Firefly and Western Literature
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It’s with mixed emotions that I welcome  the premiere of the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. On the one hand, it’s good to see Whedon back in the saddle, but the placement of Dollhouse in Firefly‘s old time slot on Friday nights (at least that was the slot before the network started shuffling it around) is also a kind of sad reminder of Firefly‘s absence.

And I’m still clearly experiencing some heartache over the loss of Firefly. I watched the first episode of Dollhouse, but while I was watching Dollhouse, I was thinking about Firefly. Sorry, Dollhouse, it’s not you, it’s me.

Or maybe it’s a little bit you. To be fair, the series has a complicated premise that needs time to develop, and much of the first episode involved the difficult balancing act of telling a stand alone story and setting up that premise, which made for a dense episode that had more than its fair share of huh? what’s going on? moments.

Basically, the dolls in the dollhouse are humans who have had their personalities erased (how are they chosen and why?). They are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are erased, or perhaps naturally lapse, at the end of the mission). As with any clandestine operation, there is an array of insiders and outsiders, those in the know and those trying to find out the truth, and there seemed to be representatives of at least three or four different groups of insiders, allies, enemies, truth-seekers, etc., far too many for me to keep track of.

In Friday’s episode (be forewarned, spoilers follow), Echo is imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In what seems like it will be the primary formula for the series, the new personality has a back story that we learn as the episode progresses. According to head scientist Topher Brink (who, in his first appearance on screen, looks oddly like Joss Whedon, unbuttoned shirt over t-shirt, hair in slight disarray), the imprinted personalities are chosen not just for the skills but for their flaws, for it’s the flaws that drive these individuals to high achievement (and, as I recall, this is also Dr. House’s philosophy for choosing the members of his medical team). It’s the flaws that also provide the drama and spark the back story revelations.

Echo’s hostage negotiator turns out to have been taken hostage herself as a child. And (surprise, surprise, sigh, not really) the child she is working to release has been taken hostage by the very man that kidnapped and abused her.  This is the sort of genre cliche that Joss Whedon usually employs only to dismantle, but it plays straight in this episode of Dollhouse.

Compared to Firefly, there are two things that are missing in Dollhouse, at least thus far. One is humor, and the second is the explicit reference to the western roots shared by most action-oriented genre television shows.  The operative genres in Dollhouse are science fiction and spy/conspiracy. As for the science fiction roots, this is a variation on the Frankenstein story, complete with the sort of flashing flickering lights in the operating room where personalities are being implanted (or erased, not really sure) that would have made James Whale (director of Bride of Frankenstein) proud. I suspect that the visible facial scars on Dr. Claire Saunders will be revealed to be the result of some kind of Frankensteinian medical experiment. 

There are elements of the western here as well. Echo is, in essence, a gun for hire, except, rather than have gun, will travel, it’s more along the lines of have specifically tailored set of skills to address the crisis, will travel.  I can only hope that Dollhouse‘s affiliations with the western genre will be explored in future episodes.

So, while I wasn’t all that excited about Dollhouse’s first episode, it’s way too early to judge, and I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about future episodes, which, at the very least, is far more healthy than sitting by the phone hoping Firefly will call.


One Response to “Dollhouse”

  1. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIt’s with mixed emotions that I welcome the premiere of the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. On the one hand, it’s good to see Whedon back in the saddle, but the placement of Dollhouse in Firefly’s old time slot on Friday nights (at … […]

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