Friday, September 6, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Dr. Saunders from Dollhouse

Yup, we’re still talking about Dollhouse. Isn’t it grand?

I didn’t want to get into too much detail about the good Dr. Saunders in Wednesday’s article, because she’s a fascinating enough character to deserve her own spotlight. Not only is Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) a compelling, well written, deep character with a strong motivation and complex thoughts and feelings, she’s also pretty much the nexus of all of the questions Dollhouse asks as a show and the questions that we as an audience feel the need to answer in our own lives.

She’s that good.

For the record, this whole article will be positively riddled with SPOILERS for the latter half of Dollhouse, so just bear that in mind.

Dr. Claire Saunders is a good woman, albeit not a particularly nice one. She works as the in house physician for the Dollhouse, so much so that we actually never see her leave the facility. She seems to like her work, though she’s not the gentlest person. Actually, she can be pretty abrupt, and she has very strong feelings about how to properly care for her patients. Dr. Saunders, as she is most commonly known, is always getting into fights with Topher (Fran Kranz) about the way the Dolls are treated, the engagements they go on, etc.

It’s actually a bit of a mystery in her character. Why is a woman who seems to be so morally opposed to the idea of a Dollhouse working there, and not just working, but excelling there? Is the money really that good? (Probably.)

But she isn’t all work either. Dr. Saunders has an intensely adorable flirtation going on with Echo’s handler, Boyd (Harry Lennix), and when he becomes head of security, and the two of them have to work more closely together, well than that’s just super duper cute. Even if they are both profoundly awkward people.

Mostly, though, Dr. Saunders spends the first season as an admirable woman, with strength in her convictions, and a refreshing picture of a caregiver who isn’t super soft and squishy, but still cares deeply for her patients. She’s complex, and I like that.

And then we get to the end of season one, and we find out the truth. Dr. Saunders…isn’t exactly Dr. Saunders. Not really. And also yes she totally is.

What I mean is, Dr. Saunders is an Imprint. Her body is that of Whiskey, formerly the most popular Doll in the house. Whiskey was just like all the others, a “volunteer” who came in, and happened to be the most requested Doll. This made Alpha angry, because he is a crazy person, and he decided that she should let Echo be the most popular Doll. Obviously that makes total sense.

Actually, in the context of the show it does make sense, as long as you remember that Alpha is pants-wettingly insane.

Anyway, Alpha slashes up Whiskey’s face with a knife, and when they try to wipe his mind and get rid of these homicidal impulses, he flails and thrashes his way into a composite event, wherein he remembers all of his past imprints, and then goes on a murder spree throughout the Dollhouse.

He also kills Dr. Saunders. The first Dr. Saunders, who was a lovely elderly man who always gave out lollipops.

Stuck with a scarred Doll and a dead doctor, Topher made the only choice he thought was reasonable, and combined the two. He built a whole new Dr. Saunders, based partly on the original doctor’s brain scan, and then mixed in a whole dose of personal history and phobias and things that actually make a person tick.

He did a good job. She didn’t know. We didn’t know. And then one day, she did.

Imagine what that would do to you. To wake up suddenly one day and realize that you are still you, but you’re not supposed to be you. You feel completely and totally real, but you know that you’re a fake. To live a life that has always been yours and know that it’s all in your head. And yet to still have it in your head.

Needless to say, she goes a little crazy.

Most of her animosity is directed at Topher at first. She blames him for it all, for making her this way, for making her so angry and frustrated. For making her scared of loud noises and crowds, for making her at all. She even goes so far as to try to seduce him, because what do you do when you realize that the person you can’t stand literally created you? How do you handle that?

Now, none of this part of her story is what I like. It’s gritty and intense and makes me feel like crying or puking most of the time. But I love it for one simple reason: it is so true.

She looks at her life, knows it isn’t real, and she doesn’t just soldier on. She freaks the crap out. She goes bonkers. She starts releasing lab rats in Topher’s office. She hacks his files to show clips from Bride of Frankenstein. She is totally mental.

But here’s the part I love. When she and Topher finally talk about it, and he asks her if she wants him to fix it, if she wants him to put her back to her original personality, she says no. She says no because, “I don’t want to die.”

That’s deep, man.

Because Dr. Saunders knows that she’s really Whiskey, who used to be someone else, and she knows that she isn’t real. But she feels real. She looks at her life, and she doesn’t really like what she sees. Her solution isn’t to end it, to take the easy way out and just let it all be erased. No, she chooses to stay. To fight it. To be real. She leaves.

And later she comes back.

The story isn’t over when Dr. Saunders drives off into the sunset. It’s not finished. It’s really just starting. That’s the moment when she steps outside her programming. She looks at her life, and she doesn’t like it, so she changes it. She decides to be a better person. She may be fake, but she doesn’t have to be unhappy.

When she comes back, she shows something even greater too. That she’s not afraid of the Dollhouse anymore. That it’s power over her is just physical. Whatever may happen to her there, she knows who she is, and they can never take that away, even if they wipe her.

Dr. Saunders discovers who she is at her core. She is a caregiver. She cares. So when the Dollhouse has to be evacuated, she stays. When the people she helps to safety have to flee, she still stays. She guards the path and she cares for those she finds.

She might be physically very weak, emotionally frail, and sometimes mentally fragile, but make no mistake. Dr. Saunders is strong. She’s strong because she knows exactly who she is, and she chose it.


  1. I was heartbroken when this show was taken off the air, because of exactly the things you address in this post. The challenge to a work like this, I think, is that there isn't a concise answer to many of the questions raised (here I am specifically thinking about Dr. Saunders). She kind of encapsulated the conundrums resulting from the consent issues raised in your previous post--after a while, you are your experiences, whether you chose them or not, ya know? What do you do with that? I am pissed every time I think about how this drama might have been different... If it hadn't gotten cancelled. Anyway, kudos for another good think :)

    1. For me, more than Firefly this is the show I wish had stuck around. Because Firefly is beautiful, no question about it, but it doesn't feel incomplete. This - I want to actually know what happens. I want to know how the mystery was resolved. I want to know it. Just all of it. Gah. Stupid FOX.

    2. Firefly had an earlier cohesion that definitely makes it feel a bit less wrenching, in that way. And also Serenity (if you're in to it). But I don't feel like FF dug into female identity the way Dollhouse did, perhaps obviously. Dollhouse might have done really well as an epic Showtime prime-time wonder, or something like that. FOX was destined to destroy it. Too much lady brain-meat. Maybe FF would've gotten a bit darker too, as time went on--we never really found out what happened with Inara, did we... Oh Joss Whedon. Heartbreaker.
      But thank you again for these wonderful posts. They're completely, 100% awesome.

  2. Loved this. Every word. Dr. Saunders story was definitely one of the best parts of Dollhouse--and there were so MANY great parts. Really enjoying your series on such a fantastic show!

    1. Thank you! I like getting a chance to love on a show that seems like it needs a little loving. :)

  3. I've finally been talked into seeing this show, and Saunders/Whiskey is the most compelling character for me. The most compelling moment was the sheer bitter loathing - both for herself and for him - with which she responds to Topher saying she's human... "Don't flatter yourself."

    1. That entire scene just shatters me. When she asks him why he made her hate him? Guh. In general I feel like her character was the centerpiece of the show. Yeah, Echo's over there doing her thing, but Dr. Saunders/Whiskey is the one who really makes it all tick emotionally.

      In other news, Amy Acker needs her own show.

    2. Mm, I largely consider Echo the weakest link out of the Doll characters. Seeing her identity develop in season 2 was intriguing - but the slow buildup of Sierra and Victor touches me more, because they're achieving it without being (as that point undefinedly) special or catalysed by Alpha hitting them with a composite upload - they come across as a greater level of victory over the doll condition.
      They're also interesting in that they seem to represent the opposite ends of the moral scale when it comes to recruiting new dolls. Priya's kidnapping was an atrocity on both counts - both Nolan's desire to rape her, and the Dollhouse considering it acceptable to take a schitzophrenic woman and wipe her without getting anything close to informed consent. By contrast, we don't get a lot of detail on Tony' recruitment, but I get the sense that he was trying to escape PTSD and the memories of things he'd seen and done, and was as close to an honest volunteer you could get.

      Meanwhile, everything you just said about Saunders/Whiskey.

      More succinctly, Echo embodied the identity questions, the other three explored them. Echo's interest value was more in the plot and mythos.

      And yes, I'd be on board with a show starring Amy Acker. Especially if it could also star Dichen Lachman. Something spacefaring, maybe.

    3. The most interesting Echo moment for me is when she tells Bennet to help her, because they both hate Caroline. I found that absolutely fascinating, the idea that a current self could hate a past self, and that they were differentiated enough to allow that. Sort of like Saunders' "I don't want to die."

      But Sierra and Victor are the real showstoppers in season two, with a side order of Topher's slow and inexorable emotional breakdown.

    4. Also yes to any concept that involves Amy Acker and Dichen Lachman (and Olivia Williams, please!) spacefaring. Genteel lady space pirates.

    5. I found that absolutely fascinating, the idea that a current self could hate a past self, and that they were differentiated enough to allow that.

      As I said in the other thread, while the consent issues didn't work so well for me, the show really shone when it came to identity.

      Genteel lady space pirates.

      I'd favour troubleshooting for good, rather than piracy. Something like Mass Effect 2 where they're trying to solve a problem, but realise that the people who sponsored them want them to find a particular "solution" rather than the real one, maybe. Lachman as a shuttle pilot, with shady connections all over the galaxy, Acker as a scientific type, and Williams as an engineer with an unstereotypical ability to connect with people and glam up for high society. With, maybe, Morena Baccarin as their corporate sponsor who quickly comes to the side of covering for them, Freema Agyeman as a field scientist Claudia Black and Gina Torres as the muscle, Summer Glau as a shipboard technical officer, Karen Gillan as someone sketchy that Lachman recruits as a kind of conwoman, and all led by Captain Ming Na.

      Or, since that would sadly never happen, Lachman and Acker as brawn/brain (though learning from each other) bounty hunters, with Williams as their contact with the authorities.