This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
You know how some buildings have secret thirteenth floors, closed off for reasons of superstition? Dollhouse has a secret 13th episode. On the 10th anniversary of its debut, let’s crack open the vault and look at “Epitaph One,” one of the most unusual hours of network television ever produced.
Dollhouse was the fourth series created by Joss Whedon – he of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fame – and his final foray onto the small screen before writing and directing one of the most successful movies of all time. “Successful” not being a word you would necessarily associate with Dollhouse.
Whedon’s last two shows had ended in cancellation and heartbreak, and by the end of Dollhouse’s first season, it was apparent this wouldn’t be the one that broke the streak. Which is, at least in part, why “Epitaph One” came to exist in the first place. Fox had commissioned a run of 13 episodes, a number which included a scrapped pilot – but the network needed that many full episodes in order to fulfil the DVD distribution deals it had already signed.
And so, when “Epitaph One” debuted in the US on July 24, 2009, it was not on television, but at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Later in the month, the episode would come out on DVD, but it never aired on the Fox network. That may actually have been for the best, because it saved any casual viewers from tuning into “Epitaph One” to discover a show that was almost unrecognizable from the week before.
“How does it feel to end the world, Ms DeWitt?”
Dollhouse was always a strange TV show, built around an incredibly high-concept pitch: a star who plays a different character every week, before having her memory of that episode’s events wiped away. Eliza Dushku played Echo, one of twenty-six alphabetically-named Actives, or “Dolls” – hireable people who can be installed with any memories and personality the customer wants. With a new mission each episode, the idea was that the show could hop genre, from action to mystery to romance.
“Epitaph One” ditches all that, jumping ahead ten years to 2019, a post-apocalyptic future where everything is constantly on fire and humanity is doomed. And in the TV show, cough cough.
Dollhouse was originally conceived as a show that could hop genres, going from a murder mystery one week to a romantic comedy the next. “Epitaph One” is less of a hop than a running leap. In the gap between episodes, it stops being a sci-fi show which could plausibly exist in the dark corners of our own reality and becomes, essentially, a straight-up zombie movie. Most of the regular cast appear only in flashbacks, and we’re instead introduced to a band of survivors led by Felicia Day’s Mag. It’s actually the first time Dollhouse has starred characters who are straightforwardly sympathetic.
In a medium that thrives on investing in characters over time, like a group of surrogate friends we probably check in with more often than our real ones, Dollhouse’s premise made its star into a cipher. Echo resets at the end of every episode, and many of her co-stars are also wipe-clean Dolls without much personality of their own.
Of the remaining regular cast, most are employees of the Dollhouse. Olivia Williams’ Adelle DeWitt and Fran Kranz’s Topher Brink are likeable characters, but it’s hard to get past the fact that their main motivation is finding better ways to monetise their inventory of empty human vessels. “Epitaph One” follows that to its logical conclusion, making it explicit that they are indeed the baddies.
This particular apocalypse was brought about by the Dollhouse technology, and specifically by Topher, who invented a way of mind-wiping people en masse. In flashbacks, we see how this has destroyed him and DeWitt – they’re unwitting villains, trying to make amends for what they did – but it’s a pretty heavy thing to put on two of your show’s leads, being responsible for the end of the world.
“Money, man. It’s like the main ingredient in crazy.”
This is one of many decisions which make you wonder, how the hell did “Epitaph One” ever get made?
The answer is actually fairly pragmatic. To solve the network’s DVD problem, Whedon pitched an idea that could be made at half the price, one that was a little more ambitious than the traditional cost-saving “bottle episode” and could be lifted out of the series without impacting the overall story arc. As he puts it, on the DVD’s “Making Dollhouse“ featurette: “I believe I had them at ‘half the cost of a regular episode’ and they didn’t hear the rest of it.”
“Epitaph One” was filmed alongside the season finale (which, confusingly enough, is the episode before this one), borrowing the crew from fellow Fox series 24. It uses most of the same sets – between scenes, the Dollhouse would be dressed for the apocalyptic future, then returned to its normal state, and back again. To save money on licensing music, episode writers Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon even recorded and released their own single to soundtrack the episode’s closing scenes.
These kinds of decisions, driven by practical considerations, actually resulted in a lot of what is most interesting about “Epitaph One.” To save time and money, the 2019 scenes were shot in a handheld style, on video rather than film, which is a nice way of distinguishing the two time periods: the flashbacks retain the show’s usual look, while the future is appropriately lo-fi and grimy. Eliza Dushku’s relative absence – because she was busy being in the finale – helps lend extra weight to the few times she does show up.
The single most important decision, though, was limiting the episode to a single, familiar location. It takes a space that the audience has had the course of 12 episodes to get used to, and subverts it. Just seeing the Dollhouse underlit is eerie, like wandering around your home in a power-cut, but it means that every little change – barricaded entrance or upgraded tech – comes with a tiny implied story.
This is pretty much how the episode itself functions: the characters stumble on the Dollhouse, but don’t know what it is, and have to gradually piece together its part in the apocalypse. Meanwhile, as they talk and throw out a whole new set of sci-fi concepts and terms – “actuals,” “dumb shows,” “birthmarks” – the audience is doing their own detective work, to piece together the state of the world outside, which we’re shown only briefly. It leaves plenty of room for our imaginations to fill in what has actually happened in the ten-year gap. And for the writers to do the same, in future episodes – if they ever got the chance.
“It is time to choose… Whether you want to be someone who lives on, the endless, epic arc of history, or a quickly discarded, decomposing vessel enriching the soil.”
By the time “Epitaph One” was made, the Dollhouse staff feared cancellation was looming – and it really shows. An epitaph is, after all, the inscription on a gravestone, and the episode was written as a send-off to the series. Its flashbacks function like a clip show of episodes that haven’t been made yet, giving us glimpses of where each character is headed after the first season, in case it never got to tell those stories.
As it turned out, Dollhouse would be renewed for one more season. The writers pitched Fox on setting it entirely in the “Epitaph” era, or at least including flashforwards in each episode, but these ideas were rejected. Instead, the second season filled in the gaps between the flashbacks in this episode, nudging the status quo gradually closer to the apocalypse.
The show would return to the setting one more time, for its final instalment, “Epitaph Two: The Return.” That episode even made it onto television – much to the confusion, presumably, of viewers who hadn’t bought the DVDs.
From the scrapped pilot onwards, Dollhouse spent its entire duration trying to figure out exactly what it was – appropriate for a show so focused on themes of identity. “Epitaph One” was one potential answer to that question, and though it never quite changed Dollhouse in the way its writers might have hoped, it certainly cast the week-to-week adventures in a very different light.
It might be a secret thirteenth episode, a locked-off floor you have to know about to access, but “Epitaph One” is possibly the single most interesting thing about Dollhouse. It’s certainly the weirdest.
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