Monday, December 26, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 16: Pilot)

(Written for the video version)

The original pilot of Dollhouse, called “Echo”, was Joss’ original concept for the first episode, but it was discarded after concerns from FOX and is now very non-canon, though many of its scenes were scavenged for other episodes. Though it is non-canon, I think it’s interesting to look at the original pitch for Dollhouse.

It starts off with Echo swimming. Adelle’s voiceover introduces us to the concept of the Actives, describing them with wondrous admiration. Joss has said that if any of the characters represents him, it’s Adelle, so I get the sense of Joss talking to the camera here and introducing the show. One thing she says is that the world first seems simple and then it gets complicated. I imagine that has to do with the theme of being unsure who is and isn’t an Active, but I’m reminded of the lesson from Buffy that the black-and-white moral model is a lie. In the last part, I referenced Adelle saying “Nothing is what it appears to be” in the first episode, and that appears to have been a downgraded form of this.

We then see a series of scenes to showcase Echo as a woman of many faces. The first has her rescuing a woman from a man trying to coerce her into prostitution in return for drugs. Her imprint is of a woman this guy helped rape in the past. Echo beats him up and taunts him as he leaves.

Echo: “He’s crying! Do you see him crying like a tiny woman?”

Normally when there’s sexist dialog in a Joss Whedon show, I think there’s a moral around it. This seems to have no moral, though. It’s just Echo being sexist. Femininity is shameful, and Echo uses it to mock the pimp guy. Echo is a strong woman saving a woman from an evil man, but then she goes and puts down femininity. Anyway, Echo tells her to take a good look at herself, clean up, and go home.

Next imprint, Echo’s on a romantic engagement. The idea is that the client’s ex-wife is remarrying, and he wanted a perfect date for the wedding to make her jealous. This is interesting because the first example of the romantic engagement isn’t all about pleasing the client sexually like the FOX-influenced first episode depicted for fanservice. In the pilot, though Echo is shown as very pretty, the focus is on the ex-wife.

Bride: “You know what? It doesn’t matter. This is the happiest day of my life.”
Friend: “Yeah, but where does a girl like that--?”
Bride: “This is the happiest day of my life!”

Now, later we do see Echo being sexual with this guy, put there’s not the same visual effect. In “Ghost”, the camera acts as the male gaze and someone went too far with the saturation. That is, her color’s more intense, making your eyes drawn to her body.

Anyway, next, we see Echo as a negotiator defending a client from a bunch of Spanish-speaking gangsters. Despite their guns and threats, she stays perfectly cool. Boyd doesn’t even worry. She ends up successful, of course.

We cut back to Adelle and see that she’s giving a prospective client a sales pitch, the one later used in “Epitaph One”. She describes how the romantic engagements work. This comes shortly after we saw Echo beating up a pimp, and as there’s a clear prostitution angle to the Dollhouse, I see a thematic comparison here. Adelle promises that the client will never forget his time with the Active, and then we immediately cut to Echo being wiped.

We then see the scene from “Stage Fright” where Ballard talks to Lubov. Lubov jokes that if the Dollhouse existed, he’d sign up to be an Active so he could be imprinted to be like Doris Day. We then see Sierra looking a bit like Doris Day, coming back from an engagement with a cut on her head. It’s unclear what happened, but she looks ready for a treatment. After a wipe, her cut is then treated by Dr. Saunders.

Then there’s the scene from “Grey Hour” where all three Actives sit together. This would have been the reveal of Victor as an Active. We see Topher and Boyd watching them and commenting on their grouping behavior. Though some of the dialog is the same as in “Grey Hour”, the conversation goes different places.

First, Boyd makes a comment about not liking that the Actives have been reduced to such a state, which from Topher’s reaction seems like the first he’s made. Topher asks if he’s been talking to Claire, who he refers to as “the Phantom”. He describes her objections as crap, saying Boyd shouldn’t listen to her. Boyd shares a conspiracy theory that the Actives aren’t really volunteers as the Dollhouse has them believe. Topher objects to Boyd saying this while in the employ of the people he’s claiming are evil; Boyd doesn’t respond, but it’s clear he doesn’t see a problem. This is interesting because it sounds kind of like the Feminist Frequency criticism that Boyd is cool for being rebellious but still continues to work there. That this is brought up in the pilot makes me think the writers were aware of this inconsistency and it’s there on purpose.

Anyway, Boyd brings up the point often brought up by feminists that the consent given by way of contract isn’t meaningful because the people have no way of knowing exactly what will be required of them. Again, the writers were already on top of this.

Topher argues that the Actives have a great life, getting to experience wonderful things like love. Boyd says it’s not real love, and that it’s programmed into them. Topher goes on a rant about how we’re all programmed by culture, referencing various social rituals and expectations.

Boyd tries to guilt Topher, but Topher all but claims to be a sociopath. He insists that he doesn’t care; that he’s just there for the cool science and the hot chicks. He says morality is just a social construct. Though Topher is shades of this in “Ghost”, he’s not this extreme. Given that in season two, Adelle, Boyd, and Claire regard Topher as though he were a sociopath, thus making his showing guilt more of a contrast, I think the writers considered this a good illustration of his beliefs if not canon that he expressed them. This means that though Topher is sometimes fun to watch in season one, we’re not supposed to regard him in the best light because of his apathy.

Boyd returns the conversation to the three Actives, asking which one first started the group. It’s Echo. Topher suggests that she’s evolving past her imprints. For some reason, if Adelle finds out about this, Topher and Boyd will be in trouble. They thus have a weird little conspiracy against the higher-ups that could conceivably help Echo.

Topher sneaks into Dr. Saunders’ office to steal her files on Echo. Claire shows up and tells him she always makes the information available to everyone, so he just has to ask. He decides to risk telling her his suspicions about Echo evolving. She reveals that Echo and other Actives show increased physical ability after altruistic engagements. Helping people makes them happy, which improves them past the imprints. Topher says he doesn’t care about them improving; his job is to keep them at the same level. They argue about morality, don’t reach a conclusion, and go their separate ways.

We see the scene from “The Target” where Ballard receives a picture of Caroline from Alpha. He scans the photo and runs it through the face database, which automatically alerts Adelle. She tells Dominic that they need to bring him out and make him talk. Victor is imprinted as Lubov and sent out to call Ballard with a tip to check out an abandoned building, which is a clip from “Stage Fright”. In “Stage Fright”, Ballard finds a trap set by the Russian mafia. In the pilot, he finds Echo.

Echo says she’s a woman looking for her sister, who she suspects was abducted by a prostitution ring (aka the Dollhouse). The idea is that the photo Ballard received is of her sister. Ballard takes her back to his apartment. She talks about her investigation, describing a conversation with a pimp who mentioned the Dollhouse, specifically a Dollhouse employee who acted like a cop. There seems to be a definite lead there, so Ballard’s happy.

Echo wobbles and needs help to a couch. She again makes a sexist comment where she apologizes for being such a girl. She asks about his investigation, saying that she’s delighted to have found someone who’s investigated the same thing. It looks like this is the perfect match for Ballard. She’s exactly what he needs. Ballard realizes this and figures out she’s an Active.

Calling her “nobody”, he pulls a gun on her, but she takes it away from him and points it at him. “I’m not ‘nobody’,” she snarls.  He asks if she’s Caroline. Startled, she falters, adjusts her aim, and then fires.

Based on this, I’m willing to view the “I’m such a girl; I’m so weak” thing as an ironic statement.
Boyd reacts with surprise. He had no idea Echo would do this. As it turns out, Adelle had Topher make Echo a psycho-for-hire to gather intelligence. If Ballard figured out she was lying, she was to kill him. While cleaning up to make it look like Ballard was robbed, she sees the photo of Caroline. Ballard grabs her leg but she doesn’t shoot him, and instead leaves with Boyd. An ambulance arrives to take Ballard to the hospital.

Boyd asks Echo about what happened. She describes how he saw through her cover, but doesn’t say what he said after that. She instead says that she wasn’t concentrating on that at all. We know this is a lie because she responded to Ballard. So, she’s lying to Boyd about Dollhouse stuff.

Echo says that she needs to complete the job by killing Ballard. She gets away from Boyd by holding a gun on him, and then hijacks a car to take her to the hospital. Adelle receives a call from her superior to tell her to stop Echo from killing Ballard. Topher says he can’t do a remote wipe, so Boyd races to stop her. At the hospital, Echo sees the woman she helped save from the pimp in the first imprint reconciling with her mother. This makes Echo pause long enough for Boyd to catch up with her. Boyd promises she’ll get paid even if she stands down, and she comes with him.

Echo is wiped. Adelle informs the staff that Ballard will survive despite being shot point blank by a trained killer. She implies that she thinks Echo deliberately went off mission and shot to wound. So, even though Topher programmed her to be a sociopath, she wasn’t completely because Caroline wasn’t and the good soul shone through. As Echo goes to sleep, she whispers Caroline’s name.

While not an overtly feminist plot as some of them, the pilot does have Echo as this strong character in several imprints. The thing with her memories shining through her sociopathy to make her feel empathy is nice. She does remember Caroline’s name at the end, showing her gradual mental evolution. Some feminists prefer this beginning because Echo starts evolving herself instead of being artificially influenced by Alpha. I am willing to look past that, as Echo seems perfectly capable of evolving without Alpha but he helps speed things up.

I don’t like the pilot’s little sexist comments, but the general plot kind of contradicts the idea of weak femininity. Boyd’s conversation with Topher is pretty interesting, and Boyd speaks for the critics more when he has time to talk more. In general, I like the final product significantly better, but it’s nice to see the pilot as having the same basic plot of Echo being strong and the Dollhouse cast as evil, especially without the FOX-influenced sexuality of the main show.

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