During the 2015-16 academic year I was able to take a film module that I am very passionate about. Its aim was to teach us to analyse television drama. For me the best part was that all the case studies were Joss Whedon TV shows. One of the assignments was to write a close analysis of a section from one episode, maximum of three minutes. I chose a section from my favourite scene, from my favourite TV show. I found out, after watching the episode again with commentary from Whedon himself, that it was also his favourite scene from the show.
I received some really helpful feedback on this assignment, so I’ve made a few adjustments from its original submission, and have expanded it from its original 1,250 word limit,
as here I have don’t have a specific word count.
Hopefully it’s a little better now.
… Also: SPOILERS
In ‘Vows’, the first episode of Dollhouse’s (20th Century Fox, 2009-2010) second season, the audience begins to see Dr Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) attempt to cope with the discovery that she is a programmed active. She confronts Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the programmer who designed her imprint and therefore created her. This confrontation results in not only Dr Saunders beginning to understand herself as a self-aware active and why Topher created her, but also inadvertently questioning the ethics and running of the Dollhouse. People are given the option to sign away five years of their life and in return will receive a large lump sum of money once they have completed their time in the Dollhouse. Yet they are never completely privy to what they are programmed to do during that time. The original selves are not in control of their bodies while in the Dollhouse, and are left in the care of people like Topher and Dr Saunders. The performance given by both actors is key in this scene, as although it is set in the tight confines of Topher’s multi-functional bedroom/server room, the actors’ fluctuating use of space between them within the small set is quite effective in depicting the characters’ changing understanding of one another. Throughout the show, Dr Saunders and Topher are shown to represent opposing views of the ethics of the Dollhouse. Dr Saunders stands for caution within the Dollhouse, following the belief that there are always less dangerous and experimental ways of dealing with difficult situations. Whereas Topher, for the most part, displays a more amoral attitude towards the Dolls, generally seeing them as tools towards scientific discovery rather than people. Putting the two contrasting characters in such an intense confrontation allows for an insightful revelation of their personalities’ which, until now, had not been shown.
Earlier throughout the episode, we see Dr Saunders toying with Topher, as she is unable to deal with the fact that the man she hates most, is the one that created her. From this scene we discover Topher understands that he needs someone to make sure he doesn’t go too far in his scientific exploits and so had to create an external conscience of some sort to keep him in check. Dr Saunders physically embodies the qualities Topher knows he needs to do his job well, yet cannot provide himself, or at least struggles to. He needed someone who not only cared deeply for the welfare of the actives, but someone who would speak out against him when he was wrong, or has not considered more cautious alternatives. Yet Dr Saunders does not believe him capable of understanding the need for any kind of conscience. Due to his playfully amoral persona, she believes he must have ulterior motives for creating her, as most commonly Dolls are imprinted for romantic purposes. Therefore, once Dr Saunders slaps him, angered that her creator has rejected her attempt at seduction, she questions why she should “fight [his] divine plan?” Topher responds with equal vigour, almost treating Dr Saunders as a child having a tantrum, he informs her that she needs to continue to be her own person because she “is better than that! Because [she is] better than [him]!” So launches his exposition of why Whiskey, the name of the active whose body she is in, was imprinted as Dr Saunders. He is defensive, verging on angry and seems unsure where to start. Topher paces back and forth fidgeting, then pausing for a moment before he begins his explanation of the situation he had been left with after the composite event with Alpha (Alan Tudyk), explaining why he had to imprint her into the scarred active Whiskey as the new doctor. When Dr Saunders asks why he did more than just create the specifications he was given, he is even more frustrated at her lack of understanding. “I was designing a person, not a Roomba. I needed you to be whole!” Kranz delivers this line tinted with venom. A flicker of fiery exasperation crosses his face and he blinks and then briefly widens his eyes as he says the word ‘Roomba’, emphasising Topher’s deep frustration with Dr Saunders’ misconceptions of his intentions. This line also demonstrates Topher’s awareness of his ability to overlook what is right just for the sake of science. Science and technology is, and always been, how Topher solves problems within the Dollhouse. If he cannot do something himself, he imprints an active with the skills required so that they can help instead. Topher was given the order to create a doctor, and that’s what he did, but more than that he made someone who could remind him that just because you can, does not mean you should. Therefore, Topher’s misconceived amorality is highlighted here not only for Dr Saunders, but for the audience as well.
Dr Saunders perception of Topher is not as accurate as the one the audience is given throughout the show. Although Topher is later described by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) in ‘Belonging’ (S2E4) as being amoral, we can see in this sequence, as well as others, he is not so incapable of morality. He is offended when Dr Saunders suggests he doesn’t care about people getting hurt, heatedly stepping towards her and exclaiming that she does not know him. His reaction is full of vexation, as Dr Saunders has continually taunted him after discovering she was an active, and so he now wants to avoid being subjected to any more of her judgements. Now she steps back from him in fear, receiving the fury of her creator. Although Topher is leading the dialogue in this section of the scene, the visual focus tends to lie on Dr Saunders, watching her reactions to his exposition. She becomes overwhelmed and literally backs herself against a wall. Not expecting the response she receives from Topher, her anger seems to subside into a mixture of fear and confusion. Her world has begun to crumble, and in this attempt to confirm what she believed as fact, that Topher is selfish and ignorant, she falls into even more uncertainty. It is at this point that the pace of the scene slows. Topher regains some of his calmness and sits down, continuing to explain that they could not know each other or be close in any way, due to the rules of the Dollhouse, so they could work together efficiently. From this Dr Saunders begins to rebuild what she knows and figure out how she must continue on. That Topher holds no physical claim over her as her creator, but merely needed someone to keep him in check.
(It could also be interpreted that Topher also feels this way because he knows Dr Saunders is an active, and her body is not really her own, therefore any intimate affiliation with her would be immoral. We have seen previously Topher is not overly concerned with bending rules, and so the concept Topher is following his own moral code in this instance is not unlikely. However there is little clear evidence to support this theory and so shall not be expanded on further in this essay.)
Continuing to act childishly, Dr Saunders is treated thusly by Topher, demonstrated more clearly later when he crouches in front of her trying to advise her on her next move. Firstly, he addresses Dr Saunders’ issue of her hating him, answering her question, why he would make her that way. He responds, “I didn’t make you hate me. You chose to.” delivered with a very gentle change of emotion, beginning with sadness and confusion and ending with almost serene wonder, marvelling at what his work can achieve. In this moment Topher reveals much about his outlook towards his creations, and amazement at how she has grown outside his programming. Dr Saunders is a special case, as an active given an imprint and left for just over a year without any wipes, she naturally develops, and so their extreme contrasts in outlook, along with them being forced to work together, causes her hatred for Topher. Dr Saunders slowly starts to understand more about herself, and now informed that her hatred comes purely from her, she begins to well up. Sliding down the wall and sinking into a tight seated position, Dr Saunders appears overcome with what she has learnt. They both hold themselves and allow a moment of silence, thinking over everything that has just occurred. It is now we can see the small room more clearly (see featured image), the two characters now both sitting appear quite rattled. This short pause also gives the audience a moment to reflect on what has just occurred between them, and take in their environment. We now take notice that they are surrounded by the servers which represents the technology keeping both of them inside the Dollhouse, but for different reasons. Topher by choice, intoxicated by the resources offered by Rossum in return for his services, and Dr Saunders due to her crippling fears of the outside word, put there by Topher to keep her from ever wishing to leave.
The silence is broken when Dr Saunders looks to Topher for advice about dealing with the awareness of being an active. She is on the brink of crying, hoping he can help her rationalise and deal with the fact she is “not real” and that “everything [she] think[s] comes from something [she] can’t abide”. Dr Saunders’ whole being is questioned. She does not truly like what the Dollhouse has done and been doing all these years, yet she works there because there is no better place for her, because the Dollhouse is the only place for her, she was made for it. She cares deeply about the actives, is afraid of the loud openness of outside world, and is self-conscious about her facial scars, and this is what in her mind has kept her there. Yet, now conflict is tearing through her mind. This place that she has always disapproved of, yet found herself never wanting to leave, has now given her even more reason to be disgusted. She is left questioning how she can cope knowing what she really is, is just another creation of the Dollhouse. Topher however, squinting with a cautiously puzzled expression, seeming to have not heard her plea for advice, asks his own question “So you weren’t really going to sleep with me?” A moment of humour in an otherwise intense scene. The two manage to share a small laugh at the fact Topher programmed her to be disgusted by the smell of him, another precaution by Topher to keep their relationship strictly professional. Dr Saunders turns away and slightly covers her mouth, but it is clear she too is slightly amused at Topher’s solution to prevent her from being attracted to him, and for a moment her hatred for him is almost forgotten.
At this point Topher crosses the room, crouching to her eye level, and asks her why she didn’t find out who she used to be when she previously had the chance. Dr Saunders is looking away from him, feeling fragile emotionally in this moment she avoids any visual provocation. Topher suggests she consider being wiped and imprinted with her original identity, saying she has “earned it” after everything the Dollhouse has done to her, and what she has done for the Dollhouse. Continuing to look away from him she simply replies, “Because I don’t wanna die.” The line is delivered with such simple desolation that Topher is finally able to differentiate Dr Saunders from the body she possesses, and realises for her to become her original self, the person he created must ‘die’. For Dr Saunders to read her original personality’s file, her need to choose between self-preservation and returning her body to its original owner becomes too real. It would force her to realise that the life she possesses, the one given to her by the body she has so long believed to be her own, belongs to another, and that the very beliefs she has would force her to make a decision that self-preservation dictates her not to make. For her whole existence she has believed that the dolls were people stripped to shells, and the least they could do was protect them until they were given back to themselves. Now she is prohibiting the original owner of her body from returning to it, and is therefore morally compromised. She excused herself initially saying she knew who she was, denying that her body is not really her own. By not reading her file, she can almost distance herself from the choice and pretend there is none to be made. Now forced by Topher to confront the fact that her body belongs to someone else and knowing that returning it would kill her, she appears terrified. Topher’s eyes widen at this sudden realisation, a moment of shock, he turns slightly and sits on the floor, taking a moment to consider fully the implications of what he has suggested. This brief moment between them brings both characters to a better understanding of not only one another, but the complicated morality lingering behind what the Dollhouse does; creating and destroying people on a daily basis.
Overall, this sequence is extremely effective in unravelling a little of these two contrasting characters by allowing them to bounce off one another. Topher is aware of his own struggles with morality, and so created solutions to keep himself in check, one of which being Dr Saunders. He understands his own blind love for scientific advancement is reckless and needs someone else to remind him to reel it in. Dr Saunders has also discovered more about herself, and why she was created. Knowing now the circumstances for her being imprinted in her host’s body, she has a better of understanding of why she is, however she is now faced with a greater issue: is it morally acceptable for her to continue to inhabit this body that is not really her own even if returning it means killing herself? Topher is also left facing a dilemma: that possibly the only thing stopping the personalities he creates from being ‘real’ is self-awareness, and that what he thought Dr Saunders wanted would actually be her demise. So this scene is very effective in bringing these characters true thoughts and feeling to the surface, as well as exposing questions of humanity’s morality within the Dollhouse.
“Vows” Dollhouse, 20th Century Fox Studios, USA, 25.09.2009 (TV Show)
“Belonging” Dollhouse, 20th Century Fox Studios, USA, 23.10.2009 (TV Show)
IMDb. Dollhouse, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1135300/ (Accessed 08.03.16)
Screen Capture, Dollhouse S2E1 ‘Vows’ 00:24:23