Here's an excerpt from a book released today, called Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion: The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More.
Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey of his career as a whole – until now. The Complete Companion covers every aspect of the Whedonverse through insightful essays and interviews, including fascinating conversations with key collaborators Jane Espenson and Tim Minear.
Over 40 contributors have been brought together by PopMatters, the acclaimed international magazine of cultural criticism, to provide an irresistible mix of analysis, interpretation and sheer celebration. Whether you’re a student looking for critical approaches to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or a Browncoat who follows Nathan Fillion on Twitter (or, let’s face it, both) there is plenty here to enjoy.
Covers all the TV series, movies, and comic books, including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Fray, Astonishing X-Men, The Avengers, and more!
Excerpt from Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion -- "Dollhouse, Fox Television, and Cultural Fragmentation," by Rana Emerson
It's possible that Joss Whedon's fans who started the preemptive "hype this show" campaign on DollhouseForums.com had the right idea after all. The Fox television network had cancelled Whedon's earlier television show, Firefly, after less than one season in 2002. In the minds of Whedon fans, Fox was the ultimate Big Bad and Dollhouse being on that network did not bode well for the future of the series. Dollhouse may not have had a chance of a long run out of the starting gate with or without hype, but that very act of collective action to support a new show by their beloved creator, demonstrates what a special breed Whedonites are.
It is also an excellent example of the ways that cultural fragmentation works in today's media and entertainment culture. Also known as fractured culture, it describes the ways that American culture has become split up into so very many specific pieces that a group that consumes one type of culture can be completely unaware of what is consumed by another. As former Wired editor Chris Anderson explains in The Long Tail, this means that the future of media and entertainment is no longer based upon a large, general, mass audience, but many small, specific, niche audiences. Profit will come not from appealing generally to everyone and creating "water-cooler conversation," as NBC was able to do with The Cosby Show in the 1980s, but instead from developing programming that speaks to many small, specific groups, like working women, teens, or people who enjoy a combination of quirky dialogue, philosophical themes, SF/fantasy, and angst.
Ironically, Dollhouse's success was hindered by Fox's simultaneous attempt to take advantage of the specific niche of genre culture that Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy's work represented while also forcing the program to appeal to a more mainstream demographic beyond its niche audience. The evidence and effects of these conflicting goals are revealed in the saga of Dollhouse's two pilots (one never aired; the other shaped by Fox's expectations) and the first season finale (also never aired in Region 1, North America).
My first glimpse of Dollhouse happened at an exemplar of cultural fragmentation, the 2009 New York Comic Con. I had waited patiently in line for hours at the Jacob Javitz Center with hundreds (thousands, even) of my fellow Whedonites to see and hear him introduce the show on the Sunday before it was to premiere on Fox. Along with series star (and former Battlestar Galactica cast member) Tahmoh Penikett, Whedon screened an extended scene from the pilot, "Ghost" (1.1). After the lights went down following Joss's typically wry introduction, onscreen we followed two racing motorcycles on Los Angeles streets that led us to a party scene featuring series star, Eliza Dushku, dancing to a remix of Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" with a handsome man. After much flirtatious banter, she abruptly walks out of the party and approaches a van occupied by Harry Lennnix. We then hear what we come to know as the signature Active/Handler phrase: "Are you ready for your treatment?" Then the house lights went up.
Upon viewing the rest of the episode, the audience learns that Eliza Dushku's character, Echo, is an "active" who lives in the mysterious underground compound called the Dollhouse run by the multi-national conglomerate Rossum Corporation, and populated by people who, like Echo, are blank slates that can have their personalities customized according to the whims of customers who pay for specialized "engagements."
The anticipation for Dollhouse after the online success of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog was high, and the complex, unusual premise of the show promised to deliver the key qualities that audiences have come to expect from Joss Whedon's shows: a combination of female protagonist of superhero-like proportions, SF/fantasy, multi-layered mythology, some procedural structure, social critique, and philosophical contemplation blended with witty dialogue and the potential for emotional pathos.
It's not clear that Fox had the same expectations for the show. The production of Dollhouse was apparently troubled early on. The episode from which a segment was shown at New York Comic Con was taken from the second version of the show's pilot. The original pilot episode, "Echo," was scrapped by Whedon and his production team because of problems in tone and concept, and reshot resulting in "Ghost." Fox and Whedon and the production team did not agree on the direction of the show, namely the balance between philosophical elements and action, causing production to be halted after many rewrites and reshoots early in the shooting of the first episodes. As Whedon said in Rolling Stone about the relationship with the network, "It went well at first, then it went not so well. And the not-so-well is about them going, 'You know, we don't really have room for these kinder, more contemplative stories'" (qtd. in Kushner). The parties did eventually come to an agreement on the proper course to take with the show and production resumed on the first season.
Although the production company made it clear that it had problems with "Echo" as a final product and believed changes should be made, when one looks at the differences between the aired and unaired pilots, the compromises that were made in order to appeal less to a niche-oriented audience and more to a mainstream audience become clear. One could go so far as to say that these compromises even alienated certain key parts of Joss Whedon's base demographic. This happened in two major ways. The "Echo" and "Ghost" pilots are almost nothing alike and, as a result, set the series out on completely different paths. They both introduce the audience to the character Echo, but they differ mainly in their structure, and how that structure appeals to an audience.
Buffy, Angel, and Firefly all blended procedural and mythological elements, and it was clear that the intent was, from the outset, for Dollhouse to be a combination of the two as well. The mythology of all of those three earlier series clearly dominated the narrative arcs. Universe-building and character-development have always been key elements in Mutant Enemy shows and the niche audience has come to expect the kind of time and attention necessary for them to be accomplished. The unaired pilot begins both those processes right away. In "Echo," the audience is introduced very quickly to the Dollhouse universe and becomes familiar with important terminology. Most interestingly, we are introduced almost immediately to two key philosophical questions. The scene during which Topher and Boyd observe Echo, Victor, and Sierra "grouping," or repeatedly gathering to eat, is in "Echo." However, the segment does not appear in the actual aired series until the fourth episode, "Gray Hour" (1.4), which raises questions of scientific ethics and morality for humanity.
In contrast, "Ghost" is constructed more like a mystery story in which the FBI agent, Paul Ballard, played by Tahmoh Penikett is investigating the Dollhouse and trying to locate Caroline Farrell, the true identity of Echo. The episode is practically a straightforward police procedural. And unlike the unaired pilot, in which we see Eliza Dushku's character take on a number of different assignments, showcasing the varied roles that the dolls are able to perform, in "Ghost," the focus is mainly upon her highly sexualized assignment as a man's weekend date, as well as Echo's and the other female dolls' physicality (we mainly see the male doll Victor at this point in the role of an informant to Ballard). The aired pilot is more of a showcase for the stars of the show, Penikett and, especially, Dushku. The rest of the cast receives less airtime in "Ghost" than they do in "Echo"; and more significantly, their characters are explored in less depth than the aired pilot. The broadcast pilot's themes and form were more traditional, which would seem to appeal to a more mainstream audience, so procedurals and self-contained narratives dominated the first five episodes of the first season. If the series had begun with "Echo" instead, much of the Dollhouse universe and mythology would have been established from the outset and possibly been more attractive to a Whedon fanbase viewership. By attempting to reap high ratings from the mainstream audience, the series risked disillusioning and losing the very niche groups that it was created for.
The fact that the actual Season 1 finale, "Epitaph One," was not aired in North America is also telling. Here again Fox misjudged the appeal and the potential audience of Dollhouse. Although the official explanation was that it was not produced under an agreement with Fox, and it was instead included in the Season 1 DVD release, what was not seen by the regular broadcast audience also suggests Fox's audience strategy. "Epitaph One" shoves the audience forward to the apocalyptic future of 2019 when the imprinting technology that made the active dolls possible has gone out of control, endangering humanity itself. Both this temporal shift and the alternating flashback structure of the episode destabilize the narrative, reinforcing the onscreen chaos. Apparently, Fox feared that mainstream viewers would be confused and switch channels to a Law and Order rerun; but the network did not consider that the intended niche audience would have recognized a Whedon trademarked whiplash plot change, devoted hours online to blogging and posting on why it was brilliant or terrible, and tuned in next season to find the answers. "Epitaph One" clearly prefigures the potential for multi-dimensional televisual world-building that Dollhouse's second season provided, with reflections upon critical themes of gender, race, domination, capitalism, and the ethical uses of science and technology.
Another of Whedon's trademarks is the use of complex, engaging characters. Yet a common critique of the early episodes of the first season of Dollhouse was that it was difficult to identify with the main character, Echo, and there was no other real character with whom to connect. Perhaps if there had been less focus on Echo's engagements and the strengths of the ensemble cast highlighted earlier in the show's run, a niche fan base might have been better established.
Many feminist viewers vocally criticized and abandoned the show, believing, justifiably, that the theme of human trafficking and the visual focus on the female body smacked of exploitation and prostitution. Had the series not tried to gain a young male audience that wouldn't otherwise be interested in the show without showing skin, perhaps there could have been an opportunity to begin exploring themes of identity in a more complex way earlier in the series, much in the way they were able to do so in Season Two. By that time, however, the writing was on the wall. First Dollhouse was put on hiatus during November Sweeps, and then it was cancelled in February.
Perhaps Dollhouse just wasn't meant to be a hit. None of Joss Whedon's other shows, not even Buffy, had particularly high ratings. But in the context of a fragmented culture, maybe it could have at least survived if Fox's strategy had been to leverage its niche appeal rather than alter the series to accomplish more -- and less -- than was originally intended. Then, we might have been able to experience more than just a taste of the innovative and challenging television that Dollhouse offered.
Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail. New York: Hyperion, 2006. Print.
Dollhouse: Season One. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.
"Echo." Unaired pilot. Writ. and dir. Joss Whedon. Dollhouse: Season One.
"Epitaph One." Unaired in US and Canada. Story by Joss Whedon. Teleplay by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon. Dollhouse.
"Ghost." 1.1. Writ. and dir. Joss Whedon. Dollhouse.
"Gray Hour." 1.4. Writ.Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft. Dir. Rod Hardy. Dollhouse.
Kushner, David. "Revolt of a TV Genius." Rolling Stone 19 Feb. 2009: 38-39. Print.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.