Joss Whedon has amassed a cult-like following that transcends both critics’ reviews and impending network cancellation. It’s impressive that shows like Firefly and Dollhouse — both of which were cancelled within their first year — are the ones fans still cling to, forever hoping that one day a revival will come around. But unlike the short lived Firefly which was never really given a satisfactory ending (RIP Wash), in Dollhouse — Whedon’s sci-fi drama that dealt with the ethics and underlying moral questions of advanced technology. We saw the characters progress from actual shells of themselves into something profound. Of course, that just made it all the more difficult to say goodbye, but then again what Fox broadcast sci-fi show have we not had to prematurely say farewell to?
To be fair, the actual premise of Dollhouse is a little confusing if not completely difficult to sell to a mass audience. Even I, sci-fi queen extraordinaire, was a bit apprehensive when one of my friends suggested I give a show about programmable people a try. “It’s basically about an underground operation that rents out people to billionaires.”
“So it’s about human trafficking,” I protested.
“Well… Eliza Dushku is the lead.” SAY NO MORE (As far as I’m concerned Eliza Dushku is a heavenly angel that descended upon us mere mortals in the mid-’90s, but I digress). After initially getting past the bizarre plot holes that plagued the entire series, I found myself unable to ignore the unsettling questions that Whedon was posing to his audience. Was it intentional, or was it Whedon simply peppering in his usual problematic plot lines?
Even in Buffy, a show that was completely centered around a female protagonist who — for lack of a better phrase — completely kicked ass, there were troublesome themes that followed her (namely Spike and Buffy’s rapey/creepy stalker plot that was framed as ~romance~. Ew.) Whedon stays true to form in Dollhouse, never fully fleshing out his female protagonists, instead centering most of their plot lines around tragic rape or violence scenarios (see Sierra and Dr. Saunders/Whiskey). Whedon frequently beats the tragedy plot line over the head to the point where I began to question whether or not he had actually ever met a woman who didn’t serve as a mere prop in his life.
Sierra — an “active” — whose background story actually could have been an even stronger lead than Eliza Dushku’s Echo, is never developed past the unsure, timid Priya who longs for nothing more than fellow “active” Victor’s love. Had Priya worked through her incredibly tragic narrative of being forcibly placed in the Dollhouse by both her stalker/rapist as well as being raped by her “handler,” only to emerge the other side a champion for victims of sexual assault, it would have been INCREDIBLE. Sadly, we were only ever given one episode devoted entirely to Priya overcoming her adversities.
But of course, amidst all the sexist plot lines and background stories, Whedon manages to establish that silver lining that keeps his fans so dedicated, the hook that keeps them coming back for more — Echo’s character development. When we first meet Echo, she’s nothing more than a shell of her former self, blissfully unaware of the horrors that lay before her, as she calmly transitions from kidnapping negotiator to doting wife depending on which billionaire had enlisted her services that day. About halfway through season one, we’re introduced to the idea of Echo slowly but surely establishing self awareness, that these missions she’s sent on are not her own, that she’s something more than a programmed shell of a person. As Echo begins to establish more and more of who she was prior to her arrival at the Dollhouse, the questions of morality and free will in an age of technology begin to take hold, eventually sending the overall plot into one of the fucking best hidden villain reveals in recent memory.
Much like Whedon’s overall anthology, Dollhouse was not without its problems. I will forever long for a version of the story where Sierra and Echo co-conquer the Dollhouse together, hand in hand, taking back their lives and exposing the truth behind the evil Rossum corporation. But what Whedon does so well, regardless of genre or series, is his ability to tell a story that leaves you coming back for more. I recall sitting on the edge of my seat in anticipation of those final moments with our beloved Topher and the deceptively cunning Adele DeWitt. Dollhouse was cancelled in November of 2009, and we’re still talking about it, and if that’s not storytelling at its finest then I don’t know what is. But seriously, Paul Ballard could have died a lot sooner.