“You can wipe away a memory, but can you wipe away a soul?” That question is asked and debated in Joss Whedon’s series Dollhouse, which recently finished its premiere season. An underground organization hires out people whose memories and personalities have been erased. Imprinted with personalities and skills, Actives become assassins, lovers, or whomever is hired and needed. Between gigs, in a child-like/robotic state they reside in a secret facility called the Dollhouse. Echo slowly becomes more self-aware and thinking for herself, much to the chagrin of some. Meanwhile, at the risk of ending his cop career, Paul Ballard is intent on finding a missing woman and unveiling the organization. As the series progresses, obstacles and dangers arise for Ballard and those within the Dollhouse.
Whether Dollhouse will succeed in lasting more than two or three seasons is difficult to say at this point. The concept is a solid basis for a sci-fi thriller and makes for an interesting story. Its ideas and themes are studied and questioned from different angles, which also helps. Black and white can get boring very quickly. I’ve come to like Whedon’s regular creative team, those who have written, directed, and/or produced for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and/or Firefly: Jane Espenson, Marti Noxon, and Tim Minear, among others.
With the intended exception of a few, the show has likable characters. One starts to empathize with the Actives, Ballard, and even those associated with the Dollhouse. In one episode, Topher programs an Active to be his friend for the day, which they spend playing video games and laser tag. Although they have free-will (and their memories), the employees have an isolated life within the facility. In some ways, they’re as caged as their charges.
With Whedon’s tendency to recast people, it’s unsurprising that he chose Eliza Dushku for Echo. It’s nice to see her doing something besides slaying vampires. Also as Actives, Dichen Lachman (Sierra), Enver Gjokaj (Victor), and Miracle Laurie (Mellie) flawlessly switch roles quickly and frequently. Fran Kranz, who plays Topher, is such a good geek one might wonder how often he was bullied in his youth. Olivia Williams perfectly portrays a strict boss, Adelle DeWitt, who is also rather proper. Rounding out the cast are Tahmoh Penikett (detective Paul Ballard), Harry Lennix (Boyd Langton, Echo’s handler), Amy Acker (Dr. Saunders), and Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic, the head of Dollhouse’s security). The powers that be cast Dollhouse well and if they are previously unrecognized faces, such will not continue to be the case.
There are some episodes that really stand out and can be seen as favourites. In #2- “the Target”, Echo’s assignment to go camping turns deadly. The relationship and trust between Echo and her handler, Boyd, becomes more defined, as do some details about the Dollhouse. In #8-“Needs”, a few Actives who remember their identities, but not their past, plan to escape the facility in which they find themselves. The story and cinematography were really well done. #10-“Haunted” is about lonliness and isolation. Echo is programmed as a millionaire who wanted to solve her own inevitable murder case. Meanwhile, Topher is having fun with a friend he created. Wrapping up season one and setting the stage for two are #11 and #12, “Briar Rose” and “Omega”, which feature a paranoid and schizophrenic Alan Tudyk, who played Wash in Firefly. For browncoats it’s a special treat to see him as someone other than a humerous pilot. As per usual of season finales, the last will leave one hanging and wondering “what next?!”.
Although Dollhouse is good enough to watch again, it’s not as strong as BtVS or Firefly. Of course, those are difficult to top. Maybe it’s because of FOX network getting in the way or Whedon not directing or writing as much as in the past, but the series started strongly, wavered, and then picked up again. Granted, as executive producer Whedon has final say. It seemed as though the show was being forced into a mold, per-maybe-haps the creative team was trying too hard to keep it on the air. After all, it’s FOX that axed Firefly after one season. Meanwhile, there are unoriginal “reality shows” like So You Think You Can Dance starting up again…
Joss Whedon interview: