) who then becomes the primary female doll.

Dollhouse 02Dushku is forceful in driving the series, not only as the leading actress, but also as the producer.  She has matured into a fine actress and her beauty is simply stunning.

The new number one male doll becomes Victor (Enver Gjokaj), who plays a number of roles throughout the series.  Gjokaj displays mad skills as an actor and his performances enhance the series considerably.  His love interest becomes Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a newcomer to the Dollhouse who also becomes a major player in the series.

Discredited FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to locate the Dollhouse, aided by his beautiful neighbor, Mellie, who also turns out to be doll November (Miracle Laurie).  Rounding out the cast is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who becomes Echo’s “handler,” the Dollhouse insider who watches over her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm during her assignments.

Almost every aspect of this is beautiful, from the actors to the sets to the kinetic camera work and direction.  Even the title music is truly memorable.  Every episode flows with a speed and symmetry that makes it almost impossible to turn away, frequently using flashback sequences to fill in the past and once using a flash-forward to show the future.  The series finale takes us into that future to see the effect of the technology on the future.

Dollhouse 04Great acting abounds throughout the series.  Although Dusku’s character Echo always fuels the action, terrific performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman enhance nearly episode.  If you like really good acting, it permeates this show, from the leads down to the smallest recurring characters.  In Season Two, Summer Glau has a really great recurring role as Topher’s other half in the Washington D.C. Dollhouse.

That being said, the show does suffer from a lack of identity.  Whedon and his writing staff waver between science fiction, action adventure, and character studies.  They rely far, far too much on violent fight scenes, rather than serious thought, to propel the story forward.  The fight scenes are all done extremely well, but after a while there is a sameness about them that proves ultimately distracting.  Like many shows of this nature, there are some stand-alone episodes, but it mostly catapults forward toward its ending, building details that all come to fruition at one point or another.  There are times in some episodes, however, when the viewer is led to believe that there will be major changes, only to have the show reset at the end of the episode, leaving the viewer back at the status quo when the next episode begins, so there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about what is going forward and what is remaining the same.  In terms of the style, Whedon admits on one of the special features that he had once considered doing every episode in a different style, one mystery, one crime, one science fiction, one 1940’s throwback, etc.  He didn’t do it, but I think this ultimately leads to a confusion of style that keeps the show from becoming completely cohesive.

Dollhouse 05The 26 episodes that comprise the two seasons would neatly make one full season of Star Trek, either Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager.  In addition to the 26 full episodes, there is a pilot included on the DVD that was never aired on Fox.  A confusing mish-mash of scenes, the pilot was eventually carved up, some of it ending up on the cutting room floor and some of it wedged into the story line of Episode 1.

One thing I generally like about DVDs is the ability to illuminate a show or a movie through interviews with the creators and actors, but the Dollhouse DVD is mostly full of self-congratulatory interviews, which I never like.  There’s something about creators and actors just patting themselves on the back that puts me off.  If you’re going to talk about your show, please talk about the theme, the story, the style, and creative arc.  I know you’re good, you don’t have to keep telling me.

The first season ends with a show that takes the Dollhouse into the future and it is extremely compelling.  At first, it put me off, but the more I watched and later as I thought about it, I came to feel that it made a perfect ending.  If the series had been canceled after one season, I would have been extremely satisfied.  In fact, the second season, however, is quite good, if a bit jerky and it is worth waiting for the ending, when the show moves totally into the future.

I highly recommend this television show for all science fiction junkies, for fans of action-adventure and fight scenes, and, oddly enough, for fans of another television show, Quantum Leap, for having great stand-alone episodes that concentrate more on character and story than on fighting and series-building.  In spite of its problems there is a lot of stuff to be found in Dollhouse and it really does get a high recommendation.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage is an easy book to pigeon-hole as a “coming of age” novel, but to do so would be a mistake and a disservice to this excellent little science fiction novel that steps beyond the genre.

The book is written first person past through the eyes of the central character, Mia Havero, looking back at herself from the ages of twelve through fourteen. She is the daughter of the elected leader of a group of scientists and engineers who live on a spaceship at the end of the twenty-second century.rite-of-passage

Through internal strife, Earth has essentially destroyed itself. The ships were created to ferry passengers from Earth to new worlds that they might colonize to continue the existence of humanity. But the ships’ leaders have made a conscious decision to separate themselves – and their knowledge and expertise – from the farmers who are actually carving out the new worlds. These elitists decided that the knowledge they possess would be useless on worlds barely hanging on for survival, that the knowledge would be lost if they joined in that fight for survival, so they stay on their ships and merely trade bits of knowledge to the farmers (“Mudeaters” they are called) for supplies.

Mia herself, after being separated from her parents for years, recently left the common dormitories to live with her father. She is a precarious character at the beginning, having suffered from her separation, nervous to a fault around others, and easily frightened. At the beginning of the novel, her father is moving them to a different part of the ship and she is losing her tenuous hold on security.

But she begins her new existence by being teamed with a boy named Jimmy Dermently, precocious and just a few months older. They are assigned a tutor who is very old and who has been an opponent of Mia’s father. He teaches them to think outside the box and they both jump at the chance. Their major line of study becomes ethics and that leads to the central crisis of the novel.

How nice it is to have an entire novel based around a major ethical crisis.

During the next two years Mia and Jimmy educate themselves and prepare for the Trial that they must endure when they turn fourteen years old. The Trial is a survival ordeal that all juveniles on the ship must undergo to reach adulthood. They are dropped individually onto a planet’s surface, supplied with a horse, a gun, a knife and a tent and they must survive for thirty days until they are picked up. Many do not survive the “savagery” of the Mudeaters.

As Mia gains confidence through her survival training, she also studies the great philosophies of Earth’s past, picking each one apart, finding things that she can relate to and ideas that she must outright reject. She is forced to think and to make a major decision that will separate her from her family permanently. It is this part of the novel that it seems many critics completely ignore. But Panshin had some big ideas when he wrote this book and I think it is important that I share at least some of Mia’s thoughts:

“I’ve always resented the word maturity, primarily, I think, because it is most often used as a club. If you do something that someone doesn’t like, you lack maturity, regardless of the actual merits of your action. Too, it seems to me that what is most often called maturity is nothing more than disengagement from life [my emphasis]. If you meet life squarely, you are likely to make mistakes, do things you wish you hadn’t, say things you wish you could retract or phrase more felicitously, and, in short, fumble your way along. Those “mature” people whose lives are even without a single sour note or a single mistake, who never fumble, manage only at the cost of original thought and original action.”

To readers more accustomed to slam-bang action (which is, I think, a major pitfall in the writing of science fiction), this book may appear slow and way too thoughtful for them. What is mature deliberation is mistaken for plodding and a reader can miss all of the salient points that the novel is meticulously honing.

When a novel wins the coveted Nebula Award and is nominated for the Hugo, it usually means there is something very, very good about the book. I have now had the opportunity to read many reviews of this novel and most of them are frankly superficial and miss the point of the novel. But this is a fine little book, filled with the inner life of a fully realized character struggling to attain confidence and finding it at the point of a knife called ethics.

(As a side note, I read the Timscape paperback by Pocket Books, March 1982, with a terrific cover painting by acclaimed illustrator Rowena Morrill. It captures the absolute essence of Miva Havero, especially in the eyes and the wary set of her face. Great cover art can really help a book to come alive!)

As I said at the beginning of this review, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole this book. It is a much larger and more challenging novel. I strongly recommend Rite of Passage, not just to science fiction readers, but to the general reading audience.