Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In The Dollhouse

Just days after the low-rated Dollhouse surprisingly got renewed for a second year, the first season washed up on the UK’s Sci-Fi Channel. With it came a strange sense of déjà vu.

To begin with the well-documented production troubles between creator Joss Whedon and the FOX network, which saw the original pilot junked even after extensive reshoots, served as a painful reminder of Whedon’s dealings with FOX over the short-lived Firefly back in 2002. Finally watching the first episode, although labelled as a mix of La Femme Nikita and Charlie’s Angels by the press, the thing it most reminded me of was Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Joe 90.

While Dollhouse’s central conceit involved an organisation wiping its operatives minds before installing whatever personalities and skill sets their clients require, Joe 90 featured Joe McClaine receiving the experience of experts in different fields from the BIG RAT to become an agent for the World Intelligence Network. Here was Whedon’s return to television, which, after the sadly ill-fated Firefly should have been something of a celebration, and all I could think of was this puppet show I had seen as a kiddie.

As the muddled pilot of Dollhouse progressed, suffering its own crisis of identity as what was essentially the “adventure of the week” failed to gel with the far more intriguing construct forced into the gaps, I felt like I’d prefer to be back watching the old puppet show. Even though, being purposefully more character based, it didn’t employ anything like the same level of Supermarionation spectacle as previous Anderson shows like Thunderbirds or even Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, at least Joe 90 didn’t give off that faint whiff of compromise, knowing exactly what it was about.

In an opening scene reminiscent of Luc Besson’s spy thriller, the head of the Dollhouse explains to her reluctant new recruit that, “actions have consequences”. Meanwhile Eliza Dushku’s Echo was reminding her that a clean slate still shows what was on it before. It didn’t take an expert to see that this set up was a pubic “Fuck you!” to FOX for demanding changes. Still, the question remained, after getting fucked over by the network with Firefly, what the hell was Whedon doing back there?

I’m sure that I’d read somewhere that Whedon wanted Dushku to headline the show and since that’s where she had a production deal it meant going back into the belly of the beast. Even if the show gets itself in shape, and the sixth episode is apparently where it starts coming together (for anyone who can bother to stay the course that long), sadly the real weak link of Dollhouse is Dushku herself. With an acting range that goes all the way from A to... Ah!, she can just about play the party girl but failed as a hostage negotiator, even with the glasses. Looking back the Joe McClaine puppet was more convincing.

It’s been over eleven years since I saw Whedon up on stage during a memorabilia fair at The Shrine Auditorium, stumping for Buffy the Vampire Slayer along with Nicholas Brendon and, if I remember rightly, Charisma Carpenter. While Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was a hoot, having been off the air since Angel wrapped up five years back and on the evidence of Dollhouse, it makes me wonder whether Whedon’s time in the genre firmament has sadly come and gone.


At 6:56 am, Blogger wcdixon said...

Yeah...wondering about the Whedon touch or lack thereof with this one as well - though episode 6 was pretty wicked. But you shouldn't be enduring a series to just get to the 'good ones'...they should all be good.

At 8:01 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Yeah, I think the problem is, in the six or seven years since Firefly we’d had Battlestar Galactica, Lost and even Fringe which have taken these big ideas and, along with whatever other shows of the time, played a part in advancing genre storytelling. By comparison, the Dollhouse pilot seemed like a step back.

Now that may be down to network inference, wanting things spelled out and made more clear for an audience they didn’t trust to get what it was about, but that shows Whedon shouldn’t have gone back to FOX. Talk about, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

If he wanted to make a drama about a very unusual take on the human condition, he should have gone to a network or cable station that was interested in that. And, for that matter, signed up an actress who can actually convincingly play different characters.

At 5:20 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Oh, how I loved Buffy. And I was impressed he would supervise each and every Buffy script, suggest changes to the writers, change lines himself, keep a lot of control without being ridiculously invasive.

I couldn't make it through the Dollhouse pilot.

I couldn't stand the scientist guy. I like Olivia Williams as an actress but not in this role. The handler, Langton, seemed badly cast.

But, like you say, it's all about Dushku - she can do exactly one (1) character and she already did it on Buffy.

The parts that made me laugh like a drain were the bits where Echo has just been wiped again and wanders around.. "what is this.. where am I.." That's some fantastically bad acting.

The story is that Whedon was having lunch with Dushku and she asked him for an idea for a series she could star in. He went to the loo and came back with the idea of Dollhouse.. so this may be the first time that a writer has literally pulled an idea out of his arse.

At 8:51 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Ah, that's the story. And it's a lesson to everyone about the perils of not flushing properly.

At 7:57 pm, Blogger English Dave said...

Bad concept. Who are you supposed to root for when the lead character changes week to week? Plus a lack of decent Whedon one liners. Probably due to the .... uuuuhm sucky concept.

Would make a movie more than a series if La Femme Nikita hadn't been there first.


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