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Date Posted: 16:19:51 08/05/13 Mon
Author: cjl
Subject: Joss Whedon vs. "The Man"
In reply to: Sophist 's message, "Re: Dollhouse Revisited (S1): Keep the Porch Light Burning" on 07:37:49 08/01/13 Thu

Sophist, you magnificent bastard—how I’ve missed our little chats.

Yes, indeed, there is a lot of Bentham’s panopticon (and its Foucaltian applications) in Dollhouse. It’s fascinating to see Joss play with the idea, approaching it on both literal and metaphorical terms. First, we have the layout of the dollhouse itself, with its circular balcony overlooking the communal space, the strategically placed security personnel, video surveillance, and the self-contained biosphere-like environment.

And on the metaphorical level, the dollhouse is the latest phase in the evolution of the surveillance state. These days, social media and public cameras are so omnipresent and so widely taken for granted, it’s as if we as a society have willingly surrendered our privacy to the state in order to feel a little bit more safe and a little more connected. But while we watch cats play with yarn on youtube or play WoW on Wii or post our entrails on Facebook, corporations and governments are watching us—and we take it all in as part of the digital age. We’ve emptied all our secrets and desires into the cloud, and the entertainment complex fills us back up with empty fantasies and inane celebrity chatter. And yet…

And yet, for all the power of the panopticon in our modern dollhouse society, I don’t get the feeling Joss is particularly worried. Judging from the representatives of authoritarian structures in all of his TV series, Joss seems to think the human animal is too unpredictable for the police state to be effective for long.

Let’s start with BUFFY. The Initiative, as you said, was Joss’ first attempt to introduce an authoritarian regime to his fantasy world, and most of the hardware we saw in Dollhouse started here: the underground headquarters, the constant video surveillance, and aerie-like observation posts.

In a sense, Maggie Walsh tried to harness all of the raw power of BTVS’ metaphors inherent in the demons locked in her sterile glass cages. But those demons can never be controlled completely, and Adam—the ultimate manifestation of her obsessions—was her destruction, even before he got up off the table. Maggie overreached and wound up swept away by the forces she unleashed.
Similarly, The Alliance had a great thing going on Firefly—a convincing military victory against the rebellion, a string of profitable planetary colonies kept under loose control by the threat of violence (and the occasional “operative”) and a silent majority willing to ignore the abuses of power just to keep things running smoothly. But when the Alliance tried to fine-tune their control with bioengineering and chemical pacification, they unleashed the Reavers and River Tam.

(Hard to say at this point which one is going to do them the most damage in the long term.)

Over and over again we see the pattern: the tighter you try to hold on to power, the less control you have. The soul is slipperier than an eel, and trying to clamp down on a society filled with souls endowed with free will? Things get messy. Even Wolfram and Hart, the most eminently practical of corporate megaliths, the “we’re not interested in winning” guys, made the same mistake. They could have kept Angel out in the cold, messing with his mind until the Apocalypse, but they brought him inside, hoping to keep him under control. And—of course—once he was in, Angel brought the house down.

Which brings us back around to Dollhouse. Adele seemed to have a perfect little playground set up, but as we went along in Season One, we saw the flaws in her blueprint. For instance, if the dollhouse was a classic panopticon, how could there be a blind spot in the video surveillance? It’s a design flaw weighted with metaphorical significance: the hole in Adele’s “vision” allowed the sexual assault on Sierra and told the viewer that Adele’s kingdom was a lot more fragile than it seemed: the dolls were showing signs of independent reaction, Alpha (Adele’s version of Adam) was running around loose, and there were spies in her ranks—agents from a larger panopticon checking in on her dollhouse-sized one.

Dominic called Adele naďve, an even though he wasn’t the most trustworthy person on the show, he was right—she had no idea what she was playing with. Once Topher’s tech got up out of the chair and went airborne, all her rules and hypocritical moral stances meant less than nothing and society dissolved into chaos.

After Epitaph One, you wondered: could Caroline and her ragtag band of survivors put it all back together? (What would the words “self” and “identity” mean in a post-Dollhouse society?) But Joss Whedon has been the biggest booster of the unconquerable human spirit in pop culture today, and if the series survived, I’m sure he’d bring her through.

Even with the panopticon approaching all-seeing levels IRL, he remains (surprisingly) an optimist.

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