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Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season One
Created by Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season One
Principal Cast
Eliza Dushku -- Echo
Tahmoh Penikett -- Paul Ballard
Harry Lennix -- Boyd Langton
Fran Kranz -- Topher Brink
Enver Gjokaj -- Victor
Dichen Lachman -- Sierra
Olivia Williams -- Adelle DeWitt
Amy Acker -- Dr. Claire Saunders
Reed Diamond -- Laurence Dominic
Miracle Laurie -- Mellie
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season One
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season One
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season One
A review by David Newbert

"Forget morality, imagine it's true, alright? Imagine this technology being used. Now imagine it being used on you. Everything you believe, gone. Everyone you love, strangers, maybe enemies. Every part of you that makes you more than a walking cluster of neurons dissolved -- at someone else's whim. If that technology exists, it'll be used, it'll be abused, it'll be global. And we will be over. As a species, we will cease to matter… I don't know, maybe we should."
--"Man on the Street"

The overriding desire of most little brats, on the other hand, is to get at and see the soul of their toys… I cannot find it in me to blame this infantile mania: it is the first metaphysical stirring… He twists and turns the toy, scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against the wall, hurls it on the ground…finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul?
--Baudelaire, The Philosophy of Toys (trans. by Paul Keegan)

Reviewers of this show have a standard confession: it took me awhile to appreciate what was going on in the Dollhouse. I suppose I can fairly be criticized for not being patient, but I really was expecting more from Joss Whedon, the guy who, after all, gave us gems like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Here was his hot new series, high in both concept and hype, designed around alluring star Eliza Dushku, and yet it seemed to be based on a series of conventions taken from stale thrillers and socially conscious science fiction. So after the first few episodes, I started channel-surfing. And I was hardly alone in doing this: week by week, the first season's ratings were getting so low, they could be heard scratching at the inside of a coffin.

But once you figured in the number of people who were recording the show to watch later, Dollhouse's ratings improved. And just as I had written the show off, friends told me, it started to get interesting. As they say in the show, did I fall asleep? For a little while, as it were. My only defense is that those first few episodes were less than memorable. The FOX network executives seem to have actually enjoyed the show and stuck with it, and (mostly because they have little else on their plate for fall) Dollhouse has been renewed for a second season. But before that day arrives (Sept. 25, 2009), the BluRay and DVD packages of the first season allow us to take a look back.

Dollhouse is about a secret organization with the technology to erase people's memories and personalities, and then implant them with completely new mental constructs, leading to a collection of programmable people.  These "actives," as they're called, are given custom-made personalities and then rented out to extremely wealthy clients to satisfy various needs and fantasies -- sexual, altruistic, or even criminal.  Anyone is possible (hey, I've got a tagline for the second season!): expert safecracker, kinky dominatrix, best friend, spy, assassin -- whatever your situation requires and your money can afford. The actives' brains are "wiped" between engagements, leaving them to spend most of their free time as vacant chowderheads in an amazingly swank underground spa/laboratory/medical facility. They spend each night in their own floor-inlaid coffins, complete with glass shields that slide over them… just like you would put away your toys.

All of the people who become "dolls" are assumed to have signed five-year contracts, volunteering themselves to be these playthings, but we eventually learn that there are some who were forced into it, and others who were blackmailed.  Things aren't looking good for Caroline (Ms. Dushku), aka Echo (all the actives have nicknames based on the NATO alphabet), who is gradually becoming self-aware in a way that could undermine the Dollhouse enterprise.  And there are two threats from the outside: a disgraced FBI agent named Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) who's made finding Caroline his mission and is trying to expose the Dollhouse as being more than just an urban myth; and a previous "active" named Alpha, who went rogue, killed many of the dolls and staff in his escape from the facility, and is threatening to return.  But why did he purposely leave Echo alive? And why is he secretly feeding Ballard information?

One thing gradually becomes clear about the Dollhouse: it will use any means, including lethal ones, to protect itself. And there's a unique punishment as well: anybody who gets out of line -- "active" or not -- can have their minds erased to tabula rasa and made to disappear -- otherwise known as "being sent to the Attic."

Not bad, right? The first season consists of twelve broadcast episodes, plus a thirteenth bonus episode. Minor spoilers are ahead, because there's really no way to talk about the show otherwise:

"Ghost" —We're given a quick intro to the Dollhouse. Topher (Fran Krantz) is the snarky and annoying computer genius/nerd who handles the imprinting procedures using a special chair and lots of light flashes, just like that of Frankenstein. This is where most of the show's science fiction is put on display. Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) is the medic whose face was horribly scarred by Alpha during his escape. She now lurks in her office at the bottom of the Dollhouse, à la Phantom of the Opera. Each active has a handler to protect them on engagements, and in the case of Echo, it's former police detective Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix). He's a professional badass with an occasional twinge of conscience, which brings him into conflict every now and then with Mr. Dominic (Reed Diamond), Dollhouse head of security. Everyone reports to the attractive Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the charming manager who runs the Dollhouse with an iron fist on behalf of the notorious Rossum Corporation.

For this episode's main storyline, Echo is pressed into service with a hostage negotiator imprint to help rescue a businessman's daughter. But the imprints given to the dolls are based on real people, and things get tricky when Echo's persona meets her own abductor. Outrageous, certainly: but it does a good job of showing off the two things this series has going for it: Ms Dushku's remarkable poise as an actor, and the show's willingness to throw in plot twists from left field. It loves to take you by surprise, or as Adelle says, "Nothing here is what it seems."

"The Target" —An episode based on the action story cliché of The Most Dangerous Game. Echo is bought by a macho scumbag to be his hunting buddy/easy lay, but he soon turns her into the hunted. This being Joss Whedon's show, Echo is ready to fight back. We also get flashbacks to the moment Alpha (whose identity we still don't know at this point) sliced and diced his way out of the Dollhouse. Meanwhile, Ballard's neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie) has quite a crush on our FBI man. This is a violent and fun little romp, but forgettable for being too well-worn a story.

"Stagefright" —Another thriller-movie cliché, this time the pop star who collaborates with a psychotic fan to stage her own murder in public. Echo is hired as a backup singer/bodyguard who gets fed up with the self-pitying über-bitch, but has been programmed never to leave her side. Ballard has been following leads from what he thinks are Russian mobsters, and walks straight into an ambush. He survives, but not without being shot. And we're introduced to a new doll in the house: the lovely Sierra (Dichen Lachman). However, this is too much of a yawner to be seen more than once.

"Gray Hour" —The energy picks up a bit -- a very little bit -- with this story of Echo as an expert safecracker, engaged to help the Greek government steal back a piece of the Parthenon from a hotel vault, while at the Dollhouse, Topher begins to notice that some of the dolls are exhibiting "grouping" behavior. This episode is visually rich and worth watching for several reasons, including the moment when Echo almost literally goes down on a safe to get it to open up for her, but it's basically a simple story of a heist gone wrong. Dushku is great at playing the bad-girl type; she honed that act as Buffy's Faith, and you knew that sooner or later this show would remind us of that tidbit. The twist in the middle reminds us of the deviousness of Alpha, as he apparently has found a way to remotely wipe an active's memory with a cell phone call.

"True Believer" —This was the episode where I first began to tune out. Echo helps the ATF infiltrate the compound of a David Koresh-type cult leader who's wanted for murder. The twist is that she's been made blind so the feds could install microscopic cameras behind her eyes. Boyd has a standoff with the fed in charge, Echo has a standoff with the cult leader, and things build to a crisis. There's fire, shooting, running, yelling, Bible-quoting, hand-wringing, the works. There's some humour back at the Dollhouse, when Topher notices one of the dolls with an unplanned erection, and he has to talk to Saunders about it. Otherwise, a singularly weak episode where everything is much too predictable. Echo nonetheless gets off a great line: "God sent me here with a message for you, and that message is 'Move your ass!'"

"Man on the Street" —We're at the halfway point now, and this is where the series begins to perk up. Internet mogul Joel Mynor (Patton Oswalt) engages Echo to replace his dead wife for one night of the year, but Ballard arrives to break up the party. Langton runs off with Echo, then Ballard and Mynor have some soul-searching dialogue about what it is exactly that the Dollhouse can provide people -- and whether it should. Meanwhile, evidence in the Dollhouse suggests that Sierra has been raped by someone on the inside. Much of this script -- for that matter, much of the show as a whole -- is about the ethical compromises people make to turn others into their playthings, including our loved ones. Unfortunately, the show never really takes that as far as it could, even over twelve episodes. This also has the show's best fight scene, when Ballard runs into Caroline/Echo at a restaurant and gets his ass kicked in spectacular fashion. Great action, great humour, and yet I wonder: how did the Dollhouse put together an imprint of Mynor's wife? We're never told exactly (they seem to have constructed her from a fantasy Mynor spun for them), but whatever the answer, it makes Mynor less than entirely sympathetic. Look for the Blade Runner moment when they use the Voigt-Kampf test on active Victor (Enver Gjokaj).

"Echoes" —As one reviewer had it, this one is a Dollhouse version of the Star Trek episode "The Naked Time." (That one is famous for Sulu running topless through the Enterprise corridors with a foil. Sadly, while there's fencing in Dollhouse, no one does it topless.) Drug research in a college campus lab goes awry and leads to everyone losing their inhibitions and sense of self, except for the actives, who are immune for some reason. Echo, dressed strangely and sexily like Sailor Moon, saves the day. We learn more about Caroline's backstory and how she came to the Dollhouse, but there's no other reason to watch this one, unless you enjoy the camp factor. It's the kind of thing where you're either embarrassed for the actors afterward, or absurdly proud of them.

"Needs" —Another attempt to pull the rug from beneath you, this time employing shades of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. The actives' latent personalities -- their souls, if you will -- are in need of closure to the traumas in their pre-Dollhouse lives in order to help the scientists dampen their will. A plan is hatched to help them escape, and they search out clues about who they used to be. The way it plays out makes for a very sad and painful episode that lingers in your mind. More than "Man on the Street," it shows just what it is that the brain-wipe technology does for people -- and what it can't do.

"A Spy in the House of Love" —This one's a game changer. It's discovered that someone inside the Dollhouse is a mole for the NSA. Echo is imprinted to investigate the staff and sniff out who it is, while Sierra is geared up for espionage and travels to the NSA to steal evidence. The confrontational dialogue between Ballard and Mellie is effective and takes one hell of a creepy twist; it even becomes part of the motivation for what Ballard does later. The final five minutes are intense.

"Haunted" —One of DeWitt's rich friends has just died. The friend's personality was put on file in the Dollhouse database, so DeWitt has her transferred into Echo to help her find the person she thinks murdered her. The idea of shifting your memories to another body is a common SF device, done to death (ha!) and not done any better here. Far more interesting is the subplot of Topher copying his own personality into Sierra so he can have a friend on his birthday. It's pathetic, funny, and movingly sad. The script brings up the implications of the tech for eternal life and the end of the world, but then saves them for a later episode.

"Briar Rose" —This might be my favorite episode. At last, Ballard finds the location of the Dollhouse. How he does it is smart, but emotionally sadistic; you wonder if he won't have trouble living with himself later. He then uses a former Dollhouse advisor (Alan Tudyk, absolutely hilarious) to get inside, and after using a stun-gun on Topher (about time), goes toe-to-toe and fist-to-fist with Langton. All of this is done inside the context of the Briar Rose fairy tale, where a prince arrives to rescue a princess from an eternal sleep in a dangerous castle. But the prince in this chapter isn't whom you would think, and Ballard's mission to save Caroline is revealed as a noble but tragic delusion. Someone does run off with Caroline, though: Alpha, who pauses long enough to turn Victor's face into a Picasso sketch. Written by one of Whedon's best collaborators, Jane Espenson, "Briar Rose" is part one of a two-part finale.

"Omega" —The first season doesn't go out with a whimper, and it doesn't go out with a bang. It goes out instead with a kind of whispery thump. Alpha is revealed to be an early recipient of Dollhouse tech, a former serial killer who was plucked from maximum security to be one of Topher's guinea pigs. His obsession with Echo has led him to abduct her to perform a kind of ultimate personality download on her and make her his perfect match, but it all goes terribly wrong -- for him. There are some great Bride of Frankenstein allusions here, especially in the visuals, and it's an action-packed episode, but it just doesn't hold together well. Alpha's stature as an antagonist is undermined, because he was predetermined to be evil in the Dollhouse world. Even after we learn that he was accidentally imprinted with over fifty different personalities, he's still only the bogeyman, and we're left hoping he had been more. There's even a sour moment as Caroline has a chance to escape the Dollhouse -- a form of indentured servitude combined with white slavery, mind you -- but declines, saying, "After all, I did sign a contract." Really? I'm pretty sure a good lawyer could get you out of it. And yet the idea of contractual obligation keeps coming up in this episode. Was Whedon worried about something? Season Two, maybe? However, the very end is emotionally tough, and Ballard's final line before he goes to work for the pimps and killers that he's fought to expose -- "I'm nobody" -- is a heartbreaker, but only if you've seen everything that came before. I admire that.

"Epitaph One" —The original pilot for Dollhouse was scrapped, but the network still needed thirteen episodes to satisfy international distribution deals, blah blah blah, so this one was thrown together for about half the cost of a regular episode and never shown on American broadcast television. It's included as a purchasing incentive in the box sets. Ten years in the future, the Dollhouse technology gone global and brought the world to an apocalypse. When a band of survivors stumbles into what remains of the original Dollhouse, they replay a series of memory tapes that explain how things got this bad. Hint: you might want to throw away your cell phone.

The whole package looks terrific on BluRay; great color and detail, especially inside the Dollhouse retreat and Adelle's high-rise office. The menus are elegant, and the sound, though soft on the intro screen, comes through loud and clear during the episodes themselves. The extras, though, are pulled from a bag that is thoroughly mixed: only a few stories get a commentary track, from which I can tell you that a) Joss Whedon likes to crack jokes, and b) Eliza Dushku giggles a lot. The commentaries for the Firefly set, which provided humour, insight, and personality, were much better. Also included are the standard electronic press kit documentaries, deleted scenes, and so forth. The original pilot is also here, but while it does a great job of dropping us into the action, it tells us almost nothing about what the show will be like on a week-to-week basis. FOX was right to ask for a new one. (As far as extras go, there's no difference between the BluRay and DVD sets.)

So why such a jump in quality between the first half of the season and the second half? I think it can be explained by an inside/outside dynamic in the writing. Inside the Dollhouse, things are usually interesting. We're always asking questions, such as: why was the Dollhouse created? Who volunteers for such a thing? Who's bankrolling it? Exactly what is this technology capable of, and what of the ethics involved? And how did Dr. Saunders get those scars? I'm glad to say that not every question has been answered, leaving something to entice us for the second season, though the vast amount of exposition does keep the pacing fairly slow.

Outside the Dollhouse, however, the emphasis falls naturally on the various engagements, and too many of them have been standard television fare to rise much above the mediocre. The writers have also set themselves a difficult hurdle in creating a season-long story arc for a character who returns to "zero" at the end of each episode. Despite the constant personality grafts, Echo shows plenty of signs of independence, and the breakthrough scene in "Omega" is intriguing -- it allows "Caroline" to speak to "Echo" and everyone she's been over the season -- but ultimately feels weak, as the episode once again sets us back to… well, almost "zero." Whedon doesn't always do this; check out the endings to several seasons of Buffy and Angel.

But let's not kid ourselves: the real star of Dollhouse is Eliza Dushku. An actress with less charisma and talent would have collapsed under the weight of this enterprise. Dushku has decent range as an actress, but she has something even more useful, and that's the ability to find the emotional weight of each character. Whatever she says or does, it always seems correct and authentic; it gives the characters she plays a center of gravity that makes all the other mannerisms work. Add to this her role as the show's producer, and she's done herself a nice turn with Dollhouse. And so, on to Season Two…

Dollhouse airs on Friday nights this fall on the FOX network.

Copyright © 2009 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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