During the annual Whedonverse panel at Vcon, (the lovely and charming) Tanya Huff and I had a bit of a debate over the premise of Dollhouse. She was squicked by the rape implications of the premise. I allowed that the premise is, indeed, squicky, but actually much closer to prostitution. (At this point, Paul desperately wanted us to stop using the word "squick.")
The dolls, or "actives" volunteer for their term of service (or do they?), and for each encounter, any sex that might happen is perceived by the active as voluntary. It’s manufactured consent (literally), but consent all the same.
The Dollhouse is very much like a brothel, the classy kind that supplies courtesans or geishas. Adelle, the director of the house, seems a madam in the classic mold: ambiguously moral but fiercely protective of her charges.
The resemblance to a brothel is obvious, and addressed by the show directly on a couple of occasions, usually to point out that it’s much more than a brothel: nobody, not even a crazy rich person, needs a technology that imprints a complete, artificial personality complete with backstory and kung fu skills just because they want to have sex.
It’s not like a brothel because of the sex, it’s like a brothel because of the thoroughness with which the actives have signed over their agency during their terms of service.
So it’s also like signing up for the military. Not only are the actives obliged to have sex at the behest of the house, they are also obliged to kill at the behest of the house.
And it’s a bit like having one of those jobs where your employer tells you where to live, how to dress, what you can post on the Internet.
And it’s a lot like slavery.
After seeing "Epitaph One," the unaired 13th episode from the first season, I think all of that fails to really describe the premise. The premise is much worse. The premise is the end of the world. The premise is the complete destruction of humanity.
I started watching Dollhouse because I’m a Whedon fan. I wasn’t too sure about the premise. It sounded kind of goofy, to me. Overly contrived and not very promising. I also wondered, if one of the things we like about Joss is his characters, what am I supposed to like in a show where the characters are basically blank slates?
I thought the aired pilot was okay. I thought the second episode was okay. I thought the third episode was actually bad. I was almost in despair at that point. It was reminding me way too much of The Bionic Woman and other cheesy 70s TV of my youth. I felt that some of the resemblance was deliberate, but it wasn’t really, you know, transcending. The overall story arc and the exploration of the premise was interesting, but I was worried.
Things started to pick up with episode four, and I realized by then that I was actually looking forward to the next episode.
So, I do recommend watching. Beware of episode three. Don’t watch the unaired pilot until after you’ve seen all the other episodes in order, it contains fun-spoilers. And then watch "Epitaph One" and have your mind blown completely.
The episode is set in the near future, 2019, and was clearly intended to provide a sense of finality to the overall story arc if there hadn’t been a second season. It’s apocalyptic and terrifying. (And kind of resembles the Stephen King novel The Cell, coincidence?) It is now impossible not to evaluate the other episodes in light of the fact that this is where it’s all going, this is where it’s ending up.
Dollhouse is certainly science fiction, but now I am starting to see it as a horror show, and actually much scarier than the ones about vampires.