Dollhouse Riffs: Riff #3: “Epitaph One” and the mutability of the Dollhouse Canon
Los Angeles, 2019: Another ‘Verse. Another Vision. More Human Than Human.
L to R: Scut Farkas, Little Miss Sunshine, Codex.
Apocalypse Now That’s What I Call Entertainment
The TV series Dollhouse faces a unique canonical situation with “Epitaph One.” The episode was produced but unaired, while the series was renewed for another season. With Season 2 unseen and speculation rife, with a series finale full of cliffhangers and unanswered, where does one place “Epitaph One”?
The title name winks at the possibility of the series ending. The episode’s narrative and setting allude to finality. Set in the year 2019 in Los Angeles, the viewer is thrown into a postapocalypic scenario, techno-military slang tossed around, and the economical vision shot in HD video. In the words of Jack Burton, “What the hell?”
Los Angeles, 2019: Insert tongue into cheek. On the surface Joss Whedon pulled a nice in-joke to all the geeks and cyberpunk aficionados in the audience. The setting is the same as Bladerunner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic that redefined the genre. In the film, the Tyrell Corporation manufactures replicants, androids nearly identical to humans in every way. The Dollhouse’s eponymous dolls allude to the replicants – the pleasure model, the laborer, the political kick-murder squad unit – complete with nefarious megacorporation.
The postapocalyptic Los Angeles also puts a neat twist on Luddite concept. The military types roaming around the shattered megalopolis make sure to destroy anything capable of broadcast and reception. (It also seems like a meta-commentary on creativity in broadcast television. “You don’t like my series? Fine. I’ll destroy all televisions.”) The military types destroy broadcasting technology because the technology that wiped the minds of the dolls has “become wireless.” In the hermetically sealed utopia-fortress of the Dollhouse, the dolls could be implanted with personalities and wiped in a relatively safe environment, save the occasional rogue FBI agent infiltration. Since the technology is now wireless, everyone could become a victim and be turned into a “butcher” (Cf. reavers from Firefly).
The military types eventually find refuge in the remains of the Los Angeles Dollhouse. Apocalypse and Genesis become one and the same.
Oral history meets techno-futurism. Want me to tell you a story?
Oral History: Adventures in Techno-primitivism
Holed up in the Los Angeles Dollhouse, the military types discover the device used to imprint personalities on the dolls (aka “actives”). The bulk of the episode focuses on different people sitting down in the chair, getting a personality uploaded into them, and then they divulge what they know about the events leading up to the present unpleasantness.
The use of the imprinting chair to invoke personal testimonies is a curious amalgamation of primitive and futuristic storytelling techniques. Oral storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication. Myths, histories, legends, and laws passed down from one generation to the next via recitation and memorization. This is older than electricity, older than the printing press, and older than writing itself. One of the first things we ever did as a species was tell each other stories.
From the episode “Man on the Street” (1.06):
Academic: If that techology exists, it’ll be used, it’ll be abused, it’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species, we will cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should.
The great irony of this situation is that oral history – piecing together the splintered fragments of the past – requires them to use the imprinting chair.
L to R: Tahmoh, Joss, Eliza.
The Loose Canon
“Epitaph One” contains its fair share of genre allusions and media metacommentary, but it does not answer the question: “Where does this go in the Dollhouse Canon?” In the featurettes on the Dollhouse: Season One DVD, Joss Whedon summarized his reasons for making the episode. He wanted to create a cheap capper to the first season should it not be renewed.
It is a challenge to position “Epitaph One” within the Dollhouse Canon prior to Season Two airing. The episode allegedly answers a lot of questions and offers a fragmented reconstruction from the Then (Dollhouse, present day) to Now (Los Angeles, 2019). But any good TV series should avoid narrative straitjacketing, which, if we consider “Epitaph One” as written-in-stone, unalterable Dollhouse Canon. Luckily, Whedon is a master of narrative construction and manipulation. Since the episode was unaired, he could use the episode for spare parts and seed Season Two episodes with snippets and/or build entire episodes around the fragments harvested via the treatment apparatus.
Context remains the key. I hope that Whedon will provide viewers with mythos-heavy episodes, holding his deck close to his chest, and revealing The Mystery one driblet at a time.
Felicia Dey, who starred in “Epitaph One”, also headlines The Guild, a satirical web series based on the lives of players of an online role-playing game. For their upcoming new series, they produced a video called “Don’t You Want to Date My Avatar?” Sounds like the premise of Dollhouse.
Here’s the video, enjoy!