I DON’T watch much telly, so I’m not in the best position to judge what have been the best programmes on in 2010. But I can’t believe there was any more enjoyable or intelligent drama series than Dollhouse.
If you didn’t see it – and the chances are you didn’t, as it never made it onto a mainstream channel – I can highly recommend the DVD sets of both series.
The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, was the man behind Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, which ought to give him some clout in the TV industry. And not just because of the dreary cult of lesser vampire tales Buffy’s success seems to have spawned.
Yet Whedon’s brilliant outer-space Western series Firefly never got beyond 14 episodes in 2002-2003 before it was cancelled by the dimwitted suits of Fox TV.
As with Firefly, the key to the failure of Dollhouse to break into mainstream viewing lies in one word I used above to describe it. Intelligent.
In the world of free-market telly, competition means lots of “choice” between dumb and dumber. Whedon, unusually, doesn’t believe in dumbing down.
Dollhouse is set in the present, or very near future, in a secret and very dodgy establishment.
In it, people are electronically turned into “dolls”, or “actives”, with other people’s personalities, talents and life-histories temporarily implanted in their brains. Their time is then sold to clients, for a variety of purposes.
In lesser hands than Whedon’s, this premise could easily have led to some tedious and predictable story-telling.
But Whedon’s not interested in smut (though Dollhouse is quite sexy at times). And he’s not really very interested in the conventional action-thriller – though he’s expert in its techniques.
He’s a master of twists and turns, not only of storyline but also of character. He can get your sympathy for villains, or your scorn for the good guys – and always keep you guessing which are which.
As in life, almost no one in Dollhouse is simply good or simply bad. It’s more real, more sophisticated than that.
No one in the Dollhouse – not just the actives – is quite what they seem.
Except, perhaps, Topher Brink, the character in whom the key ethical dilemma eventually crystallises.
The brilliant Brink (Fran Kranz) is the scientist whose genius makes the brain-wipes possible. His delight at his own cleverness is somehow both credible and childishly charming.
Ultimately, his dawning awareness of what he has done makes him a true tragic hero.
Rather in the mould of Robert Oppenheimer, the real-life “father of the atomic bomb”.
Like Oppenheimer, Topher learns too late that once the tech is out there, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. And the guy who made it has no control over the uses it’ll be put to.
Another excellent, and largely ignored, programme in 2010 was a short BBC4 series on the National Grid.
The third of these fascinating documentaries made it quietly clear how the nuclear power industry began as a cover for the manufacture of material for atomic weapons.
And how Margaret Thatcher backed its growth – and specifically the development of Sizewell B – as part of a deliberate plan that also included provoking the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
A wrecking plan hatched as revenge for the strike that brought down the previous Tory government in 1974.
The killing of King Coal was ultimately one of the unintended outcomes of the splitting of the atom in Ernest Rutherford’s Cambridge lab in 1932.
Rutherford, Cockcroft, Walton – and Oppenheimer – were good guys. But once the tech is out there…