EPISODE REVIEWS: Dollhouse: “Ghost” (Season 1, Episode 1)

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The first part of our Fox Friday Night Deathslot Double Feature was of course Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The Second part is the debut of Dollhouse.

Yeah, I know it’s Joss Whedon, and yeah, I really liked Firefly. I didn’t like Serenity, however, and I’m indifferent to the Buffyverse. Just not my bag. I like Joss Whedon, however, and I think he’s really good at what he does, and I’m amazed by how many Whedonesque qualities have been stripmined by successful shows in the last few years. Bones, for one. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for another. (Seriously, that is just too freakin’ long and cumbersome a name. Can we just call it T2.5 from now on out? Sheesh!) Not that all these shows have alumnis from Joss’s previous shows, though certainly it doesn’t hurt.

Despite all this, I couldn’t muster much interest for Dollhouse. Blame it on the viral campaign that seemed specifically geared to annoy me. I just didn’t see anything that Joss could do with the questions of identity and who is a real human and who is a fake one that hasn’t already been done better in any Philip K. Dick story, or the last 4 seasons of Battlestar Galactica.

Happy to say, I was wrong.

While the pilot wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, it wasn’t bad either. It was enough to keep me interested.

The premise is that there's a high-end brothel that gets around the emotional and social problems that arise with their girls by completely wiping and re-writing their minds with whatever personality and abilities their Johns require. After a date, their minds are again wiped, and they're implanted with a wholly new one for the next date/mission/whatever. It's an efficient form of Science Fiction Prostitution, it's also obviously handy for spying.

We start out with Eliza Dushku bitching about her life to a stern English woman who’s trying to get her to do something for five years. Then we cut to a gratuitous motorcycle race and some fun music, then Eliza Dushku wears a really slutty dress (Not that I’m complaining) and she dances with a dude. The dude makes a point of giving her a present - a heart-locket-necklace thing - and everything about the scene would seem to indicate that he knows full well he isn't supposed to be doing this. Clearly he knows exactly what she is. Then she goes to her “Treatment” and her memory of the evening is wiped. Meanwhile a wealthy Hispanic girl is kidnapped from the home of her very wealthy father.

The Father calls The Dollhouse, who decide to use one of their “Actives” to resolve the situation. They program Eliza - called “Echo” in the show - with a fake personality that’s an aggregate of several real people with real-world skills that could help, and send her in to negotiate. She’s pretty good, and gets the Kidnappers to work on her terms, but then the dad gets pissy and starts yammering about The Dollhouse, which confuses her and gives her a moment’s flashback. It turns out one of the donors for her aggregate personality was kidnapped and raped as a young girl.

The next day on the docks, she meets the kidnappers, but freaks out when she recognizes one of them as the one who raped “her” decades before. The meeting goes bad, with the bad guys keeping the girl, the money, and shooting the dad. There’s some fake tension while The Stern Lady discusses pulling Echo from the case, but relents.

Echo figures out who the inside man is, and uses that to track him to a hideout, where she sets the kidnappers against each other and rescues the girl. Then a blonde Japanese “Active” busts in and kills all the kidnappers.

Echo is taken back and deprogrammed and sent to bed.

Tamoh Penniket, meanwhile, is an FBI agent who’s trying to crack “The Dollhouse Ring.” He only has a couple scenes of him getting called on the carpet (Intercut w/ him boxing), and following up on some leads.

The final scene had someone sitting naked in a room full of dead bodies watching a home movie of Echo before she became Echo. Someone offscreen asks her what she wants to be, and she says “I want to do it all.”

OBSERVATIONS:

While it was pretty good, and held my interest, it was definitely a pilot. It didn’t flow quite right, the relationships were all a bit too expositional, and it was choppy in places. I’m told it was partially re-shot at the network’s insistence, so I wonder how much of this is from version 1 and how much is from version 2. I’m thinking the bike chase and most of the nude scenes were from version 1. The talkier stuff was probably later, to telegraph stuff to the audience that probably was inferred elsewhere. Some of the dialog seemed unusually heavy handed for a whedon show. It also felt a tad derivative in places. Some of the characters felt derived from Whedon's past creations or archetypes (See below), but only a tad, and there's clearly some of River Tam in Echo. Particularly when she gets in to the schizophrenic babbling when the hostage situation goes wrong. The inside of The Dollhouse itself seemes aesthetically similar to the inside of Serenity, particularly "The Dorm" section, if it were built out into a Kalifornia Uber Alles kind of fascist prison camp/spa. And while I don't feel Whedon is ripping anything off here overtly, the idea of a 'meatbot' prostitute isn't new (Gibson did it, Varley did it, Rucker did it) by any means. There's also a bit of Alias here.

My main concern for the show is that it rises or fails based entirely on Eliza Dushku's ability to completely loose herself in completely unrelated parts every week. If the actress can't do that, the show just doesn't work. At all. Given the "It's a pilot, so we haven't bothered to tighten the bolts yet" nature of this episode, I don't feel I got a fair enough representation to judge. I do feel she portrayed a trampy girl in love quite well. I was somewhat less moved by her portrayal of an idealistic angry girl whom life had turned against. (All bitchy, no real sense of being trapped). I'm not sure how I feel about her as the Hostage Negotiator. I don't feel she *quite* conveyed the authority needed for that role, but I don't feel she *quite* blew it, either. We'll see how it goes.

The Dollhouse has a clientele that they’re loyal to, and who are evidently loyal to them and fully aware of their methods. The Rich Hispanic Dude clearly knows Echo’s been programmed, and has doubts about the legitimacy of her powers. The Dollhouse also justifies its existence by saying they’re helping people, though they seem reluctant to actually do so when things go wrong for them. Business first, moral enterprise later, I guess. Furthermore, the Dollhouse is clearly illegal, since the feds have spent two years trying to prove it exists.

What did Echo do that ruined her life and made her sign on to the Dollhouse for five years?

Who’s the guy who’s stalking her and killing people? My hunch is he's the dude she was dancing with/racing with at the start of the ep. My hunch is that the necklace thing will come back in to play later on. Probably it's a tracer or something to help him find The Dollhouse.

How does the Dollhouse intend to “Help the world?”

How much of what is wiped remains?

Where did they get the ‘samples of real people’ that they use to make the aggregate personalities?

There was quite a bit of incidental nudity for a TV show.

Speaking of which, in the words of Kayleigh, "They've got Boywhores, I see..."

Is there a link between the white slavery ring Tamoh Pennikett is shadowing and The Dollhouse?

I noticed a few characters reminded me of Firefly folk. Specifically, the Doctor seemed to me a bit like Kayleigh, and the guy who does the “Treatments” reminded me more than passingly of Wash. The older black guy who’s Echo’s handler struck me as potentially very interesting.

And that’s about that. Advance word is that episode 2 is much better, so I look forward to watching it.

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