Joss Whedon’s TV ride started out comfortably and eventually became short, big, and very bumpy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel had long and acclaimed runs, but as soon as Whedon tried working with a major network – FOX – expectations were high and impatience higher. Space western Firefly was shuffled around the schedule, had its pilot abandoned, all before being cancelled after only 14 episodes with no wrap-up by a network that reportedly didn’t understand what they’d commissioned. Although the show enjoyed a quite unprecedented rebirth via DVD resulting in a major motion picture (Serenity), the prospect of Whedon returning to television was both relished and dreaded. Since the distinctive creator has never managed a massive mainstream hit, he wouldn’t necessarily enjoy carte blanche.
Dollhouse is Whedon’s return, both to TV and to FOX after several feature projects stalled. Although the Firefly-killing regime had long since departed, many wondered why he didn’t try the more niche-friendly cable networks. As the story goes, Dollhouse came about by accident. During a lunch with Buffy actor Eliza Dushku (Faith), Whedon advised her that she needed to select or develop projects that gave her a range of acting opportunities, rather than the sassy bad girl she was becoming typecast as. He brainstormed an idea where Dushku would play an impassive ‘doll’ who is imprinted with a new personality and skill set for every new ‘engagement’, wherein the exceedingly rich pay for a custom-made person to meet their needs, altruistic or otherwise. Sufficiently compelled, he agreed to develop the show himself, but Dushku’s development deal was with FOX. He held his breath and dove in.
Many hosannas were sung about Whedon’s illustrious return, and Dollhouse was given a prime berth after 24 on Mondays. Then the troubles began: production halts, an agreement between both parties that a new pilot was required, and finally, exile to Friday nights where Firefly had crashed and burned. Here we go again, fans assumed.
The initial engagement episodes that sadly feature some of this empty ass-kicking highlight a fundamental flaw in the show’s conception – why would anyone pay vastly more money for a programmed human than an expert in the field? A brief early sequence features Dushku as a midwife that makes you want to scream at the TV – “why is anyone hiring you to deliver their baby?!! There are plenty of competent professionals!” An early speech by Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett – Battlestar Galactica’s Helo), an FBI agent who becomes increasingly obsessed with the urban myth of the Dollhouse, tries to circumvent this by suggesting that those who can have everything will always pay for something new and mysterious. That may hold water for rich, corrupt executives bored with normal call girls, but I doubt expectant mothers would be craving such an odd experience.
When the network’s desire for standalone, easily digestible – and barely nourishing – episodes is jettisoned in the sixth episode, “Man on the Street” (the tenth is one sad exception), Dollhouse comes to life. Whedon’s established knack for crafting unconventional TV episodes and exploring social issues through genre comes back into play. Just as Angel didn’t work until it embraced serial storytelling, Whedon and his writers are clearly much more comfortable when working with a bigger canvas. Fans of his work will be surprised though by the lack of wordplay humour and pop culture references. Beneath the Alias-style action trappings is a very dark idea: the Dollhouse deals in slaves, plain and simple, and that can’t be de-emphasised for the sake of entertainment, even though they supposedly start out as willing participants. This is about deeply unpleasant people, not colourful demons and vampires, thus humour is not as paramount as it once was in Whedon’s shows. The one player that does resemble his prior, quirky characters – Topher, the genius technician who imprints the dolls – is amoral, reprehensible, and distinctly unlovable, despite being fairly funny. Topher is Whedon’s way of saying, “I’m back on TV, but don’t expect my usual shtick.”
Indeed, Whedon’s much-publicised love and support of Battlestar Galactica – responsible for his casting of Penikett – may be the cause of his newfound solemnity. His previous shows certainly had their murky side, but Dollhouse has a darkness of vision more in line with Battlestar (if not aesthetically), and that show’s wrestle with the nature of identity in the face of technological encroachment is arguably a key inspiration. The commerce of identity is a rich and timely theme, and the fraying of Echo’s empty doll persona as she begins to remember her supposedly erased engagements and even her pre-doll existence serves this well.
Conversely, the Battlestar inspirations can occasionally be strong enough to appear derivative. Sleeper dolls come into play, and the rising question of who may and may not be a doll will rub a little too closely for fans of the space opera. Hopefully Whedon takes it somewhere new, but regardless, the use of the technique to highlight the malleability of indentity indicates that Whedon has substantial SF questions on his mind. The action-adventure Dollhouse of the first few episodes – flitting from art gallery heist to religious cult standoff – is clearly revealed as network appeasement once Whedon’s true goals become clear with episode 6. A testimonial from an academic in the framing scenes of a news story investigating the Dollhouse myth sums up the show’s goals, outlining how if the technology to render identity transient and disposable ever comes about then it means the end of humanity, as we understand it. Beneath that technological question, Dollhouse is about the devaluing of the individual in our culture, paradoxically caused by our prioritisation of individual advancement and competition with others.
Sadly, Dushku herself doesn’t quite meet the high standard required for such a chameleonic character as Echo. Perhaps it’s a lack of sufficient versatility, or just that unknown actors may naturally suit such a role better. Whatever the reason, Dushku always being Dushku is a shame but hardly cripples the show, as once again Dollhouse is far more compelling when it doesn’t require new engagements and thus new personalities. Dushku is effectively creepy when she informs Ballard that the Dollhouse has a deeper purpose, having been sent by some unknown benefactor within the organisation.
I write this having still not seen the last two episodes of the season, which reportedly kick the show into high gear with the culmination of a storyline that has been hinted at from the first episode. For this reason I’m hesitant to recommend skipping the first five episodes entirely, as morsels of this plotline and information on how the imprinting process works and some key relationships are all included. So suffer through the first five, and know that the show that Dollhouse should be is waiting around the corner.
Intriguingly, the thirteenth and final episode of the season will premiere on DVD and perhaps never be broadcast due to legal wrangles surrounding the re-filming of the pilot. It acts as a coda to the season set some time afterwards and produced on a much lower budget, but is reportedly so different from the episodes that precede it that Dollhouse may evolve into an entirely new show in only its second season, and not because of a network stipulation for retooling (Dollhouse‘s renewal was ironically predicated by the strength of non-engagement episodes like “Man on the Street”, so Whedon is still in control). A lot of shows get off to a rough start and develop into something incredible partway into their run. With the departure of Battlestar and the imminent loss of Lost, Dollhouse has the potential to turn into American TV’s great intelligent SF show. Just please keep that in mind when Echo gets imprinted as a pop star’s back-up singer…
SHOULD YOU BOTHER? Yes.