I have huge respect for Joss Whedon, as he made Buffy an unmissable TV show and even if the Networks didn’t get it I loved Firefly. Therefore when I discovered he had a new TV show in production it certainly perked my interest.
The premise of Dollhouse is defined by Fox so:
They can be anyone you want.
The Dollhouse is a very secret, and very illegal, place where wishes come true. Clients with the right connections and enough money can hire “Actives”, people who have been programmed to perfectly fulfill the needs, and desires of their clients. The Actives are people who have chosen, for their own reasons, to surrender their bodies...
If you’re thinking Joe 90, then you’re not actually too far from the truth, although they passed on having tape based computers and the coolest flying car you’ve ever seen. That sounds vaguely interesting, in maybe a slightly Mission Impossible sort of way. But at the end of the first 45 minutes of Dollhouse‘s premier episode I was actually none the wiser to the burning question; is this show a hit or a miss? You got me there, because based on the first outing, Ghost, it is jolly hard to tell.
This is the weakest launch show I’ve seen for some time. Worryingly it was not even the original unaired pilot, suggesting the pilot was worse than this, amazingly.
The story starts with the star (and producer) Eliza Dushku being inducted into the Dollhouse because she has ‘problems’ that aren’t explained but whatever happened it makes her look tired. We jump now to her driving a motorcycle like a idiot and being the proverbial good-time-girl. Soon she’s dancing around in a dress that broadcasts exactly how fun she can be, until suddenly she goes unemotional, walks out of the party and gets into a black van to be taken for her ‘treatment’.
She’s an ‘Active’ and the party girl persona has been imprinted on her. What seems apparent once this is removed is that to make space for these applied memories and experience they’ve cleaned out her own, she’s almost entirely a blank page.
At that point I was already wishing they’ve not used that as an example of what Dollhouse does for clients, because prostitutes must be cheaper and they’ll be anyone for the right money, I’m told.
When we get back to the Dollhouse we’re introduced to a number of the key characters including techie Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) and Echo’s handler Harry Lennix (Boyd Langdon). There is also the person that runs Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt, played by Olivia Williams, and her sidekick Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond) and curiously scared house-doctor Claire Saunders (Amy Acker). During later proceedings we get to meet another Active ‘Sierra’ (Dichen Lachman) and a nemesis in waiting, FBI Agent Paul Ballard, who is Tahmoh Penikett double-teaming from Battlestar Galactica. That’s the entire character set so far, which seems a more manageable amount than some shows I could mention.
Back at Dollhouse Echo has no memories left from the previous mission, and wonders why she’s got a bruised knee, which she got laying the motorcycle down at the start. After being checked over by Dr. Saunders she wanders off and comes across ‘Sierra’ who is being wiped of her existing personality, an obviously very painful exercise. She’s shepherded away and made ready to become a crack hostage negotiator.
It’s now we find out that the personalities they’re give are from real people, and they come with all the baggage that person had, including any defects – like in this case short sightedness and asthma. But actually during this mission we find out that another weakness is that they can emotionally react to people the personality knew.
The set-up for this is that a rich Mexican businessman has his young daughter adducted and held for ransom; he decides not to involve the authorities but to employ Dollhouse to get her back. Echo turns up looking like temp of the month, and immediately starts bossing the hostage takers around like you knew she would.
But she does have one strange turn where she gets a flashback of Sierra being wiped, suggesting some form of memory leakage is occurring.
Eventually they set up a meet and exchange, which for me is where this story went entirely awry. At the exchange Harry Lennix is covering Echo’s with a scoped automatic rifle, when things go predictably wrong. The personality that Echo has recognises one of the gang, and realises they won’t give the girl back sending her into an asthmatic attack. Her father tries to intervene and is shot, where Harry shoots the person who fired first. Does he then stop the other bad guys as they take their money, the girl and head away slowly on a motor cruiser? No, he drops the loaded weapon and runs to Echo, who isn’t even really hurt! That struck me as one of the dumbest things I’d seen since I last tuned to Knight Rider.
They cart Echo back to the Dollhouse base and are about to wipe her mind, but Harry argues they can still get the girl back if she remains Activated. It’s also revealed at this point that because of abuse the source of the memories received from the person Echo met she ultimately committed suicide, which doesn’t really sound like the Dollhouse much cares what memories they implant.
Echo tracks down the hostage takers, confronts them about how this one man amongst them with wipes them all out and in the chaos that ensues take the little girl. As a result the girl is saved and they all die, after Sierra turns up as an assassin to finish the last one off.
Everyone goes back to Dollhouse where the actives communally shower and then go to sleep in a five bed chamber in the floor of the main hall. Why are their only five actives? And why are they already naming them with ‘S’ as in ‘Sierra’, what happened to all the other letters?
We then jump to someone watching a video of Echo’s previous life in a room where two people have been shot to death, the person responsive takes a photo of her and puts it in an envelope to Paul Ballard with the words ‘Keep Looking’ written on the back.
I’m not actually ready to call this concept dunked yet, but I really hope the second story is much better than this. Probably my biggest disappointment was the dialogue which contained none of the usual Whedon zip and humour, it was entirely flat.
The performances were generally acceptable, and I even warmed a little to the rather obvious and predictable charms of Eliza Dushku, but there was no spark evident in anything that went on.
There was a telegraphed plotline about the imperfections in the Dollhouse process, and how these might manifest themselves, and of those who might want to make its existence public. But none of this presented an especially interesting or intriguing future, even if Joss has one planned.
We’ll get to find out next week if Dollhouse can erase the memory of this start, or I’ll be forced to relive it.