“Nobody has everything they want. It’s a survival pattern. You get what you want, you want something else, something more extreme, something more specific, something perfect….”
A Joss Whedon universe is always a strange and fantastical place to visit. It doesn’t matter if it’s populated by vampires and demons or space cowboys. If Whedon’s name appears anywhere on the credits, you know you’re going to be in for one hell of a ride. It’s been a little while since Whedon’s been back in the saddle. His most recent series, Firefly, was fraught with problems with the network. It was very badly handled, and the show died an undeserved swift death after just a few episodes. Whedon appeared somewhat bitter after all of that and disappeared from the television radar for a few years. They say you can’t keep a good man down, and now Whedon is back with his latest mythology heavy series, Dollhouse.
For a lot of fans, it looked like Dollhouse was heading down the same black hole that Firefly flew into. There were numerous delays in getting started, not the least of which was the writers’ strike just days after the series was given the green light. Whedon had his cast and crew already in place, but it seemed they were all dressed up with no place to go. Once the strike ended, they quickly punched out the pilot episode from the series. Unfortunately, the new pilot had some issues. Whedon and the network hadn’t exactly been on the same page, and as quickly as it had been made, the pilot was scrapped. Fans were getting restless. It was just this kind of pilot debacle that started so many of Firefly’s problems. Fortunately, a second go went quite smoothly, and the show was off the ground. Ratings were not exactly the atmospheric numbers FOX was expecting from a Joss Whedon series. There was already talk by the middle of the 12 episode run that the series was in danger. Then there was a problem with the number 12. Apparently FOX and Whedon had another one of their, by now, classic misunderstandings. The network was expecting not 12 but 13 episodes. The result was a pretty unconventional final episode that just might have saved the series as it turned out. Finally, the show finished production with no word on renewal. The show was considered on the bubble, with most predictions leaning toward its cancellation. It seems that the curse was going to make Dollhouse just another of its many victims. But then something unexpected happened, and the marginal show was renewed. For now it is expected back, but don’t be too overconfident. FOX will be watching the early numbers next season, and the series is far from out of the woods.
The Dollhouse is a secret organization that caters to a very elite clientele. They have perfected a technology that allows them to completely erase a person’s mind, everything that they feel, everything that they know, everything that identifies who they are. Into that blank slate they can imprint another complete person. The subject will be completely convinced that this is who they are. They’ll have a complete set of memories, skills, and emotions to allow them to complete their mission, or engagement, as the Dollhouse likes to call them. Engagements can be as simple as ordering a woman who is head over heels in love with you or a specially trained operative to help you pull off a crime or solve an elusive puzzle. Once the engagement is over, the imprint is wiped, or erased, so that the subject, doll or active, as they’re called, will have no memory of the encounter. The perfect fantasy with no nasty conscience to kick in later on. When actives get “broken” or someone poses a threat, they are placed in an area called “the attic” where their minds are completely sucked dry and their bodies exist in a constant purgatory.
What also makes Joss Whedon shows work so well is the great ensemble of characters and usually very well matched actors to play them. Dollhouse is no exception.
Here’s a rundown of the interesting people behind the Dollhouse:
Echo/Caroline (Eliza Dushku): Echo is the active, or doll, the show focuses on. She gets to really play a lot of different parts here, and Dushku is really up for the job. She has a much wider range than she was able to deliver on Buffy or Angel. The character was once a political activist/terrorist, who volunteered for the program to avoid going to prison. There is evidence that Echo might have some resistance to the process, retaining some of who she was, or becomes.
Topher Brink (Fran Kranz): Topher is the cool easy going young genius behind the Dollhouse. He’s perfected the technology at the company. His job is to design and perform the imprints for each engagement. He keeps all of the geeky tech up and running and has an irresponsible video gamer geek running around inside.
Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix): Langton is Echo’s handler. It’s his job to keep an eye on her while she’s out on an engagement. He’s been bonded to Echo so that she will always trust him unquestioningly. He’s one of the few Dollhouse employees who is bothered by the moral implications of what they’re doing. Lennix looks and feels a lot like Carl Lumbly from Alias. That was Sydney’s field partner, and these two also have a very similar relationship.
Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams): DeWitt runs the place. She’s a bit of an enigmatic character. She tries to show a tough very businesslike exterior, but there are moments when we get a glimpse of something deeper going on. She cares about the actives but isn’t shy about killing them or anyone else who might threaten the company. She’s also the organization’s face to the clients. She counsels the clients and provides them with the bill…Ouch.
Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond): Dominic is the head of security. He’s always suspicious and trusts no one. He particularly has a bad feeling about Echo and wants to see her eliminated. He’s the gun blazing shoot first ask questions never kind of guy.
FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett): Ballard is given a tip about the Dollhouse and a picture of Echo as Caroline. He’s the cop on the trail of the outfit, but, of course, no one else believes him.
Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker): Another Angel alum, Acker played the timid Fred in that show. Here she is the scar faced doctor who looks after the actives’ health.
Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) are two of the most frequently used actives and also kind of serve as friends for Echo.
The idea came about from a lunch get together between Eliza Dushka and Joss Whedon where they were talking about their futures. Dushka, of course, was Faith in the Buffy and Angel shows. Faith was a kind of anti-Buffy. She was a slayer who had used her abilities for less than honorable purposes. I guess you could say she went over to the dark side. The character did find some redemption as the shows came to a close and left a pretty powerful image in the minds of the fans. Whedon likes working with people he knows and feels comfortable with. So, when the two got together, they decided to break a new series as a team. Dushka is not only the star of Dollhouse, but an executive producer as well. The crew is also just filled to the brim with people from the previous three Whedon shows. You can really see the results on screen. Most shows need a certain amount of time to “figure it out”. Dollhouse hits the ground running. It’s a good thing, because the show ended up with no margin of error to have the luxury of finding its feet. Everything about the series is tight and polished. If nothing else, the production is solid from the first frame of the first episode.
Dollhouse is also the beneficiary of a new FOX experiment with their commercial time. The idea is to limit the amount of commercial time per episode, but charge considerably more for each minute. The selling point is the hope that with so little commercial time, perhaps viewers will not be so quick to reach for their skip remotes and end up actually watching the limited ads. For the client it ups the likelihood that their message is being seen. For the fans of the show it means more content. The experiment was attempted on both Dollhouse and Fringe. I haven’t heard, yet, what FOX thought of the results, or their advertisers for that matter. Still, it’s an encouraging idea. That means each episode of Dollhouse is over 49 minutes, a running time network television hasn’t seen for a broadcast hour since the late 1960’s. Let’s hope it catches on. For now you can enjoy these longer running shows without any commercial interruptions at all on this FOX Blu-ray high definition release of Dollhouse.
Ghost: “Nothing is what it appears to be”
A wealthy man’s daughter has been kidnapped and so he turns to Dollhouse for help. Echo is imprinted with the personality of an expert negotiator and takes over the ransom communications. She’s a tough no nonsense girl, until she discovers that one of the kidnappers once took her personality hostage. Now she’s breaking her own first rule and taking it very personally.
The Target: “I think we have a situation, the kind you need to shoot at”
Echo is out in the woods with a client who is looking for the perfect girl to share his outdoors lifestyle with, at least for one weekend. What he doesn’t tell Dollhouse is that he’s really looking for “The Most Dangerous Game”. He hunts Echo with a bow. Flashbacks reveal how Langton joined Dollhouse and bonded with Echo. We also get an idea how Dr. Saunders got her scars. It’s the first mention of the show’s ongoing bad guy, Alpha. We also get our first clue that Echo might be retaining memory after the wipe.
Stage Fright: “This would be a careful what you wish for moment”
Echo is a singer placed as a background performer for a superstar female vocalist. The star has a stalker, and Echo has been imprinted with the desire to protect the diva and the skills to act. But, how do you protect a diva with a death wish? You go off task, something an active isn’t supposed to be able to do. Ballard’s search for Dollhouse leads him into a trap where he is nearly killed. Dominic is pushing to have Echo sent to the attic.
Gray Hour: “Being wiped is not unlike being born… it’s traumatic”
Echo is a master thief hired to lead a specialized crew to steal valuable artifacts. The crew is about to take down a secure vault during something called a gray hour. It’s the time just before a new security upgrade is on line that will make the vault impenetrable. But when Echo hears a mysterious tone from her cell phone her imprint is wiped, and now the crew is stuck inside the vault with time running out. Somehow someone has remotely wiped Echo’s imprint, yet another sign that Dollhouse has a powerful enemy.
True Believer: “True Happiness requires some measure of self awareness”
Echo is imprinted with the identity of a blind girl who is seeking the leader of a cult. The ATF is working with Dollhouse on this one, but don’t really know the facts about their new partner. Echo is wearing contact lenses that transmit what she doesn’t see to the feds. When Echo regains her sight, the feds lose their feed and are willing to risk her life to get a jump on the dangerous cult.
Man On The Street: “There’s no porn?”
Ballard finally tracks Echo down during a romantic engagement. She gets away, however, and he can’t get anything of value out of the client. There’s an internal investigation at Dollhouse to find out if someone is using the actives for sex. There is also evidence they might be hooking up with each other. Ballard is getting too close, and Dollhouse makes a move to hurt him, but misses. Meanwhile a news program is running man on the street interviews about the possible existence of a Dollhouse. This is the episode where the internal mythology goes into warp speed. Up until now most of that stuff was subtle and amounted to mere breadcrumbs placed here and there. The episode is full of clever twists and turns and answers some questions.
Echoes: “OK. The Rossum Corporation is evil.”
Meet Rossum Corporation. It’s the HQ behind Dollhouse. In fact there are several Dollhouses all over the world. In flashback we learn a bit about who Echo was as Caroline and why she volunteered for the program. Meanwhile a dangerous experimental drug that Rossum was working on has been released both at Dollhouse and a college campus. It’s potentially deadly. It also has the effect of turning people into crazy idiots, as if they were super drunk or high. Think Star Trek’s Naked Time. It’s a nice little episode where the folks get to break character and act pretty silly. It’s also another big mythology episode.
Needs: “This house is out of balance”
The Dollhouse is in crises mode. Too many things have gone wrong of late. It’s time to circle the wagons with a new security upgrade. Meanwhile Echo’s pod of actives wake up with their original personalities intact, but not their memories. They break out of Dollhouse and each embark on a search for who they are, all except Echo, who decides to remain and try to free the other actives.
A Spy In The House Of Love: “Sometimes it is about the pain”
When Topher discovers a chip in the chair, he believes someone has been modifying his implants for some unknown purpose. The house goes into lockdown as various staff try to root out the mole on the inside. It’s up to Echo to uncover the spy. Ballard gets a vital piece of information from a totally unexpected source. Langton gets a promotion that he doesn’t necessarily want. That means a new handler for Echo.
Haunted: “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. You’re dead”
An old friend of DeWitt’s has died. She has saved a copy of her own imprint, and now she’s inside of Echo trying to solve her own murder. Topher imprints Sierra with a geek friend’s personality and spends the day playing laser tag and video games, all part of his annual “upgrade” to the system.
Briar Rose: “Bad people…maybe, good place”
Echo is a volunteer at a children’s center where a troubled young girl needs her help. Echo carries the same imprint as the girl, only grown and over her trauma, so that she can relate. Ballard finally locates Dollhouse and breaks in with the help of the engineer who designed the building. This is a two part episode concluded with…
Omega: “One of my personalities happens to be a multi-personality, but that doesn’t make me a multi-personality.”
Alpha has taken Echo, and he has his own chair and equipment. We learn a lot about the core characters, and there are some rather sweet surprises in store for you here. Ballard has agreed to help Dollhouse track down Alpha in exchange for November’s freedom.
Epitaph One: “Paradise just wasn’t built to take in strays”
It’s the future, 2019. A group of refugees has stumbled upon the abandoned Dollhouse. It appears that the imprint technology got out and brought about Armageddon. In flashbacks we see what might be in store for the Dollhouse characters. The episode stars Zack Ward, who you might remember as the green eyed Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story.
Each episode of Dollhouse is presented in full 1080p high definition brought to you by an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. It’s presented in a 1.78:1 original broadcast aspect ratio. This is a very glossy show for the most part. The environments appear quite sterile. I’m not just talking about the Dollhouse set. Even the world outside looks very bright and clean. The style of the show does a lot to highlight the remarkable level of detail. The set pieces were designed for this kind of scrutiny, so there’s a lot for you to take in. Black levels are very deep and provide tons of shadow detail on those rare occasions when the image isn’t brightly lit. Contrast is excellent, and color is sharp even if it doesn’t exactly jump off the screen. There is no compression artifact to speak of and, of course, this kind of recent production isn’t going to show any defects in the original source material.
The DTS-HD Master Audio presentation is quite solid. Understand that this is basically a very dialog driven series, so there’s not going to be a ton of surrounds or dynamic score elements to drool over. With that said, I did find some of the dialog problematic. I believe it has more to do with the sets than anything else. There is a rather dramatic difference in tone and life between the ADR looped stuff and the moments that are captured live, at least I’m assuming therein lies the reason for such inconsistency in the voice reproductions. Perhaps it might not have been so evident on television or standard DVD, but here something is most definitely up with that aspect of the sound. The show’s theme is actually pretty nice, in a subdued kind of feel. There are really some beautiful moments of crystal clarity that make this one of those credit opens that I actually never skipped over once. It’s short and rather pleasant sounding. There aren’t a ton of explosive ambient moments, but you’ll find accurate separation and placement throughout. Don’t look for a whole lot from the sub, however.
Deleted Scenes: (29:46) With today’s seamless branching technology I would really have enjoyed the option of seeing these scenes in the episodes from which they were cut. It really wasn’t very entertaining having them alone and with no context. There are 24 of them.
Making Dollhouse: (20:48) HD Joss Whedon starts us off with a welcome to the first day of shooting. It’s unclear if this is the first pilot or production of the series itself. You’ll find some bloopers mixed in with the footage. It’s mostly Whedon, but pretty much all of the major cast and crew offer up their thoughts on the show’s philosophy and style. Whedon offers a lot of insight into things like casting and getting the show off the ground. He drops a quick dig at Lost.
Coming Home: (7:11) HD Joss drives this feature as well. The basic idea here is all of the folks who have come from other Whedon shows. There’s a lot of talk of family here and it eventually turns into a Joss Whedon love fest.
Finding Echo: (5:07) HD This is mostly Eliza and Joss patting each other on the back.
Designing The Perfect Dollhouse: (5:59) HD This set visit comes complete with construction time lapse photography and conceptual art.
A Private Engagement: (5:47) HD The cast and crew discuss how they would feel if the Dollhouse were real.
Original Pilot – Echo: (44:35) The first thing you’re going to notice is how much of this footage was recycled throughout the entire season. I guess that explains why so many episodes ended up represented in the opening credits from the first episode. I think it was a good idea to try something different. I didn’t find this episode to be near as engaging. Of course, all the familiar footage could have tainted my opinion.
The last episode leaves the series with a lot of possibilities now that we know it will continue, at least for a little while longer. It offered closure, in case it was the last one, but opened some interesting doors now that we know it isn’t. Whedon could continue with this future timeline and actually get a pretty good series out of it. Likely, he’ll tie it up and the show will return to the kinds of stories we already saw. I do hope he doesn’t try to keep both threads running all season long. It will overcomplicate matters and in the end make the show too unfocused. I also hope to see more standalone episodes, as well. It seemed that once the mythology arc really kicked in, we lost the engagement episodes. It’s a careful balance that cast and crew will have to learn to control. I don’t know where it’s all going, but this is a Joss Whedon series, so there’s one thing I do know for certain: “Nothing is what it appears to be”.