I like video games. I’m not particularly good at them and I rarely beat them, but I like them.
Of course, I don’t like all of them. I don’t really care for first-person stuff at all (I make an exception for Portal because it’s Excellent). As a rule, I tend towards the less reflex-intensive genres: RPGs, turn-based strategy, empire-building, etc.
The problem with these types of games is that they can be unbelievably tedious.
At the moment, it’s a sleepy Saturday morning. I didn’t get a great deal of sleep and I’ve been up for a while and I want something to distract my attention for a bit. I know! I’ll play a video game! But what should I play?
A JRPG grind-fest where I do the same thing over and over and over to gain a few levels? I don’t think I could fight more than two battles right now before throwing the controller in frustration.
I could put in Civ, but there are too many constraints and too many things to juggle and my brain is just not up for that right now.
I’ve been toying with the idea of playing through Mass Effect again as a bad-ass soldier, but then I think of standing in one of those freaking elevators again. I’m trying to relive boredom, but that would only transplant it.
Frankly, I need a Tetris for the new millennium. But all we have is Tetris. And I’ve played that (and Bejewled, for that matter) to death. So I’m bored with those too, but in a completely different way.
So I want the richness and non-reflex-driven experience of an RPG without the tedium. Maybe I should just watch a movie.
With the second season of Dollhouse gearing up, the Girl and I took the time to re-watch the first season in glorious Blu-ray. I’ve been thinking about the show a great deal (a side-effect of Joss’ work which is both a blessing and a curse) with most of my thoughts centered on any of three topics: an analysis of the show as a work of art and entertainment (primarily about how it did the exact opposite of jumping the shark and went from being “meh” to “phenomenal” in only five episodes), a dissection of the morality and ethics of the Dollhouse universe, and a discussion of the way Joss toys with fate in his worlds.
This last idea is the one that resonates with me the most, so I’ve decided to blog about it. While I’m sure the English majors who are also Dollhouse fans have already done this subject to death, I haven’t seen it. And like I said, it resonates with me. So here’s my take on it.
This post contains open spoilers about the entire first season of the show, including the un-aired finale “Epitaph One”. It contains no spoilers about the second season because I’ve very carefully shielded myself from them. It also contains open spoilers for Buffy and Angel; but honestly, if you haven’t seen those already, there’s no reason for you to read this.
If you look at Buffy, Angel, and now Dollhouse, I think there are three obvious ways that Joss uses foreshadowing. Each of these means different things to the characters, but they also mean different things to the viewers.
In Buffy, one of the main themes throughout the series is that Fate (and, for that matter, viewer expectations) doesn’t matter and our destiny is our own to control. Buffy is told that Slayers are solitary and derive their power from themselves, but she instead chooses to embrace her friends and draw her real strength from them. In the first season, there’s a prophecy that she will die at the hands of the Master. And while it’s technically true, she subverts the prophecy (again, through the strength of her friends) and gets back up again.
In Angel, things are different. Angel is also given a prophecy. But, instead of trying to prevent it or subvert it, he embraces it. He is still afraid of it at times, but he recognizes it as his destiny and intends to fulfill it (though he’s doing his best to do so on his own terms).
Buffy and Angel are the two sides of a single coin. In these universes, Fate is a real thing; but it’s not absolute. Ultimately, the characters can choose how they want destiny to play out by making their own choices. They’re greatly aided in this by knowing what’s coming.
Dollhouse is different. In “Epitaph One”, Joss showed the viewers what’s in store for that world; but the characters themselves don’t have a clue. The Producers of the show have stated that the future world of “Epitaph One” is canon and, over the course of the show, they will be slowly building to that future. For Echo and Caroline both, there are no choices to be made. Her destiny is set and she’s marching towards it.
This should not be terribly surprising. Where Buffy was very clearly about empowerment, Dollhouse is about the lack of it This powerlessness seeps into every scene. The dolls themselves are clear examples of it. They’ve had their humanity removed and are merely automatons to be sent on engagements according to their programming. The powerlessness extends to the other characters as well: almost no one with actual control is ever seen (until, possibly, the final two episodes. I’ll talk about that in a bit.).
Boyd can make small decisions to protect his Active, but he’s severely constrained along a very narrow path designed to achieve is superior’s objectives. DeWitt usually seems in control, but “Epitaph One” makes it perfectly clear that she is ruled by her off-screen superiors. When both Mellie and Dr. Saunders are revealed to be Actives, it not only demonstrates that they are as powerless as Echo; but it also makes the point that anyone could be a doll and not realize it. Any character could be completely sure of her own power while completely lacking it.
Dominic was the character who was closest to being able to make his own decisions and affect his own destiny. Yet, in the end, he’s put in the Attic: a place of total and utter mindlessness. It’s arguably a fate worse than death and possibly Dominic would have chosen death as an alternative. But, in the end, he was denied that choice.
Even the ostensible good guy is manipulated throughout the season. Alpha pulls his strings to the point that he may as well have been a doll. Ballard followed his program, free-will or not. In the end, he even joins the Dollhouse. Because, honestly, what choice did he have?
Alpha, it seems, is the only character we’ve seen so far with any control over his circumstances. And he was the Big Bad. And crazy. And his plan didn’t work. But unlike in Buffy or Angel, where the Big Bad’s plans are foiled at the last minute by our hero’s heroics, Alpha’s was foiled by dumb luck. Echo didn’t want what he had to offer.
Towards the end of “Omega”, Echo and Caroline have their first real choice of the series. In that moment they can, together, choose freedom or slavery. They chose freedom. And Alpha takes that choice away by killing the body that Caroline is in. (As a brief aside: the woman playing the part of Random Body #1 in this episode completely failed to make me think she was actually Caroline. It really hurt some powerful scenes. Alas.)
By showing us “Epitaph One”, Joss and company have taken power away from more than just their characters. They’ve shown us that there will be no letter-writing campaigns for fans to save a beloved character. There won’t be “choose-your-own-adventure” style 1-900 numbers for viewers to call to vote if we want the good ending or the bad ending. Even the Producers themselves are now severely restricted: they know where the story goes and they can’t change their minds now. (Well, they can. But it’d be a huge cop-out. And that’s really not Joss’ way.)
With Dollhouse, Joss has produced a work which makes its point at every level. It makes statements about powerlessness that I’ve never seen in a piece of popular art. And he did it with a 13-episode television series (where the first four of those are arguably bad). To contrast that a bit: in the past year, I played video games and watched TV. This show is damned impressive.
“Epitaph One” also changed my relationship with the show in a way I’ve never seen before. Usually, when I’m watching a show for the first time, I’m looking for an answer to the question “What happens next?”. When I watch it a second time, I already know the answer to that and I’ve picked up the answer to “How did it happen?” as well. Subsequent viewings are about picking up nuance and little things that I missed (as well as just really enjoying some shows).
Dollhouse is different. With every new episode I see, I’ll already know the answer to “What happens next?”. For the first time, I’ll be watching a new show to answer the question “How will it happen?”.
The question is dark, too. This isn’t “How will Ross and Rachel end up together?”. It’s “How is the world going to end?”. Because there is no question: the world will end. Within this fictional universe, it’s been fated by the creator himself. There is not a single thing that Echo or Caroline or DeWitt can do about it. Every decision they make, no matter how wise or good it seems at the time, is a step towards total ruin. Everything they do is a direct cause of the end of the world.
And they don’t have a clue. But we do. We know how it ends. Joss performed the television equivalent of having everyone flip to the last page. It changes things.
I’m the sort of person who spends a lot of time being sad that everyone I know and care about is going to die and there’s not a thing to do about it. I very literally mourn the living because I know they’re in that state for only a moment. When I know that someone I care about is driving in a car, I become afraid until I know they’re safely at their destination. Because I know that they’re fated to die, but I don’t know how or when. I suppose I’m fortunate that it’s not a paralyzing fear. But it’s very real.
And now I find that these same concerns have infiltrated my entertainment. I know bad things are going to happen to these characters I’ve become involved with and I know that there’s nothing that can stop it; but I don’t know when and I don’t know how. And it’s dark and it’s depressing.
At the beginning of this post, I said that the question of fate in the Dollhouse universe resonated with me. That’s why. Joss took one of my least favorite parts of my psyche and filmed it. And he did it expertly.
So when I watch season 2 of Dollhouse, I expect to be entertained. I expect to be impressed by the talents of everyone involved with the production. But I also expect that it will touch the darker recesses of my brain, and I expect to find it troubling. I don’t expect to get a lot of sleep on Friday nights.
But I also expect that I won’t be able to not watch. Because some things are too good to look away from.
I can’t remember a time when I was growing up that I wasn’t a regular patron of the Florence Public Library in Florence, SC. Every year, at the start of summer vacation, my mom would take me to the library and I would walk out with a huge stack of books (I usually took as many as they’d let me). I’d read them over the next couple of weeks and then we’d go back and I’d get another stack. There were very few times during the summer when I didn’t have a book in my hands. Now, as an adult without a three month vacation, the season never really feels like summer. I think the lack of library books contributes to that.
I can close my eyes and see that old building clearly. I remember the children’s room at the top of the stairs where I started my life of literary adventures. The Young Adult section was right outside and I can remember when my tastes began maturing and I began venturing out to it. One of the first books I read from that section was about a boy who could move into 2-and-4-dimensional universes and the girl he started taking with him. I can no longer remember the title of the book, or even much of the plot, but I still consider it a vivid and important memory. Strange, huh?
I spent many years as a citizen of the young adult section. But one day, as we all do, I started gravitating to the general fiction section.
I say “section”, but it was so much more than that. It was its own room, and — due to the architectural peculiarities of the building — felt like it was in it’s own babsement world. It was dark and cool and musty. And it was wonderful. Take everything good about being in a bookstore (except, i suppose, the ubiquitious coffee shops) and multiply it by a thousand. That was how fantastic the fiction room was. But the room’s best secret was in the very back.
There, in the darkest and mustiest section of the building, was the science fiction/fantasy section. It was here that I could find the Orson Scott Card and the Greg Bear and the Arthur C. Clarke novels. Here was where they kept the science fiction anthologies. Here is where I met Professor Tolkien. Of course, I didn’t know any better, so I mostly read all of the Star Trek and Star Wars novels they had. But, eventually, I exhausted the library’s supply of licensed fiction and moved on to the good stuff.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this section of the library shaped me more than any force other than my parents. And honestly, it probably gave my parents a run for their money in that department as well. During the many years where I grew from what I was to who I am, I was reading science fiction.
It was in those pages that I learned about hope and fear and blackest despair. I learned about equality and judgment. I learned about courage. I also learned not to judge a book by its cover (if you’re not a fan of the genre: some of the best novels have some of the most hideous covers).
In a very real sense, I owe a lot of the good parts of who I am today to whoever decided that science fiction should have its own section at the Florence library. Thanks to that person, I didn’t have to spend my half hour of library time hunting through the true crime thrillers or trashy romance novels to find something with spaceships or dragons. I could go right to my own inspiration. Up until now, I took it for granted.
The library where I live now does not have its own science fiction section. It merely has “Adult Nonfiction”. As an adult, I understand this. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for science fiction to be the only genre to get its own section. And assigning books to one genre or another can be difficult and subjective. I get it.
But now I truly miss what I had growing up. And I seriously have to wonder: who would I be if I’d grown up here instead of there?
Probably not nearly as awesome.