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 first 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. But that was to be a short-lived reprieve. The series is gone now and these final 13 episodes are all that you’ll have left to remember it.
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, easygoing 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 no longer Echo’s handler. He’s in charge of security. 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.
New this season:
Senator Perrin (Alexis Denisof): He’s a Senator who has decided to make it his mission to bring down the Dollhouse. He is more connected to the organization than he knows.
Matthew Harding (Keith Carradine): He runs a rival house that is using the Perrin investigation to bring down the LA house and gain power inside the company.
Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau): She’s the DC version of Topher. She lost the use of one of her hands when Echo’s real personality, Carolyn. left her during a Rossum raid. She is using her position to get revenge.
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.
Paul is now working with the Dollhouse. In exchange, he gets the services of Echo who is imprinted with his former partner to help bring down some bad guys. In this case she has to actually marry a bad guy to get the goods on him.
Echo is imprinted as a mother to help a client who lost his wife care for their baby. When Echo overhears his conversations with the Dollhouse, she believes he plans to kill her and the baby. She steals the infant and goes on the run. Senator Perrin receives information about the Dollhouse and begins to make it his mission to bring down the organization.
When a client’s nephew, a convicted serial killer, is imprinted in Victor, Paul attempts to interview and study the behavior and locate women who are held captive somewhere by the killer. When Victor escapes, Topher attempts to use a remote-wipe procedure. It clears Victor’s mind but transfers the killer imprint to Echo.
The story of how Sierra came to be one of the dolls is explored. She was drugged into acting crazy by a boss who wanted to control her. After he gets her committed to the Dollhouse, he uses his client privileges to have his way with her. When Topher learns the secret he has a moral dilemma, as he’s asked to permanently imprint Sierra so that her abuser can keep her.
The Public Eye:
As the Perrin plot comes into focus, we learn that it is all a plan by a rival house to gain control, of the corporation. This episode gives us our first real look at the Rossum Corporation and its agenda. Echo is assigned to stop Perrin from exposing the Dollhouse.
The Left Hand:
Topher must travel to DC to try to steal Echo back from the DC House. The scientist from that house, Halverson, is torturing Echo because she knew her real identity and was betrayed by Carolyn. Topher falls in love with Halverson but must deal with betrayal.
Meet Jane Doe:
The house finds out that Echo is aware and can access all of the personalities she has ever been imprinted with.
A Love Supreme: Alpha is back. This time he’s killing anyone who had a romantic encounter with Echo.
Victor’s contract has finally run out. He’s sent home to deal with his military past and a life without Sierra. Unfortunately, he’s being used and might be safer at the Dollhouse.
Adele is not taking her loss of the house very well. She’s turned to heavy drinking.
The episode ends with her regaining control and putting Echo, Victor and Sierra in the Attic.
We finally discover what horrors await in The Attic. But Echo is not there for the reasons we think she is there. The secret to bringing down the corporation lies in the web of brains found there. When she escapes, we discover an unlikely ally and an even more unlikely enemy.
This is really the last episode of the story. We find out who has been pulling the strings and why. The team band together to deliver the final blow against the corporation and, hopefully, save humanity from the devastation Echo discovered on her visit to the Attic.
Epitaph – Part Two:
This tag-on episode picks up 20 years in the future where the unaired episode from season one left off. It ties up the show rather nicely.
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, with a subdued kind of feel. There are really some beautiful moments of crystal clarity that make this one of those credit openings 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.
Commentary on select episodes.
Deleted Scenes: (10:25)
Defining Moments: (13:27) Whedon talks about the up-and-down ride the end of season 1 provided as to the fate of the show. He expresses how free he felt after the final second pick-up for season 2.
Looking Back: (16:18) The cast gather with Whedon for a dinner and discussion session. It’s informal and candid.
It was nice to see the show take so many chances in this final year. Whedon pretty much knew this was not going to last much longer, so he decided to pull out the stops and just make the show he wanted to make. It feels like the series goes through several incarnations in just 13 episodes. This is almost a 5-year plan condensed to do it all in a short time. We get a glimpse at the direction the show would have gone before it’s time to move on to the next direction. In the end the characters each get a great payoff and we feel like we got at least a glimpse of what it was all about. The ending provided one of the best non-romantic romantic endings I think I’ve seen. You really have to pay attention, I guess. “’Cause I thought that was kind of an interesting detail.”