Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Video games vs. story

I finally went and did it. I dropped a few hundred dollars on the weekend to upgrade to the current generation of gaming consoles. (PS3 if you're wondering.)  

Already, I'm a complete convert to the Portal Worship Cult. Funny, brain-teasing, creative, simple in an elegant and clean-lined way, it's also set me to thinking about storytelling in videogames.

I'm not what you'd call a hardcore gamer by any stretch of the imagination. But when I do buy games, I tend to avoid any game that has a story element. I mostly stick to straight up shooters that allow me to blow stuff up real good, or to weird puzzle challenge games, like Katamari Damacy. I've tried to play other types of games, like JRPGs and the more narratively dense shooters. Usually, I'm disappointed. The story elements feel like intrusions into the gameplay at the best of times. 

For example, I played a lot of Killzone on my old PS2. Killzone was supposed to be this great Halo killer when it was in development. What actually came out was, for its time, a pretty solid but not spectacular shooter. I played through it a couple of times, but every time I was groaning when the cutscenes come up. 

The game starts out in such a promising way: Brian Cox, playing the Hitlerish leader of the bad mutant humans, exhorting his troops with cries for revenge, while a montage displaying the brutal thuggery of his reign unfolds. It's actually pretty good. Unfortunately, that's the last you'll be seeing of Mr. Cox. I can imagine him coming into the studio, flipping through the script, rattling off his lines in his best Early Hannibal Lecter voice. The guy in the studio gives him the thumbs up, he gets his cheque and he's off to his next gig. See ya later, quality.

Every other cut scene is a babble of military and action movie cliches, with some ethnic stereotyping thrown in. The four main characters, all of whom supposedly live on a colony world somewhere light years from Earth, are from USAmerican central casting. There's the square-jawed, square-headed white male central hero, the female assassin, the Hispanic tough, profane, heavy weapons guy, and the half-mutant spy. Both he and the woman have British accents, because they're smart, right? The characters swear and bitch and have minor conflicts, none of which make a damn bit of difference to the gameplay, which is of the highly linear "Go to A and kill everybody there" variety.

Compare this to Portal. No cut scenes. No other characters, really, if you discount the Weighted Companion Cube and GlaDOS. Just this acerbic running commentary from a crazed computer, and the little-girl voices of the killer robots. But there is a story. It's hidden, literally, in the cracks of the game. Aside from GlaDOS's darkly funny instructions and misinformation, there are little hidden rooms in the game. As you go through the tasks, you find hints left behind by a previous test subject. He's apparently spent time living in the walls to avoid going through some of the more dangerous rooms. In some places he's scrawled things on the walls. It's dark and atmospheric, enhanced by the soundtrack. 

Now I'm almost finished the story. Will there be resolution to this bit of story? I don't care. Portal has dropped me into a world and is giving me enough information to make myself the central character. They aren't forcing bad versions of movie dialogue down my throat. If I want plot and character in depth, I don't reach for a video game, I find a book or a movie or a TV show. Video games aren't good at depth. They're good at atmosphere and setting, and immersion.

Portal gets the way to storytell in a video game is to get out of the way. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Locke Lamora is stealing your wallet right now

I'm a little late to this party, but I finally got around to reading The Lies of Locke Lamora over the last few days. And by "reading" I mean "absorbing as fast as my eyes would allow." This is one of those books that, if you like it, you will stay up until 3 a.m. reading the damn thing, just to find out what happens next. And you'll stay up until 4 a.m. to find out what happens after that, sleep and an early workday be damned.

The title character is a street urchin when we meet him, with a gift for thieving and deceit. He's so good at it, in fact, that he's being sold by his current owner/unsuitable parental substitute, the Thiefmaker, to a crooked priest. While the Thiefmaker runs a sort of wholesale Fagin-style operation in training orphans for crime, the priest, Father Chains, is running a boutique business. He needs clever apprentices who can be trained for the long con.

The story follows Locke through intercut scenes, part in the present as he and his band of thieves try to gull a rich nobleman and avoid a brutal gang war, and part in the past as we see how he and the gang grew up and trained together.

All the characters are vivid, particularly Father Chains, a priest of "the thirteenth god," the god of thieves and swindlers. There's also Jean Tannen, Locke's portly best friend who happens to be lethal with a pair of hatchets, the card sharking Sanza twins, and Bug the adolescent apprentice of the gang. Their gang moves through the city of Camorr, a Venice-like creation peopled by nobles, gang leaders, thugs, merchants, assassins, shark-fighters, priests, and guards. Camorr itself is one of the most memorable characters, with its numerous islands and canals, and its mysterious glass-like structures left by a vanished elder race. (I'd say it has about 700 milli-Crobuzons.)

Locke's character, or lack thereof, is at the centre of the story. He's physically a little short and slight, with a forgettable face, no particular skill with weapons or hand to hand combat, no magical ability, and no noble title or destiny handed down by the gods. He's just too clever for his own good, and very skilled at deception and fast talking. Part of the time, he reminded me of a trickster figure like Loki or Coyote, morally ambiguous and talking his way in and out of ever problem he encounters. In modern speculative fiction, Locke most closely resembles Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. It's refreshing to see characters in genres (fantasy and military SF, respectively) who usually rely on brawn and machismo using their brains and mental toughness, instead. (And if you liked Locke Lamora and you haven't read any Vorkosigan books, boy, are you in for a treat. Get yourself to the library right now. You'll thank me for this.)

Are there problems with the book? Yes, of course. There's the love of Locke's life, who is mentioned frequently but doesn't even get a cameo in one of the flashbacks, which makes the book feel less than whole. If you like moral characters, you may be troubled by Locke's utter lack of most ethics; his primary motivations are loyalty, revenge, and a need to outsmart people. There are also moments that stretch believeability thin, even in a novel like this; a sequence in which Locke tries to infiltrate the same building three times in three different disguises in one day comes to mind. 

Still, those are minor problems compared to the book's primary virtue: it is fun. This book is swashbuckling, an updated successor to the novels of Sabatini or The Princess Bride. Looking back over the past half dozen SF and fantasy novels I've read, the number that is just fun is sadly small. Books that inspire a grin should be treasured.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I long for the quiet dignity of William Shatner: A Star Trek movie review

I didn't like original Trek when I was a kid. I was born in '78, which means that by age 10 I'd seen all three original Star Wars movies. By age 11, thanks to my neighbourhood pushers local librarians I'd read Heinlein, some Asimov and Clarke, and dozens of more forgettable names. Compared to what George Lucas could do, and especially compared to the images authors were pumping into my head, Star Trek looked slow, cheap, and lame. (Even 10-year-old Ouranosaurus thought miniskirts on female crewmembers was stupid.) I didn't get into the franchise at all until TNG came along, with better special effects and a captain who didn't chase women in beehive hairdos.

But I saw a fair bit of original Trek, regardless. It was on in endless reruns on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or in the summers when there was nothing else to watch. And it was nominally SF. So I caught an episode here and an episode there. I learned about flat-foreheaded Klingons, energy beings, pon farr, styrofoam rocks, evil computers the size of Buicks, and "show me this Earth thing called 'kissing.'"

Now that I'm older and (theoretically) less easily distracted by shiny objects and big explosions, I've come to appreciate that there was often solid storytelling behind original Trek. In preparation for seeing the movie on the weekend, I've collected the whole series from my local pushers library and I've been watching season one.

Holy crap, is that a contrast to the original movie.

I know the movies are another animal compared to the TV show, but the more episodes I watch the deeper the gulf seems. The film is all about proving there's no such thing as a no-win scenario. It starts with Kirk cheating his way through the Kobayashi Maru test. It ends with him recapitulating the events that led to the death of his father – except that he saves the captain and the ship and Earth and all the important cast members and gets a promotion and a medal. He never learns a damn thing about loss. He never faces loss.

Compare that to original Trek. I just watched "Space Seed," the famous Khan Noonien Singh episode. It has some egregious bits of 1960s stuck in there, especially the sexist plot about the female crewmember who falls so hard for Khan she'll help him take over the ship after 20 minutes in his presence. 

But – there's a scene in which Khan has seized control. He needs the crew to help him steal the Enterprise. He locks Kirk in a decompression chamber and starts pumping out the air while the senior crew watches. If one of you will join me, Khan says, I'll let him live. They all sit there, impassive. Khan points out that he'll throw them in there one by one until someone cracks. Still they sit there. They're prepared to let the captain die, and then die themselves, because helping Khan is against everything they stand for.

That keeps coming up again and again in the original series. Characters stand for things. They stand for them because they think they're right. Spock opposes killing hostile aliens in "The Galileo Seven," for moral reasons. Kirk wants proof that an actor really is a genocidal dictator in "The Conscience of the King," he won't just go in guns blazing. Characters argue about logic, reason and ethics.  

Can you imagine the film's Kirk and Spock having a discussion about ethics not conducted at full volume, ending with a fistfight?

Every action by Spock and Kirk in the film is undertaken for personal reasons. Neither joins Starfleet because they believe in its mission. And saving the Earth? Well, I think we're pretty much all in favour of that.

I've said this before, but people do sometimes act based on ethics and ideology they've arrived at on their own. That's why original Trek, for all its cheese, is growing on me. It's why I'm tired of the modern trend of having every character action be motivated by nothing but selfish, petty, personal concerns. I don't care of Kirk gets over the death of his father. I care that he has some goddamn ideals.

As a couple of hours light entertainment, the movie is fine. There are shiny objects and big explosions, and the folks playing Spock and McCoy and Uhuru did a good job. Simon Pegg was hilarious as Scotty, and in a film so inconsequential, he could have been introduced earlier. But really, you'd get more storytelling out of two or three hours spent watching Shatner and Nimoy dodge styrofoam rocks.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer reading for Dollhouse fans

Ahhhhhhhh... Dollhouse has been renewed. I admit, I didn't think it would happen, while my girlfriend (she who is both wise and beautiful) always kept the faith. It'll be nice to see some more episodes, hopefully of the interesting variety, and not of the "Echo has an assignment as X" style.

But what to do for the next five or six months before we get another fix of Dollhouse? We go to the library and the video store, of course. For my fellow Dollhouse fans, a selection of stories that cover the same themes: body swapping, identity, reality when the mind is a commodity.

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. I've already mentioned this one, but both this book and its sequels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies, explore the possibility of wholesale body swapping and immortality through cloning and downloading. It's dark, grim, noirish post-cyberpunk with lots of sex and violence. The politics become more explicit with the follow up books, but they never take over the story.

The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Last Call,  by Tim Powers. Again, body swapping and dark quests for immortality, but in Powers case using magic. The best of the bunch is probably The Anubis Gates, although my favourite will always be On Stranger Tides for its sword fightin', piratical ways. Far, far superior to any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas. A year before The Matrix came out and everyone started talking about bullet time, there was a much quieter, much better film that covered the same territory and then some. Dark City is about a man who wakes up next to a murdered woman, seemingly her killer. But he can't remember anything. He flees through a shifting city that never sees dawn, and in which people are swapped from home to home and role to role much like... dolls in a dollhouse? With its synthetic personalities, it's the closest analogue to Dollhouse you can find. Plus, a chance to see Keifer Sutherland before he got all annoying as a torture-monkey on 24.

Diaspora, by Greg Egan. This staggeringly brain-twisting novel concerns both AI and uploaded personalities. In similarly-themed short stories, Egan has also explored creating multiple copies of oneself, in some cases to undertake suicidal scientific research, such as travelling into a black hole.

The City of Lost Children, directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. A mad scientist kidnaps children in order to harvest their dreams and save him from his nightmares. A steampunk setting with clones, blind radar-enabled cultists, and Ron Perlman with a bizarre hairstyle, speaking French.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lend a hand, get a gift

It's that time of year again. No, not the time when all my favourite SF shows are cancelled. I think that's tommorow. No, it's Relay for Life time. So you're going to have to indulge me in a little public service announcement that has (almost) nothing to do with science fiction and nerdism.

This will be the third year I'm participating in the Canadian Cancer Society's Relay for Life. It's a twelve hour event, in which teams take turns walking around a track. No big deal, really, but the money we raise goes towards cancer research, prevention, and support for cancer patients and their families. This year's Relay in my hometown is on May 22, so there's a little more than a week left.

I'm going to pester my friends and family for pledges, but I like unusual fundraisers too. Last year I raised money by promising to have my legs waxed if I got $500, and I got more than $1,000. It was well worth three months of not being able to wear shorts in the scorching heat.

This year, my legs are still too tender (and some of our local politicians have offered the same thing, for $10,000). So I thought I'd turn to the Interwebs instead.

Here's where the science fiction comes back into the picture. If you donate to my cause, you can make me do tricks. It's like throwing peanuts at monkeys in the zoo. Only less cruel. And there are multiple prizes for different donation levels! 

Here's my list:

• $10 donation: I'll write and post five haiku about dinosaurs, zombies, pirates, ninjas, or any combination of the above.

• $25 donation: I'll write and post a flash fiction story on the SF topic of the donor's choice and post it on the blog. (Limit one per customer.) I used to be pretty good at writing SF.

• $30 donation: I'll write you into the novel I'm working on. You can get eaten by a dinosaur in print! Well, someday it'll be in print...

• $50 donation (plus shipping): I'll create and send you a tee shirt with my Rudy the Undead Hound logo on it. Who wouldn't want their chest emblazoned with an obscure geek reference to a non-existent 1980s cartoon show! I'm never going to sell these or make any more after this month because I'm pretty sure any intellectual property rights reside with Wil Wheaton and/or the Dungeons & Dragons folks. Limit ten, so order now!

• $100 donation: I'll dance like a monkey, while wearing a gorilla mask, and post the results to YouTube. 

• $500 donation: I'll wax my legs again, damn you! And send you pictures. You sick bastard.

• $1,000 donation: I'll do 100 push ups in a row. If I throw up, I have to try again.

• $2,500 donation: I'll write and publish online, and under my own name, a 40,000 word fanfic in which you team up with Harry Potter to save the world from the cyborg Nazi Yetis of Ultima Thule.

• $5,000 donation: I'll walk over hot coals, and send you the video. And possibly the medical reports.
To donate, click this link. Select the option in which your chosen name and donation scrolls in the donors box. Then email me at ouranosaurus at with the details of your donation and any other information I'll need.

This is one of the most important things I do all year. It would be great if you could help out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I love you, John Bellairs

One of the best things about having a mother who works in a school library is getting discards, the books that are too old or grubby or beat up to keep in circulation anymore. This was obviously really cool when I was a bookwormish nine-year-old, but even as a bookfanaticish 30-year-old it's pretty neat.

So this Mother's Day, after doing some mildly backbreaking yard work to thank Mom for bringing me into the world, she gave me a sack of books. Well, most of them are intended for my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful and will be a teacher soon. But I'm calling dibs on the two John Bellairs books.

Back in the 1990s, there was this big craze for horror novels for kids. R.L. Stine novels in particular. Well, I spit on your R.L. Stine novels, do you hear me! They cannot hold a candle to the fiendish works of Mr. Bellairs!

Do your Stine novels have covers by Edward Gorey? I think not! Do they build their horror slowly, using realistic settings and character development? Do they weave a tapestry of horror from commonplace items – a ring made from a bent nail, a cheap Egyptian-style souvenier? Do they leave the reader certain something is wrong but not entirely sure what? I think not!

Mostly, I've read the Johnny Dixon novels, so I'm eagerly re-reading The Curse of the Blue Figurine for the first time since I was about 12 years old. I'm struck by some of the details – the intensely Catholic background of the main characters, the blunt attitude toward death and injury – that I didn't recall. I did recall that Johnny was a fairly nerdy, bright kid with glasses. I have no idea why he appealed to me as a young reader. None whatsoever. There's also the crotchety and eccentric professor, who frankly puts Dumbledore to shame as a weird old mentor figure.

I've also got a copy of The Dark Secret of Weatherend, which stars Anthony Monday. I don't think I've ever read any of the Anthony Monday books so this will be an interesting little treat.

About a year ago, I re-read what must be the most terrifying of Bellairs books. It's a Johnny Dixon book, and the premise is both bizarre and unforgettable. A realistic baseball-playing automaton has been created by a mad scientist. But it only works if human eyes are inserted in its head. Go. Go now and find a copy of The Eyes of the Killer Robot. It's high octane nightmare fuel for 10 year olds.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"I know who I am."

It seems like the consensus around Omega, the penultimate-but-last-to-air episode of Dollhouse, is that it wasn't quite as good as last week's stellar outing. I'd agree, but I'd like to see the parts of this episode that were left on the cutting room floor before making a final decision.

Spoilers ahoy.

From last week's cliffhanger, everyone's running around like chickens with their minds wiped. It only takes DeWitt, Boyd, Ballard, Topher and Whiskey/Saunders to put together Alpha's whole scheme, but by then Echo's gone, and all the data wedges containing her previous imprints, including her original Caroline persona.

The plot threads play out, with flashbacks showing how Alpha changed from being just another doll to letting threads of his original personality slip through – something we've seen all season with Echo, and even with Victor.

Boyd and Ballard wind up teaming up, buddy-cop style, to hunt down Alpha. Dr. Saunders finds proof that she's a doll, and we see that her face was carved up even before Alpha went totally batshit. (About five minutes before, but still.)

Alpha pours more than 30 personalities into Echo's mind using his homebrew imprinting chair, and she promptly (and not particularly surprisingly) beans him in the head with a pipe. Alpha, it turns out, was a psycho on his way to serial killer status before he ever became a doll, while we know that Echo/Caroline has deep reserves of empathy and personal strength. She tries to save the hapless waitress Alpha's kidnapped and loaded up with Caroline's mind. She fails, but between her efforts and those of Ballard, she does save her original Caroline wedge. Alpha scampers like a bunny.

Of course, there was also that plot thread in which November and Sierra were made into badass bounty hunters to help chase down Alpha, too. And they just... what? Went for coffee instead? We never see them after they're imprinted.

That's the main problem with this episode. There's at least five minutes, maybe more, that didn't make it onto the screen, and I think that contributes to the anticlimactic nature of the ending. There's no final throwdown with Alpha; he simply disappears after dropping the Caroline wedge. I suspect the edits are also partly responsible for the suddenness with which Ballard finds himself working at the Dollhouse as a contractor to track down Alpha. His turnabout on Mellie/November doesn't seem warranted based on what we saw.

Criticism aside (please, please, Fox, release an extended version of this on the DVDs!) there's a lot to like about this episode. Among other things, we see three different reactions to a doll realizing its true nature. Alpha becomes an egomaniac. Echo just feels empty, despite having so many personalities to choose from, and rejects the artifice of her personas. Whiskey/Saunders reacts partly with despair, and partly with a strange acceptance. I think that last is the most interesting. Saunders as Saunders knows that the dolls are often fleeing something horrible. She must know that she is there for some similar reason. Does she think that being Saunders, a good person and a healer, is preferable to the alternatives? Or is she just broken down?

Plenty of fodder for the next season. Now let's just hope we get there.

ETA: It's just before midnight Pacific time, and the Dollhouse DVD is number 18 and climbing on Amazon's bestsellers list. Not too shabby. A few tens of thousands of sales might be the only thing now to convince Fox not the axe the show.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Killing the Hollywood orcs

Most of the Internet, at least the nerdishly-inclined parts, have now probably seen The Hunt For Gollum, the 40 minute fan film created by a pack of crazed Brits. And boy, was I surprised as I watched the trailer and the film itself.

Yeah, it's pretty good, especially for something that apparently cost just 3,000 pounds, or about $4,400 US. You couldn't do the catering for a movie in Hollywood for that little. But, as a fan film, no one drew a salary and the producers begged, borrowed and stole before they shelled out money. That's just standard.

What's not standard is the overall quality. It's only a degree less professional looking than Peter Jackson's films. The orcs look like orcs, not like guys with Halloween masks. The Rangers are wearing realistic weapons and gear. The beautiful scenery is lovingly filmed. There are aerial shots of snow-capped peaks which they got from... where? Who cares? It looks damn good.

The plot is drawn from the appendices to the Lord of the Rings, and it's briefly referenced within the films itself. Gandalf warns Aragorn that there's this nasty little post-Hobbit thing called Gollum and that it's making its way towards the Shire, searching for its lost ring. Meanwhile, Sauron's troops are massing and may be looking for Gollum. Gollum can't be captured by the orcs, or the enemy will know where to find the ring.

Aragorn heads out and tracks Gollum, first by rumour, then by luring him into a trap. Gollum spends most of the rest of the film in a burlap sack, because no matter how well funded the film is, you just can't motion capture Andy Serkis for 30 minutes. That's going to blow your budget.

The remainder of the film is orcs hunting Aragorn while Gollum tries to escape. There are several moments of real tension, the acting is creditable, and the director clearly knows more than which way to point the cameras. And there's a massive fight scene in which Aragorn takes on a patrol of about a dozen orcs and kills them all.

The fight scene needs a little more attention. I'm actually going to argue that the fight scene in The Hunt for Gollum is slightly better than most of the fight scenes in the actual LotR films.

Whoa, whoa, hold up! It's not about the skills of stuntmen or the ability of the fight coordinators. It's about directorial choices. With a few cool exceptions, Peter Jackson belongs to the quick cuts school of fight direction. You will occasionally see a cool moment, like Legolas stabbing an orc with an arrow, then shooting it into the next orc, or Aragorn jamming a torch into a Ring Wraith's face. But more often, you get a bunch of guys running at each other and then there's some sword swinging, some quick cuts, sound effects and screams, and an orc keels over. You don't see move-countermove very often. The Hunt for Gollum has just one big fight scene, and it has several cool fight combos packed in, including the skewering of two orcs, and the final boss fight with the patrol leader. It's a good fight scene for any movie, let alone a fan film!

It's only in one way that The Hunt for Gollum disappoints, and that's in the way it falls into the fanfic trap. This part of the tale, Aragorn's search for Gollum, really isn't necessary. It's filling in a blank spot in the story that could have been left blank. We already know how everyone's story here ends. I'd frankly rather have seen a story from another chunk of Middle Earth's history, maybe with original characters. Still, it made my geeky heart glad, and I was quite happy to let it entertain me for 40 minutes.

On the other hand, this film should have Hollywood quaking just as much as the Pirate Bay does. The entertainment industry's been so focused on cracking down on illegal downloading that they haven't bothered to look at the other side of the equation: what happens when anyone with a dream, a couple of credit cards and a gaggle of willing volunteers can make something that looks this damn good?

In the past, Hollywood wasn't threatened by people who made legendarily cheap films. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000, but his goal was to become a professional film maker. So Hollywood could deal with him. He wanted to join the club. 

What do you do with people who have no interest in joining the club? I'm sure some of the folks in The Hunt for Gollum want to move on to "real" acting, makeup, or stunt work, and probably some of them already are in the field. But a lot of them just did it because they love LotR. There are fan film communities for every big cult property out there, from Star Wars to Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And time I spend watching fan films is time I spend not watching professionally made, for profit stuff. Eyeballs equals money.

Hollywood keeps telling us they're struggling to make money because of piracy (and we're not far from the point where every shack in the Sahel can download and watch Wolverine and Transformers 2). Meanwhile there are gangs of film makers who learned their trade as unpaid volunteers and do it for the love of making a movie. If the quality of amateur film rises while the financial rationale for professional film plunges, it could really upend the entire Hollywood system. I doubt that we'll ever see a day when nobody makes money off of films. But we could be close to a day when fewer people make a lot less money, even as we get a lot more movies available to us, the fans.

The next 10 years are going to be really interesting.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"My prince"

Briar Rose, last night's episode of Dollhouse, could best be described as kick ass. But before we go any further...


Oh, sorry I shouted there. No, don't worry. I'm just excited because it turns out that freakin' Wash is Alpha! 

Yeah, I did not see that happening. I watched the ep with three others, and our surprised gasps at the reveal would have sent a barometer spinning. We knew Alan Tudyk was in the episode, from the trailers. We knew that Alpha was in the episode. Did we put those two things together? No. Because he's Wash! He plays with dinosaurs and gets speared! He doesn't slice people up and kick ass!

Well played, Ms. Espenson and Mr. Whedon. Well played.

Aside from that, it was also a taut and well-written episode on just about every level. The bit where Echo is trying to help the sexually abused kid, which could have been cringe-inducing in so many ways, turned out to be well written and well acted. It dealt with its awful subject matter head on and without histrionics – the moment where Echo talks about how she would plan escapes and then give up was very well done. It also introduced the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty theme, which would have its own twist at the end of the hour.

We got to delve deeper into the creepy and messed up psyche of Agent Ballard as well, when he refuses to rescue November/Mellie. Why? It's not really been spelled out well, but I'm thinking he doesn't consider Mellie a real person, and he's been too personally hurt by that. He's built a tower in his mind, and at the top there's a real princess named Caroline. 

But that gets at one of the central questions Dollhouse asks. Mellie is undoubtedly a synthetic person, programmed to love Ballard. But what she feels is plainly no less real to her. That's the crux of it; Ballard doesn't think Mellie is real, so she doesn't count. Caroline does. I don't think he's right. The Dollhouse committed a moral crime when it created Mellie and fixated her on Ballard, but Millie herself is a victim as surely as the young girl in the group home. She couldn't run away either. They'll find you, after all. They're bigger and stronger.

Then there's the ongoing plot about Dr. Saunders, who I'm now almost certain is a doll named Whiskey. I don't think Mr. Dominic wanted a drink at all, there. Alpha seems to know it too. I'm almost certain that "Saunders" is either the memories of a dead person, or is a synthetic persona. When Alpha escaped, he sliced up Whiskey and left her alive, probably killed the doctor. The Dollhouse looked at their dead doc, and their doll who wouldn't be going on too many more tricks dates and said "Waste not, want not."

Problems with the episode? I'm just going to mention the implausibility of Alpha and Ballard's easy access to the Dollhouse. Come on, people, no alarms in the only external systems access point? Not even a lock on the grate, for Christ's sake!

Let's review, shall we?

The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord

1. My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear Plexiglas visors, not face concealing ones.

2. My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.

Come on! It's number two on the list, right there! DeWitt, you are not doing your homework. The guys at the Centre are going to be pissed.

Not as pissed as I am when the show is cancelled, though. One to go, and one extra episode on the DVD boxed set with Felicia Day. Then, that's all she wrote.