Her Eyes are Clear and Bright, But She's Not ThereComplications Ensue
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

A ways down the comments thread on the last DOLLHOUSE post, I think I came up with a fix. Kind of an idea for a mild reboot, really.

As you know, the concept is: Every episode, Echo (née Caroline) is injected with someone else's personality. Then she goes on missions. But then that personality is wiped, and she goes back to being a tabula rasa: a person without a personality.

The problem: it's hard to care about a person without a personality. Abstractly, it's sad, what's been done to her. But as human beings we're hardwired to respond to people not concepts. I don't viscerally care about Echo/Caroline the way I viscerally care about even a bad person like Dexter or Tony Soprano. She's barely alive.

However, we still want a show where the main character's personality gets wiped every episode. 'Cause that's cool.

Proposed fix: instead of wiping her personality and overlaying it with other people's personalities, use a different paradigm. Each episode, they regress Echo back to the personality she had as a six-year-old child.

And then, when they give her a new personality for a mission, the new constructed personality is essentially who she would have become if she'd grown up to be that new person. So safecracker Taffy is who Caroline would have been if she'd become a safecracker. Woodsman Girlfriend is who Caroline would have grown up into if she'd been really into the woods. Sure, they're using bits of other people's personalities to create the new Carolines. But they're always Caroline.

So, when she's Echo, we see a six-year-old girl in the body of an adult. And we would care about her the way we'd care about a six-year-old child. We have an instinct to protect children and childlike people. So our heart goes out to her the way it doesn't go out to Echo the Blank Slate.

And when she's given a Mission Personality, we still see Caroline in there -- she's the same person, but with a different life story. This wouldn't actually change the acting much, because Eliza Dushku (or any actor) is going to bring herself into whatever character she plays. But it's going to change how we feel about the acting, because we still know this is Caroline.

I'm not even sure the pseudoscience of the memory overlay is funkier in this paradigm. Arguably, wouldn't it be easier to make Caroline think she spent years learning to crack safes than it would be to overlay someone's entire existence onto someone else's brain? But that's irrelevant really, because the audience will accept whatever pseudoscience allows you to tell a fun story. I doubt there are many sf fans who reject FRINGE because the pseudoscience isn't sufficiently well thought out.

And, there's no problem about changing the paradigm in midstream. The Dollhouse technology is a work in progress. Have Topher say, "I'm going to start leaving a bit of her personality in there. That'll create a more robust Active." Etc.

Would this fix the problem? Discuss. You know you want to.

Labels: ,



By Blogger ?, at 9:54 AM  

I think it is fine the way it is and would be pretty upset if they switched midstream like that. Each week, more memories are starting to stay with Echo, meaning that we are watching Echo establish her own personality.

If you're seriously having a problem with caring for Echo, there are two other solutions that don't require a reboot mid season (which I really think would be more distracting then helpful). One, you can root for Paul as your main character, put your focus on him (and he certainly cares about Echo and all those that this has happened to). The second solution would be something the show could do that is not nearly as drastic as your solution, the show could start featuring more flashbacks of Caroline, showing who she was before this happened to her, before she became a doll, so that the audience feels for Caroline who is maybe still in there somewhere. I think that as the show goes on, this will be something that happens as the mystery of why Caroline agreed to this is going to be one of the big underlying mysteries of the show, at least for awhile.

Personally, I'm loving the show and having no problem whatsoever giving myself over to it just the way it is right now.

By Blogger Josh Man, at 10:23 AM  

The *concept* of Echo is the shining beacon of Dollhouse for me. Joss raised a number of existentialist questions in his other works about humanity and what's left of a person when everything's stripped away. I find that kind of thing fascinating. However, as you say, there's the issue with the lack of emotional resonance with Echo, so I think your idea probably would've been better (for a TV show) in the long run.

By Blogger Unknown, at 10:45 AM  

An interesting proposal, no question. Though I have one objection: the audience is not sure (at least with the information we've been given in four episodes) if there's even any Caroline left. Do they preserve the original personality? I'm dubious--I seem to recall Topher explaining that the only way an Active will "take to" an imprint is if their original personality is destroyed.

Nevertheless, I've spent a lot of time speculating about what could possibly happen at the end of a doll's five years of service--is their personality returned to them? (The image of collecting one's personal affectations after a stint in the clink comes to mind.) The introduction of 'The Attic' in "Gray Hour" only complicated that query.

In any case, I'm really glad you've taken up such a thorough discussion of Dollhouse, Alex. It's been edifying. :)

By Blogger Unknown, at 11:27 AM  

Someone tell Joss NOW!

By Blogger Neil, at 11:34 AM  

The one problem that I keep running into with this show - and it's one that I'm constantly hearing as I develop my own show - is 'What's the fantasy here?' and 'why are young women going to tune in and watch this show?' (because, as I'm told, only women watch TV... :S *cough* BS *cough*).

I think the real question should be:

Are young women going to tune in to watch a show about a girl who, as your earlier blog link pointed out, is essentially mind-raped every single episode?

I understand what he's trying to do - but outside of the whole 'lack-of-personality' thing, this is a show about a young girl being molested (voluntarily or otherwise) over and over again.

Hell, it creeps me out just to even write that...

I'm imagining the twist of this show will come in episode 6 (which is the one that Eliza's pushing hardcore) - probably when the victim starts to fight back against her oppressors.

Still, that said, I think it's a deeper, instinctual disconnect because we're essentially watching (participating in?) this young girl being victimized every episode... and somewhere, deep down, it freaks us out.

That said - I'm giving it until episode 6 (which is 3 more than I normally do for a new show).

I trust Joss, I know he's going somewhere with this. Hopefully it's somewhere good.

By Blogger Brandon Laraby, at 11:46 AM  

I think this is kind of what they went for in episode 4. The episode is the first to put that "tabula rasa" personality in a challenging position and see what Echo - as opposed to Taffy or Jenny or Jordan - does. And she's not totally predictable, is she?

The problem for me is that she can't grow and develop if the wiping process returns her to square one each time. Maybe her experiences start to bleed through as the show progresses.

By Blogger Unknown, at 2:19 PM  

I do think that kind of reboot is distracting (going along with Josh Man's point), but more over that kind of change really doesn't change anything mechanically. The character's personality is reset every episode. It essentially doesn't matter if the imprint is a variation of her or someone else's (if anything, the pilot shows there can be some good plot points made from using other people's memories and personalities).

Here's one question I'd like to pose to everyone: does a character have to remember everything to have a journey? Can a character advance if him/her wakes up in the same place every morning?

By Blogger SeanM, at 2:37 PM  

Your "fix" is ridiculous. Watching Eliza Dushku run around as a child would get tiresome REAL FAST.

Dollhouse's problem was that Joss Whedon decided to start the story on Day -10, rather than Day 1. By that I mean, we're still watching background to the actual start of the story -- when Echo finally gains awareness of what is happening to her.

We're just treading water until then, and, yes, it was a bad idea to do that. It would be like watching Buffy be a cheerleader in high school for 7 episodes before she finally meets Giles who explains to her she's supposed to be killing vampires. Yes, it MIGHT be fun to watch Buffy be a bitchy cheerleader, but the real meat of the story is after that.

Whedon made this same mistake with Firefly, too. Then entirety of the series was prologue to River realizing that she's a weapon, and that's one of the reasons Firefly didn't stay on TV very long. In contrast, Serenity gets to that in the first act, and as a result the film is totally badass.

So at this point, the only fix to Dollhouse is to throw away every episode between now and the time Echo realizes what's happening to her and the story kicks off (she escapes, or starts working with the FBI agent, or whatever Whedon has in mind). Anything to try and make the interim more interesting (your suggestion) is useless.

By Blogger Nima Yousefi, at 2:59 PM  

Alex your proposed fix gave me the Keanu "whoa" moment of blooming possibilities. Pretty cool, and I think a valid solution to your particular problem. However, I don't think this problem requires jiu jitsu quite yet.

I agree with Josh Man that the midstream switch would be a sign of weakness - audience meddling rather than network this time, or maybe both. I also like the idea that enough subtle fragments are accumulating in Echo that maybe someday she'll be a real girl. If you revert her to 6 after every mission, I think it becomes harder for more adult fragments to remain and Echo's potential growth compared to the current premise is stunted. Unless of course you have her "grow up" fast, and something about 28 y.o. Dushku going through puberty again is ewwier than this show already is.

I would have tripped if she had stabbed the guy with the syringe and then given a little "shoulder to the wheel" move. It would show the initial concept that you can't wipe a slate totally clean. We have been brought into the narrative four years into her contract - I believe that timeline was chosen to underline the (almost) uniqueness of her bubbling awareness, and to make way for relatively rapid change once this door has opened.

Who knows, given enough heroic or growing moments as Echo (with a dash of compositing), we may end up liking Echo more than we like Caroline. Maybe in the end Caroline becomes just one personality in Echo's stew, and these other experiences and possibilities (though born out of abuse)serve to patch what was broken in Caroline, or teach her that she never was broken. Either way I think it's a lesson that Caroline will have to learn, even if she wrestles it away from those that exploited her.

I guess I'm saying that I don't need a new Echo to care about quite yet.

@SeanM: You mean like if Bill Murray didn't know he was repeating Groundhog Day? Or at least woke up subconsciously averse to toasters?

By Blogger Jeff, at 2:59 PM  

In the pilot we saw a glimpse of video footage from when she was Caroline so they've already established that as a technique on the show. What if we just kept doing that? Every episode we see a scene from Caroline talking to the camera.

That way we see the kind of person she truly is and we miss her.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 3:22 PM  

I suspect echo's personality is going to start showing through despite the wipes -- she's learning to deal with it. they've hinted at it a couple times -- when she ran into the other agent (whatshername) and waved her off because the minders were watching.

i kind of suspect echo went into this thing on purpose to break it open from inside or some such twist.'

and of course they haven't done the thing yet where the madame who runs the agency really is an operative who just thinks she's the madame, or the minder is really an operative, or whatever... i suspect something like that comes next...

so maybe why i like the show is i don't believe the premise is what it says it is -- i think echo or whoever she really is will start to get revealed as being more than a blank slate.


By Blogger someguy, at 3:52 PM  

That's an interesting idea, Alex, and I like it better than her being completely wiped.

But, I feel like we're moving into the realm of the ridiculously complicated. I think the solution is to simplify it, and to have left her personality alone. No initial wipe.

She could be infused with another personality when on a job, that could completely override her natural one, and then have that other personality and memory removed after the job, allowing her core memories to float back to the surface. She'd still have no memory of the jobs.

We would then connect with her, because she's actually herself for at least part of the episode.

It would then be interesting to watch her slowly start to remember parts of past jobs, and see her personality integrating with the implanted ones. Perhaps she retains a little bit of one personality, some of another and integrates it into her core personality. So all of a sudden, as herself in the Dollhouse, she starts to get these amazing abilities from her implanted personalities, like kung fu and motorcycle racing, but it's all an accident. That would work for me.

By Blogger Trevor Finn, at 6:23 PM  

I think there's a big problem with changing the paradigm midstream. It's dishonest to the audience, basically saying "we can re-write the rules whenever we want to."

Any time I've seen a show do that, it's instantly turned me off, mostly because it pokes a hole in the reality of the series. Instead of a plot and characters I can believe in, there's a little window with the writers peeking through. It reminds me I'm watching a show instead of being immersed in a world.

That's not quite "last season was a dream" bad, but it's hovering around "amnesia" in terms of unfair plot devices. (Of course, amnesia is basically the central motif of Dollhouse...hm.) A more elegant solution, I think, is introducing some game-changing twist - an external force that creates change in the story, rather than an internal fix/tweak. I haven't caught up to the latest episode of Dollhouse, but I sense that's what the "Alpha" storyline is building towards. We'll see.

By Blogger vicarhelmet, at 8:29 PM  

I pretty much rejected FRINGE because the pseuodoscience wasn't well though out (In the episodes I saw, it was badly used from a plot standpoint, and my love of actual science makes me biased against this sort of pretend science in any case).

As for the main point, I don't really feel the need to care about Echo. Because on one hand, I care about Boyd, Topher, and all the rest of the cast who doesn't have their memories wiped, and on the other, Echo's fabricated Identities are compelling enough that I care about them, even if they only last an episode. The most recent episode was actually among the weakest for me, precisely because Taffy didn't stick around.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:29 PM  

Yeah, I really don't want to see Dushku as a 6 year old every episode.

Unless the show is going to keep on being a modernized fantasy island (i.e. episodic), Caroline and the other dolls are going to have to start remembering who they are, and fighting the memory wipes.

Then we will have a girl fighting to escape the victimization, and we can all feel less guilty about watching it happen.

By Blogger tnt, at 1:08 AM  

For me the trouble with your suggestion is that it begins to lose its originality.

I already get strong echoes of JOE 90 ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062573/plotsummary ) with this show, and your proposal would only make them stronger.

By Blogger Frank Carver, at 6:14 AM  

Joe 90 LOL!

By Blogger blogward, at 12:51 PM  

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