Friday, March 13, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.4 - "The Gray Hour"

Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: The Greek government contracts the Dollhouse to swipe back stolen hunks of the Parthenon from shady art smugglers. During the art heist, Echo is remotely Wiped via cell phone, erasing her identity as smart alec safecracker Taffy, and leaving the Active barely active. Imprinting Sierra as a second Taffy does little good. Topher waves his hands around and yelps, but Adelle gives him a promotion and reveals that Alpha is still alive. This is not a surprise, because we saw him in the first episode. In a parallel subplot, Agent Ballard spins his wheels.


Chapitre 4
"The Gray Hour"

Shorter, more theme-based letter this week, on the difficulties of converting a reservoir of potential into a fait accompli. It's hard, isn't it? Hard when you know you have talents and abilities, and impossible when, like don't know. Watching Echo go to pieces in her soon-to-be tomb, and spend her last minutes retiring into the alternate worlds presented to her via painting, image, mirage -- watching her float, untroubled by a strong will to survive -- made its grain of sense. Echo has no abilities (that she knows of) to "prove" in her hour of death; I suspect that even many people who possess them lack the will to use them, would have folded up and died. Rather than pick up a gun, they would have allowed their comrade to shoot them.

So who "performed" best tonight under pressure? Whose special (Imprinted, Innate, what's the diff?) abilities bore up?

1) TOPHER: I tremble to imagine this child as a child. Like Faith, with her quasi-magical thinking about her Slaying gift, Topher has the normal wunderkind problem of defining himself in only one language - of success, breakthrough, triumph. Failures do not compute, aren't even part of the plan... which makes him useless in crisis. "We've woven more than one thread of unflappable in there," he says, but he didn't spare a thread for himself, or the foresight to anticipate problems. Of course, worrying about Echo's welfare would be too out of character for him to even imagine.

2) TAFFY (as embodied by both Sierra and Echo): "A quiet, head-down kinda life." Combines thorough training and intelligence with necessary detachment - doesn't connect "potential" to omnipotence, understands that in every showdown with the world, with physics, with time, with circumstance and with contingency, there are no guarantees. On a metaphorical level, during the transfer of expertise from Sierra-Taffy to Echo -- during the alchemy of potential into Action -- things didn't go right, because things don't always go right. Sometimes potential goes unrealized. Sometimes it doesn't yield the results it shoulda. In the end, ability is no more than probability that you'll make things better and master the situation. (Adelle, for all the recent disasters at the Dollhouse, seems to understand this, and, insofar as she's able to bring out the best in her underlings, seems to be a levelheaded boss).

3) ECHO - The tabula rasa can learn mantras ("I'm Taffy and I know how to get us out of here...I know how to open the door"), she can listen to instructions, she has animal instinct (a long shot which doesn't work out so well for antiquities-guy or bloodthirsty comrade #1), and she does, it turns out, have a distinguishable self, a collection of tendencies and preferences and biases that ebb and flow in time. She has enough sense of "rightness" to say, "[Woman in painting] doesn't look right," the sensitivity to say "I have a different name [in the painting]," the wit to perceive that someone is "broken," the imagination to be disturbed that there is no sky in prison. We get to learn a little something about our girl for the first time. And action, when it finally stirs in her, is not self-interested (was this her Altruistic Engagement after all?)

In the end, Echo's not actually relaxing in a peaceful womb-tomb - even Wiped, she's still poised at the center of a situation where she's about to let a whole lotta people down. She may not understand this consciously, but the bleeding man at her side is enough of a kick in the butt. The needs of others, with their insecurities and their bleeding torsoes, can be a huge pain in the ass; they can also be magnets that draw from us our greatest performances.

* * * * *


"The Gray Hour": Security System Down

There is a major sandtrap built into the cautionary s-f fable. Too often an excellent non-dystopian thought-experiment story is set-up, we are shown a marvel of the future extrapolated from possible present, then asked to ponder the moral implications. "What is wrong with this picture?" is the game. The mistake made by weak writers is to imagine that the technology could be fallible, and it goes haywire and kills people. Don't invent things, because they'll go crazy!

Now, that sounds like a certain Modern Prometheus, I know. Sounds like, but only in the shallow read, and in the movies (though I dearly, dearly love those movies). The real sin of Victor Frankenstein is being a deadbeat dad. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, abandons his child. Depending on our interest in theological speculation, it may be God's real sin as well, but this is neither here nor there.

Things that sort of fall into this trap: movie of I, Robot. Westworld. 2001 (?). Myriad Killer Computer episodes. Movie of Jurassic Park. Most Frankenstein movies. Minority Report. Etc.! If there is a plot element of Dollhouse that strikes me as weak (some others are merely cliched!), it is the frequency of the question "what happens when the Imprint/Wipe system fails?" It leads to exciting story possibilities, but the from thinking point perspective, the harder, more intensive probing happens when the question is "what goes wrong when the Dollhouse does its job correctly?"

But hmm, I'm speculating on DH as speculative fiction. That means it is working, because it is making me dream out in different directions!

Dollhouse really uses the fractures in Dollhouse protocol to explore the ideas inside the dolls and the house. You know, Crichton's novel Jurassic Park isn't just about punishing science for raising the dead or a sick joke about evolution, it is a speculative exploration of chaos theory, and that is why Things Fall Apart. Arc significance -- surely we all figured it was Alpha who engineered the modem-screech brain sweep. He did it to clear a space for this little chamber drama.


If this is Art, this science of brainWipe and Imprint, as Topher insists, then what kind of artist is he, in the options explained in "The Gray Hour"? Is he the kind that paints what he sees? Or paints what is? (Barf!)

Thing is, that art-crit coming from the heist expert was sort of nonsense. There is potential truth in the sheer labor of classicists, master or not, as represented by the what-I-presume-was-a-fake-Maggiotto (?) boy with a recorder. The bullshit Faux-casso was distracting, but them's the breaks. Real problem is that Picasso's Synthetic Cubism is about trying to capture the whole, not the broken; the totality of the subject, analyzed and united from multiple perspective. I do wonder then, if this is the point. The partially accurate evaluation by a wounded man who is about to give up says this is about a shattered girl, a life to which violence has been done, frozen in irreparability and forever sliding apart. But contained in the same frame is a girl refracted but complete -- extra-complete, even -- mathematically multiplied into more forms in more locations, flattened only into the picture plane of our single-perspective vision. Because there's Taffy striding through the vault with the other works of art, there's Rasa!Echo splattered on the floor, and there's Taffy2, too, calling across the mirror to help.

Whose ego is bruised here? We've corrupted the concept of the Ego, of course, into the colloquial "self-importance". But Ego proper is the main thing Topher takes pains to remove in the Wiping process. Let us assume that this pinch leaves a mark. And who, then, saves the day and should feel good about herself? Why, it's not Taffy1, who is prematurely disEngaged, nor Taffy2, who gets her untraumatic birth just a little too late. It's not Topher, who spends the episode running around also Ego-bruised, nor Boyd, Ballard or DeWitt, who all want to rebirth the girl as child to protect, victim to assist, and in this week's adventure, tool of the state (Operation: Steal Art for Greece!). It's Echo saves the day and should be proud. Echo, who may, it seems, just be Caroline with some personality suppressant clamps on her neural pathways. If not that, then "Gray Hour" says an even kinder thing about the default settings of human nature.

So what "is" the vault, when it is not a tomb or a womb but a performance situation? Well none of the above, it's a big safe full of art. Whatever the motivator, I think you've made a good catch; this is about the performance opportunity. The performance here is the Art part, to form the vault into one or the other. Either, Or or Neither, thinking, like the prince says, makes it so. The gray hour may be the shapeless mists of dawn from which meaning might materialize, or the obscuring haze where meaning goes to die. It is going to be up to Echo what to do in that gray hour: emerge or fade.

Fresh born and unImprinted Echo (who migrates naturally toward bodies of water, curls instinctively into fetal positions) is confronted with options; immediately upon birth, she's given the choice to start doing violence to others in the name of self-preservation. Or she can surrender, either to prison or to premature death. Simple drive to live motivates a refusal to suicide or jail, but something finer in her resists the shooting. Perhaps, and I hope it is true, Dollhouse suggests we have to be properly imprinted to do that kind of violence. She chooses to finish the job, all right. Not the job Taffy started, but the job Alpha sets up for Echo: getting born. She was tired of hanging around that room anyway, slips through the tunnel, and emerges, linebacker shoulders and all.

His methods may be unconventional and leave the doctor with scars, but let us hope Alpha's Lamaze classes eventually give us a healthy, bouncing baby Caroline.


1 comment:

Jordan said...

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