"Ghost," by Joss Whedon
Call it in the neighborhood of two and a half to three stars. It definitely has its good points, but the show really is a mixed bag. I think the biggest problem is its too-stagey atmospherics; Whedon is deliberately trying to make the Dollhouse seem off-kilter and creepy, but he really doesn't have to. As the obsessive FBI agent notes, these people are essentially living murder victims who have their personalities obliterated and fake ones put on. That is plenty creepy enough. You don't need your dialogue to be slightly stilted, your actors to play scenes as if they're somewhat off. Because it's *already* off. In fact, if they'd played the Dollhouse as straight, like any other office, it would have been nineteen times creepier: it's always the monstrous things done with a calm, reassuring smile *and no sense that anything wrong is happening* that are the worst.
There were some other false notes -- in particular, the kickboxing match was, um, heavy-handed and then some. It did get across a point about the character, but JESUS, Joss, hammer it home much? But "Ghost" wasn't a terribly bad start, and while I didn't think the gimmick could be interesting, the revelations about how the process works leads to some intriguing questions. To me, the fascinating part is the revelation that the Actives' implanted personalities are based on scans of *actual people.* That opens up tons of questions. How the hell does that work? Do they pay to license people's memories and personalities? Do the people know what they're doing it for? How long can they store this stuff? How much detail do the memories hold? Does an Active under the impression that it's a particular person ever decide to, say, check its email? Echo's Ellie Penn persona was based on a person who'd committed suicide at least a year before, which means she was scanned considerably before that -- do they get time lapse problems? Are they unsettled by changing technology, changing terminology? Do the personas have a shelf life? How far back do they go?
I think mix-and-match has to be used far more often than the pilot indicates; after all, the idea of the Dollhouse is that its superrich clientele can get *exactly* what they want, and you'd think that if every such delivery is based on one person the Dollhouse would get out of memory transfer and into the personals business. But the "existing individuals" transplant, I think, is more likely to suggest effective stories. Here are two gimmicks that leap into my head right away:
* A Dollhouse client is screwed up, betrayed a trust or something, ruined a relationship beyond repair -- and knows that the lost love was the subject of a personality scan. And becomes a regular client to get that lost love back, just for a little while, maybe one weekend a month. But makes the same mistakes again, and again, and again...
* Somebody who knows something very, very important was scanned for, say, the first or second ever such scan. And it becomes important for some reason to have access to that person and the information in his/her head. (Perhaps the original has died in the intervening years -- or, more disturbingly, the original can't be trusted and the Active is to be used to find out if the original is lying about something important.) So the Active feels like a person out of time.
...OH MY GOD, THIS EXPLAINS JOHNNY TWENNIES.
by Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz
Okay, yeah, I think we can officially say the show is firing on all cylinders. Jesus Christ.
"The Good Wound" does a lot of the stuff that the best episodes to date have done, and it does them extremely well -- so well that I'd say it's the show's new best episode. It uses the techniques that have worked very well for the show so far to terrific effect, and in the tradition of the show playing off the first two films, it picks up a cut bit that was one of James Cameron's rare false notes and does a better job with it.
I mentioned before that I think the show is at its best when its characters have different agendas and different plots to be in. "The Good Wound" bears that out. John has his storyline, and Cameron is with him; Riley has her storyline, and Jesse is with her; Sarah has her storyline, and Felicia (and Kyle) are with her; and Derek goes between John's story and Sarah's. It's very well played. Curiously, the show seems to be on its best game in scenes that have only two people in them; this episode gave us lots of those, and they worked great.
I was especially impressed with how well Kyle Reese was handled. Sarah's hallucination of Kyle is based on a cut scene from T2, where he comes to her in the mental hospital. Linda Hamilton strongly objected to this scene, and she was right to, because it doesn't play well and undercuts Sarah's character in the rest of the movie. Basically, Kyle tells her to be strong, and she's very shaken -- more T1 Sarah than T2 Sarah. It's great to see Michael Biehn, but it feels like a false note given her characterization in the rest of the film. And to his credit, Cameron realized this, and cut it.
In "The Good Wound," Kyle's not really a character in his own right as much as he is a dramatization of Sarah's own internal conflict. David Gerrold noted that one reason STAR TREK: TOS worked so well is that McCoy and Spock, being emotional and logical, respectively, would demonstrate Kirk's own internal conflict during their discussions of what to do. And it plays effectively here because -- unlike in James Cameron's scene -- Kyle is not just telling Sarah to man up. He tells her to trust Felicia, to be more compassionate. This means that the scene does not play with Sarah as a wuss, which is what Linda Hamilton's very accurate criticism of the scene in T2 was. That the guest actor playing Kyle is really very good does not hurt in the slightest. Nor does Lena Headey's excellent performance -- I am bugged by Sarah's walking on that leg, but the episode balances it out a bit by showing that yes, a gunshot wound to the leg is serious and potentially fatal, and yes, it really hurts a lot.
(A quick side note: one of SCC's best features is that the show is not stingy with its guest stars. They give them real screen time to work with. Felicia, the doctor Sarah abducts, has a great guest role and the actress is terrific in it, and even the cops, who have much less screen time, get scenes where we get to see them thinking about what they're doing. This is something that I really like to see on TV, and it's a great feature for SCC. The other characters have their own agendas, and they're not stupid about implementing them. Good for the guest stars' demo reels, too.)
"The Good Wound" also continues the show's improving treatment of John Connor. The hospital scene with Derek Reese and John is very strong, and it makes for a more convincing young John than we saw first season. This John doesn't pout or whine when Derek tells him he shouldn't have brought Riley to the hospital -- he takes charge, takes responsibility, says he made the call and he'll stick by it. But what makes the scene really work is that when the news about Sarah comes in and John wants to change his mind, Derek makes him eat his own words, and stick to his existing plan. John isn't dumb here. John is smart, and John is strong, and Derek outthinks him anyway. That's how the show needs to be playing John. He's not whiny, he's not ineffective, he's just learning.
(Also: I love Cameron's observation when John asks what future him would do in this situation: "Future you has more important things to do." Dead on.)
I haven't even mentioned the scenes between John Henry and Ellison, or John Henry and Weaver; they were all really solid, with the JH/Ellison scenes in particular being a real standout -- John Henry is really terrific, and I like this role for the actor much better than I ever did Cromartie. The scenes between JH and Weaver are very good, though not as strong; the dialogue is very effective, but while Shirley Manson has had some quite good moments on the series, her overall performance is just not strong enough to let her go toe-to-toe with the cast members who are, y'know, actually *actors.* She's at her best when she's most human -- the video flashbacks, Weaver pretending to remember her childhood -- which, unfortunately, is not the majority of what the role requires. I guess Manson's continued tenure will depend on the writing staff's plans, but I do kind of hope her identity is compromised and she has to start a new one next season, assuming she survives this one. Hey, a regeneration worked magnificently for Cromartie.
(Also: have I mentioned how much I like Jesse? Really. Terrific actress, and the character's ruthlessness is striking and effective. More of her!)
Anyway: really solid this week, just all around well-done. By George, I think they've got it.