Echo Chamber

by Tess Adair

In which I rediscover the strange and strangely distant sci-fi series Dollhouse.

I’ve been running out of shows lately. I don’t have anything new and long-term to explore right now--I’ve been watching a few movies, and a few short-run shows, and every once in a while, I get a drop of four or five 10-minute episodes of Steven Universe. But I don’t have anything on-hand that I can drop into regularly--at least, nothing currently that I’m excited about.


Generally, when this happens, I do two things: I start looking for ideas about new things to watch...and I start going over old shows I loved and see what sounds appealing in the moment.


So, on a whim the other day, I pulled up Dollhouse.


As a proud and longstanding member of the Church of Whedon (who usually refers to god as “the sky bully,) I watched Dollhouse pretty faithfully while it ran.

That is, I watched it faithfully up until it was canceled. Then, in my anger and disappointment, I refused to watch the ending.


See, if I never saw it end, then it never did.


Pretty sound logic, yeah?

Yeah, I thought so, too.


So I never watched the end. Every now and then, I think about going back to finish it. I’ve always known I would some day. Now, I think that day might be coming up.


I usually try to goad other people into watching Whedon shows, but I haven’t done that with Dollhouse since it went off the air. While it was on, I definitely did--I really wanted its ratings to go up so it could stay alive. But it wasn’t meant to be. And since its cancellation, I’ve had to admit that I kind of understand why.


The show was hard to connect to. While it had a few excellent elements from the start, they didn’t start to come together until about six episodes in. And unfortunately, this was Whedon’s most concept-driven show--which makes it really hard to jump into it so far along. So while the early episodes don’t fully come together, they’re also very important to understand the core of the show. Kind of a double problem.


That being said, I loved the show during its first run. I didn’t totally love the arcs and the action of the first few episodes, but I immediately connected with a few of the central characters (mainly Topher and Boyd) and I found a few others compelling, if only ambiguously likable (mainly Adelle DeWitt.)

This is Topher. I like him best.

This is Topher. I like him best.

But there is a glaring issue with the show--the hardest character to connect with is the protagonist, Echo. I find it hard to connect with her. This, despite the fact that I’ve been primed to love Eliza Dushku ever since she was Faith.


So what gives? Why is it so hard to like her?

Part of it is built into the concept of the show. The show is about a house full of people who have [supposedly] volunteered to give up 5 years of their lives, during which time their own personalities will be wiped clean (and kept safe on a floppy somewhere,) and they will be programmed with new temporary personalities whilst loaned out to whomever can pay. Most of these “engagements” are romantic in nature, but some are not. In the aired pilot, Echo’s engagement is to negotiate the safe release of a kidnapping victim (with a rich father willing to pay the Dollhouse for this help.)


So, thanks to the premise, Echo spends most of her time living inside a disposable identity that will likely never be visited again once the episode is over. The rest of the time, she wanders around in a childlike “tabula rasa” state, with no memory of most of her own activities--and no memory of her original personality.


Except, of course, she starts to show signs that she does remember. That’s kinda the main arc.


So, it’s a little hard to connect to her.

But she's so relatable.

But she's so relatable.

Interestingly, I don’t have the same difficulty with all of the dolls (or “actives”) in the Dollhouse. In particular, I find Sierra (played by Dichen Lachman) pretty fascinating and lovable. But of course, we don’t get much of Sierra until later in the show--you know, when it starts to get good.


I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, except perhaps this--when we get Sierra’s backstory, she becomes instantly vulnerable and artistic, likable but complex. Her backstory is tragic and infuriating--and still open-ended. You know her story isn’t over. And unless you’re completely heartless, you feel invested in the outcome. You want to see it come back. You want to see it end. (No specifics here, because spoilers.)

Clearly more relatable.

Clearly more relatable.

But Echo’s backstory? It’s mostly vague, and it seems to imply a life of promise gone wrong. But you never get the sense that she was betrayed or preyed on, and you don’t get any interesting unexpected details about her life. (Sierra turns out to have been an artist making her living with a little stand on the boardwalk, which is kind of a shock after watching her alternate between blank and badass week after week.)


What do we learn about Echo? She went to college. She wanted to save the world. She got caught in some kind of situation, and somehow handing over 5 years of her life to the Dollhouse was her only way out. Oh, and for no known reason, she’s preternaturally good at everything, including retaining a sense of herself throughout repeated mind-wipes.


So she’s a little bland, and she’s a little Mary Sue-ish. It’s an unfortunate combo.


Still, I think the show is good overall. I do love Topher, the nerdy man-boy genius who programs the actives and implies that he isn’t bothered by what he does because morality is an arbitrary concept, mere social programming. And I love Adelle, who keeps cold and efficient control of everything until she starts her slow collapse under the weight of her own choices. And I love Sierra, who seems to have more layers than an onion. I even kinda love Victor, who’s less an onion and more a sheet cake.


Oh, and I love the villain. Saying anything more would be spoilers, but I love him. I’ve always loved Whedon villains.


So I’m diving in again.


Maybe I’ll reach the end this time.