Monday, February 22, 2010

Success Is Not a River In Egypt (or anywhere else)

God, I don't know where the names I give these things come from. Just ignore it.


So today I got up EARLY to a) finish my powerpoint for German Cinema and b) finish my Short Stories essay. Both of these endeavors were SUCCESSFUL.

Then I went to German Cinema and we got back our first essays. And the professor was all, "these are just first drafts, second drafts due on the third. Some of you did so well that you don't need to revise. ... don't look so hopeful, it was less than a handful." And then she talked for like 15 minutes about how to interpret her responses and markings, and what she wanted out of the revisions.

And then I got my essay back and the only things she'd written on it were "Excellent," "nice!" and "you can revise if you want, but this is clearly an A paper."


(And then I did my powerpoint and I got a little tongue tied for a second but it mostly went well.)

AND THEN AND THEN. Sorry. Very repetitive today.

Anyhow. Just now, we had the first play rehearsal. And I don't want to jinx it, but I think Everything Is Going To Turn Out Okay.

And now, for something completely different.

You may remember a while back that I was going to write an essay about Dollhouse for that SmartPop Books contest. Well, I missed the deadline, and so, like I promised, I'm posting what I got down. Here we go:

Over and over again, the purposes of the Dollhouse are made clear to its clients. “It’s not about what you want,” says Adelle, “it’s about what you need.”

Truer words could not have been spoken not just about the Dollhouse, but Dollhouse itself—a bold move on the part of Joss, an unexpected gamble into utterly new territory.

We who worship at the alter of Whedon are used to certain things: well-developed characters, powerful yet subtle messages, and a good ensemble. We like liking people, and we like getting to know our ensemble as people: when Jayne Cobb walks into a room, you know exactly what you’re going to get.

But Dollhouse is profoundly different from Buffy, Angel, Firefly and even Doctor Horrible in one key sense: for the first time, we are not being given a character-driven show. We are being given an idea-driven show.

This was a profound thing to get used to, and was a steep learning curve on both sides of the camera: just watch Season 1 and you know exactly what I mean. We are used to Joss shows that wear their hearts on their sleeves: Buffy is a story of female empowerment—discovering that you have power and learning how to use it responsibly. Angel is a story of redemption—that actions have consequences, and that both the greatest good can come of the most disgusting act, and that unspeakable horror can result from the best of intentions. Firefly is a story of the frontier—of people on the edge, of the little guy’s survival in a world of cold bureaucracy. These are stories of powerful emotion.

But Dollhouse is different. Rather than being “genre first, meaning second,” the meaning is the genre. Whereas all of the other Whedon shows have worn their hearts on their sleeves, Dollhouse wears its brain—which is exactly as messy (and interesting) as it sounds. Because for the first time, Joss is making us think just as hard as he’s making us feel. Dollhouse is something greater, something cerebral. It is A Brave New World, it is Fahrenheit 451…

It is Star Trek.

(Bear with me.)

This revelation didn’t come to me all at once. It started as just an inkling, a powerful sensation I started getting in the middle of season 2: “I kind of wish this were the Enterprise—Adelle DeWitt would make one awesome starship captain.” Over time, this evolved into “DeWitt isn’t just a good hypothetical captain, she’s Jean-Luc Picard” which has now fully developed into a kind of solid surety: in many unexpected ways, Dollhouse is the modern mirror of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Put down the rotting fruit (or pitchforks, depending on your level of offense) and hear me out.

Star Trek: TNG is set in a utopian future, whereas Dollhouse is set in a borderline dystopian present. And yet… and yet they both tackle story from the standpoint of philosophy, rather than emotion. This is not to say that the characters on either show are stand-ins or cardboard cutouts or pawns; they are just as fully-realized as any other character on any other show.

But it explains a lot. How we can trust DeWitt despite her dubious utilitarian thinking, because she gives off an aura of moral certainty so strong that you cannot help but take comfort in it. Why we were able to bond with Victor and Sierra so early—as they both gave off the aching sentimentality of the manmade made real as Data did—but were sometimes faintly annoyed by Echo, who was marked early as special and different, and always came through with just the right thing at just the right moment, like a high-heeled Wesley Crusher.

We did not want a show like Dollhouse—but it is very much the show we needed, and luckily Joss had the presence of mind to understand that.

We live in a confusing age, which is why Star Trek, as a franchise, has always had such broad appeal. It shows a future in which there is equality across all gender and ethno-religious boundaries, where a Prime Directive keeps people like those behind Rossum from fiddling where they don’t belong, and where money is a thing of the past. (“But what do you invest in?” asks Ralph Offenhouse of Picard in The Neutral Zone (TNG 1.26). Picard’s answer was simple: “We invest in ourselves.”)

People invest in other people all the time on Dollhouse, but far purposes far more insidious. Audiences have gotten more cynical, and stories grittier and more jaded, to reflect a changing world. The Dollhouse is a place where Data would have been sent to the Attic immediately—a place not where things can learn to become people, but where people are stripped down to the status of things. There is no room for a Deanna Troi or a Guinan at the Dollhouse—because it’s not a question of what the dolls feel, but what Topher programs them to feel.

Star Trek: TNG went, Dollhouse boldly goes one step farther. Captain Picard occasionally used the holodeck to role play as Detective Dixon Hill; a mostly harmless exercise to relax and relieve the burden of command. DeWitt, on the other hand, must dig deeper and risk more: becoming the often-mocked Miss Lonely Hearts, taking comfort in the arms of Roger, a man who does not exist, in order to experience a few cherished moments of vulnerability. Highly-advanced medical science begat the visor which granted Geordi the power to see; Topher’s fiddling with Echo’s brainwaves just as easily made her blind. The Borg is not a powerful, distant foe: it is a product of our own creation. On Dollhouse, we truly are the Borg, and our greatest enemy is our own ambition.

And to have a show on television that discusses these things: what it means to be a human, what happens to your soul if you’re not in control of your body, whether or not we have free will… we need to be asked these questions; we need to search ourselves, be challenged, far more than we need to be entertained.

As dark as Dollhouse becomes, it will still stumble upon certain universal truths. So when DeWitt stands up to Mr. Ambrose and his “anatomy upgrades” in Epitaph One, and says, “You cannot have that body, Mr. Ambrose. It belongs to another soul, and I will not sell these people off at any price,” we cheer, because it is just as much a triumph of the human spirit as when Picard quotes Hamlet (with conviction, rather than irony) at Q.

It is a contemporary method masking a sentiment as old as our species: Star Trek shows us the bright light of the future; a world as it should be, so we aspire to be all that we can be. Dollhouse takes us through the darkness, wallows in it and drenches even our greatest heroes in the shadows of doubts and murky waters of ethical dilemmas.

Something to think about, in any case.

And while you ponder that a while, I’ll amuse myself with the notion that the tea Adelle served every client is Earl Grey (hot), and listen hard in case she said “make it so” and I missed it.

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