As a Whedon fan like so many others, I was truly excited when I learned that Joss was making a new series. But, like comparing Firefly to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I knew going into the first season that it would be a mistake to try to hold Dollhouse up against Whedon’s previous series in terms of the content and characters.
As a Whedon fan like so many others, I was truly excited when I learned that Joss was making a new series. But, like comparing Firefly to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I knew going into the first season that it would be a mistake to try to hold Dollhouse up against Whedon’s previous series in terms of the content and characters. This is a new show with a completely different premise. That said, from what I’ve seen in this first season, I think Dollhouse shows just as much promise as Whedon’s earlier work.
Dollhouse follows a mysterious underground organization that loans out humans whose minds have been wiped and reprogrammed to give them whatever personality and skills the paying client desires. Whether it’s their perfect woman (or man), happily willing to submit to their every desire, or someone to help them get their kidnapped child back, the “actives” are made to order. The first season jumps between active Echo (Eliza Dushku) and Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), a federal agent who is determined to uncover the truth about the Dollhouse and prove its existence.
The first season introduces us to Echo and gives us a glimpse into her origins as Caroline, a college student who signed up to become an active, consenting to have her memory removed and stored so that she could spend the next few years in a zombie-esque state living at the Dollhouse when not out on assignments. Her handler, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), has the responsibility of keeping an eye on her when she’s out on assignment and making sure she gets back to the Dollhouse for a treatment (mind-wipe), performed by tech-guy Topher (Fran Kranz). Adelle Dewitt (Olivia Williams) oversees the organization, liaising with the clientele and making sure that things are running smoothly, or else cleaning up the mess when things don't go as planned.
The first season bounces back and forth between Ballard’s investigation of the Dollhouse and Echo’s assignments, giving us a nice balance of stand-alone episodes and the overall story arc. While Ballard is busy investigating and unknowingly encountering actives in his pursuit, Echo is off fulfilling fantasies, committing crimes, and saving the day. Among my favorite episodes are “Man on the Street” and “Echoes.” In addition to being the first episode where Ballard and Echo appear on screen together, “Man on the Street” also features various street-interviews, which give us an insight into how regular people perceive the mythical Dollhouse. These interviews are not only amusing, but also speak to the viewer’s perspective in asking the question, “How would you feel if you knew a place like this really existed?” “Echoes” not only gives us a big chunk of Caroline’s backstory, but there are also some hilarious moments thanks to the drug that’s released on a college campus, a drug that makes everyone a bit loopy in addition to being life-threatening. I’m not sure which moment was funnier: seeing the serious Head of Security Dominic (Reed Diamond) whining about how heavy his gun is or watching Boyd tell Adelle and Topher that he’s “worked it out” and then proceed to play a lovely composition on the piano while they listen in on speaker phone.
While I can’t honestly rave about Eliza Dushku’s acting abilities in this series, good writing and excellent character development compensate. The series is more or less an action-drama, however, like every other Whedon series, elements of humor are laced throughout each episode. Topher, whose geekiness and enthusiasm for his work wiping the actives and embedding new personalities in them adds to the charm of the show, as do his interactions with the straight-laced Adelle. Penikett was a perfect casting choice for Ballard. Those of us who know him from his role as Helo in Battlestar Galactica can surely appreciate that Boy Scout quality he brings to his role in Dollhouse.
The first season builds up to reveal the mysterious former-active, Alpha, who threatens to take down the Dollhouse, and shows us the conclusion of Ballard’s investigation, which leaves the series open for what will hopefully be a very interesting second season premiere.
As I said, it’s a mistake to insist on comparing Dollhouse to Whedon’s previous series at this point, because this show is new. Sure, Firefly in its lone season was a fantastic series, but if we were to evaluate Buffy based entirely on its first season, I’m not sure we’d have such a high opinion of that show. Most Buffy fans would probably agree that it was in the seasons that followed when the series had a chance to grow and come into its own. That said, like the first season of Buffy, Dollhouse’s startup shows a lot of promise and has set up a very interesting and exciting story with unique characters and a premise that can definitely be built on if Fox is willing to give it a chance.
The Dollhouse DVD set comes complete with four discs, which fit snuggly into a regular-sized DVD case. The first three discs contain all 12 aired episodes. On the fourth disc, you’ll find the unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” which jumps 10 years into the future and gives us some insight into where things are headed. The fourth disc also includes the original, unaired pilot, as well as deleted scenes and numerous featurettes.
“Epitaph One” takes place in a post-apocalyptic 2019. It features flashbacks from earlier years that gives us an insight into what could be in store for the Dollhouse in seasons to come. While this episode seems more or less like a “What might happen,” it’s definitely interesting to see just how bad the situation can get given the technology the Dollhouse has and how they’re using it. There’s a commentary included with this episode, featuring episode writers Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon as they discuss some of the elements that went into the creation and production of the episode.
I was excited to see the unaired pilot, assuming it would be better than the one the network aired, but in truth, I can understand why they redid the series' first episode. While the unaired pilot does give us a better idea of what Echo’s work entails, I found it a little confusing when trying to look at it from the perspective of someone who hadn’t seen the entire first season. Compared to the aired pilot, the unaired one is faster paced and jumps around a bit too much. Still, it’s great that they included it on the DVD set.
In addition to the commentary for “Epitaph One,” there are two other commentaries included in this DVD set. Eliza Dushku and Joss Whedon are featured on the aired pilot episode commentary, and the two discuss the show from a production standpoint (Dushku is a producer on the show). They also talk a bit about Dushku’s role in the show and some of the decisions that were made when they reshot the pilot. Whedon flies solo for the commentary on “Man on the Street.” On his own, Whedon is just as interesting as when he’s talking to Dushku on the other commentary. For anyone who wants a little bit of insight into what goes on in that man’s head as he works on this show, both commentaries are definitely worth listening to.
Among the featurettes are “Making Dollhouse,” “Coming Home,” “Finding Echo,” “Designing the Perfect Dollhouse,” and “A Private Engagement.” All of these could’ve really been combined into one giant featurette, as they all center on the making of the show from different angles. That said, for anyone who loved the first season, they’re all entertaining. It’s evident from the cast and crew that they’re all very enthusiastic about the show and the roles they play in putting it together, whether it be on screen or behind the scenes. Finally, there are deleted scenes, some of which show missions we never got to see Echo on and others that are just filler that had to be cut from some of the episodes.
Given that this is just a 12-episode season, I think they did a really good job of packing this DVD set with special features that will appeal to any fan of the series, including and especially Whedon fanatics.