The structure of the Fox science fiction series Dollhouse makes it very easy to end up with a "mission of the week" format. Joss Whedon's series about people who have their memories and personality erased in order to have then replaced by memories and personality of a client's choosing could easily fall into something like Love Boat, where no plot is really advanced over the arc of the series, but each week brings the viewer an episode where the dolls go off and have a crisis then come back, forcing the series to become, in the process, more of an anthology series than anything really self-contained. The first few episodes of the first season were exactly that, which Whedon has blamed on the interference of the network. Those same introductory episodes are what drove away more thoughtful (and perhaps impatient) viewers. But by the end of the first season, while the dolls still had "engagements", it was clear that another story was being advanced in the interstices and with the supporting characters.
I was fortunate enough to see the culmination of that first season when I saw the "lost episode", "Epitaph 1", in San Diego when Whedon presented it to Comic-Con this past summer. Fortunately, "Epitaph 1" is available on the DVD set, and as I have noted elsewhere (http://perrynomasia.blogspot.com/2009/07/comic-con-2009.html), it is something any fan of Whedon or science fiction on TV simply must see. The first season pointed out some of the moral ambiguity of what the dollhouses were capable of, while "Epitaph 1" really nailed it home in an unforgettably chilling fashion. Also a delight in that episode is the sudden appearance of character for our resident mad scientist, Topher Brink (played by Fran Kranz). Topher really is the weakest link on the show, because he is almost sociopathic in his devotion to his work and his own self-interest. Throughout the first season, the character does not seem to evolve, or even show any depth at all. It was hard to say if this was the result of the writing or Kranz's acting…until "Epitaph 1." Suddenly, we see just how deep Topher is and, as a very happy aside, the power of Kranz's acting once he is given more than a single dimension to play. Unfortunately, most viewers will never see the episode, so they will had no idea what Kranz can do.
The most recent episode of Dollhouse, "Belonging" (which aired 10/24/09), appears to be a character study of Sierra (Dichen Lachmann). In it, we at last uncover the origin of one of the regular characters in the series—a beautiful artist, Priya attracts the attention of a brilliant and wealthy man who has connections in the corporation that owns the dollhouses. Using his connections, he has Priya given to the dollhouse (in as villainous a fashion as any depicted on recent television) where she is given the code name Sierra and becomes one of the best dolls available. But when Echo hints to Topher that all is not as it seems with one of Sierra's engagements, Topher discovers the truth behind Priya/Sierra's joining the dollhouse and shares it with the security chief Boyd (Henry Lennix) and manager Adele (Olivia Williams).
The results are some of the most compelling TV of this young season, if not the past few seasons. The focus is on Sierra, and Lachmann gives a strong performance as she fleshes out a fan-favorite character. What Priya/Sierra is put through in order to become a doll is horrific, and the results of her engagements perhaps even more so. Vincent Ventresca plays a creepily villainous foil, Nolan Kinnard, for Sierra in his few scenes, just enough to hint at the depths of Nolan's own madness. And while Sierra's loss and recovery were the main plot of the episode, it was what happened around the periphery that made it so emotionally compelling and such strong science fiction.
At last, an episode is broadcast that shows that Topher is not mono-dimensional, a much fuller role that allows us to see Kranz's acting chops. As Topher learns what has been done to Sierra and then argues with Adele over her fate, and then as he turns that fate and becomes something of a hero (a twisted hero no doubt, but heroic all the more for his twistedness), Topher becomes human, something of which we have only seen glimpses in the past. Suddenly he realizes that the knowledge he has and what he does with it have repercussions, and rather than meekly accepting those repercussions, he does something about them. And Kranz's acting is just sublime throughout Topher's epiphany; in his facial expression, his body language, and in his cadence, Topher is wracked with horror at what his beautiful technology can be turned into. This directly echoes the path his character takes in the aforementioned "Epitaph 1" and is transcendentally powerful given how the character has been portrayed up to now. That stark difference between the versions of Topher just make it that much more clear how horrible Sierra's fate is if no one acts on her behalf. Nonetheless, in many ways, "Belonging" is more about Topher than Sierra since by the end of the episode, he is the one who has changed the most.
Mirroring Topher's horror is Olivia Williams's Adele, who seems to honestly believe she is doing what's right for the dolls while living up to the guidelines of the parent Rossum Corporation. Through three successive interviews with Ventresca's Nolan, corporate bigwig Matthew Harding (stoic and evil, played by Keith Carradine), and then finally with Topher, her outrage is beaten into submission. Her own despair is written into her face and delivery even as she tells Topher to do what he is ordered to do, no matter how grotesque and damning it might be. In one of the best lines of the series, which arises from that conversation, she tells Topher, "All of our employees but one were hired in part for their moral ambiguity. You were not. You were hired because you have no morals at all."
And yet, while most of the action of "Becoming" seems to be at a personal level, there are broad strokes that cannot but affect the activities of the dollhouse. On the one hand, the original discoverer of the unpleasantness is Echo (Eliza Dushku) who regular viewers already know has something special about her, given that she is supposed to remember nothing and, especially, instigate nothing when she has not been imprinted with a personality. But there she is, diving to the core of Sierra's fundamental issues when the dollhouse staff is either too distant or too preoccupied to notice that something is terribly wrong with her. Only Boyd, the security chief, seems to notice that she is not acting like the rest of the dolls, and rather than reporting her, he offers her advice as she warns "the storm is coming" (again, I have to refer to "Epitaph 1"—the storm is coming, and what a storm it is).
Most important is the sudden realization that the doll technology is vulnerable to corruption. In a couple of episodes in the first season, Adele uses the technology for her own purposes—creating her perfect lover and helping a friend find out who murdered her—but it never seems to strike her that if she can use the dolls for morally ambiguous reasons, other people can use them for whatever reasons they want. Rossum, in the person of Carradine's Harding, basically orders Adele to murder one of the dolls in as repulsive a way as imaginable, simply to benefit the company and to protect it from potential liability. What Boyd knew all along, Adele and Topher now know for themselves: the doll technology is extraordinarily powerful and thus incredibly vulnerable to those who would want to use it for their own reasons. And this is what makes Dollhouse ultimately such powerful science fiction.
At its deepest roots, science fiction has been used to celebrate the hope of future technology while warning of its potential misuse. Perhaps the grandfather of all science fiction, Frankenstein, is a powerful story of the unintended repercussions as man delves into places he might not be morally ready to explore. And throughout its history, some of the best science fiction stories have been about the competing interests between discovery and use, as knowledge outpaces morality. This, ultimately, is what Dollhouse is—a cautionary tale about the repercussions when technology falls into the hands of the unscrupulous and corrupt. Dollhouse, when it is at its best, brings that conflict to the fore in the most personal terms possible, in the lives of its dolls, the scientists who discover, and the people who pay to use the discovery. The episodic, "doll of the week", format could be entertaining in its own right, but Whedon and his cast and crew continue to push Dollhouse into thought-provoking areas while engrossing its viewers with powerful stories about individuals. "Belonging" is, by far, the best episode so far to make that dichotomy clear and so compelling.