DVD - Image N/A Sound N/A Extras N/A
BLU-RAY - Image A- Sound B Extras B
"Ghost," "The Target," "Stage Fright," "Gray Hour," True Believer," "Man On the Street," "Echoes," Needs," "A Spy In the House of Love," "Haunted," "Briar Rose," "Omega"
"Epitaph One," "Echo"
by Jefferson Robbins They're committing a grand social experiment over there at FOX, using some of the most loyal genre lovers in fandom as their rhesus monkeys. The disease they seek to wipe out, it appears, is the intermediary of the critic. Take much-abused, much-adored TV creator Joss Whedon; kick dirt in the face of his latest brainchild, "Dollhouse", when the poor thing is too weak to stand; and then, upon achieving maximum buzz by holding back longed-for portions of the resulting science-fiction series, release them through a hidden proxy and pretend it's a leak. It's pandering to geeks' idea of the Internet as a wild frontier, where the dispossessed can build a community and you can't stop the Signal, man. Meanwhile, for critics with a yen to stay independent of the studio's manipulation, they send out watermarked, shit-quality burns minus the fourth disc in the "Dollhouse" home video release. That missing platter features basically all the supplements any reasonable person would expect with their purchase, as well as the original, scrapped pilot "Echo" and the unaired thirteenth episode, "Epitaph One." So any critical analysis--like the one I'm about to perform--can be written off as sour grapes, spilt milk, the breast-beating of a self-appointed arbiter of good taste who's just mad because he didn't see it first.
Damn right I'm mad, because FOX is not the good guy in this equation. They are not Browncoats standing nobly against the critical Alliance. These are people hunting for ways to turn the online frontier into a trading post and company store. They're the ones who lost control of the workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine a month before release, screaming about intellectual property and lost revenues, only to see the film gross $85 million in a single weekend. (Notice that as of this writing, nobody's been fingered in that particular caper, despite FOX's claim that it cried all the way to the FBI.) Nary a whisper of corporate complaint has accompanied the "Dollhouse" leak. Pure coincidence, I'm sure, that it happened the week before Whedon and star/producer Eliza Dushku pimped the DVD and Blu-ray of season one at the nerd Lourdes of Comic-Con. It's cynical bullshit, meant to turn Whedon's fans, without their knowing it, into FOX's fans. Talk about brainwashing.
All the intrigue might have been worth it, if "Dollhouse" were truly a valuable contribution to sci-fi TV. Whether due to FOX's meddling or to a core concept that really wasn't strong enough to support a series, it manages to give us mostly the kind of adventure show television has bred us to expect. The implicit reason to watch it in the first place, per the network's cheesecakey, parody-ripe promotional campaign, was that Eliza Dushku might get naked.
The premise: Dushku is Echo (named Caroline in her previous life), an indentured servant of the shadowy Dollhouse. She's one of several "Actives," mellow drones slotted with whatever personality their employer/owner's ultra-rich clients demand. From their five-star spa deep underground, Echo and her fellow Dolls are dispatched to fulfill someone's needs or fantasies: they can be a whore, an assassin, your dead sister, a pastry chef, whatever. "Dollhouse"'s focus-tested appeal begins with the opening credits, scored to Jonatha Brooke's abominable soft-porn pop. The introductory images assure us that Dushku will at various points slip into some lacy stockings, practice low-impact yoga, and wield a gun. Minus the yoga, what's not for a lard-assed couch jockey to love? But the show, already in over its head by asking its star to take on new personae with the ease of a Streep or a Winslet (or at least a Field), also wants to cast her as an unconscious insurgent. Whatever's left of Caroline inside Echo is straining to the surface, hungry to bring the Dollhouse down.
Joss Whedon has always been at his best when he's denied, or denies himself, enough rope to pull a Carradine. "Firefly" was smothered and discarded by FOX, yet it was good enough, and beloved enough by fans, to merit an equally strong feature film, Serenity. "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" wed Sondheim to supervillains and became a classic in a mere 42 minutes.1 Go all the way back to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and you'll find Whedon willing to scramble genres in order to transcend them, to get beyond the patterns of the past. But "Dollhouse" wants to make us comfortable with the discomforting idea of the soul as software. To do that, it routinely circles back to small-screen clichés to help us digest its heavier propositions, which honestly ain't that heavy. Even Whedon's A-Team from past projects--"Angel"'s Tim Minear, "Buffy"'s Jane Espenson, "Dr. Horrible"'s Maurissa Tancharoen, and brother Jed Whedon--can't shake the show loose from its middlebrow perch.
1.1 "Ghost" If any of Whedon's throughlines survived FOX's rejiggering, it was probably "Dollhouse"'s embrace of Campbellian fairytale and the oldest SF trope of all: science, and scientists, exceeding moral boundaries. (Whedon is writer-director for this episode, the one that actually aired as the pilot.) At a figurative midnight, Echo/Caroline must break away from the handsome lover who's gifted her with a heart-shaped pendant--which gets lost the moment she slides into a hi-tech chair to have that particular personality erased. All her implantations and extractions take place in the upper-story lab of techie/exposition monkey Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the highest point in the gorgeously constructed Dollhouse set, and there's a lot of James Whale lightning involved. What's more, staff medic Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) sports facial scars from an attack by a rogue Active named Alpha that make her appear stitched out of parts.2 Outside the Dollhouse, loose-cannon FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) vows to bring the nouveau slave plantation to light. His fellow agents call him a crackpot and the Dollhouse, yes, "a fairytale." Harry Lennix, The Man Who Will Be Obama when they do the TV movie3, is Echo's new "Handler" Boyd Langton--a combination pimp and bodyguard, but, y'know, with a conscience.
To help a crimelord get his abducted daughter back, Echo receives the imprint of a buttoned-down hostage negotiator--created, like all Dollhouse imprints, from templates provided by real people. Who'd-a thunk that the implanted personality, herself kidnapped as a child, would in the line of duty encounter her very own kidnapper?
1.2 "The Target" Was there ever another story as thoroughly tapped for boob-tube adventures as "The Most Dangerous Game"? Handsome dilettante Richard Connell (the adept Matt Keeslar, his character named after "The Most Dangerous Game"'s own author) wants a girl to go whitewater kayaking with, and Echo takes up the paddle. Connell is also a psychopath who fucks her in a tent, then hunts her through the badlands with a compound bow. She has only Langton and her own resurgent individuality to protect her. Back in civilization, somebody's feeding Ballard tidbits about Caroline and the Dollhouse, which he then blabs to the stupefying cleavage of his love-struck neighbour Mellie (Miracle Laurie). It's terribly-written stuff, by "Buffy"/"Angel" veteran Steven S. DeKnight, and as this ep's director he also fails to maintain continuity in the pursuit scenes. (Figure out, if you can, how Echo starts to climb down a cliff on one side of a canyon, then continues her descent on the opposite slope.) Fairytale memes persist, with Echo entering a dangerous house while lost in the woods. Did the credits promise nudity? In the first minute of this instalment, Echo sits demurely naked amid the corpses of her fellow Actives.
1.3 "Stage Fright" Sweet merciful Jesus. Tancharoen and Jed Whedon turn in the single worst entry of this series to date by rewriting that episode of "CHiPs" where Nelson and Ponch have to protect Satanic rock star Donny Most. Seriously, there's the link, go watch that instead. The story of a pop superstar who collaborates with her stalker in her own murder while Echo stands guard as backup singer/ninja... Well, it's just abysmally bad, and beyond a sardonic homage to The Day of the Jackal, only interesting for small points of advancement in the larger story arc. Four Dolls meet as strangers outside the Dollhouse; Ballard proves he can punch out three hardened Russian mobsters despite a fresh gunshot wound; Dollhouse chief executive Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) allows Echo to solve a problem in a way an Active shouldn't be able to manage; and Echo forms a friendship with fellow Doll Sierra (Dichen Lachman). There, now I'm off to have my memory wiped.
1.4 "Gray Hour" Wait, why the fuck is she a midwife? Can't rich people hire actual midwives for a lot cheaper? And that's just the prologue. The real story is Echo as a hot safecracker chick, escorting a rich brat on a major vault heist. Echo's "Taffy" is an ass-kicking burglar--but with her hoochie outfit and thigh-high boots, the prostitution themes of "Dollhouse" have never been clearer. In fact, she poses as a hooker as part of her cover story, brags about her tits (the show cuts back from commercial straight to her lacy black bra), and "goes down" on a safe to get it open. As with her character Faith on "Buffy", Dushku is convincing as a bad girl--and when Taffy's remotely mindwiped by a cellphone call, she's equally convincing as a chowderhead. All this to reintroduce Alpha, the missing Active, as a genius-level villain who's toying with Echo and with the Dollhouse that built him. Oh, and Echo learns the power of art by contemplating a Picasso. And does The Graduate thing at the bottom of the Dollhouse pool.4
Extras: Whedon and Dushku sit down for a commentary on "Ghost." Whedon complains about small technical details and implies that the opening motorcycle race was inserted solely to get FOX on his side with an early action sequence. He has near-total recall of the minutiae behind almost every scene. ("That was a little sad, because the dust clouds were so bad you couldn't see the gunshots.") Dushku sighs over her leading men and really likes seeing her name with a producer credit. Give Whedon some props for genuinely liking his actors and for noting ways in which a good director can force performers to play off each other in separate shots. Alas, the whole thing quickly lapses into a conversation between two hipster kids one row behind you at the theatre--with, as usual, the boy doing most of the talking. It's the sort of chatter nobody wants to overhear, let alone pay for.
1.5 "True Believer" By now, we've seen that the Dollhouse's client registry includes mobsters, music promoters, new parents who want to give birth at home, and a U.S. senator from Arizona who looks nothing like John McCain. Echo has to infiltrate a Jesus freak compound as the remote "eyes" for an ATF search warrant; the twist is that she's blind, leading to a lot of miraculous healings and Bible readings and ultimately a complete cheapening of any religious questions in favour of silly punch-'em-ups and action dialogue. ("God sent me here with a message for you, and that message is 'Move your ass!'") Scowly Dollhouse security chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond) argues that Echo is too glitchy to be trusted on delicate assignments. Nobody listens, despite the fact that he's only being reasonable in light of what's come before. Topher draws chuckles when he's skeeved out by an unexpected erection among the male Dolls. Indeed, Topher is really the only comic relief in sight throughout the series--but because he's a ninny, an egotist, and a brainwasher, it's a desperate kind of humour with very few laughs attached.
1.6 "Man On the Street" Wow, I had no idea the regular folk in Whedon's world knew so much about the Dollhouse--even if, as presented here, what they know is just rumour and urban legend, reported in interstitial news segments. There's so much in public view that it's sort of shocking for the overall gestalt of the show. Joe and Jane Average convey outrage, envy, sexual curiosity, near-religious admiration, and lack of surprise. Whedon, writing this episode, gets a talking head to advance his thesis: that personality transplants would lead to the end of the world. Yes, individual identity is important...and? Egoless and trusting, Sierra is sexually abused inside the Dollhouse, while Echo is assigned to take on the identity of a software mogul's dead wife. As the bereaved billionaire, Patton Oswalt has a nice dialogue with Ballard (fresh from beating up five security goons whilst getting Tasered, such a super-mega-badass is he) and draws the best performance from the stoic Penikett so far. The bigger question is, how did the Dollhouse acquire or reconstruct the dead wife's identity? For that matter, how does Topher obtain any of the personalities he keeps on his chunky flash drives? There's an episode I'd like to see. A knockdown fight between Ballard and Echo gives the Whedon audience what they've waited for, but the most shocking arc of the hour (strange to say, in an episode that features the rape of a woman who is essentially a child) is what becomes of poor Mellie. Echo continues to outgrow her Doll state, which would seem anathema to an organization that depends on the total erasure of identity. For some reason, though, powerful people keep patting her on the head and sending her on her way. SF reference spotting: Suspected of Sierra's rape, fellow Active Victor (Enver Gjokaj) is subjected to a "Voight-Kampff" test.
1.7 "Echoes" If "Stage Fright" is a "CHiPs" episode, this one is "The Naked Time." There's a biotoxin loose at a Los Angeles college, freed from a lab underwritten by the Dollhouse's parent company, the Rossum Corporation. Echo dresses like a Sailor Moon cosplayer and goes off-mission to investigate, periodically flashing back (under the toxin's memory-evoking properties) to her life as young animal-rights activist Caroline along the way. Echo and the other Actives prove resistant to the drug but the Handlers and the Dollhouse staff aren't; and the show teeters from melodramatic right over into fucking silly. Caroline's mission to document Rossum's animal abuse in the college labs led to her capture by the Dollhouse, after her boyfriend caught a fatal bullet. It's all built to play up Caroline/Echo as an idealist, consigned to the Dollhouse for heroic acts. I suppose that means we have to root for her.
1.8 "Needs" The first purely sad and disturbing episode of the series, by writer Tracy Bellomo, implies that all the Dolls' ties to their own identities have finally been cut. Suffering memory surges and erratic behaviour following the events of "Echoes," the troubled Actives run loose in the Dollhouse, with full personality sets but no clear memories of their past lives. It's a No Exit scenario, as the Dolls identify their place of captivity in a way that makes sense in light of their characters and live out their own mytho-heroic narratives to their necessary conclusion. Echo's brief moment of free will grants Ballard, cashiered from the FBI, the impetus he needs to keep searching for her.
Extras: Whedon's back, flying solo on "Man on the Street," and it may sound like a strange complaint about a director commentary, but HE NEVER STOPS TALKING. He praises longtime producer Marti Noxon for turning him on to Patton Oswalt, cops to writing this episode "faster, literally, than anything I've probably ever written," and decries his own scene where Langton punches Sierra's rapist through a plate-glass window. "The idea that the man rescues the girl from being violated through violence is the kind of macho crap that I've spent a lot of my time trying to work against, but this is one of those situations where the needs of the story have to come above my political beliefs." Dude, fuckin' please.
1.9 "A Spy In the House of Love" Andrew Chambliss's script divides the Actives up into Rashomon eyewitnesses as Dominic, Topher, and Langton trail a mole who's infiltrated the Dollhouse. Imprinted as an expert interrogator (at her own independent suggestion, something that still doesn't set off the proper alarms), Echo grills the facility's top operatives. "We're pimps and killers," Langton tells her, "but in a philanthropic way." Langton is probably the show's most fascinating element: He's skeptical of the Dollhouse's treatment of its sheeplike Actives, but not too skeptical to kill and torture, maintaining all along that he's doing it for Echo. It's a nice trick, having a brutal thug as your show's moral centre, played by an actor so graceful that no one questions it until a second viewing. Further issues are raised about the Dollhouse's technology and purpose, Ballard finds himself sleeping with the enemy, and it turns out that DeWitt's not only president of the Dollhouse, but also a client. The repercussions of these characters' pursuits are nicely brought home, and Dushku provides the expected fan service by shaking her ass in dominatrix gear.
1.10 "Haunted" It's the "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" episode of The Prisoner, only with a bunch of twits instead of Patrick McGoohan. A wealthy friend of DeWitt's buys the farm, though it turns out she also paid to have Echo programmed with a copy of her personality in order to seek out her murderer. The idle rich get justice and a chance to view their own funeral? Great. It's probably part of Whedon's overall message that the most dangerous technology can become a plaything or weapon of the elite, but that message is muted by the Agatha Christie silliness on display. We see the deceased woman for only three seconds, so Dushku is safe in having no performance against which she might suffer in comparison. Back at the Dollhouse, Topher masturbates by giving life to his own doppelgänger in Sierra's body, as a pathetic birthday gift to himself. Langton--the guy who'll shoot you through both knees while taking the moral high ground--warns that reviving the dead holds the seeds of world destruction. "I'm not planning to preside over the end of Western civilization," DeWitt protests. I guess she didn't get the fourth disc in her set, either.
1.11 "Briar Rose" Jane Espenson hammers Whedon's pet fairytale themes home, then beats them to death. Ballard invades the Dollhouse proper, a onetime Dollhouse consultant (Alan Tudyk) ridiculously in tow. (God, how I've wished I could give Topher a nice stun-gun treatment the way Ballard does here.) Implanted with Dominic's identity, Gjokaj carries off the kind of impersonation Dushku couldn't handle in "Haunted," and Tudyk offers a welcome variant on the crazy-partner archetype. Langton and Ballard finally throw down, but given Ballard's track record of flattening half a dozen attackers at a time, it's not the most believable fight scene of the series. Echo's prince comes for her, by the by, and it's not who you'd think.
1.12 "Omega" How boring, how rote, that the übervillain of "Dollhouse" is revealed as no righteous V For Vendetta mastermind, but rather a sexually-obsessed knife freak who just likes cutting up women. And how unfortunate that we'll probably be hearing from him again in Season Two. Alpha is not an antagonist because the Dollhouse made him so in a burst of Promethean fire--he's simply the product of flawed ingredients, the Abby Normal brain nabbed from the wrong jar. The drama surges over the top on a rising tide of overwrought dialogue (Tim Minear writes and directs), complete with comic-book interpretations of Nietzsche, Caroline's disclosure that she doesn't want to be set free because "I did sign a contract," and the ludicrous sight of Alan Tudyk pointing a gun at a hard drive. FOX cut the season short at this juncture, saying the thirteenth episode didn't count towards the number contracted, or some such bullshit. Thus, for regular TV viewers, the flawed series betrays any promise it showed heretofore, as the fiercely upright Ballard goes to work for an organization of slavers and Echo goes back to sleep in her posh little glass coffin, her own daylight name on her lips.
1.13 "Epitaph One" It made sense for FOX to can this last episode once they'd decided to renew "Dollhouse". It's the kind of thing you create as a series-ender, when cancellation looks imminent. If aired post-renewal, this showcase of humanity driven mad by displaced identity no longer makes sense, unless it's some divergent future. But the show's not about time travel, and Whedon (who takes story credit here with brother Jed and Tancharoen as writers) was clearly aiming in this direction all along. In 2019, Los Angeles--and probably the world--has taken Cormac McCarthy's Road to brutal anarchy. The Dollhouse technology no longer needs wires or chairs, and some foreign power has turned much of the U.S. population into mindless killers called "Butchers."5 Those who possess the technology privately are refugees from their own bodies, jumping from one host to another and evicting innocent souls as they go. Audience proxy Mag ("Dr. Horrible"'s Felicia Day), Han Solo mimeograph Zone6 (Zack Ward), and some attractive chaff crawl down to the Dollhouse's hidden reach to get clear of any personality-zapping cellular calls. (It's an inversion of civilization-under-siege paradigms, swapping the highest defensible point for the lowest.) The Doll called Whiskey haunts these halls in a long white dress, embodying Whedon's Frankenstein fixation, and recovered memories tell of the Rossum Corporation's initiative to phase out temporary Dolls in favour of permanent body upgrades for its wealthiest customers. The meat thievery went global, and when everyone can become anyone, why bother to have a society anymore? The technology must be controlled, Whedon argues, and there's a parallel with the way FOX in particular, but media companies in general, regard the home users of their entertainments. They claim piracy will destroy us all, or at least destroy the status quo. Again, I didn't get the disc with "Epitaph One," so I downloaded a torrent of the episode7--the status as FOX would have it is not quo, and I, the critic, aim to misbehave.
This bowdlerized edition of "Dollhouse" arrives on a cerulean blue copy-protected DVD-R that hates every player I own. Image quality is nice and artifacty, with noise in the shadows and colours blown out. (The mahogany tones of the Dollhouse's luxe interior look like they were applied with lipstick.) The compressed-sounding DD 5.1 audio goes out of sync from the video in episode 3, but that was the one about the pop singer, so somebody did me a favour. Disc skip comes standard. For the record, the iTunes-quality "illegal" download of "Epitaph One" looks and sounds better than this. Originally published: July 27, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers "Dollhouse" looks and sounds a wee bit better on Blu-ray, I reckon, than it does on that set of coasters Jefferson was assigned. But the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation bests the show's HD broadcast, too--what a difference not needing to be funnelled through a million feet of fibre-optic cable makes. Disregarding some DVNR that was obviously applied at the mastering as opposed to the telecine stage (lest viewers confuse 35mm film grain for signal interference, I guess), the image is well-defined and sports impressive dynamic range. Saturation can be a tad intense, such that Olivia Williams's makeup periodically leans towards the clownish end of the spectrum. Still, enjoy it while it lasts: shot on video, as apparently the rest of the series will be henceforth to help shear the budget, episode 1.13, "Epitaph One," is like returning to Kansas from Oz. (It's also comparatively soft and lacking in anything resembling pure black.) The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is similar across the board, i.e., consistently loud--maybe even a tad harsh where voices are concerned--but never particularly enveloping. For what it's worth, the discarded pilot, "Echo," is in Dolby Digital 5.1 instead and suffers from interlacing artifacts, suggesting that its native resolution is 1080i or lower.
A 3-disc consolidation of its 4-disc standard-def counterpart, this BD packs the bulk of its bonus material onto the third platter, starting with a commentary track for "Epitaph One" by Whedon's brother Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen, who I gather are married or something from the number of times Whedon territorially refers to Tancharoen as "sweetie." It's an informative yakker once you get past the stoner vibe these two project, revealing, among other things, that the episode was actually shot by the crew of "24" and that it marks the first time all series you hear "prostitute" used in conjunction with the Dollhouse, owing to FOX relaxing their ban on the word for home video and international markets. "Echo" is considered a special feature in and of itself, and I heartily endorse skipping it. Joss Whedon sums up its central problem elsewhere as essentially putting the cart before the horse: Introducing "Dollhouse" the concept without establishing "Dollhouse" the series, it gives you a fuckton of tedious exposition-cum-philosophizing but little sense of the show as a weekly viewing experience. Other missteps generally prove the wisdom of the network's demands for reshoots, like Boyd already being an ingrained Handler, Boyd and Topher being bosom buddies, Topher being petrified of Saunders (here nicknamed "The Phantom"), and the Dollhouse being nervous enough about Ballard to have Echo Raymond Shaw him.
The featurette "Making 'Dollhouse'" (21 mins., HD) is where most of the explication on the abortive pilot comes from; a dishevelled Joss Whedon dominates the piece and seems to want to purge himself of the series' growing pains by recapping them at length with his inimitable mix of smugness and self-deprecation. Williams, new to American television, strikes the grimmest/funniest chord, however, when she reflects that she had no idea what it meant to be put on hiatus three weeks into filming. "Coming Home" (7 mins., HD) is a puff piece about the Whedon Stock Company reunion that "Dollhouse" represents, while "Finding Echo" (5 mins., HD) is a mutual-appreciation society between Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku that hums along as you'd expect until suddenly Dushku tells us she bow-hunts elk for sport. Rounding out the disc: "Designing the Perfect Dollhouse" (6 mins., HD), a Whedon-hosted tour of the set in which he leaves no architectural idiosyncrasy unturned; and "A Private Engagement" (6 mins., HD), wherein cast and crew--including Felicia Day, whom Whedon suspects is a Doll due to her dazzling array of talents--are quizzed on the moral implications of imprinting. (I liked Alan Tudyk's answer best: he wishes he could be programmed to put something back where he found it.) The remaining extras break down as Jefferson discusses in his review; curiously, a sticker on the keepcase claims that "Epitaph One" and "Echo" are exclusive to Blu-ray, but they're part of the DVD package as well. Originally published: August 5, 2009.
1. Is it Whedon's "Dr. Horrible" model--give it away online for free, count on die-hard fans to buy the discs out of personal loyalty--that FOX is co-opting here? And if so, isn't it rich that Whedon demonstrated Internet commerce for the suits who buggered "Firefly?" return
2. Saunders's story arc is perhaps the show's most compelling, and throughout--in Acker's lovely reactions to her fellow players, in seemingly throwaway bits of dialogue--Whedon and co. sprinkle breadcrumbs that will reward the faithful viewer come Episodes 12 and, if you feel like paying for it or stealing it, 13. return
4. The standout here is Gjokaj, whose Victor leads Ballard on a merry chase; he proves the best of all at assuming new identities. Never a slouch at casting talented newcomers in important parts, Whedon provides three faces to watch: Gjokaj, Lachman, and Laurie. return
6. Is ten years really enough time for given names to become this ridiculous? return
7. I didn't bother to hunt down the original "Echo" pilot, because at this point, it might as well be fanfic. Good pilots get scrubbed and reshot all the time. It's not canon if it doesn't reach the screen, and there's no compelling reason to care just because the showrunner once wrote a wonderful musical for a vampire hunter.