James takes a look at today’s release of the first season of Joss Whedon’s troubled new series, and asks: “Did I fall asleep?”
It won’t be very often in her life that Eliza Dushku is compared to a small geeky-looking nine-year-old boy from Dorset but it’s a good place to start when talking about Dollhouse, her new vehicle which also marks the long-awaited return to TV of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s creator Joss Whedon. The nine year old in question is one Joe McClane, and while on the surface he appears to be little more than your average schoolboy, he is in fact one of the world’s top secret agents. Whenever the planet faces imminent destruction from some rogue dictator it is to him and his father that the authorities come crying for help, as deep beneath their idyllic Tudor cottage they keep a crime-fighting device of such advanced technology that it hasn’t even occurred to Apple yet – BIG RAT! BIG RAT enables Joe’s father to download into his son the brain patterns of any number of top scientists, army chiefs, strategists, whatever he needs in order to bring down this week’s menace, the theory being that no one could possibly suspect that this inauspicious child could ever pose the remotest threat to plans for world domination. Such is the premise of Joe 90, Gerry Anderson’s puppet show from the late Sixties to which Dollhouse was being compared even before its first episode aired earlier this year. For Joe read Echo (Dushku’s character, the lead “doll”) for Dorset read Los Angeles, for BIG RAT read – oh I dunno, some device that looks like a dentist’s chair hooked up to an array of surprisingly low-tech-looking computers. The big difference, of course, is that this is a Grown-Up Show which rather than being a simple vehicle for exciting adventure stories in a different setting each week wants to explore themes of identity (Echo, unlike Joe, has no idea who she was before joining the “Dollhouse”), exploitation and a whole range of human emotions in between. While also being a vehicle for exciting adventure stories. Indeed, when Whedon pitched his new show to Fox the commissioners believed that it was this latter element which would be predominant (preferably with lashing of sex thrown in for good measure), a misunderstanding leading to well-publicised difficulties between the producer and studio which involved his first pilot being rejected (“too confusing and dark” was the verdict from test audiences) and production completely shutting down for a couple of weeks as Whedon tried to reach a compromise between his vision for the show and that of the powers that be.
The problems behind the camera are reflected in front – at times the show just doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing, leading to a first half season very different to the second and a sometimes extremely visible lack of self-assurance. The first few episodes are very much “doll of the week” stories – Echo is given a mission (hostage negotiator, bodyguard to an R’n’B singer, hunted prey Hostel-style for a rich nutter) and off she goes. As ever, though, even in those early stories the backstory is being filled in. Echo, we discover, used to be Caroline Farrell, a fairly typical college girl who committed some Terrible Act which got her embroiled in the world of the Dollhouse. While in custody she meets its manager Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) who offers her a chance at redemption. Surrender her identity for five years, have her mind wiped clean and stored on computer, and allow the Dollhouse to pimp her out (my words, not hers) to their clients for five years. At the end of that time her mind will be reunited with her body and she will be free to go, having had no memory of what she’s done during her time there. Somewhat inexplicably she takes the offer, but unfortunately the Dollhouse’s resident brain re-wirer Topher (Fran Kranz) doesn’t appear to have done quite as good a job as he should. Echo, as Caroline is now known, is beginning to show signs of self-awareness, her old personality beginning to break through despite the fact it should be all contained in one of Topher’s circuits boards. At the same time a local detective Ballard (Battlestar Galactica’s Tahmoh Penikett) finally had a lead on a case he has been investigating for most of his career, an urban legend for which Ballard’s belief has brought him the ridicule of his colleagues. A video arrives of a young girl talking about what she’s going to do after she graduates, and a message to keep looking. Someone out there, it seems, wants him to find the Dollhouse…
Although the parallel is ultimately superficial between the Anderson and Whedon series, there is one important element, besides the basis set-up, that they both share. Generally speaking, Joe 90 is considered the beginning of the end for Anderson’s Supermarionation days as, following the holy trinity of Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, it was the first of his series which did not capture the imagination of the general public. There is, however, a big fallacy about why the show did not succeed. Many cite the actual premise as being the show’s biggest problem, but that’s not the case. The idea of having a major character be able to become literally anything was actually incredibly useful to Anderson, which is why he did it – if one week he wanted a light comedy he could do it, the next a spy thriller, the next a mob story, and so on. It’s a similar thing with Dollhouse. Many have complained the show’s basic premise is too difficult, or unlikeable, or just doesn’t work, but it’s not true. Thematically, which I’ll get onto further down, the concept is challenging but that’s no problem, audiences in recent years have proved themselves more than up to the challenge, both in the genre with Battlestar Galactica and outside with the likes of The Sopranos and that thing set in Baltimore, the name of which escapes me at present. No, the big problem for both Dollhouse and Joe 90 isn’t the premise: it’s their lead character. Leaving aside the incredibly dubious idea of having a father experimenting on his son and sending him off into mortal danger each week (admittedly quite hard to do!) Anderson’s target audience just didn’t like Joe very much. As a boy, you don’t dream of being another small secret agent, you dream of being Scott Tracy or Captain Scarlet. Joe McClane was in the end doing little more than his audience every time they fought Indians or tackled the mob in their own back yards. The audience just didn’t emphasise with him, and now the same issue afflicts its spiritual successor – it’s very, very difficult to care about Echo/Caroline. Even the most standalone of shows needs some kind of centre, a main character or concept whose core values, opinions and experiences both define the series and give the audiences their primary reason to tune in. Without Fox Mulder’s search for the truth The X-Files would have been a very generic monster show, without Columbo his show would have been just another run of the mill detective show with a neat twist, without the collective Scooby gang’s soul Buffy a rather silly show about vampires (you need look no further than the film to see that.) Dollhouse’s just doesn’t have that foundation. At its heart is a great yawning vacuum, a hollow structure, a huge empty cavernous emptiness, an Echo. There are plenty of other characters around her, but from the start it is made clear this is Echo’s show, her for-now subconscious quest for her true identity and voyage of self-discovery its primary focus. Everything else in the show reflects this in some way, be it Ballard’s attempt to track down the house, the conflict Echo’s “minder” Langton feels between his job and his morals, or DeWitt’s self-delusion about her role in this murky world. They all orbit around the one character, and if we don’t care about her then the chances are far slimmer we will be bothered about anyone else. And we don’t. We can’t. Indeed, there’s something positively Beckettian about making the focus of a series a protagonist who isn’t there, a blank canvas who only shows signs of life now and then but whom we cannot follow making any real progress and who at the end of every episode goes back to sleep again. A character has to earn our love, but Dollhouse just demands it of us.
In other hands, with another approach, this isn’t an insurmountable problem, but there are two, interconnected stumbling blocks which are never overcome. Echo herself is, as characters remark more than once, living in blissful ignorance. She knows nothing of what’s happening to her, and while she’s very much the victim she’s not consciously suffering because of it. Because this is fiction and not real life, this is a problem; the audience needs its protagonists to suffer otherwise there’s no drama, and while undoubtedly the future will see Echo slowly morphing into Caroline, at the moment the vague hints of growing self-awareness are too vague and random to constitute anything like a character arc. It’s this season’s single biggest problem (one would expect it to be considerably less so in the next) as far as attracting an audience is concerned, and I’m not entirely convinced Whedon and co realised just how big an issue it is. Instead, we are expected to feel pain on her behalf. And this leads us to the second big problem. Sure, we can feel sad and angry for Echo/Caroline in an academic, generalised sense – her situation is tragic etc – but because we know next to nothing about her existence before the Dollhouse (at this point) it’s impossible to emphasise with a crucial point: what she’s lost. At the moment she literally is an echo, a shadow, insubstantial and thus impossible to connect with on an individualistic level. To draw the obvious parallel, it’s easy to be appalled in a general sense when one hears statistics of the numbers of women trafficked into the UK to become sex workers, but it’s only when individual cases are highlighted, when we meet someone who’s gone through it, seen who they are and what they’ve been forced to become, that the full horror of what has happened to them suddenly becomes horribly crystal clear. At the moment we don’t have that for Echo, and while of course in time we will, it’s from a structural point of view far, far too late. Whedon and co are of course fully aware of this – indeed not an episode goes by without seeing that clip of her blathering Valley Girl clichés on her friend’s camcorder, but that isn’t a character, it’s an archetype, and not nearly enough (nor, incidentally, are those traces particularly interesting – if Caroline turns out to be little more than a right-on ecowarrior who somehow got her boyfriend killed or something, it’ll be very disappointing.)
Instead, we’re left to rely on a group of characters who frankly could have walked out of any number of other shows. There’s the good-hearted detective determined to get to the truth, the morally challenged minder, the doctor doing her best in an intolerable situation, the ostensibly cold-hearted head who might just have a change of heart. Never before has a production with Joss Whedon’s name attached had such a collection of purely functional characters. Where are the quirks, the little nuances, the extra layers we have come to expect? I’m not talking here about the “oh he’s a double/triple agent” kind of twists here, either, of which there are plenty (and, rather sadly, almost laughably obvious), but something rather fundamental. When the characters of Firefly walked off the Serenity at the beginning of the pilot one could believe they were real human beings, with a full history behind them, but this lot don’t, feeling ultimately as artificial as one of Echo’s imprints. The two key scenes which make this all-too-apparent are those in Needs and Spy in the House of Love when DeWitt and Topher use the dolls for companionship themselves. Intended to add an extra layer to their 1-D personas, the scenes with Topher especially, who runs around with doll Sierra as though they are a couple of playing toddlers, are meant to tug at the heart strings but end up feeling strangely contrived, another feeling usually very alien to a Whedon show. Behind the shadow of its lead character stand a series of cardboard cut-outs.
With a lack of interesting characters, we are left with a cold, almost Kubrickian world in which themes of identity and individuality, what makes a person who they are and what drives them, are examined in a curiously detached fashion. Caroline is the ultimate fantasy figure for any man (or woman for that matter), someone who not only says she’s in love with you but believes it implicitly herself. The clients’ side of things, aside from one lengthy sequence in Man on the Street, isn’t explored so much and isn’t of primary concern to the show – it’s the world in which the exploited live that we are invited to follow. As well as the obvious parallels in regards to slavery and prostitution it’s also very easy to read the series as a more general metaphor for a world in which one can sell one’s soul to society and become emotionally dead inside, almost a Patrick Bateman like scenario. The show does have a minor problem in that the actual working of the Dollhouse is entirely indefensible: no matter how much of a grey area it tries to paint in this regard, the dolls are being exploited (as well as, in a different way, are the clients), end of story, which means a layer of ambiguity the show tries to draw, with its talk of the good being done and a wider conspiracy of which the Dollhouse itself is just a pawn (oh, the irony!) is wholly unconvincing. I also had a problem with the fact that Caroline appears to be have been at least partially running away from whatever horrendous deed she committed when she agreed to join the group: that makes her sound like a coward. Far more painful is the revelation of fellow doll Sierra’s past – simple and predictable as it might be, but given the overriding metaphor of the show powerful nevertheless.
Indeed, as the show progresses one finds oneself wishing that more time was being spent on Sierra and less on Echo. Not only does she have a far harder time of it, but Dichen Lachman is a considerably better actress than Dushku, as she demonstrates every time she becomes “active” to go on a mission. Dushku is fine within a certain set of parameters – ass-kicking chick or wearing that concerned expression as though she thinks she can smell something unpleasant – but given one of the main reasons for Dollhouse’s existence was to give her a chance to show off her range so far she’s not managed to pull it off. Her blind cult member of True Believer is little different from her counsellor in Briar Rose, her hostage negotiator of Ghost indistinguishable from her hi-tech thief in Gray Hour and none seem radically different from the true Caroline persona who pops up in a couple of episodes. It’s not the first time that Whedon’s lead actor has been the weak link in an ensemble (hello David Boreanaz) but it is a shame that Dushku’s fellow dolls all manage to impart far more personality into their performances, even though all but Lachman have the considerable advantage of effectively only playing one “role” within the context of the show. The best performance comes from Miracle Laurie, the actress giving an intelligent performance which for once does manage to emotionally engage with the audience, her open-eyed love for the bland Ballard being the Dollhouse equivalent of a happy-go-lucky lamb skipping gaily into the abattoir. In contrast, those playing the “straight” characters don’t generate the same level of pathos. Fresh from Battlestar Galactica Tahmoh Penikett’s investigator is bland, as is male doll Enver Gjokaj. Olivia Williams and Harry J. Lennix bring an air of authority to their roles, but again aren’t given enough “outside of the box” to make us particularly want to spend any more time with them, while Fran Kranz as Topher, who attracted a lot of pre-broadcast opprobrium thanks to a short online clip, is actually pretty good in his role as amoral tech genius Topher. It’s not his fault he’s playing a tit.
The series ends with a two-parter which jumps through several hoops to contrive to have the real Caroline encountering her doll. Like many key moments in the season (Echo’s first encounter with Ballard, the first time Caroline’s personality reveals itself, the unmasking of Alpha) it doesn’t have the impact it should have, but hopefully it, together with a slightly reshuffled cast of characters, will mark better things to come in the next season. The second half of the season was a slight improvement on the first, with a greater emphasis on the characters themselves as opposed to what they were doing, but overall these twelve episodes are a bit of chore to watch, the struggle to get to grips with the awkward elements to the premise all too clear on screen. When Dollhouse was announced, there was much scepticism, both in regards to the show itself and also the fact that it was Whedon running it, the concept sounding so far away from his standard fare. There is a massive danger that when a new project comes along by someone like Whedon, whose massive fanbase is centred around his distinctive style, that we bring to it certain presumptions as to what to expect, and condemn it according if said expectations are not fulfilled. To a certain degree, that’s what happened with Dollhouse. It does not feel like a Joss Whedon show. Bar the odd moment, the dialogue does not sparkle with his signature sassy wit (and indeed jars terribly when it does in this world where it’s not especially suited) nor come laden down with multiple cultural references or knowing iconoclasm. The characters do not immediately leap from the screen to make the viewers feel as though we’ve known them from years, and the gloomy, lonely world in which the series is based is the very antithesis of the egalitarian moral liberalism which permeated Sunnydale and the flight deck of Serenity. Yet it’s easy to see why Whedon wanted to do the show, with its themes of female emancipation, raw humanity triumphing over the greatest odds and little people refusing to bow down and be subjugated by the Powers That Be but choosing instead to fight back. But it could have done with at least another year in development (in one of the featurettes Whedon admits the whole concept was finalised within two weeks) as much of this first season is little more than groping around in the dark, trying to figure things out. Its failure to solve these problems – most notably that of Echo – is the reason it hasn’t worked and left many people cold, its meandering style and occasional confusion as to what exactly it wants to say just the icing on this alienating cake. The one big hope for Season Two is that Whedon and co have taken stock over the summer and finally got a grasp on what they’re doing with this set-up and cast and consequently taken a firm hold of things for at the moment the series spends too much of its time like its lead character, wandering around without a clue what it’s doing.
The complete first season of Dollhouse (or Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse as the packaging insists on calling it) is presented on four DVDs, four episodes per disc with the last devoted to the missing episodes and extras. The menu design is the poorest I’ve seen for quite a while, a single, almost randomly picked still of Echo, over which the options are presented. It looks like a placeholder that never got replaced and suggests nothing more than complete indifference to the thing- the designer couldn’t even be bothered to use different pictures for each disc.
The episodes are presented anamorphically in their original 1.78:1 ratio. The transfer is fine but undramatic; detail is lost surprisingly often for details not immediately in the foreground, with more compression artefacts appearing in faces and objects than one might expect for a show of this vintage. That said, the many sequences set in the dark or night have no major issues attached to them, and the show’s subtle colour palate is handled well, the warm, comforting hues of the Dollhouse itself being neither over sharp not dull. Not the finest print of a new show, but perfectly decent. The Audio, in DD5.1 surround, on the other hand is pretty good. Many episodes benefit from the five channels, including the wood in The Chase, the clubs in Stage Fright and the frenetic scenes between Alpha and Echo in the finale. It’s noticeable though that the Dollhouse itself doesn’t have much of an ambience – given its Koi ponds, self-contained air conditioning and multi-computer displays you’d have thought it would make more of a noise. But there you go. The episodes and all extras bar the commentaries are subtitled.
Inevitably the most interesting of the Extras are the two “missing” episodes, the original pilot Echo (43:54) and the last episode of the season Epitaph One (47:47) which was filmed but not aired. It’s easy to see why Fox asked for another season opener: after a superb Act One (far better, in fact, than most of the series which aired), the episode quickly gets bogged down in talky scenes of exposition, intermixed with a flurry of plot twists that were far better served being spread over a number of shows and which would no doubt have proved even more alienating to the casual viewer than its ropey replacement Ghost. At the other end of the spectrum, Epitaph One is easily the best of the series so far. Unfortunately, it also manages to cram in about three season’s worth of story developments in the space of one show, almost as though, under threat of imminent cancellation, the powers that be wanted to showcase what plans they had before it was too late, and being in some ways the spiritual partner of Serenity which effectively served the same purpose for Firefly. With the show miraculously renewed, Epitaph One is way too spoilery to have used.
Epitaph One also is one of three episodes with a Commentary, in this case provided by writers Jed Whedon (Joss’s younger brother) and Maurissa Tancharoen. The pair have recently got married and are extremely lovey-dovey on the track which makes it a bit of a slog to sit through. Whedon the elder gives a solo commentary for Man on the Street and is joined by Dushku for Ghost. Sadly the pairing is not as much fun to listen to as Whedon and Nathan Fillion on the Firefly commentaries, with Dushku spending most of her time giggling and Whedon not imparting as much information as he usually does. As, indeed, he demonstrates on Man on the Street in what is the best extra of the set. For once we get a clear chance to hear his thoughts in detail on the nature of the show and some of the ideas he wants to explore in it. Some of what he says probably qualifies him for an appearance in Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye, and some of his opinions I found myself just disagreeing with, but in the forty-five minutes we get a far clearer idea of why he wanted to make Dollhouse and the beliefs that underpin it.
There’s a half hour collection of extremely tedious Deleted Scenes (30:17), with over half the running time coming from the reshoots of the Pilot before it was finally abandoned. Given the majority of these sequences consist of Echo and her charge Hayden mouthing banal life lessons at each other, it’s easy to see why in the end Whedon lost the will to live and just gave the whole thing up as a bad job.
Whedon doesn’t ignore the multiple issues he had with the studio in Making Dollhouse (20:47) as he talks us through the first season. With on-set footage of the producer explaining yet another series of rewrites to a clearly bamboozled Penikett (who, having said that, already seems to be very used to the situation) and Williams asking with concern what the ditching of the pilot actually means, this gives a good, if inevitably sanitized, look at the strained early days of the show.
Coming Home (7:11), on the other hand, is a thoroughly sickening everyone-loves-everyone thing, while Finding Echo (5:07) is a five minute burble about Dushku and her character which offers no insight whatsoever into the latter. Designing the Perfect Dollhouse (5:59) is much better, being a fun walk through the set with Whedon as he talks about the thinking that went into the set’s design. I don’t think the set is a particularly striking one, but he certainly offers plenty of explanations as to why it is as it is and is worth looking at. Finally, A Private Engagement (5:47) asks cast and crew what they would do if they could use the Dollhouse, or be a Doll themselves, and they say Funny Things in reply.
When Fox chose to cancel The Sarah Connor Chronicles but renew its Friday-night stablemate Dollhouse there were cries of bafflement from the online community, and even Joss Whedon said that he thought the better show had been axed. I’m not sure I agree with that – TSSC had its chance and blew it, whereas Dollhouse deserves at least one more chance to prove itself – the concept is too inherent with possibilities to waste on this one season. But it does need a lot of work. This DVD release makes a perfectly decent accompaniment to the series.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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