Last week we attended the book release party of Inside Joss' Dollhouse: From Alpha to Rossum hosted by essayist, Ian Klein, here in New York. The book is an anthology of 18 reflective and critical essays about Joss Whedon's show Dollhouse edited by Jane Espenson. Not just edited, but selected from an exhaustive group of submissions from writers both experienced and green. Ian wrote one of the included essays about the character of Claire Saunders called "'I Like My Scars': Claire Saunders and the Narrative of Flesh". Before the event, we sat down with Ian to discuss the book, the Whedonverse, and more. Check out some photos of the night and our interview below.
Buffyfest: What is it that intrigues you about Dollhouse?
Ian Klein: I think what intrigues me about Dollhouse is what it attempted to do versus what it did actually do. I know one of the early criticisms of the show was "Who are we supposed to root for?" and "There's no central character here" but as someone who is interested in the creative development of television and thought, wow, that's a pretty big challenge. Even if I as a regular television viewer has never seen the work of Joss Whedon before I would think "wow, let's see how character transformations are made if we're leading toward a reaffirmation of identity or just this complete defragmentation of identity". So for me it was sort of about the creative challenge that the show posted initially and then it was interesting that I didn't end up latching onto Echo at all as a central character which for m was fine because there were plenty of other characters (including Claire Saunders) that I were more interesting and felt more real to me whether or not they were actual people.
IK: I think Claire's vulnerability and her presence that was always behind the scenes was so intriguing and was one of the things that I saw in earlier postings online and that one of the things I noticed in the early promos for the show was that she was shown as being this mysterious and intriguing figure and was relegated to the background for some reason for so long. But, on the flip side, she still had such a strong character arc and you really felt empathy toward her throughout all the episodes and even though she was in, I think, only three episodes of the second season, her story still felt whole to me in a way that I did not feel about any of the other characters who are in every single episode. And the fact that she's scarred, too. When you see someone who is scarred in any popular medium, that's an immediate in into their psyche and you know that they have a past and you know that there's some sort of damage beyond the surface going on and the scar is just an external representation of the things you can't hide that are so traumatic that they have burst onto the surface of their being.
Buffyfest: In the trailer, the question is raised "Can you wipe away a soul?" which begs the much larger question "Do you believe in the human soul?"
IK: I do believe we have a soul. In terms of how that relates to the show, every character, I think, ultimately, has a fragment of their previous self in them and that is the core of themselves and that is what makes connections between the characters in a really meaningful way. So that sense of relationship that has developed through those core fragments, call it the soul, or what their purpose is on the show and of what our purpose is in life.
Buffyfest: Do you think the future as portrayed in Epitaphs one and two could happen to us in the real world? Or something akin to it?
IK: Yeah, I absolutely believe something like that could happen, especially with our current affinity for digital identity. Ten years ago it was the fear that someone was going to steal your credit card and make a purchase. Now, the stakes are a lot higher because so much of us is on hard disks (aka wedges) and that's scary. You know, I was reading this political cartoon about Google and it was just these two people talking at Google and saying "Well, we have everybody's information, what do we do now?" and it was sort of this question of "Who is going to make that move beyond where we are right now with our digital selves?" and ultimately it's going to come down to money as everything in the Dollhouse does. There's an essay in here about the economy that the Dollhouse sets up and that to make this world believable you have to address everything we have in our world but one of those biggest things is money. It's interesting, I just reread "Fray", and with Epitaph the world reminds me of a lot of the stuff that "Fray" talks about in terms of the classes, were they live, what they have... Fray has the sil,the bracelets that are the currency and she makes a mention to her sister about things being all about "cred" and "up" and the upper part of future Manhattan. So I think that something that Joss Whedon is playing with and I wish we would have seen more of that future.
Buffyfest: You've been reading the comics though, haven't you? The Buffy and Angel ones.
IK: Yes, which I feel play a lot more with that. Maybe it's because those writers or anyone who is writing comics is going to talk about what's happening right now in our world through that lens. It's the same thing that's happening in Buffy Season 8. WHo has magic and who doesn't. That's a kind of currency and skill as well that some people have and some people don't. So what happens when that's taken away from everybody, what happens when one person has more than someone else?
Buffyfest: Let's talk about the complication that comes of the reveal about Boyd as it relates to Claire. The importance of her having her own autonomy isn't just important to her, as a character, it's important to the show as a whole. Do you think that when we find that that Boyd is at the heart of everything that it in any way diminishes Claire's autonomy and who she is?
IK: I don't think it diminishes the autonomy that she's developed within this oppressive system because we know that there is some degree of programming, of course, already in the Claire Saunders imprint but she has, to steal from my own quote "She has succeeded even Topher's expectations in how far she has developed". So when the Boyd thing comes along I see it as this tragic manipulation with him using what power he has over her, whether that be literal or otherwise and based on her own knowledge, her own character, she was led to this. I do think she made a choice to be with Boyd and there's an essay in here that suggests that maybe she feels that Boyd is the one person that loved her most and she needed that and that it was a safe kind of relationship to have where she was.
Buffyfest: I want to draw a parallel between the nature of vampires on Buffy and the nature of actives in the Dollhouse. When a person becomes a vampire, they lose their soul and become a monster but, despite what the Watchers seem to think and what the slayers try to ignore, we've seen incontrovertible proof that these demons retain something of what the person was before. If we look at the actives, it's very similar. In that context, even though Claire denies her original personality, isn't it still relevant to who she is?
IK: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think were the show to go on and if we were to get more backstory, I think you would find someone who was, too some extent, shy, very compassionate and empathetic, and a caretaker. I think it's not so much that it's irrelevant but that Claire Saunders is an evolution in a way to that nameless person who came before Whiskey. So she's ultimately more powerful than the original idenitity but, having incorporated that, I think it's still respectful of that original identity. So we don't fail bad as viewers that we'll never know and she will never know who that original person is because we haven't identified with that original we've only identified with this amalgamation and the end product of that identity.
Buffyfest: Let's do the easy stuff. What is your favorite Joss Whedon show?
IK: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite Joss Whedon Show.
Buffyfest: What is your favorite season of Buffy?
IK: Season 6.
Buffyfest: What is your favorite episode of Season 6?
IK: For some odd reason (or maybe perfectly legitimate reason), I often watch the trio of Smashed, Wrecked, and Gone. All in one sitting. I guess I like dark things and that downfall is really interesting to me and how those are all euphemisms for being high. It's just a great character study in those three episodes.
Buffyfest: Who is your favorite character?
IK: I'd say Willow.
IK: I think it's because of the dark places she goes and she's arguable the most innocent when the show begins. Buffy goes to some dark, personal places, for sure, and has gone evil for an episode or two but Willow was going to destroy the world. And she ripped the skin off of somebody. It's kind of dark. But that's so truthful. I like that she went there and I like the beginning of season 7 where she's apprehensive about being with her friends again and I think that's something that a lot of people can identify with, being ostracized, doing terrible things, and having earn peoples' trust again.
Buffyfest: Do you identify with Willow? Have you ever tried to destroy the world, Ian?
IK: I haven't. Not yet, anyway. Haven't had any desire to. But I've done terrible things. I've had to regain peoples' trust.
Buffyfest: Let's do the Dollhouse thing Favorite episode?
IK: I would say my favorite episodes is "Vows". Probably because of Claire's breakdown. Now I'm so in love with Claire and I feel for her so much, not that I want to see her hurt but, that scene, when she breaks down with Topher is really moving.
Buffyfest: So Claire is your favorite character then?
IK: Yeah, absolutely. I felt that I go to know Claire better by writing this. I had this thought that I knew there was psychological depth to her. She became so real in my mind. Especially this scarring which is such a universal thing.
Thanks so much to Ian Klein for sitting down with us. Inside Joss' Dollhouse: From Alpha to Rossum is available now.