Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Epitaph One

Spoilers for the unaired season finale of the first season of Dollhouse follow, as well as references to other season one episodes.

I came into this episode having been spoiled only a tiny bit: that the episode was a "game changer", the oddities around its production that led to it not being aired in the US, and most curiously, the ongoing question, will season two deal with its aftermath or not? Now that I've seen it, it's clear that most people asking that question were wondering, will season two take place after the events of Epitaph One? But that's not the right question at all. What they're doing is just what I thought: continuing the story from right after Omega, but now we know a few things about where it will eventually end up.

(Given that ratings for the season two premiere are even worse than they were back when there was no chance of renewal last season, I wonder if we're going to see that. Has Joss been foresighted enough to prepare season two so that it wraps up the entire storyline? Will Fox even let him finish airing season two? They've sworn they would let him do as he liked for season two, but that doesn't mean they're not going to pull the show if it's doing badly enough.)

My feelings about Epitaph One are mixed. Certainly, the show was gripping, the vision was spectacular, the storytelling intense. At the same time, I am kind of disappointed about the direction the show must inevitably go, and I kind of hope we get there more quickly, instead of belaboring the argument.

Throughout season one there has been an undercurrent of debate. On one side there are a lot of people who argue that this technology must, inevitably, irresistably, be used for terrible and regrettable purpose, no matter how noble are the intentions of anyone involved. (I'm oversimplifying. Some people have argued "maybe it could be used well, but it's owned by someone who can't be trusted with it," but mostly in passing, and there's always an overtone that that fact too was inevitable. And there were a few glancing contacts with the idea "Even if almost everyone tried to use it right, someone would use it wrong, and only one is enough," but only barely.)

On the other side are a few people who insist it is a tool and can be used however the people involved want to use it; we've even seen some pro-bono uses where it was being used to do good things that might not be possible otherwise. We've also seen some times where the technology achieved some good. For instance, in what started as perhaps the most egregiously decadent uses of the technology, letting a rich person attend her own funeral, she actually ends up solving a murder and improving the lives of several members of her family.

Clearly, Joss always intended this technology to be a terrible, terrible thing, and word is that was going to be clear from season one but Fox had him tone it down and make it more ambiguous and balanced. In this case, amazingly, I side with Fox. The characters who support this technology and its possibilities are not, and should not be, caricature villains who are just rationalizing their actions. They shouldn't be garden-variety hubris victims. They should be people who are able to face these questions and come up with good answers. And if they turn out wrong, their mistake should be believable, even one with which we can sympathize.

And some scenes in Epitaph One suggest Joss is going for that very thing. Topher's breakdown as he realizes he was the one to think of the clever use of telemarketing, and his telling line about not being able to distinguish between curiosity and arrogance, certainly points in that direction. But ultimately, the show is saying that the mere existence of this technology must inevitably lead to terrible things (and not just any terrible things, but a Zombie Apocalypse).

And I think that's disappointingly selling the possibilities short. Am I just being too Topherish to think that it will take a very specific sequence of events to lead to the particular outcome depicted, one which is actually more dependent on the happenstance of who owns the technology and how it's used (and in particular, its secrecy) than on the technology itself? I find it pretty implausible that it could be kept secret long enough to lead to this scenario, in fact.

The "remote wipe" mentioned in an early season one episode (the one with the safecracking job) hints at the possibility of eventually producing a completely sonic way to program the brain, but it feels like too big a jump to think that they can nearly-instantly wipe a person's brain and fill it with an entire mind with nothing more than low-fidelity sound. But that's a pretty minor irritation: one could easily handwave some more plausible delivery method (a macrovirus carrying a wedge encoded in a molecular matrix, for instance) and the result is the same. And the handwaves involved in getting to the point of having braintaping and synthetic minds are already pretty huge but we've already swallowed those. Still, it feels kind of pat: once we have braintaping then we will inevitably have the Saberhagen berserker version of the Zombie Apocalypse? Big jump.

This post sounds far more critical than I mean it to be, because I still find the show fascinating and one of the best shows on TV right now. It just takes a lot more words to explain my one minor disappointment than it would to express all the things I like about it, because I'm not just explaining it, I'm riffing on it.

Incidentally, Butchers feel like Reavers 2.0. Because they're the same thing, but the means by which they become Butchers is scarier. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe because what makes one person become a Reaver and not another is innate, but what makes one person a Butcher and not another is a choice. A choice made in ignorance of its impact, but a choice all the same.

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