Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tired Tropes Revisited: The Fascist Corporation (Dollhouse)

During my early morning workouts, I've taken to catching up on TV shows I missed the first time around. My most recent viewing? Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, a two-season SF thriller seemingly considered one of the director's lesser efforts.

The basic premise goes like this: A nigh-mythical brothel exists somewhere in Los Angeles, a bordello where you can get anything you want from anyone you desire -- for a price. A loving wife. A sultry schoolgirl. A sexy psychopath. But those Janes and Johns don't need acting prowess to please clients. Thanks to the magic of neural imprinting, the employees of this brothel (dubbed the Dollhouse) can have new personalities imprinted in an instant. Flick a switch, and they become someone new. Press a button, and they get wiped down to a minimally functional "doll" state. Dolls are recruited from the ranks of the economically disadvantaged, emotionally scarred, and criminally convicted. Give the Dollhouse five years of your life, then wake up wealthy and well-adjusted, if a little worse for wear. Selling any imaginable dream is a profitable, if ethically problematic, business plan. But not all is well at the Dollhouse. An FBI agent has become obsessed with taking it down. A doll designated Alpha went rogue, killing several during his escape. And a new recruit dubbed Echo is becoming resistant to wiping.

The plot of Dollhouse suffers almost as many problems as its characters. You can tell that Whedon changed his mind about the show's direction a few times during production. One character shifts alliances so suddenly it nearly imparts whiplash, and the final few episodes morph the show into Mad Max by way of Neuromancer with a pinch of Wendell Berry thrown in for seasoning. Still, the show is pretty fun -- except when it falls foul of the oh-so-tired trope of the fascist corporation.

Behold the Rossum Corporation! This ostensibly benign producer of MRI machines Alzheimer's has secretly created technology that facilitates voluntary sexual slavery. What's more, in Dollhouse this bastion of big business is powerful enough to thoroughly fathom the mysteries of the brain, install 48 facilities across the globe, thwart a federal investigation, manipulate a member of Congress, manufacture a supercomputer powered by human suffering, and create a humanistic form of eternal life. Kneel before its might! It alone has the power to bend worldwide affairs to its own purposes. In fact, only its eventual downfall (hardly a spoiler, amirite?) could bring about the destruction of civilization.

This is the point where I hope you've joined me in shaking your head in bemused disappointment. How could a corporation fall that's so large, so grand, so mighty? In truth, pretty easily. I've talked before about why the tropes of the fascist corporation could never work, so allow me only the briefest refresher. Most everyone who made it through high-school econ remembers economies of scale: As production expands, average costs fall up to a point. But once that point is reached, diseconomies of scale kick in. Things start getting more expensive. Corporate bloat makes communication difficult. Competitive advantages start to erode. Rivals start to circle like wolves.

In reality, Rossum Corporation would almost surely have never gotten the opportunity to attempt global domination. It would fall to more nimble competitors (if it functioned in a free market) or to government regulators (if it existed in a more top-down system). On the small screen, though, Rossum only perishes after growing great thanks to the sabotage wrought a handful of individuals. It's not just unconvincing; it beggars belief. So no matter your economic ideology, steer clear of the fascist corporation. Your readers deserve better.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Evan Hamilton)


Jim Murdoch said...

I watched the series. I enjoyed it. But here’s the thing, the thing I do, I pretty much switch off my brain when watching TV these days. Even the good stuff—and anything with the name Whedon attached to one would justifiably expect to be good (apart from Alien: Resurrection which should’ve been fantastic)—because it’s not why I watch TV. I watch TV to unwind. I want to be entertained but my expectations are not too high. Which is why I can enjoy a show like Dollhouse because it was pretty. I’m finding the show Helix much the same. I was pleased as punch when Jeri Ryan joined the cast briefly because she’s a delight to watch even if her range is limited. But once you start asking serious questions you’ll drive yourself mad. Here’s a good example: in Star Trek Into Darkness why was the Enterprise submerged underwater and not out in space? Answer: Because the Enterprise rising up from the ocean is a GREAT visual. Other than that it makes no sense whatsoever. That doesn’t mean I don’t get where you’re coming from. There were good ideas behind Dollhouse but it lost direction which was a shame. You might find what Wehdon had to say here of some interest though.

Loren Eaton said...

That's a fascinating article, Jim. Thanks for sharing it.

I get what you're saying about not thinking too much about television. It's funny, but I don't watch TV in the traditional way. In fact, the only TV in our house isn't hooked up to anything unless we're streaming off the Internet. (We're a post-cable family.) Instead, I watch it almost exclusively 30 minutes after I've woken up and have started side raises with dumbbells. Maybe it's the act of waking up that causes we to question it. Or maybe I'm just overly analytical! Such a fun trait to have at parties.

Anyway, Dollhouse was fun, but hardly a homerun. Helix looks ... interesting. What's with the crucifixion imagery?

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I haven’t noticed any crucifixion imagery (unlike in Event Horizon where it was kind of hard to miss); I must pay closer attention the next time I watch it.

Loren Eaton said...

I noticed it on the poster.

Jim Murdoch said...

I forgot to look at that poster—just discovered my note to check—and I have no idea what it’s got to do with the show which takes place entirely (bar a few minutes in France at the very end of the last episode) in the Arctic but it is a cool poster and now graces my desktop. Happy New Year btw.

Loren Eaton said...

Ha! That's funny. Probably a bored visual designer decided to get creative.

The New Year is starting out well! Hope the same is true for you.