Disclaimers/subject position confessions, updated: in between the airing of Episode 12 and my viewing this pilot (and Episode 13) on DVD, I watched Firefly, Serenity, and Dr. Horrible. I’ve now seen all the Joss, and am a little better qualified, maybe, to analyze Dollhouse in the context of his other work.
The obvious continuity between Buffy/Angel and Firefly/Serenity was that both works were centered around big, unruly, loving conglomerations of misfits: Surrogate Families. Both works explored the dynamics of these families, and held these families up as shelters from the storm of the wide, wild world. You could have said, on the basis of those two works, that this was Joss’s Big Theme. It wasn’t much in evidence in Dr. Horrible (although you might observe that Dr. H’s longing to join the ELE was a reflection of the yearning to belong to a surrogate family), but maybe that was an outlier.
But when you include Dr. Horrible, and look at it, Buffy/Angel, and Firefly/Serenity together, then you (may) start to see something else emerge as a candidate for Joss’s Big Theme: the Dangerous Geek. He’s obviously got a soft spot for the geek, no doubt stemming in part from his own sense of himself as one (in the special features for Dollhouse, Joss as much as says “Topher – c’est moi”). Not to mention that a large swath of his audience probably self-identifies as Geekish. I do. But Joss’s love for the geek (and by “geek” I mean someone whose expertise at something is only matched by his pop culture knowledge, both of which are only trumped by his social awkwardness) is consistently tempered by a sense that the geek can be dangerous. In Buffy/Angel we got Andrew/Jonathan/Warren. In Dr. Horrible we got Dr. Horrible. In Firefly/Serenity, we didn’t really get much meditation on geekhood, although there was potential in the character of Mr. Universe that one can imagine Joss exploiting if there had been a second season.
How does this relate to Dollhouse? I think a lot of fans were expecting another surrogate-family show, when what Joss had in mind was another dangerous-geek show.
Dr. Horrible should have been the tip-off. As I say, we already got dangerous geeks in Buffy, but Dr. Horrible was different in one important way. Of the three geeks in Buffy, one was plainly dangerous and not at all charming (Warren), while one was pathetic/charming and not very dangerous (Jonathan), and one was so weak that you didn’t know which way he was going to go – and in the end he was redeemed. In Serenity, Mr. Universe was mostly cool and just a little bit creepy (the lovebot idea should have been very creepy, but the movie didn’t get time to develop it), and not at all dangerous except to the bad guys.
But Dr. Horrible – he’s truly horrible. At first we don’t think he is. This is the genius of the show (which I think is pretty genius; but not as genius as the commentary track on the DVD). He’s so cute in his pathetic little fantasies, and particularly in his attraction to The Girl, that you’re rooting for him all the way up until the moment he kills her. At this point he becomes truly horrible, joins the ELE, and commits lots more crimes. The end. A really sobering moment (besides being a great classic Superhero Origin Story). Cutesy scare-quote “evil” is still evil, dammit. Is what I take away from it.
Enter Topher (c’est moi).
But how does he enter? In the show as aired, Topher’s arc is a lot like Dr. Horrible’s: he’s charming in his geekiness, so cute that it takes a while to notice his creepy side, and even longer to notice that his creepy side indicates actual moral bankruptcy. When we do start to realize this, toward the end of the season, it’s a powerful thing, because we’ve at least sort of liked this guy all the way along.
The original pilot doesn’t play it like that. Topher comes in and right off the bat he’s giving this big speech about how it doesn’t matter if we program the dolls, because we’re all programmed ourselves – culminating in his big declaration of nihilism: “I don’t care – morality is programming, too.” Topher is defined for us right away as someone who has no moral qualms about what he’s doing, in fact seems to have no morals at all. It makes him a good deal less sympathetic: by the end of his first big scene, he’s as dislikable as Topher-as-aired was at the end of the season. His arc is done (as in, "stick a fork in it").
Now, I obviously have no idea what Joss would have done with the character had Fox allowed him to proceed with this pilot and launch the series from there. That’s alternate-universe stuff. What I do know is that in Dollhouse as it was made, Topher’s character arc, from cute to reprehensible – and I want to reiterate that it’s not really Topher’s arc, because he doesn’t change: it’s the arc of how we perceive Topher – has big ramifications for the story. Just as we come to realize how nasty Topher is (on one level), we come to realize just how dangerous the Dollhouse is (on many levels). In other words, this arc makes for a big payoff: dramatically, emotionally, intellectually.
The original pilot doesn’t seem to allow for that. We know right away that Topher’s not a good guy (so maybe Joss was planning to redeem him?), and we even get intimations of the Dollhouse’s dangerous side right up front, too. We’re starting so far into the concept that it’s hard to imagine how it would have developed.
So the Dangerous Geek theme is somewhat neutralized, in the original pilot: rather, it’s there in spades, but robbed of some of its power, because the geek is robbed of most of his charm. What do we get instead?
More nods toward the Surrogate Family theme. The original pilot makes a lot more of intra-Dollhouse relationships than the early as-aired episodes do. There’s Topher’s many scenes with Boyd, in which their man-friendship is repeatedly invoked and denied; there’s Topher’s odd antipathy to Dr. Saunders, and his fear of the higher-ups; and there’s the Echo/Sierra/Victor trio already getting together and setting off alarm bells. And, perhaps most significantly, we have Topher’s observation that anyone who lives in the Dollhouse, handlers included, is really a Doll; combined with DeWitt’s closing remark that “we’re all in this together,” I think it indicates that this pilot was working hard to convince us that these characters are a community whose relationships we’re going to be exploring.
That’s not there in the season as it aired. Instead, we got what seems like a willful exploding of the Surrogate Family idea, starting with Echo/Caroline herself. The early episodes hammer home how empty the dolls are, including Echo, and how dead they even are to each other. We got Boyd introduced as someone new to the Dollhouse, whose relationship to Topher is professional, not man-friendly. Topher’s relationship to Saunders, too, is recast as professional. Over the course of the season, clearly relationships form and become a focus of the show, but it’s not that way at first. At first, it’s all elaboration of the concept, the Dangerous Geek and All His Works.
All of this is by way of saying that I thought the original pilot is interesting, a great DVD special feature, but not superior to what Joss eventually came up with for the series as it aired. By now every Dollhouse fan has long known that Joss came up with this pilot for Fox, they shot it down, and he responded by turning the first five episodes of the season into standalone engagement-of-the-week episodes that everybody was encouraged to think of as five pilots. A lot of fans seem to have been disappointed in these first five episodes, and Joss himself in various interviews has essentially refused to defend them, but I will: I think they’re better than the original pilot.
I think “Echo” is too much telling, not enough showing. It explains how doll engagements work, through dialog and montage; but the aired episodes show how they work, through action. Much more effective. “Echo” lays a lot of the subtext out for you in some pretty talky scenes (not that I have anything against protracted dialogue); the aired episodes are still pretty on-the-nose, but sufficiently less so to allow the viewer to hit upon a lot of the subtext her/himself. Again, more effective. And, above all, I think the aired episodes do a much better job of building moral ambiguity into the Dollhouse.
Which is not to say the original pilot doesn’t have its moments. I like how openly it deals with the prostitution angle of the Dollhouse. Not only in DeWitt’s discussion with a potential client, but in the wonderful irony of seeing Echo scolding Danica (the girl from Crib Death, Iowa) for letting Eddy pimp her out, when in fact the Dollhouse is pimping Echo out.
There’s also the wonderful pivot from Victor saying he’d like to be a carefree doll, “Doris freaking Day,” to Sierra in a rather Doris Day-like outfit, her head bleeding, looking anything but carefree.
And most of all there’s Echo telling Danica, “I am you, dumbass.” This is awesome primarily for meta reasons, since the actress who played Iowa Girl, Ashley Johnson, reappears in the aired Episode 12 as Wendy, who becomes imprinted with Caroline’s personality. In other words, in the pilot, Eliza says to Ashley, “I am you.” In Episode 12, we have Ashley confronting Eliza, and essentially saying, “I am you.” But in both cases, it’s actually Caroline saying it. But it’s also, in both cases, a programmed girl confronting a non-programmed girl, a powerful girl confronting a weak girl, a self-aware girl confronting a deluded girl, an original confronting an echo: and which is which? It’s a neat little knot of confused identity. I don’t know if Whedon brought Johnson back for Episode 12 with this in mind, but it’s a brilliant piece of metanarrative. That right there: that’s Dollhouse.