May 11, 2009

Mrs. Higgins: You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.
- Pygmalion


It is sometimes said that a storyteller only ever has one great story of his own to tell, and that all his creations reach toward that single goal.

Joss Whedon's creative independence began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of a girl who exists to protect humanity against the forces of evil. To have family and friends at all is to expose them to the same danger she faces every day. Her own death is the greatest gift she can give those friends: and even then there can be no guarantees. There never are. Could she be granted but a single wish for her life, it would be that she might have the freedom to live.

In her constant, lonely fight, she is guided and supported by a British Watcher, representative of an organisation that has protected and preserved knowledge toward the saving of the world. He is the one person she must trust, and through him the authority he represents. Yet that authority betrays her again and again, as will later societal authorities: her teachers, the city, the military, the federal government. At the same time, others she has defended have abandoned all social responsibility in the pursuit of comfort and personal entertainment, which in a few becomes a world-killing despair.

It is not power itself which corrupts, but power without greater purpose or empathy. Shortcuts pursue only personal convenience, always at the expense of others: which is why Whedon distrusts the easy solutions. The price of liberty is constant vigilance: but the greatest threat to liberty are the very institutions we trust to protect us, and the apathy which allows hidden cancers to grow.

With the social changes after 9/11, telling this story became more urgent. The second year of Angel became correspondingly darker, and toward the end of it more desperate. No longer is Angel content to fight the good fight just one person at a time. As he gradually abandons those whose own empathy cannot accept his own abandonment of individual persons, including the one sent to him to be his guide, Angel increasingly seeks the shortcuts, the easy solutions, the power of the large organisations which he allows himself to become seduced into believing can still have individual and societal good as their primary objective. In the end, this fallen Angel signs away his own hope for the future, abandoning a difficult path with a too-distant promise in order to tear down his enemies here and now, though it mean tearing down the world as well and opening the gates into hell:
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.
Yet even as Whedon increasingly set aside light humour as being obviously inadequate to bring his points across, the greater part of his audience also ceased to find his work lightly entertaining and escapist, and many even found it uncomfortable and disturbing. Some found no redeeming societal value whatsoever, and even some fans wondered whether Whedon had simply lost interest. The excuse was found. The network cancelled.

In the new and 'unrelated' series Firefly, once again the large majority of Whedon fans sought and thought they had found simply light entertainment and escapism. Clear now of Buffy and Angel, the new series did seem on the surface to return to the lightness of early Buffy which some reviewers were able to compare to such shows as Pushing Daisies and Reaper, simply by overlooking everything except that surface, even to look so far as human motivation.

But how long could its viewers continue to delude themselves that this was all Firefly was? Once again we find the lonely defender, this time already forged in the crucible and having come to a personal peace with himself that will not permit his becoming part of something uncaring of the individual. Once again we find personal judgement as the last vigilant bulwark against the greater institution which fought and won the right to define shelter for its citizens at the expense of their liberty, and sometimes to betray and even to sacrifice some of those citizens toward what it called the greater good. Once again, the human bait of convenience and an easy life had been seen for what they really are. Once again, the choices and actions of a single, fallible, vulnerable human being had been lifted to the level of myth.

And once again, some of Serenity's reviewers were unable to see anything but the stereotype; while others, uncomfortable or suspecting a subversive message they could not fully read, deliberately sabotaged it.

It took three years before Whedon was able to return to the small screen. We will probably never entirely know the true reasons: although public release of the new Dollhouse coincides almost exactly with a change in the American administration, even as the growing darkness of Angel and Buffy coincided with key choices by a different administration.

Both Buffy and Angel had been set in the here and now, with a fantastical twist. For Firefly, Whedon harkened back to the analogy of the American War between the States: which also just happened to be the catalyst consolidating modern corporate entities from the great railroad empires to Eli Lilly. For Dollhouse, Whedon looked to a not too distant future and built it solidly upon that paeon to the sunset of British empire, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, later remade into the musical My Fair Lady. Once again, the almost-now is grounded firmly in the tradition of the Pinkertons, the great railroad empires, a careless and childish technology wielding an even more careless power over being itself, and a corporate power hand-in-glove with the government.

(Recent economic events have revived the spectre of eminent domain and loss of individual freedoms by raising a curious question: in a state where some corporations cannot be allowed to fail, is there any essential difference from corporate fascism?)

Eliza Dushku was always planned to be the primary character for this project, a 'doll' whose name was once Caroline but who now goes by Echo, a letter of the phonetic alphabet. Not coincidentally, she shares a name with the flower girl being sculpted, Liza Doolittle, which My Fair Lady alters to 'Eliza'. The sculptor himself, Professor Henry Higgins, is an authority on another type of phonetic alphabet, one which charts those it targets so precisely that their past is completely laid open to him the moment they open their mouths.

Original poster for My Fair LadyThe life given to the dolls between their assignments is in its essence both a wageslave ideal and a corporate ideal. Given that some kind of work must exist for those who are not part of the idle rich, indenturing people into dolls with an on/off switch is the ultimate shortcut; and at the same time, for the organisation, it is the ultimate convenience. There is work: and then there is nothing but relaxation in a completely stress-free environment. As valuable resources, the dolls are protected from all stress and all danger to the greatest ability of the organisation. At the same time, when not working, there is absolutely no requirement for the dolls to have to think. Is that not what our actions suggest we desire?
Higgins: Why have you begun going on like this? May I ask whether you complain of your treatment here?
Liza: No.
Higgins: Has anybody behaved badly to you? Colonel Pickering? Mrs. Pearce? Any of the servants?
Liza: No.
Higgins: I presume you don't pretend that I have treated you badly.
Liza: No.
Higgins: I am glad to hear it. Perhaps you're tired after the strain of the day. Will you have a glass of champagne?
Liza: No. ... Thank you.
Higgins: This has been coming on you for some days. I suppose it was natural for you to be anxious about the garden party. But that's all over now. There's nothing more to worry about.
Liza: No. Nothing more for you to worry about. ... Oh God! I wish I was dead.
The doll has come alive and awake: but why should she have any reason to object to her treatment? She has been given dresses, tutorage, comforts, worlds she would never have known had it not been for her agreement with Higgins. Before, she had been common as dirt, scrabbling for the necessities of life at the feet of rich folk. Now, she interacts with them as easily as breathing -- but what is left of her? and where does she go from here? And what of a structure, corporate or societal, which can do this to people so uncaringly?
Higgins: You might marry, you know. Most men are the marrying sort (poor devils!); and you're not bad-looking; it's quite a pleasure to look at you sometimes -- not now, of course, because you're crying and looking as ugly as the very devil; but when you're all right and quite yourself, you're what I should call attractive. That is, to the people in the marrying line, you understand. You go to bed and have a good nice rest; and then get up and look at yourself in the glass; and you won't feel so cheap. [as a genial afterthought] I daresay my mother could find some chap or other who would do very well --
Liza: We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.
Higgins: What do you mean?
Liza: I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else. I wish you'd left me where you found me.
Higgins: Tosh, Eliza. Don't you insult human relations by dragging all this cant about buying and selling into it.
Where empathy is forgotten, all that can remain is the resource value of the human being. Whether it be the marriage bond, slavery, a human resources slot or Echo's own indenture, drain away the empathy and all that remains is a corporate monetary interaction.

So loyal is this nod to My Fair Lady that even the essential layout of Higgins' house is preserved in the dollhouse, excepting only the library of books which could evoke an unwanted urge to think. (For the purpose of this post, I leave aside the even more obvious nod and grounding in Ibsen's A Doll's House.)

But it is the modern fashion to dismiss as trivia anything which does not fit exactly within the existing preconceived image, to limit one's gaze carefully only to what clearly lies on the surface of a narrow specialised interest, and to never once look at the things which maybe should be there, but are not. Dollhouse has been marketed as a science fiction drama thriller, and so a science fiction drama thriller it must remain. Does it really make such a difference if that determined blinkered focus happens to be marketing, or manga, or the science of personality, or all things phonetic? Are we all so determined to become otaku in all aspects of our lives?

Dollhouses notwithstanding, life cannot be compartmentalised out of all contextuality, nor does it come with annotations. In sharp contrast to the helpfully annotated Lost (lest we accidentally come to the wrong conclusions), Whedon has always written for an audience which understands this. And so it should come as no surprise that from the beginning Dollhouse has constantly received mediocre reviews, and is now on the brink of cancellation.

How dare we have the hubris to complain about the quality of our television viewing: when the networks have only ever given us exactly what we want?

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