Whedon’s ‘Dollhouse’: Finally, Grade A SF on TV


I am a very hard guy to completely satisfy in a lot of ways, and this is particularly true when it comes to science fiction. I consider SF to be much harder to do correctly than any other genre. At minimum, not only must it satisfy all the normal requirements of fiction, such as believable characterisation, but it must seamlessly include novel and realistic scientific speculation in a manner which doesn’t disrupt the story.

In the visual arts (i.e. TV and movies) I’ve almost never seen what I consider Grade A, and Grade B not that often. In fact, I’ve never seen an episodic science fiction series on TV which completely made the A grade. Some came close; Whedon’s earlier series ‘Firefly’ was a B+, for example, being excellent drama with believable characters, tight plotting and so forth; it failed in my eyes only in that while it had scientific speculation *and* exploration of the human condition, the scientific speculation was never really central to that exploration.  (I told you I was a harsh critic!)

I never saw one until now, that is: Joss Whedon’s ”Dollhouse’ makes the grade in every respect, including that one.

Without spoilers, I can tell you that the background story is of a shadowy organisation making use of a radical  new technology that allows a person’s brain to be almost completely blanked, and a different personality (copied from another person, or constructed by combinations) complete with memories, skills and patterns of thinking, inserted into the wiped human, or ‘Doll’ as they are known.

This setup allows for fascinating standalone episodes, as Dolls with precision-crafted personalities are inserted into various scenarios, but that alone (along with the generic virtues of good writing) would only rate a Skiffy B from me. The plausible limitations on the tech, and the trouble that causes, would rate a B+ maybe.

The explorations of how people use and abuse this unprecedented type of power, a tool for making instant educations and perfect slaveries, and the unique viewpoints which it allows on questions of what the self truly is, what it is to be human, to be made literally less than fully human, to be trans-human… this is the kind of thing that only science fiction can do well, and in ‘Dollhouse’ it is indeed done very, very well.

I dare say no more, lest I slip and reveal too much. Get ahold of this show, and watch it – you will be very glad you did!


~ by B.T. Murtagh on May 21, 2009.

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