Dollhouse: Season One
Created by: Joss Whedon
Cert: 15 • US: 666 min • Fox Television • DVD
The signs were not good. First it was reported that the executives at Fox Television instructed Joss Whedon to write a new pilot episode of Dollhouse. And then the show was pulled from the fall schedule and re-entered as a mid-season replacement. The nerds on the internet started to hum, rather like the Enterprise’s warp core when Kirk has instructed Scotty to push it just a little further than is safe. The death of Dollhouse was announced, and a campaign to save it had started before anyone had seen a single episode. Thus is the following that Joss Whedon inspires. Throughout the entire run the Dollhouse death-watch was on. When Fox announced that it would not air the final and thirteenth episode it was assumed that the death knoll had been tolled. Then there was the surprise announcement that this was sot so, and that Fox had renewed Dollhouse for a second season.
The sales of the DVD release were factored into the Fox decision process, and although the show had borderline ratings the projected sales helped the renewal. As a sweetener the DVD includes the original unaired pilot and the unscreened thirteenth episode. It clocks in at an ominous 666 minutes. Yet was Dollhouse a worthy successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and one of the greatest cancelled Sci-Fi shows on television, Firefly? The short answer is, definitively, yes.
The scenario of Dollhouse is science-fiction, and yet it is far more here-and-now world than Whedon’s preceding shows. The dollhouse is the base for people who are in a tabula rasa state. These voluntary ‘dolls’ have their personalities removed and stored on disc, which leaves them a blank slate onto which other personalities can be imprinted so that they can be sent out as operatives. It is Echo, played by Eliza Duskhu, who is the main doll (or ‘active’) the show tracks as she is sent out as a hostage negotiator, an assassin, a dominatrix. In the outside world, with more than a hint of The X-Files, is FBI Agent Paul Ballard, played by Battlestar Galactica alumni Tahmoh Penikett, who is searching for the person Echo was, a woman called Caroline. He is led on by missives from the mysterious Alpha, a doll who went bad and slaughtered his handler as well as other dolls. Behind all of this is the mysterious Rossum Corporation. Dollhouse episodes are roughly six minutes longer than is standard in US television, and there are half as many commercial advertising slots.
Dollhouse takes a while to find its feet, and it would be fair to say that the first five stand-alone episodes are each a pilot in themselves. Watching it as it aired, there was a palpable sense that Whedon was playing it safe, and not wholly committed, perhaps to avoid the disappointment that occurred with Firefly. There is also a sense that some pandering to the network was in play, from fast-paced chase scenes to having resident eye-candy Dushku and Penikett scantily-clad. Regularly. In the audio commentary on episode 1, ‘Ghost’ with Whedon and Dushku, hints of this are evident.
Nevertheless, by episode six, the Whedon written and directed ‘Man on the Street’, Dollhouse becomes compelling. The audio commentary, provided by Whedon alone, is a fascinating insight into the creative and production processes. Whedon is a master of the story arc. The groundwork for the arc is all there in the early episodes. Information and situations that would seem to be stand-alone build toward the greater arc. (Interestingly, Dushku told reporters in February that Whedon had a 5-year plan for the show, and already outlined the evolution of the characters.) This is what makes a Whedon show so thrilling. There is invariably that magic moment in which all the disparate elements fall into place and the connections are made. The pay-off for this in the dramatic eleventh episode is immense.
A good deal of Whedon’s old gang is involved in Dollhouse. There are the writers Jane Espenson, Tim Minear, Steven DeKnight, and the team of Elizabeth Craft & Sarah Fain, who are Dollhouse’s frontrunners. (Craft & Fain are moving on for the second season and will be replaced by the creators of Reaper, Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters.) The directors include James Contner, David Solomon, and David Straiton, with Whedon, Minear and DeKnight also directing episodes. (DeKnight’s written and directed ‘The Target’, episode 2, is a real highlight.) Amy Acker is cast in the regular role of Dr Saunders, and although she is billed as a guest star and not part of the main cast it is quickly apparent that she should be. Acker proved her metal in Angel. She is an excellent actor, and in Dollhouse she is as much of an anchor as the outstanding Olivia Williams as the Director, Adelle Dewitt.
In the history of television, it is often the case that the network is attacked for undermining a program. A case could easily be made for Firefly. Watching the original pilot, and the audacious 13th episode, which is set in 2019, it is plain that Fox executives knew exactly what they were doing, and that the decisions not to air the episodes strengthened Dollhouse. As a result season two, which is currently in production and scheduled to air in the US from September 25, promises to be a genuine treat.