As a writer, director and comic-book maker, Joss Whedon — creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — is a bit of an oddity. He’s got a huge fan base, a track record that includes both the popular and the critically acclaimed, and is hailed by many as a god of all things pop-cultural. And yet every time he comes up with some — thing new, people (particularly TV critics) can’t wait to call it a failure.
His new series, sci-fi thriller Dollhouse, which has just started showing in the US, is no exception. The concept is complex. At some unidentified point in the future, there is a cadre of people known as “dolls” —individuals who have had their entire memories and personalities wiped so that they can be rented out for engagements (fantasies, crimes or, ahem, other purposes). Personalities and skills get implanted into dolls when on engagements; the rest of the time they live as a tabula rasa, blank slates with childlike innocence.
Leading us into this world is Echo (Eliza Dushku), another powerful young
female character Whedon has built a world around. The LA Times found it emotion-ally empty — understandable when your main character hasn’t got a personality to speak of. The New Yorker described Dushku’s main qualification as having “graduated with honours from the Royal Academy of Cleavage”.
Luke Howlitt, a moderator for the fan community Whedonesque.com, admits Dollhouse is “quite different” to his previous shows. “It’s less of a genre-bender, and more a straight mystery genre with sci-fi elements,” he says.
And it is. The first episode had a mixed-to-bad reaction, while the second episode was pacier, wittier and more engaging but still violent, and hard to get a moral fix on.
Dollhouse needs time for its personality to develop, but Whedon just can’t seem to win, whatever he does. As Whedonesque owner Caroline van Oosten de Boer says: “Some critics — professional and amateur —just simply do not like genre TV and never will.”
Of course, if the show does stumble (or worse, gets cancelled) the same people will be among the first to decry the tragedy, and hail it a neglected classic — without mentioning that they killed it in the first place.