Thoughts on Dollhouse, 6 weeks in

In comments, j_lovescoffee asks what I think of Dollhouse now that the show has gotten up to speed?

I think it’s improved a lot since the first episode, enough so that I’m in it for the long haul. My favorite episode so far was #4, the one where Echo became a bank robber. I like the Alpha myth arc a lot.

I thought this week’s episode suffered from overhype—it was fine, but after all the talk about what a game-changer it was going to be, the actual revelations were something of a letdown. OK, so the Dollhouse is a global conspiracy, and there’s someone on the inside trying to help Agent Ballard (if the mole turns out to be Adelle, that would be a cool twist, but my guess is it’s going to be Amy Acker or Topher’s assistant).

My biggest concern about the show is that Joss’s feminist discomfort with his own premise may end up sabotaging the story. The “sex trafficking is evil!” subtext is already tedious. Yes, if the Dollhouse were real, it would be evil. But it’s not real, and if you’re going to go to the trouble of imagining it in fiction, surely there are more interesting dramatic statements than “Wow, what a horrible thing I’ve imagined!”

An example of where this gets to be a problem: One of the things we learned this week is that the Dollhouse has a strict rule against handlers having sex with dolls. Indeed, it’s a death-penalty offense. The question is, why? I could think of some in-story explanations that might make sense, but I suspect that the real reason is that the show’s writers were grossed out by the idea, Did Not Want To Go There, but at the same time recognized that it was weird not to go there, since the kind of people who would work at the Dollhouse probably would have sex with the dolls, a lot. So instead of just not going there, they decided to make a big deal out of not going there, even though that paradoxically draws attention to the weirdness of not going there, and hey! Did you see how she broke that guy’s neck!? Woman power!

Anyway, for now I’m enjoying it enough to let the moral panic slide.

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BSG finale

So-o-o… “All of this has happened before.” They weren’t lying.

I actually did like the bit where Starbuck, Invisible-Friend Caprica, and Invisible-Friend Baltar turned out to be angels.

The rest of the show, though, was a big steaming pile of clichés and inexplicable behavior, with a side dollop of squick:

* They’re going to give up modern technology and become hunter-gatherers or primitive farmers? And this is a unanimous decision? And it remains a unanimous decision, even after everybody’s had a week to realize that being a contestant on Survivor sucks rocks?

* They’re going to scatter their tiny population across the globe rather than sticking together? Also, what’s the point of keeping records of where everyone’s gone to, if you’re no longer going to have the technology to travel between continents?

* They’re going to fly the whole starfleet into the Sun? And this is another unanimous decision? Why throw away all those resources? And why does Sam have to play kamikazi pilot? Granted, in his current state, he’d make a really crappy hunter-gatherer, but that would seem to me to be a strong argument for not becoming hunter-gatherers.

* Adama’s reaction to Roslin’s death is to permanently abandon the rest of his friends and family? It’s one thing to take some alone time after losing someone dear to you, but quite another to decide you’re never going to see other people again. I found that really weird. I found it even weirder that Lee, having somehow guessed that his father had decided to go be a hermit forever, didn’t try to talk him out of it. “At least leave me the damn Raptor so I can come see you on your birthday, Dad!” Also, no goodbye for Tigh? Dude, that’s cold.

* In order for Hera to become the Mitochondrial Eve, one of two things has to happen: either the Galactica survivors have to wipe out and replace Earth’s existing humans, or they have to interbreed with them. The finale strongly implies that the latter is what happened, which is pretty creepy if you caught the bit where Baltar says that the native humans haven’t developed language yet. So Hera, and presumably a bunch of the other cast members, are going to go off and have sex with people who can’t talk? But wait, isn’t Dollhouse a FOX show?

I also didn’t understand why the writers spent so much time on flashbacks to life before the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. Lisa proposes that by showing us how unhappy the characters all were in their former, civilized lives, the writers were trying to gin up a rationale for their final rejection of civilization. I think Lisa may be onto something here, but it still doesn’t really make sense.

If there’s a moral here, I think it’s that you should decide how your story is going to end before you start telling it, so you can build organically towards that ending rather than retconning like mad in the eleventh hour. I realize this advice is a lot easier to follow in the context of a novel than with a TV series, but still—the Cylons shouldn’t be the only ones with a plan.

It’s also worth saying that I wouldn’t be nearly as disappointed with the way BSG turned out if I hadn’t been so impressed by the first two seasons. Hopefully when they do the Space: 1999 remake, they’ll get all the way to the finish line without getting lost.

P.S. No, I haven’t heard anything about an actual Space: 1999 remake. But back in the days when I was still madly in love with BSG, I asked myself what other old SF series would be fun to try and redo, and that one was at the top of my list.

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Do you have The Syph?

As you may have heard by now, the SciFi Channel is changing its name to the SyFy Channel. It seems like a lot of people are having the same reaction that I did: “The Syphilis Channel? Really?”

Over at The Whatever, John Scalzi reports [via ellestra] that “syfy” literally means syphilis in Polish. With all due respect to the Poles, I think the bigger problem is that it means syphilis in English, too. Per the OED:

Syph (also siff, siph)

Abbrev. of SYPHILIS. Also with def. article.

1925 Amer. Speech I. 24/2 For “syphilis”, “pox” was used widely many years ago, but has given place more recently to the simple abbreviation “syph”. 1930 J. Dos Passos 42nd Parallel I. 108 He got the siph off ‘n her. 1947 Horizon Sept. 202 We’re going to get the syph… 1969 P. Roth Portnoy’s Complaint 129 I’ll come down with the syph just from touching the ticket. 1971 B.W. Aldiss Soldier Erect Them mankey whores in yon knocking-shop’ll give you a dose as soon as look at you. There’s no’ a one of them as isn’t rotten with siff…

“Syph” meaning syphilis, it follows that “Syfy” would be the endearing form, “the cute syphilis,” or maybe, in honor of Buffy‘s Xander Harris, “the funny syphilis.”

For general reference to the Syfy Channel, though, I think “The Syph” makes a great nickname, one that lends itself to all sorts of wordplay. Just imagine the T-shirts.

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Because an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by Burn Notice might actually be kind of cool

Via David Moles, a post by Joe Abercrombie on whether people who write fantasy ought/need to read fantasy as well. I found myself nodding at a lot of what he has to say, but particularly this bit near the end:

It’s also worth noting that there are all kinds of places you can find ideas outside of books. TV and film are full of great writing. Computer games less so, but plenty of ideas still. And then there’s, you know, life. Nothing wrong with adding a sprinkling of newer, edgier stuff from outside a genre or even a given medium to the tried and tested classics within it to produce the familiar with a twist.

Something I noticed a while back during various discussions of my “literary” influences is that I was referring as much or more to movies and TV as I was to books. This bothered me for about ten seconds, I think mainly because it suggested I wasn’t reading “enough” anymore, but then I remembered that I care a lot more about good storytelling than I do about provenance—and really, it’s not as if I haven’t always gotten ideas from odd places.

As for producing “the familiar with a twist,” there’s a part of me that wants to object and say “No, no, you should strive for breathtaking originality at all times,” but just the other night Lisa and I were talking about how our two latest TV obsessions—House, M.D. and Burn Notice—are both very formulaic shows that manage to avoid feeling formulaic because they’re so well written. So, never mind.

Bonus link: This morning jaylake offers a pointer to a Wiki of Story Tropes.

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Recent reading & viewing

No Country for Old Men — I gave up on The Road about thirty pages in, but figured McCarthy deserved a second chance, so I grabbed this at the Detroit airport and read it on the flight home. I’d describe it as two-thirds of a good, but not great, novel.

My standards for literary greatness are somewhat ill-defined, but one of the things I look for is a story that I couldn’t have written, or, more exactly, that could only have been written by its actual author. Examples from the nearest bookshelf include John Crowley’s Little, Big, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, and any randomly chosen Margo Lanagan short story. Cormac McCarthy, by contrast, seems like he’d be easy to mimic; the hardest part would be remembering which apostrophes to omit and which to keep (“dont,” “readin,” “dumbern,” but “let’s,” “they’d,” “I’m”).

Which is OK. I don’t need great; good is good enough, especially for airplane reading. But then we get to the other problem, which is that the ending doesn’t work. Brief plot summary: A hunter named Moss stumbles across the aftermath of a shootout between drug smugglers and finds a leather case full of hundred dollar bills. He takes the money and is soon on the run; chief among his pursuers is Chigurh, who’s like the Operative from Serenity, only Mexican. There’s also a sheriff named Bell whose main function is to bear witness to the carnage left in Chigurh’s wake and opine, in more eloquent language than I will use here, that he is too old for this shit. In the end, after much chasing around, Moss dies, Chigurh lives, and Bell retires. This is a reasonable conclusion, except for the way it happens—Moss, whose head we’ve been inside of for much of the novel, dies “offstage.” One paragraph he’s walking up the steps to a motel room. Two paragraphs later Sheriff Bell is arriving at the murder scene. Some paragraphs after that, Chigurh, who’s not the killer (another Mexican got to Moss first), sneaks in to retrieve the money. The novel then continues for another seventy pages or so, failing—to my satisfaction at least—to explain the omission of the final showdown between Moss and Chigurh that the first two hundred or so pages had seemed to promise.

I’m curious, now, to see how the movie handles things (please don’t spoil it for me); I suspect the ending will be different.

House, M.D. Since ER overstayed its welcome I’ve been leery of medical dramas, and I’ve never liked CSI, so you can see why I’d have skipped a show that promised to combine medical drama with CSI-style mystery solving. Lucky thing, ’cause now that I’ve belatedly discovered how great House is, I can watch the first four seasons commercial-free on DVD. Man that Hugh Laurie is good.

Charlie Jade This is an SF series set and filmed in South Africa. I found out about it at Norwescon a couple years ago, when I was slated to appear on a Sunday morning panel with the actor Jeffrey Pierce and the producer Robert Wertheimer; when only two audience members showed up, we sat around a table and just chatted for an hour. The series is currently airing in the U.S. on the SciFi channel, but they’re only showing each episode once, at an awkward time (5 PM Pacific on Fridays) and with zero promotion; I missed the pilot but caught the second episode, and was interested enough that I want to see the whole thing. Scarecrow Video has the first ten episodes on Region 7 PAL-DVD (I’ve got a Chinese DVD player that can handle this), but that’s only the first half of the first season; if it holds up, I’ll have to see if there’s a Canadian or British DVD shop that can hook me up with the rest.

Wall-E Saw it over the holiday. It’s as good as you’ve heard. Don’t wait for the DVD.

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The Showtime network finally impresses me

Weeds didn’t do it for me. Sleeper Cell blew ducks. But Lisa and I just watched the first season of Dexter on DVD, and I think it’s the best new series I’ve seen since seasons one & two of Veronica Mars.

The premise, which may sound somewhat familiar to Bad Monkeys fans: Michael C. Hall plays Dexter, a Miami PD forensics technician who’s also a serial killer. His foster father was a cop who figured out that little Dexter was a budding sociopath and trained him to channel his urges—so he only kills bad people. It’s very well done, and now that I’ve seen it I’m going to have to track down the novel that it’s based on.

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