Sunday, February 15, 2009

What I'm Watching: Dollhouse, Lost, Doctor Who

Did anyone else see "The TV Set," written and directed by Jake Kasdan. It was a pretty good little movie about pilot season, and it starred, among others, Fran Kranz as an aggressively terrible actor. Young Mr. Kranz is now in Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" as a fidgety scientist guy, and I think someone forgot to tell him that he doesn't have to pretend to be a bad actor for this particular role. Or maybe that's just the best he can do.

And, sadly, Kranz isn't the worst part of "Dollhouse."

Maybe "Dollhouse" could work, or could have worked thirty years ago -- it has kind of a vapid, 1970s air about it -- but the premiere episode certainly doesn't give me much faith. Ah, Faith. I guess I could make a "Buffy" joke or something, but that would be more wit than "Dollhouse" displayed in the entire first episode. It doesn't have to be witty to be good, of course, but it isn't good either. Eliza Dushku absolutely fails to carry the weight of this show, and she -- along with so many other cast members -- seem as if they're playing dress up. Even with the darkness of the subject matter, and the violence and murder on display, this is a strangely naive show. It feels as if it's written and directed by someone with no contact with the way humans actually interact with one another. It's all play-acting. All phony as hell.

And maybe that fits the theme of the show, ultimately, but I'm not going to come back next week to find out, because the first episode was shockingly bad.

I also got caught up with the two most recent episodes of "Lost," and while it's fun to see the writers play the game of "hey, look how THESE pieces of the puzzle fit together," some of the apparent explanations are not actually explanations at all. Like the smoke monster, which is "explained" as "oh, it's not a smoke monster, it's the temple's defense mechanism." Those words don't actually explain anything, though. It's still a smoke monster, even when you call it by another name.

Still, it's better than "Dollhouse" by a factor of about three million. Mostly because the actors in "Lost" give weight to even the most ridiculous sci-fi contrivances. I know some critics rank this current season as the best one ever, but I don't think it's quite as good as last season -- the threat is too vaguely defined now, and the time jumps have gotten old fast. Still, it's a well-crafted show, and I have to admire how great every episode looks and sounds, even if it's all slow builds and teases. "Lost" has trained us to expect nothing more, though, so I can stick with it week in and week out.

I really have no emotional investment in the show. And I still sincerely doubt a satisfying wrap-up to years and years of mysteries.

You know what I have developed an emotional investment in? "Doctor Who"! No surprise, there, for anyone who's been reading my writing over the past month. My son and I watched three episodes from Series Two this week: "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Rise of the Cybermen," and "The Age of Steel" and there's more raw emotion and passion and narrative enthusiasm in any one of those episodes than in "Dollhouse" and "Lost" put together. "The Girl in the Fireplace," in particular, was genuinely frightening and full of love and loss. It was a great little episode, perfectly satisfying as a part of a whole, but working astonishingly well as just a stand-alone. And the Cybermen two-parter had a strong emotional core as well, even though the story took place on a parallel world (which could have made it "not matter" in the way that DC's "Trinity" sure the hell does not matter one bit).

Maybe I can't enjoy "Dollhouse" and even "Lost" quite as much because "Doctor Who" has shown that thrilling and funny television shows can feature moral dilemmas without being bogged down in slow storytelling and ponderous mysteries.

If so, it's a lesson I'm glad to learn. Very glad.

What are YOU watching?


Arturo Ulises said...

Since Final Crisis left me with a desire for more Darkseid, I decided to re-watch the Superman Animated Series alongside Justice League and JLUnlimited.

The only show I watch faithfully is Battlestar Galactica. Unfortunately, the last episode left a bitter taste in my mouth seeing how it was just a giant infodump.

Anonymous said...

The season finale for Series Two Doctor Who still makes my wife cry after four or five viewings, and it just keeps getting better. It's the only show that could possibly make an $89 box set feel worth it.

md: I didn't mind the giant info dump in BSG. I felt like the character dynamics created enough tension for the information to feel like it was coming out of something and not just coming at us.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I enjoy LOST more than any other show I've ever seen on network television, and would love to see a novelization of the book, possibly season by season, once it ends. That line about the "security system" goes back to S1 and just shows how insane Rousseau was, it always seemed odd that she called it that when no one else did. I think last season benefited from the strike, less shows to jam everything into.

I also enjoy DEXTER, MAD MEN, and BREAKING BAD. I suppose I should watch BATTLESTAR GALACTICA because I keep hearing it brought up in various circles. Take care.

Chad Nevett said...

I own The TV Set. Decent flick.

This weekend, the girlfriend and I watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean flick, and, then, for Valentine's Day, Music & Lyrics (her choice) and High Fidelity (my choice--and also the movie I watch on EVERY Valentine's Day).

This week, the most memorable thing I watched was the latest episode of Life, which does get better with each episode. This episode had some truly fantastic moments. A really fun show about murder and revenge and shit like that disguised as another cop drama.

Jordan said...

I think this season of Lost is incredible, and I really liked Dollhouse. I also don't think it's fair to compare the PILOT of a show to episodes from another show's 5th season (in regards to the actors knowing their characters, especially.)


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I watched the show as well, excited about the concept of seeing something new from Joss Whedon, and I was a bit surprised also. I actually thought the Dushku did the best that she could with what she had to work with, but the real issue that I saw was making the central character one of the dolls. I think that created the lifeless feeling that we felt in watching the show, as the detachment that the lead character had was felt by the audience as well. The show probably would have worked better using the reporter as the lead, uncovering more and more about the Dollhouse over time.

Wow - this looks to be another failed Whedon show on Fox. What a damn curse.

Anonymous said...

I remember Paul Cornell saying, a couple of seasons before The X-Files ended, that the eventual finale would have to just be Mulder drawing diagrams on an OHP or giving a powerpoint presentation to talk us though how the various conspiracies joined up. Then when the last episode really did come along - that's just what it was.

What I like about the cheeky little trick that LOST's using now is the way it avoids this and brings the long-range "you remember back three seasons ago..." exposition into the present of the drama. Sawyer's lot are trapped inside their powerpoint presentation.

Only other thing I'm watching right now is 'Skins', which is making me terribly sad. Everyone said it'd be impossible to bring it back with an entirely new cast, but they've somehow managed to do that right, then go on to do everything else wrong.

Thinking about giving 'Being Human' a try. The show. Not the activity.

Unknown said...

I was shocked at the general lack of Whedon-ness to the first episode, which makes me wonder if it was all some kind of ploy to trick viewers into coming back for a second episode to watch a glossy little "case of the week" show and finding themselves watching something with wit and character. Hmm.

As for Doctor Who, wait until you get to the next two-parter in season 2. Easily my favorite episodes thus far.

Bill Reed said...

Dollhouse kinda let me down. Joss rarely lets me down. But I'll keep watching until they cancel it in three weeks.

"Girl in the Fireplace" is probably the best episode of Who. But don't worry, there are plenty more that rival it.

Drew said...

For Valentine's day my gf and I watched season 3 of 30 Rock.

But I am slowly re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 1 just concluded, starting up with Season 2 tonight.

Matt Jacobson said...

Out of curiosity, are you watching the original british Dr. Who. from the 60's (or 70's, whenever)? I've been meaning to check it, where do I start exactly?

Timothy Callahan said...

No--I'm just watching the new seasons. I've found them a GREAT place to start.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your posts about TV. I've been puzzling over Dollhouse myself. I think it actually poses an amazing writing challenge -- how do you create a character arc for a character/set of characters who are mind wiped from episode to episode (if not more often than that)? I have to say, I, too, was unsatisfied, but I figure I'll give Whedon a chance to do his thing.

And I love Lost, but I'm with you. The danger of the show this season is that they've replaced character arcs with plot, and/or explanation. Right now, there are very few characters that I'm actually caring about, and that's a little bit weird for Lost.

The best show I'm watching right now is Battlestar Galactica. Wow is it finishing strong. The episode on Friday managed to explain a lot of things and not feel like exposition. Really virtuoso storytelling.

Look forward to reading your series on Superman. I'm still thinking about the last stuff you did.

Matthew McIntyre said...

teatime_brutality said...

Thinking about giving 'Being Human' a try. The show. Not the activity.

You should, it's fantastic - much better than the premise (a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat) would suggest. The whole thing is still available on the BBC iPlayer, for at least until the last episode shows (next Sunday). The show's creator is Toby Whithouse, who wrote the Doctor Who episode School Reunion. The original pilot (shown last year) is worth tracking down as well, if you can - but probably best watched after the series, as there are some cast chnages.

It's a BBC America co-production, so it should be on that channel in the US, later in the year.


Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

Out of curiosity, are you watching the original british Dr. Who. from the 60's (or 70's, whenever)? I've been meaning to check it, where do I start exactly?

Both the original series (1963-1989) and the current one (2005-) are British and made by the BBC. The only version that wasn't entirely British was the 1996 TV Movie which was made by Universal and the BBC and shown, in the US, by Fox - but that was a one-off that didn't lead to a series. It's not clear, from your post, if you've seen the new (2005) version. If you haven't then that's definitely the place to start. It requires no knowledge of previous episodes (although it does sometime reference them) and builds its story episode by episode over the course of each series/season, starting with the first episode Rose. If you want to watch the spin-off shows (Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adentures) as well, then this is the order to do things in:

Doctor Who series one
Doctor Who series two
Torchwood series one
Doctor Who series three
The Sarah Jane Adventures series one
Torchwood series two
Doctor Who series four
The Sarah Jane Adventures series two
Torchwood series three

All of these are available on region 1 DVD in the US, except; The Sarah Jane Adventures series two, which is on DVD in the UK and should be broadcast by the Sci-Fi channel at some point; and Torchwood series three, which will be boradcast on BBC America later this year (over the same five day period as it's shown on BBC One in the UK).

If you want to check out the older stuff, then the short answer is that you can jump on pretty much anywhere you like. The old version was in a serial format, with stories being told over multiple 25-minutes episodes (normally four, but often six and with other permutations as well). Each serialised story is pretty much standalone, with such elements of continuity as there are being easy to pick up if you watch the stories out of order. Also, not every story is on DVD and some of the earlier stories are lost (although the soundtracks remain), so watching all 159 stories (700 or so episodes) in strict chronological order is pretty tough - and not the sort of thing you'd want to do if you just want to get to know the series.

Haing said that, I'd say there are three places where a season starts with very little reference to what's gone before and where you meet many of the recurring characters you'll be seeing in subsequent stories for the first time. These are:

An Unearthly Child (1963) - the very first story, broadcast the day after the assassination of President Kennedy
Spearhead from Space (1970) - the first story in colour
The Ribos Operation (1978) - kicks of a season-long story arc called 'The Key to Time'

If you want to do a chronologial overview of the series, I'd suggest starting with these three (all of which are on DVD), in this order: Spearhead form Space, The Ribos Operation, An Unearthly Child. That way you get to see three different styles of Doctor Who (and three different actors in the lead role). After that, I'd suggest using this list of the DVD releases, and going in series order, rotating between the three time periods (1970-77, 1978-89 and 1963-69), ie: 1. Spearhead from Space; 2. The Ribos Operation; 3. An Unearthly Child; 4. Doctor Who and the Silurians; 5. The Pirate Planet; 6. The Daleks; 7. Inferno; 8. The Stones of Blood; 9. The Edge of Destruction; and so on...

If you want to make the effort to track down audio and/or VHS versions of stories (almost all of the surviving stories were released on VHS) then I'd suggest supplementing the stories which are on DVD with these, which introduce reccuring characters or themes, or thngs that are referenced by the new series:

1st Doctor

007 The Sensorites
016 The Chase
020 The Myth Makers*
021 The Daleks' Master Plan*
022 The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve*
029 The Tenth Planet**

2nd Doctor

030 The Power of the Daleks*
031 The Highlanders*
033 The Moonbase*
034 The Macra Terror*
035 The Faceless Ones*
036 The Evil of the Daleks*
038 The Abominable Snowmen*
039 The Ice Warriors*
041 The Web of Fear*
042 Fury from the Deep*
043 The Wheel in Space*

3rd Doctor

053 The Ambassadors of Death
055 Terror of the Autons
059 The Daemons
060 Day of the Daleks
071 Invasion of the Dinosaurs
074 Planet of the Spiders

4th Doctor

079 Revenge of the Cybermen
080 Terror of the Zygons
085 The Seeds of Doom
086 The Masque of Mandragora
089 The Face of Evil
111 Meglos

5th Doctor

119 Kinda
125 Sankedance
126 Mawdryn Undead
127 Terminus
128 Enlightenment
129 The King's Demons
135 Planet of Fire

6th Doctor

137 The Twin Dilemma

7th Doctor

148 Time and the Rani
151 Dragonfire

*audio only
**first three episodes were on VHS, I think, but episode four is lost.

As an alternative to all of that, you could just dip in to one story for each actor who played the doctor. Here are my suggestions (with two for Tom Baker, as he played the role for seven years with a pretty big change of style about halfway through):

Genesis of the Daleks (4th, early)
City of Death (4th, late)
The Caves of Androzani (5th)
Inferno (3rd)
The Mind Robber (2nd)
The Time Meddler (1st)
Revelation of the Daleks (6th)
The Curse of Fenric (7th)

That's also a suggested order, as the black-and-white episodes can be harder for some people to get into and the later Doctors tend to divide opinion more than their predecessors.

Also. or alternatively, there are a couple of specials with multiple doctors: The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors. Some people find these to be good jumping-on points, although neither are the best examples of the show.

There's a complete list of Doctor Who serials here.