Forgetting Dystopian Sci-Fi: Dark Angel & Dollhouse

I have been thinking about how to approach this post for a while. I wanted to write about Dark Angel and Dollhouse, two series that I enjoyed thoroughly. Yet when I ask most people about either of them, I usually get the “You what?” look and the conversation ends. For some unknown reason most Sci-Fi fans I know have never heard of them or have shown little interest in having a look for themselves. Why? Well, I am still trying to come to terms with it, but there may be several reasons to this issue.

Starting with Dark Angel – this was Jessica Alba’s big hit on TV. Yet after a couple of seasons the show met the fate that us Sci-Fi fans know all too well: cancelled! How could a show created by James Cameron end up failing so hard? I mean for once FOX seemed really keen on a sci-fi show, the first season was received with a positive mental attitude…So what went wrong? Well, seemingly the fact that FOX changed the show to Friday nights and certain plot developments during the second season lead most viewers to drop completely and forget about Max and her bio/cyberpunk corporate dominated world. So what, people didn’t like that the female lead got her presumed love interest in trouble after breaking out of Manticore and fought hard to expose the evil corp to the world? Perhaps we are far too cynical to appreciate science fiction when fiction becomes too close to reality – I don’t really know. Perhaps the audience rejected Alba’s more proactive role, where her character was prompted to think and react rather than just posed epic for the camera and run around trying to figure stuff out in her bike. Who knows. Maybe I am missing something…In any case, somehow, somewhat a loved and acclaimed series and an audience favourite stopped being so and the fans had to just deal with its legacy. Thankfully there was an arrangement to produce a video game for the Play Station 2 and to publish 3 novels written by Mark Allan Collins to continue exploring the universe Cameron had created. And yet…

I am nonetheless more inclined to believe that the failure of the series is related to a copyright law case raised shortly after the beginning of the first season. The Argentinian creative team Trillo and Meglia accused Cameron of ripping of their comic book and cartoon series Cybersix, which most likely did not help the good press of the show – seems that a large part of the fan base was familiar with Cybersix and did not take keenly the apparent overlap of creative material. So as fans we can get angry and withdraw our support for Cameron basing his TV show on another, but we are OK with Star Wars being basically an Akira Kurosawa film in outer space?…Cool…Got it.

Now about Dollhouse – the other Joss Whedon show that got canceled, there shouldn’t be many surprises. Yet, unlike with Firefly, the hype about the show was not as widespread amongst the fans. Granted, it was the fan community that allowed Whedon to have a second season as the producers dreaded the email mass spam to stop the show from coming to an end. But still – two seasons and then it was cut loose. This was again another FOX show. However, unlike Dark Angel, the first series did not reach as many viewers as expected. And I ask myself this one more time: why?! Eliza Dushku is brilliant and chameleonic. The rest of the cast is absolutely amazing at bringing to live these very complex and difficult to interpret dolls. And the casting was good, there were some renown stars in the show. But once again, maybe this show was too close to reality. Many Joss hit home a bit too hard – after all this is not a dystopian future but a fictional setting in modern-day society where people seemingly disappear willingly to have their memories and personalities erased and be programmed like dolls for whatever occasion necessary. The show does step in some dark sociological issue of American, and in general Western society. Identities, desires, abuse, transgression, abnormalities, consciousness, weird science…Then with season 2 we have to promptly understand that this is all part of a much larger scheme of things, and that this technology and its uses is a weapon fitting of the 21st century. And who knows, maybe our own governments may use it against us, for the greater good…The Greater Good.

So what was the problem? The audience could not understand or engage with a plot with deep roots that drives you in a never-ending emotional roller coaster with every episode? Was the acting too hard-core? Maybe the characters were just too unreal – but that is part of the point? Was the series a bit far ahead of its own time and tendencies? Would it have been better received if broadcasted by a more niche network in a different timetable and maybe a few years later? I mean, Orphan Black is doing pretty good, and Humans had a decent performance. It still puzzles me. Yet, there has been a series of comics launched since the cancellation of the series and other media related material that was welcomed with success amongst the fans.

I do think, though, that the presence of a strong female lead in both Dark Angel and Dollhouse may have had something to do with their fate. Female leads are cool, loved and acclaimed by geeks, but they are usually more successful when in groups (aka Orphan Black) or when the narrative leans towards something more relatable and obvious, blunt – like Buffy or Alias. Let’s face it, there is not all that many of us female geeks, so that makes it difficult to reach to a relatable audience. And the target male teenager-young adult would perhaps be more inclined to a show like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where violence is abundant and where the plot develops in a scene already set by the Terminator saga, than to dark, meta shows where although actions scenes take place, it is always very much contextualised  by the need of the narrative. Explicit violence is never the main motivation of these two shows.

So, I will leave it here for those of you who may be acquainted with the subject to reflect upon, or perhaps to inspire those unaware of these two fantastic series to have a taste of them. I’ll catch you in the next update!

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