Book review: 1984, by George Orwell

A couple years ago, I finally got around to reading Orwell’s famous 1984, and you know something? It wasn’t that great.

Now I know it isn’t Orwell’s fault pretty much everybody who reads his book knows the ending already, but a good book should still be engaging even with the ending spoiled. 1984, on the other hand, was about 80% dull.

In fact, I found the most interesting parts were the ones where Orwell was waxing philosophical and largely ignoring the story. His point about the importance of meaningless gestures (such as not betraying those we care about, even when it doesn’t help them) was a good one, and well made. Likewise, the political analyses in Goldstein’s book were interesting, though I disagree with him on a couple important details, such as the assertion that social inequality has ever been necessary or desirable.

The concept of doublethink is particularly insightful, denoting a profound and sophisticated principle in such a way as it can be easily understood, and furthermore providing posterity with an excellent term to describe this principle in action. Though I don’t believe it ever comes up in Goldstein’s book, you can see doublethink at work in members of the upper- and middle- and even underclass’ attempts to defend the class system. Perhaps even more significantly, we can sometimes see this process at work in ourselves when we make excuses for doing something less-than-wholly justified (we’ve all been there).

But the story itself? Pretty forgettable; I wasn’t invested in either Winston or Julia, or their doomed romance. They felt more like props than interesting characters in their own right. And the plot felt more than anything like just marking time until the Ministry of Love gets its claws in the two and starts working them over.

Even the Dystopian world failed to grab me. Yes, the trilateral empire of Oceania-Eurasia-Eastasia is nightmarish in the abstract, but I never felt the visceral sense of horror that even a fictional police state should evoke. Ironically, and in defiance of the adage that an author ought to show rather than tell, I found Orwell’s Dystopia far more chilling when he describes it journalistically than when he depicts Winston navigating it as part of his everyday life.


My other problem with the world was that, O’Brien’s delusions notwithstanding, I don’t see this society surviving indefinitely in the real world. Despite O’Brien’s claims that the Party dictates human nature, what we see is that in fact the Party can only manipulate human nature to its own purposes (such as using people’s most primal fears to get them to betray those they love).


Sooner or later, some fraction of humanity always rebels at being dominated and exploited, and I don’t see any evidence that the Party is capable of either curbing or otherwise neutralizing this tendency. I can believe it’s capable of breaking any given rebel spirit just like it breaks Winston and Julia; I’ll even accept it can somehow make this change in personality permanent, though Orwell never really goes into how this works. (And thinking of real world dissidents who have endured decades of imprisonment, torture, and other abuse without capitulating makes this turn-around difficult for me to swallow without explanation.)


But the Party seems to me woefully unequipped to break rebellious spirits in large numbers (such as you would get in a mass uprising)*, and nothing in the book really convinces me that their control is so tight as to render mass resistance impossible.


*So many faces, and so few boots.

O’Brien’s other major oversight is in thinking the Party can impose stasis upon the world. If there’s anything nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s constancy. O’Brien claims the Party controls nature, but what he means is that the Party controls human perceptions of nature. Once again, O’Brien is dead wrong in asserting that reality is entirely subjective, existing only in people’s collective consciousness. He and Winston can think he’s floating all they want, but if the floor underneath his feet is electrified, he’ll die just the same.

And the thing about nature is that it’s chaotic. It’s just going to keep throwing curve balls at humanity, and the more the Party tries to assert its own ideology over natural processes, the sooner will be the time when it gets a curve ball that it can’t believe or explain into nonexistence (e.g. asteroid impact, climate change, etc.). And then Oceania is toast.

The only way the Party could remain perpetually in control would be if it completely understood both human nature and the workings of the natural world. Knowledge that complete is well beyond human capability to attain even now, and perhaps it always will be.

Add to that, even within the internal logic of Orwell’s story, you can only believe the situation is eternal if you accept his assertion that the working class has never and can never act in its own best interests without leadership from sections of the upper or middle class. And by “accept,” I don’t mean agree with Orwell’s arguments, I mean take the assertion on blind faith, as Orwell never bothers to give even a halfhearted explanation for why the underclass is incapable of action (and, indeed, the insight necessary to inspire action); he merely has his characters state that it is so.

So from my perspective, Orwell’s Dystopian vision is fatally flawed. To be fair to him, we can find similar flaws with most everybody’s vision of a sufficiently Dystopian—or sufficiently Utopian—society. This is not to say that things can never get that bad or that good. It’s just that because each individual human’s understanding of the world is incomplete, our attempts to predict how they can become that bad or that good, and in exactly what way, are bound to be imperfect.

I also have to wonder if Orwell really agreed with O’Brien that “death is the ultimate failure.” I could believe that he doesn’t, as a major theme of the book is that Winston’s greatest failure—the one which not only defeats him but converts him—is in betraying Julia. That makes a lot more sense, but if O’Brien is wrong, well, that’s yet another hole in his argument for Oceania’s permanence.

Before I read it, I was scared of this book. I knew what it was about, and I was afraid it would horrify me, scare me, depress me. As it turns out, it just bored me.


TV review: Dollhouse season one

So in the spring of 2009, while my friends and I were concluding what was to be the last term of Antioch College*, Joss Whedon released a brand new television series called Dollhouse. And it was really, reeeeally bad.

*Meaning the institution I refer to when I say “Antioch College,” as opposed to the legal entity formally known as “Antioch College.”

My sister linked me the first two episodes, and the overall feeling they provoked in me was one of acute boredom. I probably would have stopped there, but ptolemaeus was sufficiently engaged by the show to get me to watch most of the rest of the season with her over the summer. We skipped over episodes three and four, though, and from all I’ve heard of them, I didn’t miss much. We also didn’t see episode thirteen, “Epitaph One,” because it wasn’t broadcast with the rest of the series, and by the time it was available, even ptolemaeus had lost interest.

The season never stopped being incredibly bad, but it did grow a lot more engaging, to the point where I ended up doing a write-up of some of the later episodes. For this re-post, I figured I’d go ahead and discuss all the episodes of the series that I’ve seen.

Warning: this post contains potentially triggering discussions of rape and child sexual abuse.

And as always, spoilers.


Caroline (played by Eliza Dushku) accepts a five-year contract with a mysterious organization called the Dollhouse. This contract involves having her personality wiped and put on a hard drive, so that the Dollhouse can imprint her with … whatever personality they like.

In between missions, Caroline—now called Echo—and the other “Dolls” or “Actives” are kept in a zombielike state of emotionless obedience. Ostensibly, they have no personalities when they’re like this, but in practice, they act more like well-behaved children than robots.

Not long before the series begins, an Active called Alpha went postal and murdered or mutilated several Dolls and Dollhouse staff—deliberately leaving Echo untouched. Alpha is still at large and still very interested in Echo. (Sound familiar?)

Over the course of several missions in which Echo has essentially the same personality with different wardrobe and trappings, she begins experiencing memories of previous Engagements, of her time at the Dollhouse, and even her original personality, Caroline.

The series attempts to address themes of personal identity, slavery, human trafficking and sex work, but the discourse falls flat for numerous reasons, most prominently the utter ineptness of the delivery coupled with Whedon’s conviction that he’s writing something profound and his aversion/inability to integrate “the Dollhouse is human trafficking” with “the Dollhouse helps people out and has scantily-clad Eliza Dushku kicking evildoers’ asses” in any coherent manner.

Dollhouse recruitment policy also skews noticeably towards young, conventionally-attractive, white, and female, in that order. There’s significant potential here for social commentary about the way the Dollhouse’s biases—reflecting, as they do, contemporary US television’s biases—create a distorted picture of reality by overemphasizing some demographics at the expense of others. Unfortunately, for that to happen, the show would have to—for a start—acknowledge the distortions, and it sadly doesn’t go even that far.

I should also put a word in about the theme song. It’s not that it’s bad as such, but it’s badly out of place. It would be more appropriate coupled with one of those sad, nostalgic, slightly surreal Irish fairy tales. Or the tenth anniversary of a close friend’s death. I suppose it’s just another example of Whedon trying to make out that what he’s writing is grim and serious despite the evidence.

Episode 1: Ghost: The series begins with a conversation between Caroline and the head of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), wherein the latter convinces her to sign a five-year contract to be an Active. We then cut to Echo partying with a random charming stud and saying she could do this forever, minutes before she’s taken back to the Dollhouse to have her current imprint extracted. This is played up as tragedy, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

About the first half of the episode is comprised of showing us the Dollhouse’s setup, and introducing the other major players. These include Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler, who harbors misgivings about the Dollhouse’s mission and is thus the closest thing to a two-dimensional character in these early episodes; Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the amoral geek in charge of all things Dolltech and the only source of anything resembling fun or snappy dialogue for much of the season; Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a new Active whom Echo strikes up a sort-of friendship with; Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), the hard-nosed and generally suspicious head of Dollhouse security; and Dr. Claire Saunders (Whedon veteran Amy Acker), the Dollhouse medic, whose sole claim to anything approaching originality is the faint scars on her face she received during the Alpha incident.

Finally, the call comes down to have Echo brought in as a hostage negotiator. One wonders why the client couldn’t have just sprung for an actual hostage negotiator, which would probably have given you the same skill set, be much cheaper, and not be—as it turns out—so appallingly bad at the job.

First she nearly doubles the kidnappers’ ransom on her own initiative—so they can get used to playing things her way, which I somehow doubt is standard procedure for hostage negotiations. Then she bungles the trade-off so the bad guys get away with the loot and the little girl they kidnapped.

Echo freaked out because one of the women who was a template for this imprint was taken as a girl by the lead kidnapper, who killed his accomplices and systematically raped her. That girl grew up and studied hostage negotiations (because obviously, the only reason a woman could have for going into this kind of profession is to work through personal trauma) and eventually committed suicide.

Even accepting the mawkish baskstory, you’d think a technical genius like Topher would have managed to incorporate the template’s knowledge into Echo’s imprint without giving her the accompanying PTSD—or failing that, used an equally knowledgeable template without a history of trauma in the first place. Oh, and he also gave her imprint asthma for some bullshit contrived reason about having to “balance her out”—because apparently putting together a Dollhouse imprint works on the exact same principles as D&D character generation.

Adelle is ready to give up the mission as a bad job, but is convinced to give Echo’s hostage negotiator persona a second shot, because she believes the Dollhouse’s mission is to be a force for good in the world. How on earth she manages to square that belief with the Dollhouse’s use of mind-rape and treating their Actives like living furniture is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, Echo enters the kidnappers’ hideout and convinces the head kidnappers’ two accomplices that he’s planning to betray them. With their help, she rescues the girl and defeats the kidnapper, thus providing a very esoteric kind of closure for the victim strand of her personality.

Then Sierra blows in with a black ops team and kills the kidnappers. This is supposed to be all edgy and shit, but it just comes off as melodramatic.

In the closing scene, we see a naked man who is implied to be Alpha sitting in a living room watching a television broadcast of Echo.

A subplot running throughout the episode involves painfully stereotypical “maverick” FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) being convinced that the Dollhouse is real and using ethically questionable methods to get information out of small-time Russian mobster Anton Lubov (Enver Gjokaj).

The characters in this episode are dull, the plot is dull, and even the dialogue—normally Whedon’s staple—is dull. Strap in folks, we’re in for a very long ride.

Episode 2: The Target: This time around, Echo gets an engagement to go on a romantic camping trip with outdoorsman Richard Connell, but it turns out her client is harboring a deadly secret.

… Specifically, Connell’s secret is that he gets off on hunting women like animals and Echo, naturally, is the eponymous target.

Oh my god, what do I do with this character? As cartoonish as Whedon’s Straw Misogynists can get, this is the one who stands out to me as by far the most ludicrous of the bunch. As always, though, the character is played with the utmost seriousness. After I first saw this episode, I got onto a chat with ptolemaeus, saying “I wonder what the world will look like when that man [Whedon] re-discovers subtlety.”

(You have to wonder how Connell expected to escape the wrath of the Dollhouse, as they wouldn’t be too keen on a client murdering one of their Actives.)

What follows is an uninspiring game of cat and mouse through the woods, punctuated with atrocious dialogue. The crowning example would be Echo’s response to Connell’s typical cardboard villain blather about people like her having to earn their right to continued survival: “You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them!”

Langton attempts to intervene and help Echo, but fails—and if I remember correctly, is injured as well—leaving her to face down Connell by herself. Echo kills Connell, and this is supposed to be all empowering and shit. yawn. Because he was an Evil Misogynist, killing him entails no long-term ethical, moral, or legal consequences whatsoever.

A subplot involves flashbacks to Langton’s introduction to the Dollhouse, in the wake of Alpha’s murder spree which left Echo’s previous handler dead and Doctor Saunder’s face scarred.

There’s more boringly cliché antics between Ballard and his stereotypically skeptical colleagues and between Ballard and Lubov. We also meet Ballard’s neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie), who is set up as a romantic interest.

Episodes 3 & 4: never watched them, sorry.

Episode 5: True Believer: Echo is engaged by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to infiltrate a religious cult, which for some spurious reason requires implanting video cameras in her eyes, while making her imprint for this mission blind.

The title comes from the fact that Echo’s persona is not programmed to be an undercover agent, but an actual believer in cult leader Jonas Sparrow’s teachings. I suppose this is going by the theory that if even she doesn’t know she’s an agent, she’s less likely to get caught. Whether this is more effective than imprinting her with all the training a regular agents gets is debatable, but it does ensure she’s much less capable of defending herself when things go wrong. Oh, and because she’s not programmed to do any actual investigating, one wonders how she would’ve found the weapons’ cache if Sparrow hadn’t conveniently locked her up with it.

Okay, so the mission here is even more contrived than the hostage negotiation in episode one. Seriously, why not just send in cockroaches with cameras, instead of using Echo’s eyes?

Oh, and at least some branches of the US government are perfectly aware of the Dollhouse’s inhumane and probably illegal activities, but are happy to turn a blind eye so long as they can make use of the organization’s services. Can’t say I’m surprised, really.

Anyway, it turns out the note which implied some of the cult members were being held against their will and triggered the investigation was actually planted by the ATF agent who’s coordinating the mission with the Dollhouse. Sparrow’s an ex-crook, and the agent was convinced this whole cult thing was just a smokescreen to allow him to continue his life of crime. There’s some room to believe Sparrow really is sincere, and the guns are just a precaution—against trigger-happy law enforcement, for instance—but they’re still illegal, so trigger-happy law enforcement gets to swoop in and clear everybody out.

Certainly, Sparrow’s response to the assault, “let’s burn the building around us and trust that God’s power will protect us, just like in the Bible” makes more sense for a true blue zealot than a cynical con man.

However, during the proceedings, Echo receives a bump on the head which shorts out the cameras and restores her eyesight, which in turn gets interpreted as a miracle. Echo also decides that burning to death inside the building is not a great idea, and gets some of the cult members to start organizing an evacuation, saying the fact her eyesight is restored proves God sent her to the cult with a message, “and that message is move your ass! Go!” It’s a classic Whedon line, and I don’t know if it’s Eliza Dushku’s delivery or the line itself is just trying too hard, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work. (Also, so much for “true believer.”)

Sparrow, realizing Echo is big trouble, attempts to kill her, but is shot in the chest by Dominic. This is not precisely a rescue—Dominic has been growing concerned at Echo’s increasing propensity towards self-awareness, which he compares to Alpha’s behavior leading up to the latter’s killing spree. So he hits her in the head with the butt of his gun but for no clear reason whatsoever refrains from shooting her like he did Sparrow.

Surprise, surprise, come next morning, the building has burned down but Echo has survived, and is brought safely back to the Dollhouse, thus making Dominic officially the World’s Most Inept Assassin. What would have made for a great twist ending would’ve been a closing shot showing that Sparrow had—miraculously—survived as well, but no such luck.

This episode’s subplot involves Topher and Dr. Saunders investigating the strange behavior of a Doll named Victor, who by now has been revealed as Lubov’s true identity. Despite the fact that Dolls are supposed to be stripped of all personality when not given an imprint (and this is apparently supposed to extend to hormones), video evidence reveals that Victor has been getting hard-ons when in the communal shower with Sierra. This will become important later on. (Well, not the part about the Dollhouse staff using spy cameras to watch the Dolls while they’re in the shower, although since the staff’s hormones definitely haven’t been suppressed, you’d think it would become an issue at some point.)

Episode 6: Man in the Street: Echo is engaged by a millionaire programmer to play his deceased wife for an evening, when Ballard finally catches up with her.

Ballard finds Echo by way of the client, Joel Mynor, a not conventionally attractive man whose conventionally attractive wife supported him financially up until the day he struck it rich in the dot com bubble—the same day she died tragically in a car accident (melodramatic, yes, but tame by Whedon’s standards). Every year, Mynor engages an Active to be imprinted with his wife’s personality, take her to the luxurious home he bought for her, have a romantic dinner together, and then get freaky between the sheets because, as he says to Ballard, “It is a fantasy.”

Ballard finds Mynor’s use of brainwashed women to live out this fantasy disgusting, but Mynor has worked out that Ballard has his own less than altruistic motives for pursuing Echo, and calls him a hypocrite in turn.

Ballard goes after Echo anyway, but he also starts a relationship with Mellie, whom he’s told about his Dollhouse investigations. Seems like a sensible decision to me—stop chasing fantasy figures and see how things go with the person sitting right next to you.

Ballard catches up with Echo, but it’s been determined that he’s getting too close, and Echo has been given ninja programming to remove him as a threat. In the midst of kicking Ballard’s ass, though, Echo suddenly stops as a sleeper personality takes over, with a message for Ballard from a mysterious ally inside the Dollhouse. She informs him that the Dollhouse’s stated mission of supplying custom-made personalities for such varied purposes as hostage negotiations, bodyguarding, safe cracking, midwifery, cult-busting, and various glorified forms of prostitution is just a front, and that he needs to figure out what the Dollhouses (there are more than one) are really up to. Her original programming then takes over and she frames Ballard for shooting a fellow cop, thus adding “edgy cop on a mission gets suspended” to our list of law enforcement clichés.

Meanwhile, back at the Dollhouse, the staff discover that someone within their organization has raped Sierra. They discover this because she starts screaming bloody murder when touched by a male Doll, and of course the only possible reason she could have for doing so is rape.

Suspicion initially falls upon Victor, because of his obvious attraction to Sierra. However, it transpires that the true culprit is Sierra’s handler, Hearn. On the one hand, Whedon is really pulling his punches—not to mention his social commentary—by having the person who raped Sierra be not lovable Victor, but complete scumbag Hearn. Because only utter bastards are ever guilty of raping a woman—which is why so many rape cases hinge upon the character of the accused male rapist, rather than the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do.

On the other hand, well, Victor really is lovable, when not playing the annoying Lubov, and pulling him off the hook for abusing Sierra means we get to preserve the fun of having his character around without any unpleasant associations. Admittedly, that’s an incredibly shallow perspective to take, but heavy-handedness notwithstanding, this is a show which often takes the “safe” route when it comes to its storytelling, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to engage with it on that basis, shallow or not.

DeWitt and the rest of the staff are outraged with Hearn, which, as Dan Hemmens points out, is kind of incongruous for a bunch of human traffickers.

Hearn is the poster boy for the stereotypical male-on-female rapist: a slimy asshole with no redeeming qualities who uses his superior physical and/or institutional power to force himself upon a woman. I’m not saying this sort of thing never happens, but making this the canonical “story of rape” and vilifying the perpetrators is actually a key element of perpetuating rape culture: it ensures that perpetrators, bystanders, and even victims will have a harder time identifying rape in all other cases, such as when, e.g. a man takes advantage of a woman under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol, or spikes her drink with the express purpose of taking advantage*. The latter scenario is roughly equivalent to Dollhouse clients like Mynor hiring brainwashed Dolls like Echo into having sex with them, and is no less rape than Hearn physically overpowering Sierra. Yet Mynor—despite getting called out by Ballard—is still treated with a level of sympathy which is not afforded Hearn.

*And, of course, any instances which aren’t male-on-female.

Mynor, and Ballard, and other characters related to the Dollhouse are painted in shades of gray (dull gray), as is their behavior, whereas Hearn and his behavior are painted in stark black-and-white. The episode asks the viewer to consider whether there’s really any difference between Mynor’s treatment of Echo and Hearn’s treatment of Sierra. The problem is that with this set-up, Whedon leaves plenty of interpretive space open for viewers to arrive at an affirmative answer, especially if they’ve already been primed with rape myths such as the one outlined above.

DeWitt sends Hearn to assassinate Mellie, ostensibly because Ballard has told her too much, but in actuality to be executed by her. Mellie, it turns out, is another Doll, November, whose mission is to spy on Ballard for the Dollhouse, and also has a sleeper ninja personality for some reason or other which DeWitt activates. With Hearn dispatched, DeWitt gives the counter-phrase and November reverts back to Mellie, who’s understandably distraught by the dead guy in her living room. Ballard arrives on the scene and comforts Mellie, apparently harboring no suspicions about the improbable circumstances of Hearn’s death.

By contrast, Mynor’s ending is that Echo gets re-imprinted with the personality of his wife, and is sent back to him to complete the fantasy. Some people have seen ambiguity in this ending, but again, even ambiguity distances it from the straight-up condemnation of Hearn’s conclusion.

The episode title refers to a series of sound-bites sprinkled throughout the story from interviews with random passersby. Apparently, in the show’s universe, the existence of the Dollhouses is kept secret from the general public, but is still subject to rumor, and some journalist has been going around asking people to comment upon this semi-mythical organization.

In his breakdown of the show’s first six episodes, Dan Hemmens had a lot to say about the discursive meaning behind the various answers, which is well worth considering. Personally, though, I just found the whole thing a boring gimmick, along with—in hindsight—some pretentious foreshadowing of the post-apocalyptic world of “Epitaph One.”

Episode 7: Echoes: A psychotropic drug gets loose on a college campus—coincidentally, Echo’s old campus—killing one person and getting several others drunk.

The drug was created by the Rossum Corporation, the company which owns the Dollhouse. Topher exposits some technobabble about the drug attacking people’s memories, and the Dolls being immune because their memories are fake. DeWitt sends in the Dolls to contain the outbreak while Topher works on a cure.

Echo, meanwhile, is on an unrelated assignment, but the television set she’s working with conveniently malfunctions, cutting to news coverage of the campus psychosis outbreak. She starts having flashbacks to her original personality, and feels the overwhelming need to head over to campus and … do something undefined, leaving her “client” tied to a bed.

When she arrives on campus, Echo starts remembering how she and her old boyfriend broke into the Rossum building on campus to document the corporation’s cruelty to animals. Despite obviously being confused and disoriented and generally acting exactly as if she were under the influence of the drug running loose, she manages to recruit one of the students to help her break back into Rossum.

Dull story short, her incongruously trusting ally turns out to be the person who set loose the drug in the first place, and he broke back in to get the rest. Still not sure why he trusted Echo to get him in, but whatever. He gets captured, and the drug wears off after a few hours.

The flashbacks imply but carefully do not say that Caroline’s boyfriend was killed by Rossum security after the two of them broke in and found incriminating evidence about the Dollhouse project. (Incidentally, Rossum security is crap.) At the time, ptolemaeus guessed Echo’s “dark secret”—the reason she signed on with the Dollhouse—would eventually turn out to be something other than “I got my boyfriend killed,” though I had my doubts.

There are some cute scenes, such as when Dominic and Victor’s Imprint-of-the-Week tussle over rank. Victor settles the dispute by going “NSA, bitch; outranks lowly private security,” and Dominic curses Topher. That bit also makes for some halfway-decent if heavy-handed foreshadowing.

When Dominic gets drunk, he also apologizes to Echo for trying to kill her as she wanders bye, and it’s actually a touching moment for him.

Watching the interactions of Victor’s and Sierra’s imprints, knowing what we do about their “relationship” is fun, too. If this show focused more on the characters’ relationships, and how they enact those relationships through a host of personalities, instead of wallowing in moral complexities and similar shite, it might actually have been worth watching.

Oh, and the drug also somehow gets loose in the Dollhouse, leading to some great scenes of Topher and DeWitt getting completely plastered in Topher’s office and acting, well, like two very drunk people. (No, they do not have sex.)

Episode 8: Needs: In order to cut down the dangerously independent behavior of the Actives, Dr. Scarface Amy Acker suggests they give their most “unstable” Dolls an outing to work through their original personalities’ unfinished business.

Echo, November, Sierra and Victor—along with a blond throwaway character named Mike—wake up in their sleep pods, sporting their original personalities but suffering amnesia. The five of them try to figure out what the hell is going on (among the leading theories: alien abduction), giving us a chance to see who these people really are. Victor quickly establishes himself as the coolest of the bunch by far, because he’s funny and competent and has a refreshingly take-charge-and-get-things-done attitude. Perhaps, as Dan Hemmens has suggested, Whedon just Does Guys Better.

Our heroes quickly discover they are not alone, and decide they must try to blend in with the other Dolls. This leads to an … interesting scene where the characters realize they’re supposed to enter a communal shower. If it were me, I would have hesitated a liiittle more than they all did, but maybe I’m just particularly self-conscious. Victor goes in last and is warned by Sierra not to look at anything, which he semi-accidentally does anyway. Because only men can be pervs, women having no sex drive of their own.

Mike is soon captured and turned back into a zombie. The remaining four musketeers are shaken by this, and decide to escape the Dollhouse. This accomplished, they each set out (without consciously realizing what they’re doing) to settle their unfinished business.

At this point, I was thinking that this might be a show that I could actually enjoy watching. Yes, the “fugitives from the Evil Laboratory” scenario is awfully cliché, but at least the main characters had actual personalities which could connect to the audience and each other. It set up something both they the writers and we the viewers could work with, and I found myself actually liking the main characters.

Unfortunately, Dr. Scarface implanted them all with some device or other which pumps sleep gas into their blood streams as soon as they’ve “worked through their issues.”

So, November falls asleep standing over her daughter’s grave (oh, yeah, how very poignant).

Sierra confronts the man who had her put in the Dollhouse against her will because she refused to have sex with him, and then Victor punches him out. Victor, not Sierra. This is more or less a textbook example of Nice Guy Syndrome, and it’s not pretty, let alone empowering. Quite the opposite.

To drive the point home, Victor then gets his “issues” settled by finally making out with Sierra—their relationship is pretty sweet—and then it’s nap time for both of them.

Before they go under, Victor and Sierra also get shot at by a couple of security guards, rather like Caroline and her boyfriend when the broke into the Rossum building. Around the time I first wrote up these episodes, I realized that in the Whedonverse, security guards and police officers deploying their firearms with intent to kill against unarmed suspects is not cause for surprise, much less a formal inquiry. (This does happen in real life, but since hardly any of Whedon’s characters are young African or Latino males, he still fails the plausibility test.)

Possibly this laissez-faire attitude toward shooting at people who pose no immediate danger is related to the attitude that kicking people who pose no immediate danger into engine intakes somehow makes a character more heroic, rather than murderous and sadistic.

Echo stays in the Dollhouse, shoots up Topher’s lab, and then forces DeWitt to set all the Dolls free, over the latter’s protests that they’d be helpless in their zombie states. Apparently, Echo didn’t think to have Topher return their personalities before springing them. As soon as she has “saved” all the Dolls by leading them out into the sun, she loses consciousness, and Dollhouse security quickly recaptures the mindless Actives.

The episode ends with the revelation that before going after Topher, Echo found Agent Ballard’s phone number somewhere, and called him up to enlist his aid. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be bothered to tell him anything more specific than that the Dollhouse is somewhere in Los Angeles and that it’s underground. That’s a lot of help.

Episode 9: Spy in the House of Love: We begin with a pointless flashforward which serves no purpose whatsoever. Cut to “Twelve hours earlier” with Echo returning from an engagement in Dominatrix gear. Here we get a patent Whedon scene with Echo explaining “It’s not about the pain, it’s about trust.” 75 seconds later: “Okay, sometimes it’s about the pain.” I don’t know if it’s that Whedon’s act is getting old, or if it’s that most of his jokes are only moderately funny by themselves, and need all he other entertaining material he cut out of this series to shine properly.

The narrative follows the Dollhouse’s Four Musketeers on various engagements. There’s a bit of overlapping of stories with Echo witnessing part of a scene from another Doll’s story, which then gets shown in full when their turn is up. It made me think the writers were trying to copy that old Simpsons episode showing Homer’s, Lisa’s, and Bart’s day in sequence, with each story tying back into the other two.

The difference is that in the Simpsons episode, each jigsaw scene was important to its own story thread, and to the story thread of the other scene it joined with, and vice versa. In this episode, we could’ve cut Echo’s jigsaw scene and not lost anything in either her story or the other Musketeers’. In the Simpsons example, jigsaw scenes served to enhance the plot; in the Dollhouse example, they provided a cheap gimmick.

Anyway, the main story thread of this episode is that in the process of fixing his mind-rape chair following Echo’s attack in the previous story, Topher finds a chip which was used to implant secondary instructions into the Actives. This is apparently the device used in “Man in the Street,” to get Echo to give a message to Ballard.

While DeWitt is away on business, Dominic is in command at the Dollhouse. Topher informs Dominic of his finding, and that the device is NSA. Dominic acts suspicious of Topher (after all, he is the head programmer) and orders a lockdown of the Dollhouse. He then has Sierra programmed to infiltrate NSA HQ and find information on their mole.

Echo wanders into Topher’s lab, asking if she can help. When he says she can’t, she replies that he has a process which makes people able to do things and volunteers to be imprinted. This incredible outburst of personality raises not a single red flag for Topher, who happily imprints Echo with the persona of a spy-catcher and takes her to see Dominic. Echo reveals her intention to start her interrogations with Topher himself, which, as Dominic remarks, restores his faith in Topher’s programming skills.

Sierra escapes NSA HQ with information implicating Topher’s assistant, Ivy. Echo realizes the information was planted, and that Dominic is the real spy. Cue the Obligatory Fight Sequence between Echo and Dominic, in which Dominic is captured.

DeWitt interrogates Dominic, who claims that he wasn’t trying to bring down the Dollhouse—he was, in fact, trying to keep DeWitt from bringing it down. DeWitt has Dominic sent to “The Attic,” where he’ll be kept in a state of perpetual forgetfulness. She then promotes Langton to chief of Dollhouse security, much to the latter’s chagrin.

We wrap up with Echo meeting her new handler, Travis, who is never seen or heard of again. (Whedon should take a lesson from Rob Thomas when it comes to handling bit characters.)

There are also a couple subplots. In November’s, she gets sent back to spy on Ballard, but also carries a secret message from his ally within the Dollhouse (presumably Dominic, but possibly not) explaining that Mellie is a Doll who can’t be trusted with information about his investigation.

In Victor’s, we learn that the “Miss Lonely Hearts” he’s been assigned to several times recently is DeWitt herself, who used the “out on business” excuse for a “romantic” getaway. However, during one of the boring, shallow sequences which stand in for character development in this show, she has some sort of revelation which convinces her to end these “Miss Lonely Hearts” meetings because … no, I’m not even going to pretend I followed whatever tired, trite, incredibly bo-ring line of reasoning they cooked up for that one.

Ms. DeWitt—or may I call you Adelle?—let me get this straight: your position is that it’s unethical for a Dollhouse employee to have sex with a Doll … unless the Doll in question has been programmed to like it? Just checking.

DeWitt’s behavior in this episode highlights the show’s incoherent approach to morality. Aside from the obvious Hearn parallels, in one scene she’s defending the Dollhouse’s practices to someone (probably Langton) by saying that while yes, they do send their Dolls out to do BDSM, they never take a contract for their Actives to play the submissive. Mortal danger? Fine. Illegal activity? No problem. Having all kinds of sex with any man sporting a big enough wad of cash—or, you know, herself? Absolutely. But contracting as a submissive? No way. Because that would be wrong.

And then there’s her confrontation with Dominic, where he insists that Dollhouse technology can’t be released to the general public, that it has to be kept under control. DeWitt, assuming he means “control by the NSA” is horrified at the idea of the Dollhouse coming under the purview of “a clandestine organization with little government oversight.” Yes, she actually says that, and if there was any conscious irony there, I sure as hell missed it. Sometimes this show makes no goddamn sense.

Episode 10: Haunted: DeWitt imprints Echo with the personality of her old friend Margaret, who has recently died, and now wants to find her killer. This gives Eliza Dushku the opportunity—for the first time in the show’s history—to play a character truly distinct from all her previous roles.

It’s also the first episode in the series in which none of Echo’s old memories push through her programming. ptolemaeus suggested they finally had an episode premise which was interesting enough in its own right. My theory is the writers were so caught up with the fact that this time, Echo’s imprint was a fully-formed human, and not something cobbled together like her other personalities, they forgot she’s still Echo rather than Margaret, and her original personality is supposed to be breaking through.

The exciting premise is quickly squandered with interminable scenes of Echo-as-Margaret interacting with her husband, brother, daughter, and son, all the while failing miserably at the pretense that she is anyone other than Margaret Whats-Er-Name. (Seriously, even Little Kuriboh of Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series can’t make this sort of scenario entertaining.) This being Joss Whedon we’re dealing with, there is, of course, a scene where Margaret’s son tries to make out with Margaret-as-Echo. Dollhouse! The television series that Goes There!

Hear that? That’s the sound of ten thousand people not being impressed. Or entertained.

The investigation begins with Margaret’s ex-husband acting creepy and weird, so we know right away that he didn’t do it. Then he reveals some vaguely incriminating information about her brother, so he’s in the clear, too.

In modern mysteries, the culprit is always the person the observer is never supposed to suspect. Therefore, the “detective” character can never be shown to suspect that person either. Unfortunately, in most such mysteries, the writer doesn’t do anything to divert the viewer’s suspicion from the real perpetrator aside from keeping the “detective” off the scent. Nineteen times out of twenty, you can figure out the culprit by singling out the one potential suspect who—for whatever reason—never falls under suspicion before the reveal.

In this case, the Culprit Criteria left us with two suspects: the daughter and the son. However, there were more than enough clues lying around for me to figure out the son was responsible well in advance. Something which may have been a clue was the revelation that the son was also a Dollhouse client, because only bad people hire mind-raped human Dolls to live out their fantasies. Except when it’s good people who hire them, of course.

What really got me, though, was the part where the son revealed that as a Dollhouse client, he’d been able to figure out that Echo was his mother. There was a rather touching scene where he told her how sad he was that she was dead, and I held out hope that I might actually be witnessing a criminal experiencing contrition.

On Whedon’s shows, people only seem to feel guilty over something they’ve done if it was by accident/they didn’t know what you were doing/they’d temporarily misplaced their soul. Apparently, unless it’s a main character, Joss Whedon doesn’t believe in a person voluntarily doing something horrible and then feeling bad about it later, despite documented evidence. Margaret’s son is no exception.

Interspersed with this narrative are a number of much cuter and more entertaining snippets where Topher imprints Sierra with the personality of a spunky, gung-ho geek he can hang out with. At the end of the episode, DeWitt reveals that she knows all about Topher programming Dolls for his own use (not difficult, as the two of them were playing catch and laser tag all over the Dollhouse), saying that he needs the companionship, and that it’s only once a year—on his birthday.

It’s left ambiguous whether Topher actually has sex with Geek Sierra, and frankly, I don’t care. If this show can’t be bothered to offer a mature and coherent analysis of its characters’ morality, I don’t see why I should take up all of the slack. Topher is the only consistently fun aspect of the show, and his scenes with Sierra-the-Geek were some of the sweetest, most entertaining moments of the entire season.

On the other hand, my opinion of Hearn’s intelligence has really gone down now that I find out the only thing he would’ve had to do to get DeWitt’s approval to have sex with Sierra was to request her services as an Active.

Ballard’s story in this episode revolves around his attempts to deal with the fact that his lover, Mellie—who’s still in love with him—is a brainwashed prostitute. His strategy consists of clumsily fending off her sexual advances and other than that doing jack shit. Clearly he’s lulling her into a sense of security which, once achieved, he will do absolutely nothing about.

Then at one point she corners him, saying that whatever he wants from her, she’s prepared to go along with, and whatever they do, “it doesn’t have to mean anything.” Under the crushing force of this unassailable logic, Ballard’s resolve crumbles like soft clay and he and November-as-Mellie go into pre-coital make-out montage. Um, morality, Joss? At the end of the episode, she’s walking around the apartment talking about how awesome the sex was, and asking if he’s going to do any more hunting for Dollhouse clients today. Cut to Ballard in the shower, looking set to challenge Angel for the title of World’s Most Epic Brooder, saying “I found one.” On second thought, don’t explore the moral implications of this sequence. Just don’t.

I suppose my real problem with that whole business was not in the moral ramifications of Ballard knowingly raping November, but in trying to fathom the logic behind it. I could understand and accept (if not approve of) Ballard’s decision if the show would only address why he caved so easily. To do that, however, would necessitate exploring territory Dollhouse has avoided like the plague since day one: characterization.

The first episode, “Ghost,” introduced Ballard as the stereotypical edgy cop on a mission, nothing more. Ten episodes later, the writing team has managed—at no little effort, doubtless—to avoid even the suggestion of character development on Ballard’s part.

Since Ballard effectively has no personality other than “stop the Dollhouse” and “save Caroline,” there’s no rhyme or reason to anything he does outside the spheres of those two objectives. We can understand most of them by filling in what a normal tv character would do at this point. But this 1) still leaves Ballard an essentially two-dimensional character, 2) doesn’t mitigate the writers’ irresponsibility in presenting him as such, and 3) still leaves us lacking any sort of explanation for the present debacle.

The writers’ aversion to characterization goes beyond just Ballard. I could see how DeWitt might rationalize her double standards when it comes to Dollhouse staff sleeping with Actives, and her curious refusal to contract them out as submissives. It would provide an interesting window onto her personality—if it were ever addressed.

Langton’s in the same boat. In “Spy in the House of Love,” when Echo interrogates him about his attitude toward the Dollhouse, he says: “We’re pimps and killers.” That’s a strong statement. And it raises the question: “If you feel so vehement about what the Dollhouse does, why the frak do you keep working for it?” but no one in the show bothers to ask. (Well, Ballard does in the twelfth episode, but the matter quickly gets swept under the rug.)

This may explain why Topher is by far the best character on the show. He’s the only non-zombie with a comprehensible personality. He does what he does because he’s a computer geek who doesn’t give a care about the ethical implications of his work; he’s in it for the cool tech.

Episode 11: Briar Rose: Echo’s “Engagement” for this episode is a special mission put together by Topher, with DeWitt’s approval. Topher takes a girl named Susan (age about 10), extrapolates a best-case-scenario grownup personality for her, imprints Echo with it, and then sends Echo out to help the kid work through her trauma and become the relatively happy and stable personality Topher has created.

Susan’s trauma? Her mother died when she was six, and her mother’s boyfriend pimped her out to pedophiles. Groaning yet? I was, too, but to my inexperienced eye, episode writer Jane Espenson did a good job with an admittedly cliché Whedo theme. At one point, Echo and Susan discuss Susan’s self-blame for not escaping her tormentor, and consequent bitterness when she’s referred to as a victim. I know bugger all about the psychology of rape victims, but I do know that internalized blame is often a key factor in victimization, and I seem to recall hearing from some authority a bit more knowledgeable than pop psych that women (and men) who have been raped or sexually assaulted often blame themselves at least partially.

We don’t get to see the resolution to this storyline, as Echo gets sucked into the ultimately duller main plot before she’s done working with Susan.

Ballard, apparently still eaten up with guilt for having slept with November (again, why did you do it?), breaks up their relationship and moves out on her in the most emotionally insensitive and tactically stupid way possible. If the writers had bothered to give Ballard an actual personality, they could have shown us his internal conflict over spurning Mellie, the woman whom he loves and who loves him, and who he can’t inform isn’t the real person who belongs in her body. If they’d bothered with more careful plotting, they could also have showed Ballard struggling to push Mellie away in such a manner as not to tip off the Dollhouse that he knows she’s a Doll.

Instead, he just cuts and runs.

Mellie wanders off crying and eventually walks onto a bridge, where it’s implied she contemplates throwing herself off. Wait, she’s considering suicide because her boyfriend dumped her? Goddamn it, Joss, what kind of feminist are you?

All right, it’s been suggested to me that since the Mellie personality was specifically created to spy on Ballard, without him, she has literally been deprived of her raison d’etre. Would’ve been nice to give some suggestion of this in the episode itself, though.

Her handler snatches her before she can carry out the deed, and takes her to the Dollhouse. Ballard follows, finally discovering the Dollhouse’s location.

He then goes to see Loomis, his sole remaining contact within the FBI. Those of you playing the law enforcement clichés drinking game should take a shot every time she appears, as her sole purpose in the show is to give Ballard access to whatever information he needs this time around, despite the danger to her and her skepticism about Ballard’s crazy ideas (take another shot). Oh, and to put another tick in the Affirmative Action box, as she’s slightly darker skinned than Langton—not that either of them would be in any danger of failing the paper bag test. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned her before, this is the answer. There just wasn’t anything to mention.

There is a cute little moment when Ballard explains about how he found the Dollhouse, about walking corridors and exploring offices, at which point Loomis says incredulously “You’ve been in the Dollhouse?” Ballard: “Wrong building.” Contrary to the suspicions of many, Whedon hasn’t entirely lost his touch. Yet.

Ballard then reveals his theory that the Dollhouse is entirely underground, and completely off the energy grid, meaning it would have to be entirely self-sufficient from an energy standpoint. Using her magical data-sifting skills, Loomis discovers that the person who designed the Dollhouse to be energy efficient is a man named Stephen Kepler, played by Wash from Firefly.

Kepler, who’s basically a more paranoid, misanthropic, and drug-happy version of Topher, reluctantly assists Ballard in busting into the Dollhouse. He then gets into the computer system and starts unlocking the sleep pods so Ballard can get to Echo. It’s not quite as ridiculously easy as the above summary may suggest, but it’s close.

Kepler warns Ballard not to open the pods before they’re unlocked or “all hell breaks loose.” This, however, appears to be nothing more than a red herring to get the viewers to wonder what will happen when Ballard and Langton smash through the glass to Victor’s pod in the upcoming fight sequence.

So yeah, Langton catches Ballard trying to rescue Echo, and here we go with the fight scene. Dollhouse medstaff take Victor to be treated by Dr. Scarface, at which point, Kepler reveals himself to be Alpha, cutting up Victor’s face with a scalpel and taking the doctor hostage.

Clearly, one of the reasons for casting Alan Tudyk in this role was to throw long-time Whedon fans—who could never credit Wash as a dangerous monster—off the scent. Hell, I’d read who Alpha’s actor was on Wikipedia and even I had a hard time crediting it until this sequence. To give Tudyk his due, he plays the psychotic monster with serious multiple personality disorder admirably well. Of course, he has the advantage of being written better than almost everyone else on the show, so that helps.

Speaking of performances, I have put in a plug for Enver Gjokaj (Victor), in this episode. There’s a subplot about Sierra investigating the death of a man who turns out to be the real Stephen Kepler, and another about Alpha trying to send a message to the Dollhouse for reasons which presently escape me. Thing is, he apparently hasn’t heard about the recent regime change, and sends the message in care of Dominic, with a password that only he, Dominic, would know.

Instead of pulling the real Dominic out of long-term storage, DeWitt just has Victor imprinted with his personality. The ensuing scene is pure awesome, with Gjokaj providing such a spot-on performance, he had me wondering if they might have gotten Reed Diamond in to do the voice work.

Which leads me to another tangentially connected train of thought, which is that even discounting pre-existing characters, Victor, Sierra and even November have had multiple imprints over the course of the season, and they all had distinct personalities.

Sierra may be the best example. Over the final six episodes she plays a quarantine doctor, an NSA infiltrator, a spunky geek, a homicide investigator, and a flirtatious bounty hunter, all of them very well played (except maybe the infiltrator). Apparently, the writers’ incompetence at creating different personalities for the Actives only extend to Echo.

Anyway, Alpha lures Echo into Topher’s lab and imprints her with a personality which recognizes he’s come to rescue her, just as he said he would. The two then leave the Dollhouse together.

Episode 12: Omega: Throughout this episode, we’re treated to a series of flashbacks chronicling Alpha’s previous Dollhouse escapades. It turns out the bimbo imprint he’s given Echo is one he previously worked with in the body of Whiskey, before he played surgeon with her face.

When Echo née Caroline first arrived at the Dollhouse, he immediately became obsessed with her because … she’s played by Eliza Dushku, I guess? (When Echo first recognized Alpha as her “savior,” I thought maybe he somehow knew Caroline pre-Dollhood, which would’ve provided a much better excuse for his special interest in her over everyone else in the world.)

One day when he’s pruning bonsai, Alpha overhears a couple handlers discussing how Whiskey is overworked because she’s their #1 Doll. Alpha asks Whiskey to let Echo be #1, then leaps on her and carves her face with his shears.

Topher insists it must be due to a fragment of one of his earlier imprints and determines to scan them all, for which he needs Alpha strapped to the mind-rape chair. During Alpha’s struggles, Topher’s computer accidentally uploads all 48 of his past imprints into his head at once, and a psycho is born.

After killing his handler and the original Doc Saunders, Alpha destroys the hard drive containing his original personality. He then goes on a rampage, the aftermath of which we saw back in “The Target.”

Back in the present, Ballard has been captured and puts his incredible investigative powers at the Dollhouse’s disposal to help them find Alpha and rescue Echo. Topher explains that none of Alpha’s 48 imprints were potential killers, but apparently, nobody thought to check his original personality even for completeness’ sake.

Ballard then produces the Themehammer and proceeds to beat top Dollhouse staff and viewers alike over the head with a load of bollocks about the Human Soul and how it Goes Deeper Than Mere Programming. As has been pointed out in the comments section of Dan Hemmens’ review, this is dreamy-eyed nonsense. Human personalities can indeed be altered by the right kind of head trauma, so it’s not like the soul is somehow mystically protected, or anything.

Turns out before joining the Dollhouse, Alpha was imprisoned for attempted murder, cutting up his victim’s face in the process. Apparently, everyone at the Dollhouse was so sure their procedure affected the part of the human psyche which turns some people into monsters, they offered an attempted murderer a contract without the slightest reservation.

Ballard uses this information to locate one of Alpha’s old haunts, and he and Langton ride off to save the day.

The old haunt in question is Alpha’s current Evil Lair, where he’s rigged up an ad hoc version of Topher’s lab, complete with mind-rape chair. Alpha uploads the personality of Wendy—a young woman he and Echo kidnapped—onto a hard drive and downloads all 38 of her previous imprints into her. He expects her to become an Übermensch just like him (“Alpha, meet Omega”), and to prove herself by killing Caroline in the body of Wendy.

Unfortunately for Alpha, all but two of Echo’s personalities are indistinguishable from each other, and none of them have a hankering for mass murder. In a classic Whedon moment, she begins to take a swing at Wendy/Caroline with a heavy pipe, then spins and hits Alpha instead. Like most aspects of this show, it’s horribly executed, and the “surprise twist” must rate at least a KiloBrooks on the predictability scale.

Alpha and Echo trade a few more blows and pseudo-philosophical snipes to the long worn-out tune of domination-based, Social Darwinist morality versus tolerance-based, liberal humanist morality, none of which rise above the level of the painfully trite argument between Echo and Connell in episode two.

Echo floors Alpha, and Caroline tells her she needs to go back into her hard drive so Wendy can have her body back. During the ensuing conversation, Caroline reveals that while Wendy was forced into having her personality wiped, Caroline signed a contract. And then we get this exchange:

Echo: “I have thirty-eight brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave. Especially now that we have a black president.”
Caroline: “We have a black president? Okay, I am missing everything.”

I’ll admit I kinda appreciated the Presidential reference. Maybe it’s just that I like it when shows ostensibly set in the real world make references to stuff actually happening in the real world.

But, 1) I find it depressing that the first Obama reference they managed to slip in was all about his racial makeup, and had nothing at all to do with his policies, his personality, his actions, or anything else distinct to him. It’s about what he is, not who he is. How progressive.

Also, 2) What the crap does the president’s race have to do with whether it’s okay to contract yourself into slavery? Yeah, I get the black/slavery connection, but how is it relevant to this particular situation? At all?

Caroline’s surprise coupled with her apparent inability to guess the name of the black president in question dates her initial contract to somewhere before November 2008. Furthermore, unless she was hiding under a political rock (unlikely, given her remark in “Echoes” that yes, she does have to attend every single antiwar rally in the state) we must push this date back to November 2007, if not earlier. This would put Echo towards the end of the second year of her contract. Since the contracts are five years long, the seasons presumably cover one year, and Whedon reportedly had a five-year plan for the series, I think this scenario was headed for a massive continuity error before the show was was canceled early.

Inevitably, and rather to my annoyance, Alpha shoots Wendy dead before Echo can restore her personality. (What does it say that I like Caroline much better as played by someone other than Eliza Dushku?) For the first time putting selfishness over do-gooding, Echo forebears from seeing if she can help Wendy in favor of chasing after Alpha, who skives off with the hard drive containing Caroline’s personality.

Alpha high tails it to the top of a water tower and drops the hard drive to get Echo off his back (his motivations after Echo turns on him are very confused). Echo once more puts herself over the greater good and tries to catch the hard drive, letting Alpha escape. She misses the hard drive, only for it to drop right into the hands of Ballard, who gets to save the girl after all.

Echo returns to the Dollhouse where she gets the reset button pushed on her yet again. Langton tells DeWitt they’ve made arrangements to compensate Wendy’s family, and she remarks what cold comfort it will be for them. Dude, you’re not Melina Marchetta.

Ballard agrees to work with the Dollhouse on the condition that they terminate November’s contract with full pay. In her farewell scene, November is happy, grateful to DeWitt, and—unlike Caroline—remembers absolutely nothing about her time in the Dollhouse. Human trafficking is good because it makes its victims happy and they conveniently forget all about having been sex slaves!

Ballard is there to see November off and ask her name, Madeline, but when she asks his in return, Ballard responds, “I’m nobody.” This is treated as a poignant ending to a beautiful relationship, which Whedon aficionados are quite accustomed to by now.

For comparison, in the commentary track to the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon revealed that the reason Buffy and Spike never have sex again even after Spike’s soul is restored is that he didn’t want to “repeat that Luke and Laura ‘he raped her, they got married’” nonsense. Oh Joss, how far you’ve fallen.

There’s a subplot about Whiskey discovering she’s a Doll imprinted to replace the original Dr. Saunders. It’s all very boring and inconsequential, but it contains one overblown insensitive, and projection-heavy outburst when she’s treating Victor’s face, telling him how he’s got ugly, ugly scars now that will never go away, and she doesn’t pity him in the slightest.

I can just see Whedon, mid-season, composing a memo to the makeup department. “All right you clowns, you’ve had your little fun, but enough is enough. I’ve told you over and over I want big, ugly, highly visible scars on Ms. Acker’s face, not the pathetic little traces she’s sporting now. Her character is supposed to be disfigured, not modeling the latest in Designer Scars.”

Unfortunately, FOX studios suppressed this memo, because they’re just too small-minded to handle Joss Whedon’s revolutionary vision.
And that’s the lot. In the summer of ’09 (before “Epitaph One” came out) a friend of mine told me that Dollhouse is a bit like the first season of Torchwood: one good episode and the rest utter crap. To this day I don’t know what the “one good episode” in Dollhouse was supposed to be.

Movie reflection: Doctor Who: The TV Movie/The Enemy Within

Trapped on Earth and newly regenerated, the Doctor (Paul McGann) sets out to close the Eye of Harmony before it swallows the whole planet. Meanwhile, the Master (Eric Roberts), also on Earth, goes on the hunt, seeking to steal his old rival’s body and all his remaining regenerations.

Fifteen years after its initial broadcast, the Doctor Who TV movie—also know as The Enemy Within—was finally made available on DVD in the United States a couple years ago. Needless to say, I lost little time in ordering it from the library and watching it with my mother, KorraWP, and Noria, (ptolemaeus wasn’t interested).

I went into this movie with pretty low expectations. I’d read the synopsis and some analysis of the movie some time ago, and it sounded pretty bad. Then I sat down to watch it and it wasn’t that bad. Not great, but fairly good.

The plot is uninspired, illogical, silly, and dependent on massive coincidences. (For example: the Doctor needs an atomic clock—oh look, the local TV news just happened to announce that the city he just happened to land his TARDIS in just happens to be hosting the world’s most advanced atomic clock which just happens to have its grand opening today. And to top it off, the Doctor’s companion for this outing just happens to be on the Board of Trustees for the San Francisco Institute of Technological Advancement and Research where the atomic clock is being unveiled). The TV movie is stupid fun, no doubt, but a lot of Doctor Who is stupid fun. Heck, I sat through four years of Russell T Davies—compared to that, the TV movie is nothing special.

In fact, let’s dwell on that comparison a moment, shall we? Both the new show and the TV movie often take themselves too seriously, and both are melodramatic, but the new show delivers melodrama by trying to pass off ludicrous and emotionally manipulative material as Serious Drama, whereas the movie delivers melodrama because over-the-top hijinks are fun. Only twice does the movie go for Serious Drama—and admittedly, the results in the first scene are about as tedious as most of the Serious Drama in the new show, while the second is so contrived and unsubtle in its symbolism as to attain new heights of Narm.

A lot of this comes down to a matter of personal taste, but for me a fun, pulpy adventure story without all the extraneous angst Davies and Moffat have stuffed into the new show comes as a breath of fresh air. Which is not to say that angst and real drama have no place in Doctor Who, just that for my money, it does better without those elements than when they’re overemphasized (see, for example: “Last of the Time Lords,” “The End of Time,” “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and McGann’s TV mini-episode, “The Night of the Doctor”).

Maybe it’s the vantage of fifteen years and seven seasons of the new show (plus the fact that I’d read the spoilers), but I also wasn’t bothered by all the continuity issues which threw fans into a rage way back when. Oh, the Doctor is half-human, that’s pretty stupid but ehn, life goes on. Oh, the Daleks are letting the Doctor on Skaro now? Oh well, they’ll be sorting each other out again soon enough. Oh, the console room’s all different? Well, it changes again between Eight and Nine, and again between Ten and Eleven*. Oh, the Doctor’s snogging his companion now—honestly, I doubt this would’ve bothered me even before the innumerable romance arcs of the Eccleston-Tennant-Smith era.

*And incidentally, the Victorian-themed console room—complete with working fireplace if I recall correctly? Pretty fly.

And I really like the way all this material comes up off-handedly—in keeping with the general trend of the movie not wallowing in Serious Drama. If this were the new show, there would be dark hints and ridiculously cryptic clues about the Doctor’s “true nature” for one-to-three seasons, and the revelation would come with a great narrative crescendo. Whereas in the movie, the Master opens the Eye of Harmony and basically says “The Doctor is half human, how interesting,” within the first half hour.

Then there’s the scene at the San Francisco Institute, where the Doctor and Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) have been ambushed by the atomic clock’s creator just as they are plotting to steal it. The creator insistently asks the Doctor to reveal his “big secret,” so the Doctor pulls him aside and confides: “I’m half human. On my mother’s side.” F*** you, that’s hilarious.

Like I said, the TV movie is stupid fun, but it is quite fun. Paul McGann plays a suitably eccentric Doctor—I knew I was in good hands when he interrupted a line of exposition on the impending death of the Earth to exclaim, “Grace! These shoes fit perfectly!”

As far as the Master goes, I have to disagree with Nash of Radio Dead Air. Eric Roberts’ acting may be bad, but he’s still entertaining as hell, especially when he has one of the other three main characters—The Doctor, Grace, or Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso)—to play off of.

Grace Holloway and Chang Lee are not the most memorable or inventive of Doctor Who guest stars, but they’re sufficiently active and likable to help carry the story. Likable enough to provoke some sense of sorrow when they die*; and happiness when they’re resurrected. Nash scoffed at this—and it’s the sort of thing the Nostalgia Critic regularly mocks as well—but personally, I’m good with it. I had a safe and happy childhood, and even I don’t need TV to tell me that in real life, when people die they stay dead. Besides, despite the best efforts of Davies and Moffat and the like, Doctor Who is not the right medium for making profound statements about death, and it hasn’t been for a very long time, if ever. It’s a medium for fun, silly adventures, it’s what Doctor Who does best, and that spirit is undermined when sympathetic characters get Killed Off For Reals**. Again, campy adventure wins over foolhardy attempts at Serious Drama.

*And without all the tedious emotional manipulation and general angst the new show trots out whenever it kills off a character—or pretends it’s going to.
**Also known as the Vector Prime-Star by Star-Legacy of the Force Syndrome.

It’s fun just to sit back and watch as the Doctor dashes madcap about San Francisco with his astonished companion in tow; while the Master bods about deceiving Chang, menacing the Doctor, and sounding remarkably like George Clooney. (Yes, George Clooney.) It’s all so endearingly silly, and you’ve got to love the gag with the motorcycle cop accidentally driving through the TARDIS door, and you can hear the cop drive a very long way before turning around and driving right back out again. Heck, even Nash appreciated that one. (It was probably the inspiration for Clara riding a motorcycle right into the TARDIS in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.”)

So yeah, to sum up: cute film, definitely worth a look.

TV reflection: Doctor Who episode 1: “An Unearthly Child”

My familiarity with the first twenty-six seasons of the original Doctor Who is hardly comprehensive, but it predates my interactions with the new show by several months. For the last seven or eight years I’ve been watching through the old show more or less at random. A few months before I started grad school, I finally hit the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and decided I’d share my thoughts on it. I don’t intend to make a practice out of this like I do for the new show, but I may share my thoughts about specific stories I find particularly good, particularly bad, or otherwise noteworthy. For now, “An Unearthly Child.”

This episode basically comes in three parts. In the first part, history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton discuss one of their more peculiar pupils, fifteen-year-old Susan Foreman. Barbara convinces Ian to drive to the junkyard which corresponds to Susan’s home address and find out just exactly where her home is.

In the second part, Barbara and Ian see Susan disappear into the junkyard and try to follow her. While they cannot find Susan, they do discover a police telephone box which they cannot open, and an eccentric old man who acts very evasive about said box. He tries to get them to leave, but then Susan’s voice calls out of the police box and the door swings open, and Ian and Barbara rush in, followed by the old man.

In the final part, Susan and her grandfather attempt to explain about the TARDIS’ bigger-on-the-inside-than-it-is-on-the-outside nature and space/time travel. Susan’s grandfather just wants to get rid of the interlopers, but finally accedes to Susan’s requests to let them go—by warping them all out of the twentieth century and onto a desolate plain, where the shadow of a caveperson looks on presumably in disbelief.

I’m going to discuss “An Unearthly Child” from the perspective of someone who’s already familiar with the show and its mythology, because that’s the only way I can interact with it at this point. From that perspective, the first part, with Barbara and Ian puzzling over Susan’s alien brilliance is by far the most entertaining. The second part is fairly amusing because the Doctor clearly hasn’t got the hang of dealing with nosy people yet, and his evasions are hilariously weak and transparent; but when you get right down to it, this whole sequence is just an overly drawn-out build-up to a revelation which at this point, anyone who’d be watching the episode already knows all about. The third part is even worse, as it consists of an even more tediously drawn-out sequence establishing stuff we already know and have seen explained more entertainingly and concisely elsewhere, and a less-than-riveting buildup to a by now foregone conclusion.

One can’t blame the writer or the director or anyone else connected to the project for failing to predict what a massive hit Doctor Who would become, or for having different standards for pacing from what we consider ideal fifty years later. “An Unearthly Child” was probably a more than adequate introduction to the show at the time, but it’s long since been overtaken by material which is, if not outright better, then certainly more accessible to a modern viewer.

It’s still watchable (and better than many episodes the new series has subjected us to), but aside from a chance to see where it all began, there’s not much to recommend it.

As a matter of fact, my favorite parts of this episode are when it’s being completely stupid. When Barbara and Ian first discover the TARDIS, they put their hands to a panel on the door, and Ian exclaims, “It’s vibrating; this thing’s alive!” Gee, Einstein, is that what you say when you put your hand on the hood of your car with the engine warmed up, too?

There’s also, unfortunately, a truly cringe-worthy instance of early 1960s racism—so blunt and uncouth compared to our enlightened and sophisticated mid 2010s racism—when the Doctor compares Barbara’s and Ian’s narrow-mindedness regarding his and Susan’s and the TARDIS’ alien nature to a “primitive … red Indian” presented with a steam engine. Bad Doctor Who, bad!

Anyway, that was “An Unearthly Child.” It leads directly into a three-part story involving cavepeople, but it’s mostly a standalone story, and I have no great inclination to watch the next few episodes. Til next time.

TV analysis: Firefly

This is a slightly edited version of an essay I originally posted in 2009. My sister ptolemaeus and I had already watched the complete series, though we had not and still have not seen the movie Serenity.

I have a love/hate relationship with Firefly. In some places it’s good, in some it’s really good. In some places it’s bad, and in some it’s really, really godawful.

If the preceding two sentences weren’t sufficient warning, die-hard fans of the show should take note that the following analysis contains some pretty harsh criticism of Firefly. If you’re one of those fans who can’t stand other people voicing their dislike for certain aspects of the series, you might want to reconsider reading this essay. People who have not finished the series and don’t like having the plot given away are advised to do likewise. In short: criticism and spoiler warning (including one or two movie spoilers). Additionally: Trigger warning for discussion of rape and misogyny.

Right then, now that’s out of the way, we begin with a breakdown of the main cast, for, as I will soon demonstrate, the characterization in Firefly is integral to the bad and the good of the show.

Mal – Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Firefly fans the world over will swear bloody vengeance on me for saying this, but it has to be said: Mal is an unrepentant, insufferable, murderous asshole. He’s an authoritarian dictator who demands respect from others at all times while returning it only as he sees fit, frequently violating their personal space (in one case, over the other’s repeated objections), insulting them, and generally making it clear in no uncertain terms who’s boss around his ship. Anyone who violates his dictatorial authority can expect swift justice—and by “justice,” I mean they get punched out, thrown in the airlock, and threatened with decompression (we can argue about whether or not he really would’ve flushed Jayne, but it’s a largely moot point). And this is how he treats his friends. He threatens other people, too, and takes obvious delight in inflicting mental (telling Simon “Kaylee’s dead” before he joins the crew, when he’d previously threatened to space both Simon and River if Kaylee didn’t pull through) and physical (repeatedly “poking” Atherton Wing with a sword) pain in others. Oh, and he kicks helpless prisoners into engine intakes given half an excuse, and with no little amusement.

I think the original idea with Mal was to make him heroic but “edgy”: a bit of an asshole, but at heart a decent human being (he was apparently based off of Han Solo, after all). However, two problems arose in the execution phase. First of all, the writers took the concept “edgy” and pushed it way, way too far. Kicking helpless prisoners—even if they did just threaten you—into engine intakes isn’t “morally questionable”; it’s downright sadistic, as are many of Mal’s other actions (though to a lesser degree).

And secondly, the story implicitly supports Mal’s sadism. It lightly censures his blatant disrespect for Inara and other minor manifestations of jackassery, but the tone of the show is clearly “oh Mal, you scamp, tut-tut young master, that’s not the proper way to behave.” And when it comes to the really big stuff, like tormenting Simon and Wing, or knocking out Jayne and threatening him with the airlock, or shooting the Alliance agent in the pilot, or murdering the Russian mook in “The Train Job,” the expected mood is clearly “hey, Mal just did something incredibly cool/funny/both” not “hey, Mal just did something incredibly awful.” It’s obvious that in all of Mal’s vilest actions, the writers are 100% on his side.

Sure, Mal has a conscience, and he has his standards—he’s not a total villain. He’s supposed to be a complex character, and I suppose he is, but I can’t get past the fact that he routinely does things which are clearly villainous and which the writers just as clearly want the viewer to regard as noble (and often hysterical) simply because it’s Mal doing them.

He also has the misfortune of fulfilling the role of blunt instrument with which Whedon occasionally beats some “feminist” message over his viewers’ heads.

This tactic not only has all the grace and subtlety of a poorly lobbed half-brick, but it makes no sense from a characterization perspective. I should think even viewers who don’t see Mal’s actions as morally unconscionable can agree that Mal is not an idealist. Ever since the Battle of Serenity Valley, he hasn’t cared about grand ideals or overarching systems any more. He does everything at the personal level—the political dimension of his character his something which he constantly represses.

He has his principles (some of which, as I pointed out, are extremely messed-up) by they are purely his own code of conduct, with no connection to some greater moral framework.

So it’s all the more incongruous when he gets up on his high horse to spout Anvilicious speeches about female empowerment and women’s rights—all of which come down to either a) “you will be empowered because I say so, got that?” or b) “she’s a woman and you will respect her because it’s important to respect women, got that? Nobody gets away with disrespecting women on my watch … except me.”

Malcolm Reynolds, everybody, greatest gorram sci-fi hero of all time.

(After publishing this essay, I learned of the infamous “women are ruining science fiction with their decadent feminist agenda” article from a few years ago. I actually read the article itself on the reactionary misogynist blog where it was first published—and was completely unsurprised to find that the site’s regulars, while expressing a low regard for Whedon in general, praised Mal as an example of manliness in sci-fi.)

Zoe Alleyne Washburne. In discussing Zoe’s character, ptolemaeus once described her as basically a stereotypical male character, pretty much devoid of feminine—or even androgynous—traits. Others have since questioned this reading of Zoe’s character, though, and perhaps it’s unfair. Unfortunately, it’s been a couple years since I’ve watched the show now, so I can’t really give Zoe’s character the reassessment she deserves.

I can point out, though, that at least some people have seen her as cleaving a bit too closely to the Black Warrior Woman archetype. She certainly makes a nice black female sidekick to Mal’s white male *a-hem* “hero.”

She also occasionally shoots fleeing enemies in the back which is … a good thing?

Wash – Hoban Washburne. Wash is the Serenity‘s pilot, Zoe’s husband, and would normally be the comedy relief, too. On Joss Whedon’s shows (except Dollhouse) pretty much everyone is the comic relief, though, so Wash is more the lighthearted relief, always there to brighten the mood when things start to get too depressing (ironic considering his eventual fate).

Wash is this goofy guy who also happens to be an exceptional pilot. His marriage to Zoe is sweet but not flawlessly so. Fortunately, the series didn’t last long enough for the writers to break up their relationship, then put it back together, then break it up and put it back again ad nauseam.

Inara Serra. From what I’ve heard, back when Joss Whedon was outlining the original concept of Firefly, his wife thought it would be a great idea to include a “Hooker With a Heart of Gold” character, and thus Inara was born. She’s also supposed to be an “empowered” sex worker. Sex work is, of course, a highly controversial topic, including among feminists. Personally, I’ve grown over the years more and more towards the standpoint of being in solidarity with women (and men, and intersex adults) who choose to go into sex work. Heck, I can believe that for at least some of them, going into the business can be empowering by taking ownership of their sexuality or the like. But I have to wonder if the glamorized “Companionship” of the Firefly ‘Verse really has anything meaningful to say about sex work or sexuality or empowerment (or, for that matter, work) in the real world.

I also have a hard time regarding her as “empowered” through her sex work when Whedon makes sure every third client of Inara’s treats her like crap so that someone (usually Mal) can lay the smackdown on misogyny. (The implicit sex work stigma in said clients’ mistreatment of Inara also sits uncomfortably with the glorification of the institution of Companionship which Whedon insists on.)

And then, of course, there’s the fact that her “love interest” Mal also routinely treats her like crap—even worse than he treats his other friends and acquaintances. Their relationship is borderline abusive, and it would undoubtedly grow more so if it ever developed into a romance.

Apparently, an episode which was planned but mercifully never produced due to the series’ cancellation would have featured a group of Reavers gang-raping Inara, and would have been about how this affected Mal’s relationship with her. Blecch.

In short, Inara is hardly a great feminist role model.

Other than that, I’m ambivalent about her character; ptolemaeus found her annoyingly melodramatic, and I think I was beginning to pick up some of that the last time I watched the show.

Jayne Cobb. Jayne is something like what you’d get if you took a character like Malcolm Reynolds and wrote him honestly. Like Mal, Jayne is an utter bastard; unlike Mal, the writers point out his bastardry and make a fun spectacle of it, instead of trying to make out that it’s somehow noble, or at least no big deal. Which is probably why Jayne, as a character, kicks ass, whereas Mal sucks same.

Kaylee – Kaywinnit (according to Wikipedia, I’m not making that up) Lee Frye. Kaylee is the Serenity‘s mechanic and all-around fixit-woman, with a pleasant, spunky, almost happy-go-lucky disposition. She’s also—and I can’t help but find this significant—the only member of the Serenity‘s crew who’s an absolute coward when it comes to physical violence.

Kaylee is a very, very adorable and very, very fragile young woman. Naturally, this makes her the ideal target for every second villain the crew encounters.

In the introduction to the Women in Refrigerators website, creator Gail Simone specifically does not offer an explanation for why female characters in comics (and other media) tend to be subject to a disproportionate amount of abuse. This is a phenomenon I’d independently noticed, and formed my own conclusions on before learning about the site.

Part of it is probably that in our misogynist culture there are few things scarier than a truly empowered woman. We have this subconscious gynophobic need to depict powerful women a evil, or to subject them to some horrible trauma (often sexual) to reassert their subordinate position, or both.

But in many cases, the woman in question is not particularly empowered to begin with. Often she is particularly fragile in relation to the other characters (Lady Magadaria from the third season of the Rurouni Kenshin anime is one such character who has always stuck in my mind). In such cases, I think, a slightly different logic is at work.

In misogynist Western culture, the empowered female is perverse and unnatural. But then, we may ask, what is “natural?” Why, of course, the fragile female.

The patriarchal assumption is men = strong; women = weak. This makes women more pitiful, and so when a woman is hurt or killed, it’s considered more tragic than when the same happens to a man. (By the same logic which states that harm to a baby or child is more tragic than harm to an adult.) This is a theme explored in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and—as many of the female characters in that series point out, though not in so many words—it’s a deeply sexist one*.

*I don’t mean to make out that Wheel of Time is a particularly feminist series, but I have found this specific theme helpful in reaching a better understanding of feminist issues.

This narrative that women are more helpless and pitiful than men (and therefore that harm to them is more tragic than harm to men) continues the myth of women as Other, and also as lacking in power and agency. But it’s also strongly ingrained in Western culture. Personally, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that female suffering, real or fictional, tends to hit me harder than male suffering, and when I hear about a male (real or fictional) suffering or dying, I’ll be somewhat relieved that at least they weren’t female.

In constantly making Kaylee the villains’ target-of-choice, Joss Whedon is playing to a strongly and deeply held cultural narrative which states that a fragile young woman in danger and/or in pain is especially tragic.

Questionable feminist credentials aside, this is a cheap-shot. When writers can’t be bothered to work at getting their viewers’ sympathy, they just throw in something which viewers are culturally encoded to sympathize with, such as a young child or a fragile young woman, and then put them into danger and/or pain. It works, but it’s a cheap trick and doesn’t say anything positive about said writer’s talent.

Don’t get me wrong, Kaylee is probably my second-favorite character on the show. She’s sweet and funny and upbeat and intelligent and a very nice person. I just wish Whedon and co. didn’t make such a point of making Kaylee the weakest, most vulnerable member of the crew.

In fourteen episodes, I can list at least one (generally more than one) incredible thing (I would say awesome, but that implies a moral judgment) each of the other eight characters did, off the top of my head. The most incredible thing Kaylee ever did occurred in a flashback, and even that wasn’t too impressive when compared with her shipmates’ accomplishments.

The budding romance between Kaylee and Simon is sweet and touching. It would’ve been even sweeter if the writers didn’t have Kaylee flip her shit every time he makes a thoughtlessly rude comment—which happens with surprising frequency. He’ll say something thoughtless and insensitive and instead of taking the moral high ground about it (or just acting more mature than a ten-year-old), Kaylee flares up and chews him out as if he’d just spat in her face. He ends up an insensitive and perpetually clueless dunce (seriously, how can this guy not noticed she’s attracted to him without sustaining some kind of cranial injury?), and she like just a jerk. Even if Simon can’t recognize he’s being insensitive, she must have enough space-savvy to realize he doesn’t mean anything nasty by all those unfortunate comments, and yet she takes them as such because … um … um …

Seriously, can someone for the love of Earth-that-was tell me what the point of this scene is, and why the writers feel obligated to repeat it a dozen times in as many episodes? It isn’t funny, or clever, isn’t particularly in-character, isn’t by any stretch of the imagination necessary, so why do they keep doing it?

I’ve come up with two possibilities, and I don’t put any particular faith in either of them.

Possibility #1: they wanted sexual tension between the characters, and this was the only way they could think of to keep “tension” from blooming into full-blown romance. (We all know, of course, that any romance between main characters which springs up in the first few episodes and wasn’t intended to fail will inevitably drag the series into a creative and fiscal black hole.)

Possibility #2: it’s a lazy device the writers employ whenever they’re stuck for a way to move the plot forward. (The one thing these scenes inarguably accomplish is to put the participants in the right place physically and emotionally for the next plot point to turn up.) In other words, the plot of an episode—one vital thread of it, at least—often depends on Simon being insensitive and Kaylee being a jerk to him about it. In the technical (and slightly ableist) terminology of the industry, this is known as an “Idiot Plot.”

Shepherd Derrial Book. Book is basically the Magical Negro, a wise and mysterious older black man who (according to one of the DVD extras) often acts as the crew’s conscience, especially Mal’s. (A priest as conscience; gentle people, I give you one of the most innovative television shows of the 21st century!) He must’ve been off the clock in the pilot though, because, as he tells Inara: “I watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect. And I’m not even sure if I think he was wrong.”

Book is a pretty fun character—even if he is something of a racial stereotype—and it’s a shame he didn’t get more development before the series ended.

Simon Tam. Simon is the resident medic, an upper-class doctor who sacrificed his career and his lifestyle to save his sister. He’s one of the most caring people aboard the Serenity—although like the rest of the ship’s crew, he’s prone to spectacular lapses in judgment at times.

When I first saw the pilot in college, I didn’t know exactly who comprised the main cast, and I was convinced Simon was going to get himself killed in the climactic scene. When I later watched it again with ptolemaeus, she anxiously asked me if Simon was going to die. He’s the type of character writers kill off.

I think this is partially because he doesn’t have an obvious point. Oh, there’s his medical skills obviously, but character-wise and situation-wise he doesn’t seem to fit. He’s not abrasive and mean or violent and funny or kind and melodramatic or wise and mysterious or mysterious, female, and special. He doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes we’ve been set up to expect, and he doesn’t have an obvious niche in the plot line beyond introducing River. In Hollywood parlance, a character in that situation would be classified as coffin-bait. Fortunately for Simon and for the show, Whedon is occasionally capable of seeing the blindingly obvious when most writers would look right through it.

So Simon survives, and joins up with the crew. And he is awesome. Granted, you’d have to have some sort of certifiable mental condition not to figure out that you’re insulting Kaylee every other episode, but unlike Kaylee, Simon has more to do in the show than play out a 6th grader’s idea of a romance and act as damsel in distress.

After Simon survived the pilot, I expected him to fade into the background so the writers could focus on River, the more “special” (and thus less interesting) of the two. I’m still convinced that had the series continued for another six-and-a-half seasons as Whedon apparently intended, this is exactly what would have happened somewhere down the line. You can just tell River was Whedon’s and everybody else’s Golden Girl, and would eventually become a bigger focus than anyone except maybe Mal.

However, since Whedon and the rest of the creative staff wanted to drag out the River-as-Mentally-Damaged-Woman plotline—a problematic choice, but understandable given the amount of buildup they give her condition—they didn’t get around to shoving Simon out of the spotlight in favor of River before the show was canceled.

Which is kind of a good thing, because it means Simon got to be awesome all through the show. He’s clueless at times and can be a bit of a jerk, but he’s also sweet and funny and intelligent and has this fish-out-of-water complex which is quite cute.

And he’s got two more things going for him. First in that he’s heroic, but not in the way the other characters are (supposed to be). One of the greatest moments of the show is in episode 11 “Trash.” In that scene, Simon is treating jackass Jayne for injuries, and in the process reveals that he knows Jayne tried to turn Simon and River over to the Alliance authorities in a previous episode, “Ariel.” This is what he says:

No matter what you do, or say or plot, no matter how you come down on us … I will never, ever harm you. You’re on this table, you’re safe. ‘Cause I’m your medic, and however little we may like or trust each other, we’re on the same crew. Got the same troubles, same enemies, and more than enough of both. Now, we could circle each other and growl, sleep with one eye open, but that thought wearies me. I don’t care what you’ve done, I don’t know what you’re planning on doing, but I’m trusting you. I think you should do the same. ‘Cause I don’t see this working any other way.

Now wasn’t that cool? And a marked difference from Mal’s knock-Jayne-out-throw-him-in-the-airlock-and-threaten-to-space-him strategy. Of course, after he leaves, River has to spoil the moment by saying “Also … I can kill you with my brain.” And we’re back to using threats and violence to solve all our problems. This setting up a really good and original situation and then subverting it to make it dreary and unoriginal is a Firefly staple, by the way. In this case, the writers don’t manage to ruin the perfectly good situation they’ve set up quite as thoroughly as other times, because even if they do leave it on a threat, we can assume Simon was being sincere.

None of which is to say that Simon doesn’t also resort to violence on occasion. Probably his next two greatest moments are tackling Dobson in “Serenity” and tackling bounty hunter Jubal Early in the final episode “Objects in Space.”

What makes him all the more heroic in these scenes is that there’s no way he’d ever be able to win. It’s easy for Mal or Zoe or Jayne to jump into a fight; that’s practically the entirety of their job description. Mal in particular is safe, because he’s the main character. But Simon isn’t the main character, isn’t a good fighter, and in fact hasn’t got a snowball’s chance against any half-way decent adversary—which only makes him the more awesome charging into a hopeless battle anyway.

River Tam. In Firefly, River starts out as a straightforward damsel-in-distress, like Kaylee, only without all the characterization that makes Kaylee so likable. By the end of the show, she’s cycling between damsel-and-distress and girl-on-a-pedestal, with, unfortunately, no stopping for some actual character development in between.

… And that’s River. When she’s not crazy, damaged, and helpless, she’s an omnicompetent Mary-Sue, both of which are caricatures, not character.

So much for the cast. As you see, by going through an analysis of the main characters, we’ve identified many of the important themes in Firefly. There are still a couple, though, that I either have not addressed yet, or about which I have more to say. Kindly bear with me a little longer.

I admit the first thing which turned me off Mal wasn’t really the fault of the character. In the climactic scene of the pilot, the villainous Alliance agent Dobson has River held at gunpoint. He’s in the middle of going through the standard villain threat “Any sudden moves and I’ll-” when Mal casually walks into the hold and pulls a Dick Cheney on him.

The idea is, of course, to fake out the viewer: set up a standard situation and then subvert expectations by doing something different with it. It’s a move the Firefly team often like to pull. Unfortunately, in cases such as this one, it also has the tendency to backfire horribly.

In order for the sequence to work, Mal not only has to shoot Dobson, but the whole mood of the shot has to be casual, offhand. It has to look like they’re building up to something big and then whoops, no, all over, situation back under control.

The problem is that this makes shooting Dobson, well, casual and offhand. Admittedly, he was an asshole (they even threw in a scene of him beating on an unconscious Book, just so the audience would be more comfortable with Mal shooting him), and given the situation and the show’s implicit assumptions about the efficacy of violence, Mal’s actions were probably justified. But the casual nature of the scene sends the message that shooting Dobson isn’t just necessary, at best, it’s kinda funny; at worst, it’s no big deal. And that’s a very disturbing message.

(I suppose I should point out that although Dobson appears to be dead, and is left for such by the crew, in the series canon he isn’t actually killed off until much later. I don’t see that this detracts from my point, though.)

Sometimes the series does get a fake-out right. The episode “War Stories” had the highly dubious moral that Wash isn’t cool enough as is, and the only way for him to “make it” is to become as violent as Mal. Nevertheless, “War Stories” provided two good subversions all in one episode. In the climactic scene, Mal is duking it out with mob boss Niska’s head minion when Zoe, Wash, and Jayne arrive on the scene. When her companions are about to jump in to help their captain, Zoe tells them to stop, and invokes verbatim the old “He has do to this himself” line. To which Mal immediately responds “No he doesn’t!” So Zoe, Jayne and Wash go ahead and shoot the other guy.

The second one is even better, which is why I left it to second, even though it takes place first chronologically. It’s when Zoe picks Wash to be freed over Mal before Niska can even finish his “which of them will you choose?” speech.

In “War Stories,” it works. In “Serenity” it fails because what Mal does is horrible. Also earlier in the pilot, when he tells Simon that Kaylee’s dead. It’s a good joke on the audience—but on Simon the character, it’s downright cruel.

The all-time flop, though, would have to be the climax to “The Train Job.” Yes, it sets up Niska’s chief minion as a recurring enemy, only to remove him as a threat a moment later, but only by having the main character murder him. And as we all know, abuse and murder of helpless prisoners is the epitome of comedy.

A related Firefly staple—this one making even less sense—is to employ an inverse of this switcheroo: set up a fresh and original situation, and then subvert it and go ahead with the cliché resolution after all.

This effect is most notable in episode 13, “Heart of Gold,” in which the Serenity‘s crew comes to the aid of a brothel under attack from a cartoonishly misogynistic rancher. During the defense of the establishment, Mal hooks up with the madam, Nandi, an old friend and colleague of Inara’s. The next morning, Inara catches Mal exiting Nandi’s room, having obviously had a pleasurable night.

Whedon and his Merry Gender Neutrals are still playing coy about whether Mal knows Inara has the hots for him, but Inara clearly thinks he doesn’t, and wants to keep it that way because … something—whatever the reason, it isn’t because he treats her like [insert appropriate Chinese obscenity here].

So of course, she plays it casual, putting on a convincing performance of indifference, “It’s none of my business who you sleep with.” For a moment, they actually had me convinced. Then we cut to Inara in her own room, sobbing her eyes out.

Yes, even Space Hookers in the Future adhere to all the mainstream 21st century attitudes and foibles regarding sex and relationships. Apparently, Whedon’s aphorism that “nothing will change in the future” applies to dominant cultural mores as well as politics.

One of the great potentials of speculative fiction (one which is already woefully under-explored) is to imagine wildly different cultures from our own. Unfortunately, most of the “alien” or “futuristic” cultures in mainstream Western speculative fiction are not only less alien than most non-Western cultures, they’re less alien than most non-mainstream Western subcultures. A few Chinese curses and window-dressing not withstanding, the human culture of Firefly definitely fits this category.

This was a golden opportunity to depict something unfamiliar, something interesting, something imaginative. And something totally understandable, given the character in question’s cultural background is one of having sex with many people who are not the person she loves (i.e. Ethical Slut). But then they had to go and shoot themselves in the foot by revealing, surprise! Inara is just an overgrown and lovesick 21st century teenage girl in a futuristic setting.

Gentlebeings of all genders, I give you the greatest science fiction television series of all time.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the feminism angle or, as I like to call it, the “attempted feminism.” As we’ve already seen from our character portraits, none of the main characters in Firefly is exactly Grade A feminist material. That leaves us with Malcolm Reynolds and his ravings about how “you will be empowered or else” which never seem quite to jive with his own sexist mistreatment-bordering-on-harassment of Inara.

Whedon rounds out the feminism angle by confronting his main characters with a small army of the most laughable straw misogynists this reviewer has ever encountered. Imagine Snidely Whiplash turned flesh-and-blood and with a particular emphasis on the whole tying-women-(and women specifically)-to-the-train-tracks thing. Now imagine all that played in utter seriousness.

Atherton Wing and the rancher in “Heart of Gold” are two of the most hilariously over-the-top villains ever conceived. I’ll never understand why Whedon and his team didn’t just go the whole hog and give them ridiculously long mustaches to twirl—or at least goatees.

But not to worry; Wing gets the shit beaten out of him by Mal for treating Inara with approximately the same amount of regard for her humanity as Mal himself shows her. (According to Mal, he disrespects Inara’s job, while Wing disrespects her. In a characteristically insightful article, Dan Hemmens of ferretbrain points out exactly why this argument is utter bollocks.)

And the rancher in “Heart of Gold”? He gets righteously shot in the head by one of the brothel’s employees when he’s tied up and helpless. No, Mal is not the only person in Firefly guilty of this. The only difference I can detect is that kicking the minion into the engine was played for comedy, whereas shooting the Straw-Misogynist-of-the-Week was played for satisfaction. Since he had previously killed Nandi—have I mentioned that this show, for all its purported “innovation” contains its own share of clichés? Well, it does—since he’d killed such a sympathetic character, murdering him when he’s defenseless is considered just comeuppance. To test the validity of this idea, how do you think the writers and viewers would feel if the friends or family of one of Mal’s many victims—such as the prisoner he kicked into the engine—were to tie him up and kill him? Or any of the rest of the Serenity‘s crew, for that matter?

… Sorry, got a bit sidetracked, there. With Firefly there’s so many rants involved they tend to bleed over onto each other. Where was I again? Oh yes, strong female characters who fit at most two out of the three descriptives, random rants about female empowerment by the highly sexist protagonist, and to top it off, ludicrously characterized misogynist villains who get the stuffing beat out of them by one of the female characters or a suitable Nice Guy. This, in Whedon’s ‘Verse (and sadly, many of his viewers’) counts as cutting edge feminism.

And it only gets worse in Dollhouse (review forthcoming).

I’m not saying there aren’t people out there like the bottomless supply of Misogynists-of-the-Week Whedon has somehow tapped into. There are, although in real life their characterization is more well-rounded; there’s a lot more to their personalities than just hating women and beating up anything that gets in their way.

But more importantly, such people are a) extremely rare and b) only a symptom of a larger disease. Whether you want to call that disease patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, or something else, we’re talking about a system which runs through all manifestations of our culture, from politics to religion to family life to work to art/entertainment to language and everything else—a system which perpetuates the domination of females as a group by males as a group.

It’s a disease whose numerous symptoms have been documented on hundreds if not thousands of books, documentaries, and feminist blogs. And these everyday manifestations of sexism aren’t restricted to Cardboard Misogynists a la Wing. We all, to a certain extent, have internalized and act from this cultural narrative, this meta-myth. To a certain extent, we can’t help it. I recall reading of a study where two groups of people were shown a person holding a machine up to a young baby—a machine which promptly gave off a loud noise. The testers asked the participants to interpret the baby’s reaction. The group which had been told the baby was female thought “she” was scared; the group which had been told the baby was male concluded “he” was angry.

The lesson to draw from this is that in a sexist society, everyone is sexist to some degree, and everyone is complicit in perpetuating sexism. We all make assumptions based on sex that we can only sometimes recognize consciously, and we all act upon those subconscious assumptions.

Most Western males and many Western females don’t see it that way, though. They think of sexism as something confined to individuals, and not something deeply embedded into the cultural systems which make up out society.

White anti-racist Tim Wise has said of the 2005 movie Crash: “By presenting racism as an individual malady, rather than a social issue of great import, Crash allows white viewers to default to our preexisting understanding of the issue, rather than having to deal with the way in which every structure of American society continues to treat people of color as inferiors, be it in housing, employment, education, or criminal justice” (and the list goes on, and on, and on …)

Anyway, my point is that by presenting sexism as more-or-less the sole domain of a bottomless supply of Straw Misogynists, Whedon likewise diverts his audience’s attention from the systemic violence of patriarchy. While decrying misogyny is a step above going “Oppression? What oppression?” the Whedon Formula is hardly a shining example of feminist discourse, and in many ways—by shifting the responsibility for sexism off the mainstream population and onto those evil, evil misogynists—is even counter-productive.

Notice that I’m not accusing Whedon of being a misogynist himself, or of raping his wife, or anything melodramatic like that. No, I’m making the infinitely more blasphemous accusation that Joss Whedon is a human being, and therefore capable of making mistakes, of not saying what he intends to say, or even of having a flawed understanding of some of these issues.

I have less to say about the depiction of race on the show, beyond what I already have. However, if the backstory is really that the dominant culture of humanity is a mix of American and Chinese, why are seven out of the nine main characters white, along with 90%+ of the people with whom they interact? (And the other two main characters black?)

Multiple people have also pointed out that if Firefly is a Western, that would mean the murderous, people-eating Reavers are American Indian-analogues, and the war between the independence-minded outer worlds and the imperialist Alliance is analogous to the American civil war between the Southern slaveholding states and the Northern non-slaveholding states. Couple Unfortunate Implications there.

Bottom line: Firefly is a fairly good show, but it doesn’t live up to the hype in terms of feminism or basic storytelling, and its views on morality are often disturbing, as exemplified by its murderous, sadistic, despotic, all-around jackass of a main character. As I once remarked to ptolemaeus, I’d give a lot for a science fiction series with Joss Whedon’s talent, but with Gene Roddenberry’s heart.

That is all.

Not Exactly Arthur Conan Doyle

In the summer of 2009, I found myself in a movie theater (all right, two movie theaters) waiting to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. My parents, bless them, were still into the series somewhat, and I found it bearable for the snarking, so I went along.

So there I am, sitting through the previews and—oh my god, what the hell is that?

It was a trailer for what purported to be a live-action movie starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character, that master detective, Sherlock Holmes.

I say “purporting” because all through the preview I was listing in my head the things which were horribly, atrociously wrong: Sherlock Holmes played by the very American Robert Downey Jr.; Holmes in a sexual tension subplot with a woman; Holmes acting in general like a boorish, hedonistic cad; gratuitous generic action sequences; Holmes solving problems through violence with a distinct lack of observation and deduction; floating women in white and other indicators of a supernatural element; oh, and at the end of the preview, Watson punches Holmes. Watson’s not supposed to do that.

In short my mind quickly filed the whole movie under Things to Be Avoided Like the Plague and that would have been the end of it. However, ptolemaeus also saw the trailer, and while she agreed the movie would be bad, she was convinced it would be So Bad Its Good.

Come the 2009 winter holidays, she was so excited about Sherlock Holmes that our mom and I conspired to take her and our two sisters to the opening show Christmas Day. Even I became excited, figuring I would snark all the way through the movie and give it a devastating write-up. On the way to the theater, all we could talk about was how awful the movie was going to be.

We went into the movie and to my complete astonishment, it didn’t suck. What’s more it was actually good. It was great.

From the trailer, I had expected a derivative Hollywood adaptation which throws out practically all the source material except the names of the characters and some of the trappings in favor of a generic sex-and-violence caper.

What I got instead was … well, let’s take it from the top.

Spoilers. Natch.

The Eponymous Hero

Robert Downey Jr. certainly brings a new interpretation to Holmes, and I feel like there was a certain amount of Hollywood wrongheadedness about his performance.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Conan Doyle describes Holmes thusly:

All emotions, and that one [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.

Downey’s Holmes, by contrast, is highly emotional. Churlish, excitable, susceptible to petty goading, jealous of Watson’s relationship with Mary, and strongly attracted to Irene Adler, in direct opposition to Conan Doyle’s assertion that “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.”

Furthermore, while Conan Doyle’s Holmes is always cool, collected, and at least a dozen steps ahead of the audience, Downey’s is constantly behind the curve, and having to catch up. Where Conan Doyle’s Holmes is sophisticated, Downey’s is coarser, grungier, much quicker to get his hands dirty.

What the trailer completely left out was that he’s also analytical, observant, and in fact solves most of his problems through intelligence, creativity and even planning. The violence is certainly played up, but it’s fairly well grounded in the Holmesian canon and does not, in fact, overshadow the logic and deduction.

Holmes’ nigh-clairvoyant ability to analyze people and situations through small and often obscure details and his use of disguises* are prominently displayed, and far from being throw-away features to provide a vague nod in the general direction of the original canon, they are integral to the story. He observes and deducts his way through most of the plot, and the dramatic climax is notably not for his duel with the villain atop Tower Bridge, but his subsequent summation of the case.

*You can spot the first use of a disguise when Irene Adler’s mysterious associate pulls a gun on a nosy stranger—had said stranger truly been an extra, he’d have been shot dead rather than let off with a warning.

Whilst in the theater I remarked that the screenwriters must’ve arrived at this version of Holmes by reading the CliffNotes Doyle and then filled in the rest after an extended House marathon. Now that I think about it though, Downey’s Holmes is more reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow; more vulnerable and fallible than Conan Doyle’s version, but always with at least one card up his sleeve—even if it is sometimes mere improvisation.

There’s a part in the trailer where Watson exclaims “Holmes, does your depravity know no bounds?” to which Holmes replies “No.” The trailer insinuated Holmes was coming off a grossly out-of-character night of drink and debauchery, but in context it referred to Holmes paying off a fortuneteller to convince Watson that his marriage to Mary would be a nightmare, which makes somewhat more sense.

Even the romance with Irene Adler is more palatable in context. While Downey’s Holmes is not the woman-hater of the original canon, he’s closer to it than the lecherous skirt-chaser depicted in the trailer. His attraction to Irene and hers to him is clearly grounded in their mutual respect for each others’ professional talents.

A romance budding between criminal and investigator is a well-established dramatic trope, and at times Holmes’ and Irene’s relationship verged on the cliché, but on the whole I think the filmmakers pulled it off rather well.

A Brit might take issue with Downey’s accent, but I confess I quickly learned to stop worrying and just love the performance. I’m also reliably informed that, for those whose orientation swings that way, Downey’s Holmes is pretty hot stuff, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Irene Adler

Contrary to the impression made by the trailer, Rachel McAdams spends the majority of this movie fully clothed. She does employ seduction against Holmes, but it’s clearly only one tool in her bag of tricks, and not even the primary one.* She also comes equipped with a small arsenal of miniature weapons, impressive combat skills, and a flair for improvisation which nearly matches Holmes’ own.

*In fact, a reviewing of the movie trailers makes it clear that the film cut an additional scene of Irene in lingerie and acting seductive, meaning the film’s editor actually toned down the sexual objectification for the theatrical release.

Mind you, I don’t see the Irene Adler of the film defeating Holmes. For all her smarts and all her skill, Irene nearly gets herself killed twice by the villain and has to be saved by Holmes, and spends the bulk of the movie under the thumb of the Man in Shadow. She comports herself well and pulls some neat tricks, but I don’t think she lived up to her reputation. Shame.

Of course, I shouldn’t give her too much grief for pulling a Gwen Stacy Maneuver. Just as the romance side plot for the (male) main character is obligatory for any modern American action film, it is equally mandatory either to kill off the female love interest or to fake same.

Still, Rachel McAdams is a great actor and, for those of us whose orientation swings the other way, very attractive, too. Apropos of nothing, I also noticed halfway through the movie that she has two freckles on her neck which look amusingly like vampire bite marks.


I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, because I’m sure Jude Law delivered a fine performance, and his Watson was competent, proactive, and funny, but I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. For me, Downey’s Holmes, McAdams’ Irene Adler and even Mark Strong as the villainous Lord Blackwood rather stole the show.

Oh, on second thought, I suppose I could point out that Law plays up Watson’s military background, as part of the whole action movie motif (more on that later).

And it turns out the punching-Holmes-in-the-face incident, as well as the scene where Watson angrily lists Holmes’ flaws are both in response to Holmes’ continued meddling in Watson’s love life. It’s not quite the relationship Conan Doyle portrayed, but then, neither were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The point is that where the trailer had me expecting a highly adversarial relationship between Watson and Holmes of the type Dark Lords would do well to fear, what I got was a strong friendship of great mutual respect occasionally punctuated by open conflict—which to me is entirely in keeping with the Holmesian tradition.

There’s also all the lovely gay subtext (bordering on supratext) between Watson and Holmes. I don’t really have much to say about this, except, I guess, “have fun, guys.”

Mary Morstan also has a role, but only as a plot device to generate (sexual) tension between Holmes and Watson. Hopefully, the sequel will give her a more substantial role.

The Villains

The main antagonist of this movie is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Blackwood is not a hereditary lord, as we learn midway through the film that he’s the illegitimate son of some bigwig or other who just so happens also to be the leader of a secret society of mystics similar to the Illuminati. You know the drill, clandestine rituals involving knives and goblets, long robes and pentagrams, bones and hair, ominous biblical quotes, rinse and repeat.

Blackwood, is, of course, a practitioner of black magic, and is, of course—though never referred to as such—also Jack the Ripper. The murdered sex workers were a means of gathering power for his real goal, which is, you guessed it: take over the world. Say it with me now:


The movie opens with Holmes and Watson foiling the suicide of Victim #6—clearly under Blackwood’s influence—and Blackwood’s arrest. However, Blackwood is not terribly put out by being jailed, as it apparently allows him to put his real plan in motion. Blackwood is hanged, buried, busts out of his grave, then kills his father and takes over the Fauxminati. With their assistance, he plans to show Guy Fawkes how it’s done and wipe out Parliament—except for his own followers—leaving him in control of the Empire.

Needless to say, our heroes have other ideas. Blackwood’s device is disarmed and Blackwood himself, pursuing Holmes and Irene to the top of the half-constructed Tower Bridge, falls off the bridge with a chain wrapped around his neck.

Not the most memorable movie villain out there, but the relative originality of his plan and the way it unfolds put him—and the plot—well above standard action movie fair. The fact that his ultimate goal is not patently obvious from the first ten minutes speaks volumes for the plot, and Blackwood’s part in it. On the other hand, I gotta knock a few points off for the lazy “empire to last a thousand years” reference.

Blackwood is aided in his duplicitous affairs by Lord Coward of the Home Office, a high-ranking member of the Fauxmenati. From the moment I clapped eyes on him, I thought Coward looked familiar, but a perusal of Hans Matheson’s IMDB page failed to ring any bells, so perhaps I imagined it. This illusion did make Coward a more interesting character for me, and I note that he survived the movie unscathed and apparently a free man. I hope this means we’ll see more of him in the sequel.

Last we have the Man in Shadow, who employs Irene Adler and carries a miniature gun in a spring-loaded holster. At first, when Blackwood talked of greater things afoot than himself and Holmes, I thought perhaps Blackwood was just the lieutenant—“the channel,” as he identifies himself—and the MIS would prove to be the man behind the man.

It soon became clear that Blackwood was indeed the main villain and, more significantly, that he and the MIS were working somewhat at cross-purposes. With that cleared up, pegging the MIS as Professor Moriarty was elementary.

Moriarity’s involvement in the plot is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the entire movie. I daresay the filmmakers never would have gotten away with it if they weren’t writing an established character in an established fictional universe. Apart from controlling Irene Adler, Moriarity’s role is tangential to the main plot and very much behind the scenes. Fortunately, Moriarity’s reputation does the filmmakers’ work for them, allowing them to add an extra layer of significance to the story and culminating in a satisfyingly clever little sequel hook. It was a gutsy move on their part, including Moriarity in the film purely to lay the groundwork for an uncertain sequel, but as far as I’m concerned, it more than paid off.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

This is one of the few parts where the trailer was not entirely misleading. The filmmakers have significantly beefed up the fight scenes in Sherlock Holmes, because the only way an American movie can be a success in the 00s is if it’s an action movie.

While the fight scenes do not exactly say “Sherlock Holmes,” they do not detract from the essential detective story nature of the film, so I’ll forgive them.

Towards the end of the trailer, Holmes is confronted with a Giant Mook wielding a comparably sized hammer. He reaches for a weapon and picks up a perfectly ordinary hammer, which looks puny in comparison. Cue a split-second of “comic” consternation as Holmes contemplates the situation, then throws the hammer, which bounces off his opponent’s chest.

When I first saw this sequence in the theater, cringing in my seat and reflecting that after this, Harry Potter would be a relief, I thought ‘Great, so now on top of everything else he’s freaking Inspector Clouseau?’

Then came the movie and what did I see? Holmes calculating the moves in a fight and identifying weak points on his opponent before the first punch has been thrown. We get treated to a similar sequence a bit later on, when Holmes is in a boxing match played out to the surprisingly apt tune of The Rocky Road to Dublin. Of course, both fights go precisely as predicted.

This is not like anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, but it’s a reasonable extension of the canon; we may imagine this is how Holmes would comport himself in a fight. In his fight with the giant Dredger he displays ingenuity and strong tactical thinking in no small measure. This degenerates by the halfway point, but given the vast amount of truly Holmesian thinking displayed throughout the rest of the movie, I’m prepared to overlook one mindless action sequence.

For reasons which remain unclear, Holmes, Watson and practically everyone else in this movie seem to be practitioners of some strange Western martial arts discipline, which is a little jarring. One wonders why they so often resort to fisticuffs rather than firearms; presumably it’s because they know that with the way they shoot when they do resort to firearms, they’ll get better results by simply whomping on their opponents.

More Things on Heaven and Earth

Among the many disservices the trailer afforded me and the movie was to portray the existence of the supernatural in this film as a done deal. Women levitate off of alters, Lord Blackwood rises from the grave, you better start believing in ghost stories, Mr. Holmes; you’re in one.

When the movie opened with Holmes and Watson foiling Blackwood’s ritual (which pointedly did not feature Victim #6 levitating), ptolemaeus confidently whispered to me that all the supernatural stuff would turn out to be a red herring. I had my doubts for a while, but as with most of her other predictions, this one proved spot-on.

Oh, the last shot of Lord Blackwood (whose final paperwork will no doubt read “Cause of Death: Poetic Justice”), and the ubiquitous crow (there’s always a bloody crow) are a clear tip of the hat to the notion of forces at work beyond our understanding. But it’s vague and not necessarily supernatural at all, whereas the specifics of black magic and ritual and humans harnessing occult forces to do things like levitate young women or boil a man alive or set another man on fire or come back from being hanged* are all debunked in the Summing Up scene. (Actually, the whole levitation thing wasn’t explained, because it never occurred in the movie itself. Make of that what you will.)

*This one likely would’ve been more impressive had Terry Pratchett not pulled a similar trick five years earlier.

I had slightly different worries when Blackwood started talking about “three more deaths” which Holmes must accept he can do nothing about. Fortunately, while Holmes indeed fails prevent the deaths, there’s no angsting about fighting fate or any of that nonsense, no agonizing about whether or not he’ll be able to prevent the prophesied fatalities when we all knew quite well he wouldn’t—in short, no yanking our chains by proffering the illusion that he might actually be able to save even one of them. The Magic Three dropped off the radar completely, only coming back ex post facto, which is probably the right way to handle deaths foretold if you absolutely must have them.

However, once you take the supernatural aspect out, you have to wonder why Blackwood specified Holmes would be unable to prevent the three deaths, but said nothing about the massacre in Parliament (which, of course, he does prevent)—or, for that matter, how Blackwood knew the American ambassador would try to shoot him and where. In hindsight, the “three more deaths” line sounds more like the filmmakers appropriating Blackwood as a mouthpiece to tell the audience what the next hour-and-a-half is going to look like, rather than Blackwood telling Holmes his plans, which seems a rather odd creative decision to me.

Style, Style, Style

This is probably the one section of the review where I don’t disparage the trailer.

The movie’s editors employed many interesting tricks for this movie, such as Holmes thinking out a fight in slow motion, followed by the fight itself in fast motion, or the sound dampening utilized when the slaughterhouse is torn apart by explosions. The use of flashbacks coupled with subtle optical cues to draw the viewers’ attention to a certain detail should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a modern mystery movie/show (Psych, for example), but the filmmakers took this trope and made it their own. As a result, Sherlock Holmes ends up a stylistically unique movie experience

In Conclusion, I Accuse …

If I were to condense this review to one short paragraph it would probably go something like this:

The trailer to Sherlock Holmes sucks royally and totally misrepresents the movie, which is actually very good and appreciably faithful to the Holmesian canon and style. It’s not Conan Doyle—any more than Rathbone and Bruce were—but a worthy adaptation in its own right, and well worth checking out.

Stay tuned for my review of the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I’ll get around to posting eventually.

Book review: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

I first posted this review of State of Fear in 2009—by coincidence, shortly after Michael Crichton’s death. I have made some minor edits from the original to improve readability and to reflect some subtle shifts in my thinking in the intervening 4+ years. My views on the whole, though, have not changed substantially since this review’s initial publication.

Moderate plot spoilers for State of Fear follow.

When the mysterious Professor John Kenner first requests a meeting with billionaire environmentalist George Morton, Morton’s lawyer, Peter Evans, thinks little of it. But after the meeting, Morton’s behavior changes drastically. He disappears for days at a time, and he begins questioning his current pet project: a lawsuit against the United States for its involvement in global warming. When Morton dies in a car crash, Evans finds himself propelled into the midst of an environmental terrorist plot which will shake him to the very foundations of his beliefs.

I have mixed feelings about State of Fear. The plot is decent, not extraordinary; enough to keep the reader interested but not enough to carry the story all by itself.

The book’s real strength is in its discourse, and even there, it’s only a partial success. The many lectures on environmental science and on power structures are among the best and worst aspects of the book.

Many environmentalists will no doubt be infuriated by Crichton’s skepticism of global warming (or global climate change as it is more accurately known). Personally, I do not agree with many of Crichton’s conclusions (rightly or wrongly), but I feel many of his arguments have at least some merit.

The book’s Wikipedia entry contains links to several pages which will dispute the scientific points Crichton makes in his novel. But I’ve also run into other people in recent years criticizing the science behind climate change. What struck me after the first such instance was that I, personally, am in no position to evaluate the science of climate change. I don’t know it or understand it enough to have an informed opinion.

As Crichton points out, there’s a lot we don’t know about how our planet works, and that includes climate science. He obviously has made up his own mind that climate change is not a significant danger and, unfortunately, ends up imposing that interpretation upon the story. He begins by saying “we just don’t know enough about the Earth to evaluate whether climate change is really a serious threat or not,” but by the end the message has morphed into “there is no serious danger of climate change at all.” This not only undermines the original point he established, but is a much weaker one. (Certainty in general is a more difficult argument to make than uncertainty.) I think he’d have done his case more good to leave it at saying climate change is not a certain thing, and including his own belief that it likely isn’t a problem, than trying to force that conclusion onto the reader.

However, Crichton still has some insights that should make environmentalists, progressives, and radicals take note. First there’s the arrogance. A major point he raises is we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. But he also aptly displays our unfortunate habit of assuming we know what’s going on, we know what’s best, we know what needs to be done, we know better than everyone else. Am I the only one who spots the conservative stereotypes being spun right back at us?

The character of Ted Bradley beautifully illustrates the arrogance and racist romanticism of Western progressives’ ideas of life in “underdeveloped” nations. (Granted, a lot of the more “logical” characters’ responses are equally biased and problematic, but that doesn’t negate the point.)

And then, of course, there’s the young eco-terrorist who excuses his actions by saying “We’re trying to save the planet!” And his justification for implementing a plan that hinges upon getting several hundred people killed? “Casualties are inevitable in accomplishing social change. History tells us that.”

Along with the arrogance goes close-mindedness. My creative writing teacher in college 1st year once remarked that “liberals are very close-minded,” and she had a point. Crichton illustrates this fact with the various characters’ knee-jerk attempts to dismiss evidence that conflicts with their worldview (in this case, their ideas about climate change) as propaganda manufactured on behalf of industry or some ultra-right wing conspiracy. In other words, their instinctual reaction when confronted with evidence which calls their beliefs into question is to dismiss it out of hand. Do I detect another conservative stereotype being thrown back in our faces?

Best of all, there’s the lecture by Professor Hoffman where he explains the politico-legal-media complex. Hoffman’s analysis of this entity, its purpose, its methods, and the “state of fear” it intentionally creates to further its own selfish interests is correct almost down to the last detail. His worst slip-up is failing to include big business; corporations (and not just industrial corporations) in his list. The big companies have just as much to gain from the “state of fear” as the government and the judicial system (and they own the major media outlets, anyway).

Unfortunately, Crichton’s (and thus, his characters’) obsession with climate change muddies the message. The way Hoffman and Kenner hurl accusations against climate change activists seems to suggest they don’t realize that if the PLM didn’t have climate change to manipulate people into submission, it’d use something else. The powers that be are doing far too well staying the course while the rest of humanity suffers (and occasionally prospers) just to give up because their prime source of fear has dried up. To modify a line from James Donovan: “If there were no existing crisis to terrify the people, the establishment would have to invent one.” Hoffman’s allusion to the transition from Cold War to climate change as main focus for the “State of Fear” suggests he knows the truth, but this quickly gets overshadowed by his and Kenner’s rhetoric about the Great Climate Change Deception.

Ending the threat of climate change (whether real or only imagined) will not put an end to the horrendous loss of human life that Hoffman and Kenner lament—only dismantling the diseased politico-economic structures which are the source of the titular “state of fear” will do that.

One more positive piece of discourse: As Morton points out at the end, environmentalist groups have been assimilated into the establishment and are, therefore (to an extent at least), now part of the problem. In many ways, the cooptation of environmental groups mirrors the cooptation of labor unions a century earlier. True, the unions’ ostensible purpose should put them in direct conflict with the establishment, but they’ve been built within a framework which requires the establishment’s existence, even if it’s only as antagonist. In much the same way, national militaries require a national enemy (usually external) to validate their own existence. So the labor unions, and the environmental groups, have a vested interest in keeping the structures which necessitate Crichton’s state of fear in place.

At other times, though, the discourse is less successful. Ted Bradley is obviously too hard-headed to accept even the idea that climate change is unproven. After his first argument with Kenner, the reader has got the formula down cold. Bradley is the straw man, continually offering up weak arguments about climate change as well as other Euro-American myths about the “natural” world for Kenner to knock down, but not satisfied with Kenner’s arguments no matter how strong they are.

By the end of it, the reader is left feeling nostalgic for Kenner’s conversations with Evans and Sarah, problematic though they were. It’s painful to watch Bradley go up against characters like Kenner, Sanjong and even Henry, knowing full well he’s going to be steamrollered. At least Evans and Sarah were capable of intelligent discourse, rather than sticking to dogmatic drivel.

In “The Science of Science Fiction Writing,” author James Gunn cites rationalist Isaac Asimov as saying that generally his (Asimov’s) villains were as rational as his heroes. Asimov’s reasoning, as quoted by Gunn, runs as follows: “If it were a western, where everything depends upon the draw of the gun, it would be very unsatisfactory if the hero shot down a person who didn’t know how to shoot.” There’s a lesson in there Michael Crichton would’ve done well taking to heart.

The other problem with using Bradley as the main voice of opposition for the last part of the book is that since Bradley is so extreme in his views, Kenner and the other author surrogates end up taking the opposite extreme. Bradley has a romantic view of native life, native villages, and native peoples. In seeking to prove Bradley wrong, Crichton has his characters cite the most horrific counter-examples he can find … thus giving the impression that all village life is savage and terrible, and the backward villagers would much rather live in cities/be better off with a Western education.

… In other words, in his attempts to puncture the “Noble Savage” myth, Crichton makes himself into a colonial and neocolonial apologist. (Crichton neglects to mention that the misery of modern village life is partially due to centuries of past colonial oppression as well as present neocolonial economic oppression—often aided and abetted by the local governments; Crichton is correct that you can’t put all the blame on the Big Bad West.) This colonial-era racism is even more blatant when you consider that the only person of color on the protagonists’ side is so thoroughly Westernized that the book makes a point of mentioning his British accent. Contrast with the ultra-traditionalist natives of Gareda Island who hate white people and eventually eat Ted Bradley (as heavily foreshadowed earlier in the book). Yes, the racial politics in this book are really that bad.

The only other notable characters of color in the book are a femme fatale in the beginning, and Henry, the educated islander. On the one hand, he has a Western education, and argues for the benefits of, essentially, Western civilization over native savagery. On the other hand, he apparently betrays the main characters to the savages in question (or something). I’ll leave it to the reader to make up their own mind what all that is supposed to signify.

And on top of all that, some of the discourse (mostly the scientific lectures) is just plain boring.

Okay, that’s probably more than enough of that, let’s talk about the story.

Like I said, the plot is decent but hardly thrilling. Basically, it involves Evans, Sarah (Morton’s secretary) and Kenner, traveling around the world like James Bond thwarting the dastardly schemes of the Environmental Liberation Front. The tension is occasionally exciting, and some of the conventions—such as the mini-octopus as assassination tool—are compelling enough to keep a modicum of interest, most of the time.

Peter Evans is a bland character, with such traits as his weak-willed manner and somewhat quirky love life doing little to flesh him out. He’s okay as a protagonist, though the part where he contemplates the moral implications of Kenner having killed three eco-terrorists and concluding “Screw ’em,” irked me.

His reasoning runs thusly: “There were bad people in the world. They had to be stopped.” From there, Evans and Crichton immediately jump to the conclusion that “stopping” said “bad people” can only mean killing them, without even considering the possibility of another alternative. It’s an outrageously narrow-minded and self-serving position to take. Yes, killing is wrong, but they’re the bad guys, so that makes it okay.

Granted, this facile and, if you think about it, downright terrifying reasoning for ejecting some human lives from the moral universe is a staple of Western culture, and hardly unique to Crichton*. Still, given all Crichton’s moralizing elsewhere in the book, the fact that he not only concludes “some people just need to be killed,” but utterly fails to explore the implications of who gets to make that call and by what authority and by what means their unworthiness for continued existence may be established is even more reprehensible than in most such cases.

*Brandon Sanderson’s second “Mistborn” book, The Well of Ascension and the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins are two face-palmingly blatant examples from recent years.

Sarah is also fairly dull; her most interesting moments come during the action sequences. The relationship between her and Evans is the painfully standard romance you can find in practically any Western literature.

George Morton is an eccentric gentleman, and probably my favorite character in the book. A well-intentioned person, he’s apparently far enough removed from Crichton himself that the latter can bear to portray his hypocritical side, which adds dimension to the character. His ambitious plans for the future outlined at the end of the book at least somewhat make up for Kenner’s extreme pessimism (more on that in a minute).

Morton’s idea for an environmentalist group “Study the Problem and Fix It,” is not only amusing, but it raises some important philosophical points. The idea of an organization whose purpose is to work itself out of a job certainly has merit—better that than an organization which stagnates by an obsession with continuing its existence over and above fulfilling its’ mission statement.

Nicholas Drake is a two-dimensional villain: he has to raise a certain amount of money for his organization to keep his salary. He probably believes in the threat of global warming, too, despite all the counter-evidence in Crichton’s universe. Ideologues can be like that. However, the question of what Drake believes doesn’t come up either way. The fact that this aspect of his motivation is apparently insignificant to the story indicates the extent of his characterization. When I first began to suspect Drake would turn out to be a villain, I hoped that at least he would retain some amount of character beyond simply being the opposition for our intrepid heroes. No such luck. Crichton could’ve learned a thing or two from Dan Brown.

Ted Bradley is an obnoxious, self-satisfied, sexually harassing jerk and perhaps worst of all, is convinced he knows The Truth. In other words, he’s probably the most multi-dimensional character in the book. Sure he’s flawed and dangerously naïve (or arrogant, or both), but he also genuinely cares about the good of the planet and of his fellow human beings. In other words, he’s a lot like most real life heroes, villains, and people who are morally neutral. And unlike his fellow rich environmentalist Ann, he had the courage or conviction or both to stick with the main characters even after learning about the cannibal natives. I dunno that I liked him, exactly, but he was an interesting character and I didn’t want him to die, if only because he’d already taken so much flak as Crichton’s Straw Environmentalist punching bag already. Which, of course, is why Crichton killed him off and no one else. A little vindictive there, Mike?

In a note at the end, Crichton says that a book where “so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues.” That note led this reader to wonder who, exactly, the author thinks he’s kidding. John Kenner is obviously Crichton’s mouthpiece in State of Fear, in much the same way that Socrates was Plato’s in the latter’s famous dialogues. Except that Crichton is no Plato, and he doesn’t pull it off nearly as well. Socrates the character is pretty cool, Kenner is … a Mary-Sue; he’s clearly only there to be the stick with which Crichton bludgeons his view of reality into the other characters, and the reader.

Even this might not be so bad, except that Crichton sacrifices characterization for discourse. Kenner is not only Better Informed Than Thou, he’s also Holier Than Thou, “I have an apartment … I do not own a car. I fly coach.” Wait, I thought you were the one who didn’t believe climate change was a real danger, so why not own a car? But anyway, while Crichton is right to point out that celebrity environmentalists can be very hypocritical, it’s not like the rest of us are pure as snow, either. We all have flaws, including Crichton, and (if he were a real person) including Kenner. But no, Kenner in the book is blissfully free of any intentional character faults.

All that aside, I spent the last third of the book hoping desperately for Kenner to be wrong. Not about his views on climate change, I knew Crichton was too wedded to his mouthpiece on that score, but about something, anything. But no, Kenner, it appears, had to be completely right about absolutely everything.

And to top it all off, he’s so damn negative. His little speech to Bradley towards the end about everything you do having unexpected, negative consequences was supposed to be an argument for cost-benefit analyses, but it came off sounding more like “Nothing you do can ever really make things better because any positive changes you make will be balanced out by negative changes somewhere else” the implied corollary being “so why bother trying?” Again, I’m sure that wasn’t what Crichton meant to say, but it’s what he said. Thank goodness for Morton.

Sanjong is Kenner’s token POC, good little colonized sidekick. That pretty much covers the extent of his personality. At least he didn’t die, though. Or turn out to be evil.

Bottom Line: There’s some good discourse in here (even if I disagree with a lot of it) but it’s often mishandled, and the plot and characters are too generic and mediocre to carry the story by themselves. A good time-waster, but if you’re looking for a thrilling narrative, compelling characters, or deeply thought-provoking philosophical arguments, I advise you to keep looking.