Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Playing With Dolls: A brief history of Doll Soup

The first incarnation of Doll Soup began in July 1999 and ran weekly for 35 episodes until May 2000. The text of the episodes (but not the pictures) are available via this internet archive. I was inspired to create my own internet soap opera after reading Jacqueline Suzanne's Valley of the Dolls and enjoying American tv soap operas like Melrose Place, which had become increasingly surreal (could anyone keep track of Kimberly's multiple personalities or Sydney's kitsch costume changes?)

I had initially toyed with using my own friends as actors, but realised that dolls would be much better - they would be constantly available, never throw star tantrums and not mind if I set their hair on fire. The original cast consisted of housemates Switch, Leela and Pam, along with their evil, somewhat magical landlady Morag. Romantic interest was provided by earnest Dr Stefano and grunting cro-magnan Butch. There was a gay couple (Julian and Christian) for a while, and later a nouveau riche couple called Beverly and Ben joined the cast. Various other glamorous characters flitted in and out - the imperious supermodel Hambel Campbell, drug-raddled Lady Sapphire, Cher and Posh Spice. The dolls' grip on reality was often severely challenged, with episodes where they travelled in time and went to (Doll) Hell. Dr Stefano got cloned at one point.

I don't remember that much about the episodes, although a couple of things stand out. One was episode 10 where Pam set Morag's hair on fire (that was a very difficult shot to get right). Another was a complicated storyline involving the characters' obsession with a Faberge egg. I had met a rich Los Angeles gay couple a few years previously, who had been in raptures over a Faberge egg which they had received for Christmas. I couldn't believe how ridiculous it was, and the Faberge egg became a symbol of silly consumerism and the belief that stuff will make you happy (despite all the camp and silliness in Doll Soup - it's really about social messages).

I had decided to use the "interactivity" of this new internet thingie (it was the 1990s!) to allow readers to get involved in the soap. I set up hotmail accounts for the dolls - and people actually sent them emails. They were mainly bizarre disturbing ones in caps-lock, interspersed with German. I guess you would have to be insane to send an email to a doll. There was a chat-room (that nobody ever used to my knowledge), you could send a Doll Soup greeting card and leave a message in the Guest Book (if you were on the internet in the late 1990s, you'll remember how popular all those things were). I also tried to keep up the conceit that the dolls were "alive" and just acting, conducting their own celebrity lives off-stage, by printing interviews with them and bits of celebrity gossip about them.

The series ended with the dolls all condemned to Doll Hell forever. The reason for ending Doll Soup was that the series had become popular enough to attract commercial attention and I was commissioned to create a new soap opera (for what I thought was a ridiculous amount of money per episode), for a gay online website. So I started again with Doll Babylon. This was basically a gay version of Doll Soup - Biff was the "straight-acting" repressed one, Aspen was a queer activist while Poppy was a disco-bunny. I don't remember anything about it, although it lasted for 25 episodes, and then the dot com bubble burst, all the money ran out and that was the end of that.

I decided I'd had enough. Around 2001 not only did the world change hugely, but my life underwent a number of large changes. I stopped being in my 20s, I finished my PhD and got a full-time job. I felt it was about time to put aside my "toys" and concentrate on more important things like doing academic research. In other words, I "grew up".

After almost a decade, why have I started making Doll Soup again? I guess I miss those dolls and their crazy antics. In many ways, the cultural, political and social follies I tried to poke fun of in Doll Soup have become amplified over the last decade - there is still much to write about. Even ten years ago there was actual talk of "the end of history" - then 9.11 happened and all bets were off. We've had eight years of an idiotic Christian fundamentalist right-wing American president (Pam loved George Bush incidentally) and social progress over the last ten years has often been a case of one step forward, two steps back. The world is definitely a scarier and less certain place than it used to be. Selfish capitalism has been embraced whole-heartedly by much of the world, and it's only now starting to cause problems for those who advocated it in the first place. In the UK at least, society seems to have become apolitical - simply because there seems to be less of a real choice. Instead, to distract us we have celebrity culture, reality tv and consumerism (for which Leela is the perfect totem pole). An issue like homophobia - which ten years ago I had hoped would have been a non-issue by now, doesn't seem to be going away any time soon. And liberal types like Switch seem to spend their time tying themselves up knots by not trying to offend anyone while somehow managing to be as patronising as hell.

I sometimes feel I've grown up too much. I don't watch tv any more (except for the news and a few high "quality" American series), I don't buy lifestyle or celebrity magazines. I read The Economist and the Times Higher Education magazine instead. The world makes me depressed and disappointed and angry. So starting Doll Soup again is a release, in that it's a comforting distraction from my personal real world of work and the wider real world of political instability, economic depression, war, famine and global warming. But it's also a way that I can poke fun at my own anxieties about that world. I suspect that there will be more stories about Faberge Eggs and few stories about Doll Hell coming up...

And I miss what happens to my brain when I start thinking up storylines for the characters. I go into a state which psychologists call "flow" - and there's a huge sense of pleasure in realising how a storyline is going to develop and how the characters can even act as proxies for all the things I want to say and do but can't and shouldn't because I'm an adult with responsibilities in the real world. I don't know where the ideas come from - they just pop into my head. I'm all for people doing what they enjoy, and if playing with dolls, even if you're a 36 year old man, makes you happy in some way, then I'm all for it!

Lubin Odana 2009


  1. I loved Doll Soup back in the day and always mourned its demise. I'm chuffed to little mintballs that you've revived it :))

  2. Welcome back!!! I too loved Doll Soup back in the day - all we need is Dynasty to be released on DVD and the world will be slightly less evil for it.

  3. I hadn't thought about Doll Soup in a good six years until last night for some reason. I'm so glad to see that it is back - even though I wish I could see the old episodes from the early 2000s.