Friday, December 12, 2014

Dollhouse: A Different Kind of Toy Story (April 2010)

As some of you know, Smart Pop Books had a contest recently asking fans to write an essay on the late great Fox show, Dollhouse. The top 15 winners would have their entries published and put in a book that will be released this fall.
About a hundred people submitted entries, including me. Sadly, I didn't make it.
Maybe my entry was terrible, or too profound or too weird, or the competition was really that tight. I'm guessing it was one close contest.
All I know is that they got Jane Espenson as a judge. If there's anyone who knows good writing, it is her.

Therefore, here is my entry. Judge for yourself.

Question: what do Dollhouse and Toy Story have in common?

To the hard core Joss Whedon fan, the answer is obvious. Just two years before he turned a little teen horror comedy called Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a classic TV cult hit, he was involved in the screenplay of Toy Story, which revolutionized animated films. It also led to getting an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Last fall, Toy Story and its sequel were both re-released as a 3-D movie double feature as a prelude to the next movie, also in 3-D, next summer. It turned out to be a big hit, and the planned two-week engagement wound up being extended. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly* revealed that Whedon wanted to use Barbie to help rescue Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the first movie's final act, where they were in danger of being abandoned by Andy's family. It makes sense for a man who believes in girl power, or in this case doll power. Whedon said in the article he wanted Barbie as "Sarah Connor in a pink convertible." It would have been worth it to hear her say "come with me if you want to live" more than a decade before Summer Glau does on a TV version of the Terminator franchise. Producer Matt Guggenheim said in the article Mattel objected to using Barbie because they thought girls project their own ideas of what Barbie should be. Giving Barbie her own voice, Mattel allegedly thought, wouldn't become a girl's ideal. After Toy Story became successful, Mattel allowed Barbie to be part of Toy Story 2. That led to several Barbie CGI movies which are mostly fairy tales. Maybe it didn't think little girls would be ready for Barbie the Vampire Slayer, although they thought Barbie and Ken could fill Mulder and Scully's shoes in a special X-Files edition of the two dolls.

Mattel's alleged objection, however, stuck with me because it could be the same attitude Rossum has towards its Actives in all its Dollhouses. An Active is there to fulfill a client's fantasy or need. If you give an Active its own voice, it may not become a person's ideal. It would become, well, too human to do the job it's supposed to do. At least too human for Rossum's comfort.

So, could Dollhouse be the dark side of Toy Story, where clients could be like fair and loving like Andy, or evil like Sid, or somewhere in between?
That's not too far out, really, although there are other ways to connect the movie with the TV show.

Let's start with the idea that both Toy Story and Dollhouse involve people treating people like toys. A child defines what a toy should be, just as a client decides what an Active should be. Through the short history of Dollhouse, consider some of the "roles" that Actives have played: a geisha, midwife, backup singer, nerdy fan, birthday party guest, a Topher clone, blind girl, safecracker, wife, mother, solider, lover, doctor...and a few others Barbie never had the chance to do. However, the Actives are treated like what toys are supposed to be: living yet blank objects until someone wants to play with them. They are not supposed to form attachments with each other, like Echo does with Sierra and Victor. They are not supposed to share affection, or have "man reactions" on their own. A Doll is just there to fulfill a fantasy. It's not supposed to have one of its own. That's only allowed in Pixar movies.

Usually, the Dollhouses cater to clients who have a lot of money, and are just like Andy, a person who treats his toys fairly. When the first Toy Story movie starts, he's using his toys to play out a bank robbery, with Woody as the hero who saves the day. Compare that to a client asking to have an Active to play more mature roles, like a romantic date, a mercenary rescuing a kidnapped child or a safecracker. After the client is finished "playing" with his Active, it gets "put back on the shelf" after its imprint is wiped clean. In the Toy Story world, the toys know full well what they are, and just enjoy life being part of a child's world. The Actives just wander around, paint or practice yoga. As far as the Dollhouse is concerned, Actives are toys with no thoughts in their heads. Having thoughts would make them more complicated than a Mr. Potato Head, whether he's a toy or the Pixar version with Don Rickles' voice.

There are clients who are like Sid, the evil kid who likes to break toys, or make them even worse. Remember the Erector set spider with the bald baby doll head? The best example of a "Sid" is Nolan Kinnard, a major player inside Rossum. One day, he meets a girl named Priya at a party, and decides he must possess her, literally. Using a mental health clinic that he owns, he drives Priya insane through the use of drugs. Then he sends her to the Dollhouse, where she is turned into Sierra, an Active who is his own personal plaything. Calling her his girlfriend would be too charitable. In "Needs", Sierra becomes aware of her past as Priya, and confronts Nolan about it. Not only does he admit it, he says she is going to return to him anytime he wants. He's right, because Sierra's sudden self-awareness was really part of a plan by Dr. Claire Saunders to have the Actives resolve unresolved issues, and become obedient again. This didn't quite work with all of them. It's also ironic, since the one who came up with the plan is later revealed to be an Active, too. More on that later.
Then when Nolan demands that he keep Sierra permanently, he uses his position in Rossum, and pressure from fellow company bigwig Matthew Harding, to get what he wants. However, what he winds up getting is Sierra as Priya, her former self. She tells Nolan she never loved him, but loves someone else whose name she can't explain. When Nolan start abusing what was supposed to be his personal toy, she winds up stabbing him to death. Sid should be glad his mutant toys never struck back like that, or that Woody just warned him to take care of his toys.

Another example is Hearn, who was Sierra's handler. Adelle DeWitt figures out that he has been raping Sierra, but he also admits it readily. He says when you see women who are willing to do anything for you, you're bound to take advantage. She gives him a way out by sending him to kill Mellie, who's been helping FBI agent Paul Ballard expose the Dollhouse. When Hearn does attack her, she gets a call from Dewitt, telling her there are three flowers in a vase. The phrase turns Mellie from victim to Hearn's assassin, but it also shows she is a sleeper Active. She takes care of Hearn just as Sierra took care of Nolan. It's quite a lesson to both Nolan and Hearn not to abuse toys, whether they own one or not.

There's also a list of clients who are somewhere between Andy and Sid. That is, they may seem to have the best of intentions at first, but their needs may become too dark or uncomfortable. Richard Connell, the client in "The Target", wanted a companion on a whitewater rafting trip. What he really wanted was a companion for a hunting trip, with Echo as his prey. She's barely able to escape, but the Dollhouse is stunned about how they were fooled by this man, and whether rouge Active Alpha is responsible.

Joel Mynor, internet whiz, is the only client on the show who is able to justify why he needs an Active. In "Man on the Street", he explains that he wanted to capture a moment that never was: surprising his wife with a new house that he bought through his internet creation, "Bouncy the Rat". That moment never happened because she died in a car crash just before she got to the house. Paul still thinks Joel's fantasy is bad because he's using a person who is fulfilling his fantasy because she lost her free will. However, Joel turns it around on Paul, asking him whether his fantasy is saving Echo from her life as an Active, and what he hopes to get out of it. In a way, Paul hopes to find redemption through a toy, in this case Echo.

Later, Paul discovers that he's no better than Mynor or any other Dollhouse client. This happens when he learns that Mellie is a sleeper Active. It's a fact that surprises her because his relationship with Mellie had become intimate. He wonders if her affections towards him are real or programmed. It gets to the point that he doesn't care, and still has sex with her. Afterwards, when she asks when they're going to find Dollhouse clients, Paul finds his own mirror.

He would be surprised if he learned that Adelle DeWitt, who manages the Los Angeles Dollhouse, had been posing as "Miss Lonelyhearts" so she could enjoy her own toy...Victor, or Roger as she calls him. Some may wonder how this is different than what Nolan or Hearn did to Sierra. While these two men abused Sierra to get what they want, all Adelle had to do was have Victor imprinted. She didn't force him to have sex with her. He was just programmed to do that. He is her toy, and he is there to be her ideal. Victor/Roger is a life-sized version of Ken, only better...or at least that's what she tells herself. It's still abuse because she's taking advantage of a man who has no free will. Rather than take her chances at parties or even singles bars, she finds a quick yet empty solution with an Active. It's not as violent as what Nolan and Hearn did, but it's still abuse. She even tries to enjoy one last night of passion with Victor/Roger before his term as an Active ends. He is reluctant because, as Sierra told Nolan, he says there's someone else he loves, but can't explain who she is.
Why did she did she think she could get away with it? Maybe she thinks she's entitled to borrowing a "toy" because she thinks the Dollhouse is her own toy store, if she doesn't get caught. That's what being head of a Dollhouse means, until Matthew Harding tells her she is seen as a toy to those who are really in charge, including himself and Clive Ambrose. That may have been the moment she started having doubts about what the Dollhouse is really doing, well before Ballard did.

The connections between Toy Story and Dollhouse don't stop there. While all the toys in Toy Story are aware of who they are, the exception is Buzz Lightyear, who is convinced he's a real Space Ranger who can fly. This puts him in a rivalry with Woody, who had enjoyed his status as Andy's favorite toy. He finds out the truth by seeing a commercial about himself, and finds out the hard way he can't go to infinity, but can go straight down. Through friendship from Woody and the other toys, he gets over this problem.
In the Dollhouse, there is no rivalry among the Actives. They just know one thing: "I try to do my best". For a while the number one Active was Whiskey, who would later become Dr. Claire Saunders. Whiskey would be the most popular Active, until Alpha decides to make Echo the top Active. He does that by scarring Whisky and killing some Actives. He did this because it was love at first sight for him, He did this to earn her love, but would not get it. Love was not important to her. She didn't get "girl reactions" when she was with Alpha. It was more like fear when she saw what he did. Still, her fear was gone when she was wiped, and prepared for her next role that a person bought her to fulfill.

Dr. Saunders could be considered the Dollhouse version of Buzz. As he always thought he was a real crime-fighting hero, Claire thought she's always been the physician of the Dollhouse because she was programmed that way. When Dr. Saunders discovers her Active past, she isn't interesting in learning who she was. She just knows who she is now.
That would have been the end, until "Vows", when Dr. Saunders is busy taunting Topher. She is still dealing with the fact that her past and present is all a lie, and that Topher made her. She later seduces him, claiming that Topher made her to hate him so that he would eventuallty win her love. He disagrees, because he wanted her to hate him to remind him that it's partially his fault Alpha went mad, which led to Saunders, as Whisky being scarred. He's not the client here. Dr. Saunders' process of discovering her true self is much more complicated that what Buzz had to accept.
It would have been interesting to see how Claire would decide that, even if she was an Active, she can be a real person by just saying that she was. However, that would never happen, as her body would be taken over by Clyde Randolph, one of the co-founders of Rossum, in "The Hollow Men."

However, one Doll did manage to say he was real by saying so. It was none other than Paul Ballard. Throughout the series, he considered Dolls as people who may as well be murdered, even though they didn't know it. He considered those who used them, even for the best of intentions, to be cruel. He had to be turned into a Doll to be saved after Alpha severely damaged his brain in "A Love Supreme". At least he has Mellie, who is also a Doll again when her retirement ended in "The Left Hand." When they infiltrate Rossum headquarters in Tucson in "The Hollow Men", she asks him why is she there with him. She keeps reminding him that they're not real, and their love for each other is a program. In fact, it was just a few days before when he looked at Mellie again, and wondered if she was really all right now that she will never be free from being an Active. Now, he accepts the fact that he is a Doll, but also declares he is still as real as anyone. That includes their love for each other. He may have gotten the inspiration from how Sierra and Victor fell for each other, even as Dolls. It's just as important as Buzz sees that he may be a toy, but can be something special because of what he can do to save his friends.

There could also be a link between Woody in Toy Story 2 and Senator Daniel Perrin, Rossum's man in the U.S. Senate, and how an Active can be considered a commodity rather than a fantasy. In the movie, toy store owner Al McWhiggin finds Woody because he wants to sell him to a museum in Japan. To sweeten the deal, he gets someone to "spruce up" Woody so that he looks like he's in mint condition. That's not too far off from that Rossum did to one Daniel Perrin. He had the pedigree to be someone important in Washington, but not the desire. That changed when Rossum used its Dollhouse in Washington D.C. to "improve" his brain. It had hoped he would give them some clout in Washington, and pass regulations that would favor Rossum. It would lead to him marrying his handler, and starting a campaign to "expose" Rossum's unethical medical experiments, which would eventually exonerate them. The plan almost works, but Rossum winds up changing Perrin again, with more ambition towards a new goal: the White House. Somehow, Rossum is determined to turn the nation, and eventually the world, into its own Dollhouse. They would create toys that are no longer playthings anyone can control. but wind up controlling us.

It's interesting that Joss Whedon would be involved in two projects that would look at humanity and identity. One would be Toy Story, which looks at toys when they're not at play, and how they can be as human as we are. The other would be Dollhouse, which looks at life-sized toys made of flesh and blood, and how they can be used and abused just like any toy. The movie would make millions of dollars for Disney, while the TV show would face a premature end.

The final results are also very different. In a Pixar world, the toys sing and dance, and are happy that they're together. In a Dollhouse world, the world is not so cheery. In about ten years, it becomes a mess filled with Dumbshows and Tech Heads, Butchers attacking Actuals, while the most powerful change bodies as often as they change suits, or exist in multiple bodies. It's the fulfillment of the professor's prediction from "Man on the Street", when he says Mankind will cease to matter if technology robs it of its true self. The only hope for a happy ending arrives when those who invented the tech that ruined the world use it again to fix their mistake, and sacrifice themselves as penance.

While a scene that was never part of Toy Story inspired this comparison with Dollhouse, there's another scene that was almost part of the Dollhouse pilot that's also important. It's where Topher told Boyd in the unaired pilot, "Echo" that everyone who lives in the Dollhouse, even the staff, are toys, and those who play with the Actives little children. That statement becomes very ironic, since it's eventually revealed Boyd was the toymaker all along.
Maybe the lesson here is that we should not treat others like mindless toys. It's a lesson that hopefully corporations, and people of major influence, should learn....or they will find out the average person isn't the same as that old Barbie they used to have.


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