Rewatching and reviewing the classics: ‘Dollhouse’ Season 1 (2009) (TV review)

Coming out five years after Joss Whedon’s Big Three series (“Buffy,” “Angel” and “Firefly”) left the airwaves, “Dollhouse” Season 1 (2009, Fox) had massive shoes to fill. On its original airing, I saw it as an experimental series that allowed Eliza Dushku to fulfill the actor’s dream of playing different roles while also having a steady job. And it was hard not to be distracted every time another Whedonverse alum (Amy Acker! Alan Tudyk!) popped up.

“Dollhouse” struck me as a deeper show on this rewatch; indeed, I’d argue it’s the most intellectually dense show of Whedon’s oeuvre and one of the most thematically rich sci-fi shows ever to air on network TV. On my first viewing, I was bothered that Dushku didn’t play wildly distinct characters each week, but I noticed the nuances on this viewing (although the most entertainingly varied performances come from Enver Gjokaj, who plays the doll Victor).

“Firefly” is cited as one of the best libertarian TV series of all time (although Whedon, ironically, is not a libertarian), but “Dollhouse” deserves consideration for the short list, too. The Philip K. Dickian premise is that people sign contracts for five years of service as a “doll” at the Los Angeles-based “Dollhouse” — one of 30 spread across the globe and run by the mysterious Rossum Corporation.

Their original personalities (Dushku’s is Caroline) are stored on wedges while they spend their time as childlike dolls (Dushku’s is Echo) in a gorgeous day spa exercising, doing arts and crafts projects, eating and sleeping – except when they are rented out by rich clients for a day. In that case, they are “imprinted” with one of the tens of the millions of personality/background/skill-set combos available in scientist Topher’s archives.

In the 13-episode first season (14 if you count the unaired pilot, “Echo,” which was repurposed throughout the season), “Dollhouse’s” message of course comes down on the side of the sanctity of an individual’s natural rights. Caroline, as we learn in “Echoes” (episode 7), was an environmentalist protestor who was caught by the Rossum Corporation. In a plea deal of sorts, she agrees to the five-year term as a doll; she’ll get a fresh start and lots of cash after the five years.

However, “Dollhouse” also plays devil’s advocate in robust fashion, with intimations that the Dollhouse is ethically above-board. In “Omega” (12), Caroline argues with her rescuer Alpha (Tudyk) that she shouldn’t take the opportunity to break out, because she hasn’t fulfilled her contract yet. Madeline (also known as Mellie and the doll November, and played by Miracle Laurie) genuinely thanks Dollhouse director Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) when her term is up – after all, from her perspective, no time had passed and she is substantially richer. On the other hand, Sierra (Dichen Lachman) was forced into life as a doll, as we learn in “Needs” (8). So sometimes these arrangements happen by coercion and sometimes by outright force, but at other times, they are voluntary.

Indeed, the concept of someone voluntarily becoming a doll shows an interesting flip-side to individual liberty: The idea that a person should not be forcefully prevented from any voluntary activity, even if it seems unethical to someone else; indeed, even if it seems unethical to the majority of people. Selling one’s soul is the sci-fi parallel to prostitution and organ sales.

While the question of the rightness of the doll-side arrangement hinges on whether it’s voluntary, there’s also the client side to consider. Rich people who would rent a human for a day would seem to be sleazy, but it’s not so simple. In Season 1, we see clients use dolls for both good (or at least pragmatic) and bad (or at least selfish) means – but surprisingly, the list of examples leans toward pragmatic: Echo is dispatched as a hostage negotiator (1, “Ghost”), a bodyguard to a pop diva (3, “Stage Fright”), an art thief who steals back stolen art (4, “Gray Hour”) and an older version of a troubled youth who helps the younger version (11, “Briar Rose”).

A borderline use of Echo comes in “True Believer” (5) when she’s programmed as a blind woman of faith whose infiltration of a cult assists the ATF. She’s put in serious danger, but the dangerousness of the cult is ambiguous. An unquestionably negative use of a doll comes in “The Target” (2), when an outdoorsman rents Echo and makes her the target of his “Most Dangerous Game” scenario.

In “Haunted” (10), a dead woman uses Echo’s body to attend her own funeral; this is somewhat of a selfish move, but it does allow her to mend her relationship with her family, so even this scenario does have a positive result. This is my favorite Dushku performance of the year, as she gets into the broad “Quantum Leap” aspects of the scenario, and the most comedic moment comes when Echo’s character is romanced by her own son and she nearly vomits over the edge of the rooftop.

Perhaps the most powerful example of the good a doll can do comes in “Man on the Street” (6): Patton Oswalt plays a man whose wife was killed just before he could show her the new house he had bought. So he rents Echo every year on the anniversary so he can experience the joyful moment that was stolen from him. Still, there’s an undercurrent of melancholy to this story: Oswalt’s character is not truly experiencing the moment, but a simulation. Similarly, in “Haunted,” we see that Topher is allowed to use Sierra for a play date every year on his birthday. And in “A Spy in the House of Love” (9), DeWitt secretly rents out Victor, imprinted as her devoted lover. The false reality keeps Topher content, but it enhances DeWitt’s loneliness.

And then there’s the romance between FBI Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) and his neighbor Mellie, which unfurls throughout the season. They do love each other, but Mellie is not a real person: She’s the doll November, imprinted as Mellie (by, as it turns out, Ballard’s secret ally in the Dollhouse, who hasn’t been revealed yet). In reality, she’s a woman named Madeline. Whedon has told some tragic romances through the years, and nothing makes me get choked up more than “The Prom,” but on paper, this one takes the cake because Ballard knows the one good thing in his life is not real, and he has to break up with Mellie – without telling her why — in order to protect her. Whew.

“Dollhouse” is set in the time of its airing, but with the additional wrinkle that rumors of Dollhouses date back to the 1980s (as we learn in “Man on the Street”), thus giving some verisimilitude to the premise. Well-connected people know Dollhouses exist, but to the Average Joe, they are an urban legend.

But whereas Dollhouses aren’t out in the open, they do operate without fear of being shut down by a government. It’s hard to say exactly whether Dollhouses are legal or illegal, because officially, they don’t exist. Suffice it to say that the right palms have been greased. The L.A. Dollhouse literally operates below ground, but DeWitt’s office is in a skyscraper above. Some law-enforcement officials use dolls in their operations, but off the books. Ballard investigates Dollhouse rumors like a one-case Fox Mulder, seeking to expose its crimes against humanity. Another government representative, Dominic (Reed Diamond), is an undercover NSA agent who is protecting the Dollhouse from nosy people like Ballard. But the relationship between Rossum Corp. and the feds isn’t exactly cozy: DeWitt has Dominic’s mind wiped when she finds out he’s an undercover agent, and she hires Ballard so long as he agrees to discredit his own work within the FBI.

Although all the characters other than Ballard and the dolls are structurally villains, they cover the whole ethical spectrum. DeWitt would seem to be the uber-villain, but when someone higher up the food chain desires to permanently transfer his mind to the body of Victor – thus buying the body for nine figures instead of the standard process of renting him – DeWitt balks at the idea, arguing that the original “Victor” (whose background we don’t know yet) owns the body. In other words, she purports that it’s unethical to permanently break the link between body and soul, but she’s OK with a temporary break.

Dollhouse employees are told the dolls are all volunteers, but it might as well be said with a wink. Topher (Fran Kranz), the science genius who streamlined the imprinting technology, is willing to believe it because he absolutely loves his job. Boyd (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler, doesn’t believe the dolls are all volunteers, but he wants to protect Echo, so he doesn’t rock the boat.

It’s tempting to circle around “Dollhouse’s” timeless “What does it mean to be human?” themes all day, but another interesting aspect to the series is its behind-the-scenes story. Originally, Whedon unveiled the essential points of the entire season in a pilot episode titled “Echo” (considered episode 0 on IMDB), but then he scrapped that hour (it’s included as a bonus feature on the DVD) and repurposed parts of it in almost every episode of Season 1. For example, “Echo” ends with Echo speaking the name “Caroline” before she goes to bed, and “Omega” ends with the same shot.

It’s as if Whedon was flustered by his experience on “Firefly” when he made a sweeping two-hour pilot, then was told by Fox to make a new, fast-moving episode (“The Train Job”) to launch to show to TV viewers. But for “Dollhouse,” he changed directions on his own and decided to go the slow-burn route after all; this time, there was no intervention from Fox. And it’s a good thing, because the slow-burn approach is clearly better. Too much information is jam-packed into “Echo.”

The last episode of Season 1 is also unorthodox: “Epitaph One” (13) is on the DVD, but it didn’t air on TV. The action jumps ahead 10 years to a post-apocalyptic 2019 when the Dollhouse technology has gone mainstream and now Actuals are fighting Actives in the streets. It’s a nice thematic capper to the season because it firmly comes down against Dollhouses. But in terms of plot, it complicates matters: It has some elements – Whiskey’s (Acker) facial scars are repaired, Dominic is out of the attic and Caroline is in the body of a young girl – that will require explanation in Season 2. Perhaps Whedon decided to give a peek at the conclusion of his grand narrative after having his storytelling interrupted on the prematurely canceled “Angel” and “Firefly.”

By the end of my rewatch, I decided that “Dollhouse” isn’t merely an experimental series, it’s the headiest Whedon series of them all. Plus, this season is extra meaty because each episode is about five minutes longer than the 44-minute standard, part of Fox’s marketing strategy at the time. To be sure, having the geekiest sci-fi ideas is not the same as being the best Whedon series. Early episodes have an “Eliza’s role of the week” feel, and “The Target” is a flat-out “Most Dangerous Game” adaptation.

But “Dollhouse” gets under your skin with its bevy of approaches to the concept of individual humanity. It’s not a character – a Buffy, an Angel or a Captain Mal — that drives the show, but rather the aching lack of a character to latch onto. We “see” Caroline every week, but we don’t know Caroline. We sympathize with Echo as we would any innocent child, but we can’t see her grow into a mature adult. We begin to care for an Active over the course of an hour, only to have them snatched away at the end, never to exist again. It’s disconcerting to wonder if our own sense of self could someday become so fleeting, either through cutting-edge technology or the opposite: brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

“Dollhouse” is a world where Echo climbing onto a precarious ledge to grab a computer-disc wedge with Caroline’s imprint (“Omega”) has the same tension as if she were rescuing the real Caroline. That’s a weird achievement, but it’s certainly a fresh one.