Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.7 - "Echoes"

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

The Engagement: Josh Fadem goes crazy and runs around a college lab in his socks, because an inhibition-derailing drug has gotten loose on campus. Most of the Dollhouse shows up to try to recover the remainder of the experimental substance for the Rossum Corporation... When the drug proves incredibly transmittable, the entire Dollhouse staff gets really high and freaks out, leaving only the seriously glitching Actives semi-functioning. Flashbacks fill in a directly-linked story of political activist, pre-Echo Caroline breaking into Rossum Labs. Meanwhile, Agent Ballard tries to be a good boyfriend and gets dumped sort of.


CS: Let us leap straight into the nerd trivia here.

Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) is the source of the word "robot", "Rozum" being Czech for "reason" and "robota" for "labor" (this etymological data courtesy of my Penguin Classics edition, though I see the Ministry of Truth, er, Wikipedia, backs me up). It is also the source of the name for the brain-research facility/"evil" drug company introduced in Dollhouse 1.7, "Echoes". More than s-f history inside joke, the bona fide literary allusion might be useful in unlocking the episode. In R.U.R., the robots are more properly artificially manufactured but nearly biological normal human beings, their body functions simplified and brains sapped of unproductive distractions (the R.U.R. scientists see no purpose in endowing the robots with a "soul", that is, the desire to take leisurely walks and play violin). A majority of its genre descendants would go on to ponder the ethics of creating an artificial intelligence, and/or whether such an invention might be considered "human" -- a fruitfully fanciful but, thus far, entirely silly philosophical dead-end non-debate. But like the tale from the ancestral well, Frankenstein (about the sundry troubles of making our own home-grown people), R.U.R. is really about the problems of allowing industrial forces to manufacture people. Where does "Echoes" fall in this continuum?

... and while you're at it, can you get me a juice box?

JS: As a matter of fact, I can, as my roommate orders 27 APPLE AND EVE juiceboxes every week from FreshDirect. I will crack one open for you without her permission. It contains 100% apple juice (filtered water sufficient to reconstitute apple juice concentrate, apple juice made from fresh whole apples), calcium gluconate, calcium lactate, and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).

So this was Dollhouse's "Band Candy" episode, ne? Hilarious bacchanal with a serious side, commenting on the power exerted by mysterious corporations when they release their wares among us... whether it's candy, pharma, or something else. Caroline's PETA indignation wore a little thin for me, if only because I feel that animalcentric approaches -- while, yes, putting adorable faces on the issue -- take the focus off the even larger menace of scientific-industrial behemoths, their larger aims and objectives. I think we both -- I won't drop the M-word yet, but you can if you want -- have a dread of power consolidated in the hands of the few, of many individual intelligences and wills soldered together into one institution, one machine, one purpose. All those lab meetings, PowerPoints, assignments, directives, jottings in lab notebooks, day after day, week after week... aggregating toward what? What can stop them, or it? Even if it's not Science, but something else being peddled?

Being pure and fruitful is all part of Apple & Eve’s core values. We emphasize honesty, integrity and respect for our fruit growers and employees, and most of all for you, our loyal consumer. We care about the juice and we care about each other. It’s the secret ingredient that puts harmonious flavor into all of our juices.

Mmmyum. Okay, sorry. Anyway, at work the theme of our upcoming issue is "Testing," so we've spent a lot of time making a sort of taxonomy of tests. There are the tests of mettle and character -- inquiries into somebody's particular nature, a mapping of a unique personality. They may even be undertaken with a sense of personal risk -- tests of a friend, a lover. Then there's Rossum, which, according to Caroline, "doesn't care about souls, human or animal." Hers I believe is the humanist/materialist (but not necessarily atheist!) spin on "soul" -- she's talking about means, not ends, the arrangements of morals that allow Rossum to act out of pure utility. She's talking primarily about Rossum's soul. She's talking about whatever makes us forget the sovereignty of our fellow creatures, what robs our ability to make space for them, to allow them to grow in their own way, to share a fate with them rather than engineer their fate for them. It's not that monkeys have monkey perches waiting for them in heaven. It's more that every monkey is, uh, a snowflake.

Argh, I'm distracted again: Can you imagine today’s busy life without juice boxes? Well, before we introduced the first juice box in 1982, families didn’t have an easy, portable way to drink healthy while on the go. Now, for more than 20 years, our 100% juice boxes have been traveling in lunch bags, baby carriages and briefcases around the country...

Unimaginable! I'm sacked out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, blogging about a teevee show, and there is definitely no baby in my baby carriage. But this brings me around to your question of human-making. These days no one should argue that the only legitimate way to "make" a human is the slot A/tab B way. For example, the longing experienced by infertile parents, translated into the banking of sperm and freezing of eggs and the in-vitro magic, is quite as legitimate to me as the normal M.O. But it seems to me (from a child-free vantage point) that one of the most graceful elements of people-"making" -- which, yes, the Dollhouse does -- is the moment when you cede total power over your creation. Once it's in the world, you voluntarily lay aside control over it and allow it to grow as it will, take its own shape. In the act of creating, you step aside and commit to the wonder and suspense of how this creature will turn out. Topher and Dominic are too stupid to understand this and probably never will. Adelle and Boyd, I think, do understand. And the Rossum Corporation -- run by brilliant people -- certainly understands this, but opts for total power over its subjects/creations, while throwing up a smokescreen of family harmony via cute ads.

The logo, as it appears today, looks very much like the initial design. It reflects our brand values by evoking images of purity and goodness, with just a touch of temptation thrown in to make things interesting. It stands as a symbol of the many fresh and delicious fruit juices we produce. We hope you find our delicious juices a bit tempting and simply irresistible!

Ya still want that juicebox, Chris?

CS: I'm 'a stick with my Garfield mug of coffee, actually.

I think you've gotten close to the bone on Frankenstories: the smart ones know that the crime is not tampering in God's domain, but irresponsible parenting. There are myriad ways in which we play god(s), and we are naturally endowed with the ability to create life. The trouble arises either from ditching your offspring without guidance (Frankenstein), breaching the walls of death (ibid, and Jurassic Park), or trying to hone that baby into a weapon while maintaining absolute control (the Golem story, the first Rambo movie). The Dollhouse has been proven guilty on all counts.

The apple juice logo perhaps brings us right back to two weeks ago and "True Believer"'s allusions to the Eden story, but any creation myth, really. How do the original parents treat the original Actives? And how do the newborns respond? ("God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs..." So, what then?... dinosaurs destroy man. Dinosaurs create God?)

My Garfield mug inexplicably depicts the tomcat mopping up water and sarcastically tossing confetti, caption bemoaning: "being a mom is a party a minute". As Adelle notes partway through her bum trip, "Oh my God, I'm having such a terrible day!" In "Echoes" -- in every Dollhouse -- the 'House's creator mommy and daddy, Topher and Adelle, send their universal robot kids out into the world to live according to godlike dictum that they will spend their brief lives in accordance with a narrow set of behavioral parameters, doing works of labor and service for their creators. Handlers and Security head Mr. Dominic are on duty to guide and reenforce, a chain of command we might compare to Honor Thy Mother and Father, with the implied dictum that the chain stretches back to the gods. The system simply doesn't work very well. Even in a paradigm with omniscient, omnipresent gods, we bump over ten miles of bad road -- why should God make me behave this way? Why doesn't He help? What'd we do to deserve this life? In a possible secular reading (ignore my absurdist hermeneutics if you like), we're sent forth into the world so we can toughen, smarten, fail and scramble and make meaning of ourselves to the point that we outgrow and destroy our need for a creator-god story, repeat it by propagating life, and maybe do a better job than our parent-gods. But the Dollhouse tries to squash that purpose, even if those thoughtful employees Dr. Saunders, Boyd and Adelle DeWitt see the paradox, or feel conflicted at heart. I'm all over the map here. Let me rein it in.

What I'm playing at is that my favorite idea in "Echoes" was that the control-freak parent figures of the Dollhouse are incapacitated and have to rely on the capabilities they have taught their Actives. And it comes to bear, all of it, the special technical talents, the personalities built, the compassion shown, the traumas inflicted. Being a mom is a party a minute.

Young Ms. Caroline seems a little clueless or imagination-impaired. I'm not sure she rails about the caged animals or jarred feti long enough to know much about her conception of a soul; whatever her opinions, she misses the point, that Rossum Corp. "cares" very much about souls, in that they are deeply interested and invested. They are in the soul-making business. They do not "care" about souls in terms of nurturing, looking-after, empathizing, whatever-ing. I'm going nowhere very probing with this, it was just a nicely layered moment, Caroline wailing at the wall of caged animals, but soon she will sign up to join them.

Yes, "Echoes" finds its comedy in some of the same places as BtVS's "Band Candy" in that it gives the cast a chance to act goofy and out-of-character-but-in-character. It has this in common, as well, with the S6 episode "Tabula Rasa" and the Angel S4 episode "Spin the Bottle". Everyone pretending to be stoned is, erm, sort of funny, but it would likely be funnier if we'd had more time with the characters. Surprisingly, the joke is most jarring with regards to Mr. Dominic, because we've never seen him unclench his jaw or anus. Topher already has the perpetual munchies, so no big change, really.

Man, I would've liked to see Dr. Saunders on that wacky-drug. Only Mr. Dominic was inspired to blurt any particularly inappropriate secrets besides the mere fact that they have normal vulnerabilities, appreciate the arts and like junk food. I'm dying to get in that character's brain.

JS: Yes, what does it mean that the far margins of Topher's "loss of impulse control" = raiding the drawer of inappropriate starches, while others go completely batshit? A thoughtful forum post at TwoP pointed out that this is addressed in Topher's opening speech to DeWitt and Ambrose about the range of individual responses to drugs. I actually thought that one of the applications of the Rossum memory drug might be truth serum ("You can't remember where you were that night? Heeere...have a drink.") Storywise, the disinhibiting effects are supposed to show us new facets of every character and expand our mental maps of their personalities -- it's narrative experimentation on live human subjects, conducted for our benefit. But you're right that we don't know everyone well enough to have the richest possible reaction. Boyd plays piano? ...oh. Topher munches... pretty much what we expected (I was hoping for something randier or slyer from him, actually.) I felt that Adelle's antics told me the most about her character, insofar as any of us have a unified "character" to deconstruct. That woman doesn't want to be there. There is somewhere else she'd rather be.

To add another etymology to the pile, I looked up "glitch," and its true meaning is not simply "indeterminate problem" but "voltage surge." In its truest sense, glitching is only a problem for people who would like to keep the waters flowing smoothly, who don't want unexpected spikes of electricity or vitality. Anyone overfull of life or will or unpredictable spazzy energy could technically be said to be "glitching" according to social contracts that require more muted and cooperative behavior. That does raise the unending puzzle, for me, of what Mellie's original personality might be, and whether every Active experience (hers with Paul, Victor's with firefighting) is just percolating in a pool of Everythingexperience -- Active, Doll, free.

When these people wake up, they are going to be pissed.

(Looking back to something I said after episode 1, I'm finally getting a sense of the show's stance on "personhood" and "authenticity." It seems to acknowledge a basic split between being someone's bitch (Actives) and acting on your own power ("listening to yourself" as Alice does when refusing treatment). It assumes there is a core self, a core set of experiences, implicit memory (muscle and procedural memory) that take over even when explicit memory is Wiped, that cannot be purged. Caroline cannot be rooted out. But there's an infinite regression there. Alice/Echo may be "listening" to Caroline, but Caroline isn't some goddess. Caroline is just a woman. Who was she listening to? Who taught her, who programmed and influenced her? Why make war on animal testing rather than Guantánamo? What tripped her guilt switch? There are pre-Carolines, and pre-pre-Carolines... in the end we're all a mixture of influences.)

What about Caroline? I found her flat. I was disappointed, after all this excavation, to find that Echo's predicament may be more interesting than Caroline's.

CS: Yes, Caroline is a bit of a drag. Agree with the politics or not, activist types tend to bore and depress me. As the girls in Ghost World put it, "it's not like these are just groovy, concerned people who actually CARE about humanity... it's like the same as when guys are really into sports!... or computers!" It is interesting that Caroline was already adept at reading blueprints for access tunnels and designing her own recon missions. She was an action-adventure hero before she was contracted by the Dollhouse. The snippet of the Caroline/DeWitt seduction/entrapment scene in the first episode seemed to hint that Caroline had gotten herself in a heap of trouble, that DeWitt had some dirt on her, perhaps Caroline had a life of crime to scrub clean. That scene is vague by design; I wasn't just projecting onto it the forms of Faith Lehane or Angelus Ensouled. Here we learn that Caroline Saw Too Much, was in the Wrong Place and transgressed against the Powers, but all for virtuous cause. Her biggest crime, legally speaking, was probably breaking and entering and trespassing. I can't say I'm too disappointed, but admit an unfortunate predilection for redemption drama.

Hey, re: strictly plot-based developments, I've been poking around fan environs to see what topics of speculation are stirring imaginations, and a popular theory seemed to be that Adelle is an Active (the logic being that the person best qualified, most trustworthy to run the Dollhouse, would be Imprinted as such). Assuming Topher's evaluation of Yellow Drug N-Whatever is correct, "Echoes" indicates that we know the following are not Actives: Dominic, Langton, DeWitt, Brink.

I'm in fundamental agreement that Dollhouse thus far seems to be saying that an implicit Self exists, fights back, finds a way to emerge. This says a funny thing about teledrama, that the notion of continuous character refuses to be suppressed, even on a program supposedly about the flimsy reality of the self. I can't say I agree with Dollhouse, though, and I don't know that this idea will stand. The mechanics of the hundreds of ways Topher is twisting Dolls' minds are thankfully vague enough to leave the metaphor open. Key information we got this week: Actives do get their lives/personalities/memories back after their five-year mission (or... so they say), and it may not be so much that the phalanx of beeping machines can "Wipe" memories/personalities/"souls" as much as "inhibit", repress and "block" them. So maybe Caroline is still there, albeit under some thick concrete flooring... but only because Topher and Adelle ALLOW her to be there? See, if we push literally at this, it problematizes the metaphor; if we don't look at the plot details, it can derail the reading. This tension is what keeps good fantasy from becoming editorial screed. It seems directly related to my favorite impossible puzzle in Buffyverse stories (no, I will never shut up about this), the nebulous rules of vampires, their "evil"-ness, their personalities as related to who they are in life, and the mystery of the nature of a "soul". So Caroline pops up to help out Alice on this side of the looking glass, but Doll!Sierra's rape trauma also emerges to further damage CFDC!Sierra. November glitches into remembering Mellie, regardless of who she may have been before November. I would like to see Caroline freed from the prison of her own chemically walled-in mind, but ideal would be if she can drag along the experience and lessons of her weekly Imprints -- she signed the paper, she does the work, she deserves the rewards.

"Echoes" is largely about how the past is past, inaccessible for alteration or omission, cannot be Wiped because it reverberates into the present. The choices you made in the moment -- the ones Adelle groans about while chomping on crisps -- the ramifications eventually find their way into your hands again. They may give you a map to follow, bear you on swift wings (Echo lucks out this week, thanks to Caroline's misfortune), they may be so heavy a burden you cannot raise your arms (poor Mr. Dominic, it seems, worries about these Dolls far more than he can deal with). History screams back up at us from the memory hole, a sound impossible to push back down to the incinerator. The past echoes.

All right, what do you make of the sad case of Suspended Agent Ballard and Mellie? Is this guy bad at life, or what?

JS: I'd say life is being kinda bad to him. I know we like to razz this guy, but week after week, he persists against what we know to be impossible odds. His rescue-quest mirrors Caroline's own, but there's a patient, dogged, head-down quality to him that there we didn't see in Caroline (or haven't yet. Maybe we will in upcoming flashbacks). It's not the "act" in activism that bothers me -- we all need to figure out a way to act and live on behalf of our principles. It's the "ism," it's the preening. If a phantom Caroline motivates Ballard, it's a phantom Caroline, too, who motivates Caroline... a vision of a better self.

Wait till he finds out his girlfriend's a Doll, though. I wonder if he'd react the way I would -- that is to say, hide in the bathroom and cue the uncontrollable weeping. Nobody on this show has a true friend or confidante. The Echo:Sierra headshake is long in the past. Even the fondness (Boyd:Echo, for example) is one-sided. Intimacy and vulnerability are dead in the water. Even if you go in 100% willing to reveal yourself to someone, there's no one there to respond. Come back, Mellie! And I mean that in every possible sense of the words!

That said...what happens when monsters do escape? The section of Frankenstein (the novel, I haven't yet seen the movies) I still think back to is the monster assimilating all this new sensory information for the first time. He grapples with sounds, he peers into houses, he's plunged in confusion... nothing makes sense to him.

From the preview, I kinda doubt that next week's "awakening" episode will skew this way. Too bad. I almost wish it would.

CS: If/when Paul gets the note that he has no friends who are not robots, my guess is he's used to having his shoelaces tied together and can right himself, collecting some new manly battle scars as the trophy. If anything, relocating his rescue-fetish object onto Mello-tron may strengthen his resolve. We all hate to see a good cowboy become domesticated pet, which is why we love John Wayne walking away from the house at the end of The Searchers.

But hmm, Dollhouse is shaping up to be about finding one's inner strength, developing a workable sense of self, navigating and negotiating without sacrificing your power, free will and humanity. All three prior Mutant Enemy programs have been concerned with these problems, but part of that negotiation equation is the -- how do I put this without sounding like a cornish game hen? -- value of friends, found families, community. How, indeed, is anyone to find friends in the Dollhouse?

I missed the trailer for next week because my DVR thing was full of Antiques Roadshow and Judge Judy, so I had to watch DH on Hulu. Let me go lookit the commercial.

[Watches episode 8 commercial.]

What happens when your monster babies escape is that they haven't been nurtured and they lash out. Frankenstein's creature is even more as newborn than, say, remote-Wiped Echo in "Gray Hour", or anyone in Doll-state. The Creature is pre-lingual, and it goes through swiftly portrayed psychological development without hands-on parenting. I know it is a weird reference point, but the Rambo movie First Blood grapples with the consequences of honing and brainwashing a perfect warrior, then asking him to rejoin society, and the torment it causes to the thing-person you have made. These monsters either learn to resent their parents or hit a roadblock where they have not been taught how to love.

Looks like next episode the Dolls are waking up as their own previous adult selves, and in a prison environment where their basic needs are being tended (er, most of the time). So, like Neo yanked out of his bio-pod, first you freak out. Then you get royally pissed off.

JS: And then you begin the most difficult post-liberation work of all: constructing a world with its own foundation, its own integrity. Not just a refuge for the Dollhouse-wounded, a place to cower, but a place to put down roots.

Although, damn...I'd miss those massages too.

CS: Though I am not enamored of the character, some of the nicest "echoes" in this episode are the dramatic irony of Caroline shifting from activist to Active, and the attendant opportunities she may have to right social and political wrongs at her new job; free-thinker indeed may do more good while free of will. Campus hippie Caroline would not have been able to bring down Jonas Sparrow's cult, and indeed failed to stop Rossum Corp. where Alice/Echo/Caroline were able to at least curb the spread of their latest poison. The ultimate guinea pig is going to be one who learns to open her own cage.

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