Dollhouse (2009-2010): Gone But Not Forgotten

Have you ever bought something impulsively and realized that you probably should have thought it through? I know I have. But, I’m just a nobody, I’m not a major network that can pour thousands upon thousands of dollars into a TV show before they think it through. Networks can make some boneheaded moves. I can see some shows that would make you question the intelligence of network executives. Hell, I covered one of my “what were they thinking” shows in a past episode – Cop Rock! But unlike those other shows, the show I want to talk about was actually good! It’s just that it wound up causing the network a lot of headaches. I am talking about an excellent Joss Whedon little-known project called Dollhouse. This show was awesome. It had amazing actors, great action, and insane twists. But it also touched on some pretty icky themes that I still have a hard time getting over. I have been meaning to talk about this show for a long time and I can’t wait to start  So let’s delve into the controversial show called Dollhouse. In this episode of Gone But Not Forgotten

Dollhouse was created by the legendary writer Joss Whedon, who’s now become a somewhat infamous figure. The man behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Toy Story, Firefly, and the list goes on and on. Dollhouse was created during a lunch between Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku where they discussed her career and her recent development deal with Fox. Inspired by Dushku’s life as an actress, Whedon came up with the premise of people who were hired out to be everybody’s desire. If you think about it, it’s a brilliant allegory for being an actor. You have to turn into someone for their entertainment. But it’s a dark thought as this also means you are not a human being but just a toy. 

I think the goal of Dollhouse was to show that even in a place of vulnerability strength can be found.

The timing of approaching Fox with the idea of Dollhouse was very fortuitous as the 2007 writers’ strike was just about to start. Fox quickly gave the okay for a 7 episode order without even writing a pilot script. My theory is that after they blew it with another Whedon project Firefly, they didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Firefly was a fan-favorite show that Fox was criticized for bungling with bad timeslots and network interference. It’s really all conjecture on my part. So take that with big ol grain of salt. I think that big factor was probably that Eliza Dushku had a lot of sway with the network back then. But regardless Fox bought it and it would wind up biting them in the ass.   But more on that later

So let’s sum up Dollhouse. A worldwide corporation called the Rosum Corp runs a service for the rich called the Dollhouse.  This service is that they can rent “actives”, also called dolls, to live out their fantasies or to use them for special tasks. What’s special about Actives is that they are people who have their personalities removed and imprinted with new ones. So essentially you are creating an entire new human being to live out your fantasy or mission. Because new personalities can come with new skills, all to suit what you want from your doll. Many clients rent dolls for different operations.  So you could rent a doll to be a thief, a daredevil, a hostage negotiator, a bodyguard, a blind cultist…..yeah the show got pretty weird. 

Even though sex was a huge undertone of the show, it did involve a lot of action as many clients used the dolls for assignments that could not be linked to them. So we would have episodes where Echo our main doll was used to break into a vault or go undercover to take down bad guys. Other episodes would show other dolls becoming assassins or spies.  So there were many aspects of the concept of the show that could be explored.

But, yes it was a dark show, the funny thing was that it was dressed up like a typical network sci-fi series. This is why Dollhouse is quite frankly… brilliant, it sneaks up on you with a depth you never saw coming. 

As I stated before this all began with Eliza Dushku, who was a star in the Whedonverse. Dushku played one of the most famous characters in the Buffy universe as the troubled second vampire slayer Faith. As a Buffy fan, I loved her and was looking forward to her eventual spin-off. Buffy had just ended and word on the street was that Faith and Spike would have their own show, The concept I heard was Faith on a motorcycle and Spike as a ghost. Then Eliza passed. 

At the time reports said that Eliza Dushku didn’t want to be typecast as Faith and wanted to do something different. Instead she chose to star in the criminally overlooked TV series called Tru Calling. Maybe one day I can cover that show, because that needs to come back. Hopefully, enough of you will demand an episode. 

But back to Dollhouse. A few years after Tru Calling ended, Fox approached Dushku on 8/26/2007. They made her a development offer. The deal was they would create projects with her approval to star in. In an interview with suicidegirls.com Dushku said:

“We sat down and I invited him to lunch after I did the business deal and decided that Fox, we’d had a cool relationship in the past and I wanted to do something else and I wanted to get back into a television show. I had him on the brain for sure but I hadn’t called him yet, but I sort of took a leap of faith and set things up with Fox and then called Joss. We went to a four-hour lunch where I just sort of used my womanly wiles. No, we’ve become such good friends, kind of like brother and sister and kind of like he was my watcher, my handler from when I first moved out to L.A. when I was 17 and I was a little bit of a wild child. He’s watched me and helped me and taught me over the years. I told him how bad I wanted and needed him back and he accepted and here we are”.

After the writer’s strike was over productions began. Casting on this show was the most important factor in its success. They needed actors who could play multiple characters sometimes scene by scene. These actors have become my favorites over the years. It’s very rare that a show comes around with constant brilliant performances. Even though Whedon shows tend to be filled with excellent actors, I think Dollhouse was the best Whedon casting ever done.

First up you have your classic Whedon-verse actor Amy Acker who played Doctor Claire Saunders, a traumatized woman who had survived a brutal attack from the psychotic killer known as Alpha. Dr.Saunders was in charge of the health of the other dolls.  It’s later revealed that Saunders was never a doctor. She was an active named Whiskey, who was a victim of her fellow active named Alpha. He killed the first Dr.Saunders in the attack and left her with horrific scars   This made her useless as an active, so Topher created her personality as the new Doctor Saunders. Claire is devastated when she finds out. She refuses to go back to her original personality since essentially she will die as Claire will be erased. This leads to the question of whether or not Claire is a real person.  This was when Dollhouse was at its best, exploring questions about human nature and identity.

Reed Diamond played Laurence Dominic, the head of security at the dollhouse. He was a jerk who took his job a bit too seriously. He was cruel toward the dolls since he didn’t consider them humans but living objects. It’s later revealed that he’s secretly a spy for the NSA. Diamond seems to have a specialty in portraying stuck-up scumbags. I remember him playing a similar jackass in a wasted potential legal show called Franklin and Bash. I liked Laurence Dominic, sure he was a sleazeball, but he was also very capable and willing to make hard decisions that were morally wrong at times. However he got the results that were needed and by the end of the show he redeemed himself. 

Since the show ended Reed Diamond has been an actor I look forward to seeing on any project he is in. He’s what I like to call a blue-collar actor, he probably won’t ever be a megastar but always delivers solid performances.  I know that sounds mean but I am not insulting him. Blue-collar actors are the building blocks in Hollywood, without them you can’t have any shows or movies. I think it’s something that should be admired and should be appreciated more often   

Olivia Williams played Adelle Dewit, the head of the L.A branch of the Dollhouse program. Dewit was an interesting character. At first, you think that she’s just the villain of the show. But as the series goes on, it’s revealed that Dewit is a lonely woman who struggles to deal with her role in the Dollhouse. She turns to alcohol to deal with the horrible actions she is forced to do. Eventually, she turns against the Rossum corporation when she can no longer stand their evil aspirations. Williams is an amazing actress which should be no surprise since she worked with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Since Dollhouse she has had many incredible roles such as Camilla in the smash hit Netflix drama The Crown

Fran Kranz played the genius behind the Dollhouse technology Topher Brink. To be honest, even though Topher was fun to watch, I didn’t find him very interesting. We have seen many characters like him in Whedon’s show. The sad geeky smart guy who is unlucky in love and is willing to sacrifice anything to do the right thing. Fran did a good job in portraying Topher. The best episode that featured Topher was in season 1, episode 10 called “Haunted”. It’s an okay episode where Echo is imprinted with a woman who was murdered and has to solve her own murder.  But, Topher’s subplot is probably the saddest aspect since he imprints another active called Sierra as his best friend because he has no one to celebrate his birthday with. It’s very sad but relatable to many of us. I wish Kranz would have more of these type of stories, because he was great in that episode.

Paul Ballard was played by Tahmoh Penikett. Ballard was an FBI agent whose sole goal in life was to bring down the fabled Dollhouse. He was the black sheep of the FBI and thought of as a joke, due to his obsessive nature. He becomes a threat to the Dollhouse because of his investigation. So they sent a doll called November to become his love struck neighbor named Mellie. He winds up falling in love with her and sacrifices everything to free November from the dollhouse. I know they tried to push a Ballard and Echo romance but I never felt the same chemistry that Tahmoh Penikett the actress who played Mellie, Miracle Laurie had. Penikett is another excellent actor who had great success with his role as Karl “Helo” Agathon on the Battlestar Galactica reboot back in 2004. He tends to play heroes in sci-fi projects, so it’s always a treat to see him on TV. As for Miracle Laurie, the woman is the whole package. Not only is she gorgeous and can move you with just a look, she is and incredibly talented musician. I hope to see more of her acting roles in the future.  

So now let’s talk about some of my favorite characters and actors who I have become huge fans of since watching Dollhouse

First, you have the main villain of season 1 Alpha played by Alan Tudyk. I have to say I was very surprised by Tudyk’s performance. Like many other people, I was a fan of Firefly. I thought Alan was good on the show. I just didn’t think that he wasn’t anything special. He was funny and had good banter with Gina Torres, but that’s about it. That completely changed with his role in Dollhouse. As Alpha he is terrifying, when we are first introduced to him, he is pretending to be a weak loser named Stephen Kepler. He manipulates Paul Ballard into giving him access to the Dollhouse. The moment when he revealed himself as Alpha was so shocking to me. 

dollhouse cast

It’s later revealed that Alpha was a criminal who signed up for the Dollhouse to get out of prison. While he was an active, he slowly began to exhibit traits of his original personality. When Echo is brought on to the organization, Alpha becomes obsessed with her. He disfigures Whiskey to make Echo the most wanted doll in the dollhouse.  He accidently gets all his former personas downloaded into his brain. In just a few minutes he leaves a path of destruction and bodies before vanishing. Alpha can now switch between personalities, this gives him access their skills. Alan was amazing, he was terrifying, charming, funny, and disturbing. Ever since I saw him on Dollhouse I have followed his career. From his voice-over work to his live-action roles, his work is incredible and I light up when I see his name on the big and small screen.  

Two other actors whom I have become a huge fan of are Dichen Lachman who played Sierra and Enver Gjokaj who played Victor. Sierra and Victor were Dolls who were friends with Echo and also in love. 

Victor was an Afghanistan war veteran who was suffering from PTSD and signed up at the dollhouse to cure himself. Enver was amazing! He could portray so many characters so vividly that I couldn’t believe how talented he was. One of the best examples was when he played Laurence Dominic. In the series, Dominic is discovered to be an NSA spy so he is sent to the “attic”. This means his consciousness is ripped from his body and stored on a computer while his body is placed in a sort of suspended animation. People who win up in the attic, are used as a sort of organic computer.

Dichen Lachman played Sierra an active, who was at the dollhouse against her will. Her back story was very disturbing. In the season two episode called “Belonging”, it’s revealed that she was the victim of a doctor who was obsessed with her. He had her captured and then committed. Driving her insane and tricking the dollhouse into turning her into an active. This way he can make her into a woman in love with him for his sick pleasure. As I said incredibly disturbing but this episode showed her true talent. You felt her pain and horror in “Belonging”. 

I couldn’t believe how talented Lachman was. But, from the season one episode called Gray Hour, I knew she was something special. The episode was about when Echo had her personality erased while she was breaking into a vault. So, Sierra, has the same personality downloaded into her to help Echo escape the vault. Dichen just embodied Dushku’s performance that we had just seen 15 minutes ago with ease. It was mind-blowing. 

Eliza Dushku dollhouse

Dichen Lachman has since been in the massively popular Apple TV series called Severance. I am one of the many fans of Severance and I can’t wait for season 2 since it will feature more of her. 

And this is when we see the flaw of the show. Eliza Dushku. She just couldn’t give the same level of performance that Lachman and Enver Gjoka were giving to the series. I just never saw her as a different character on the show. Which is sort of the point of the entire series. Every episode just felt like the same person just with different clothing. Maybe it was poor direction but I suspect it may have been the network saying that people wanted to see Dushku’s best known character Faith. I don’t know about you guys, but back then it seemed like Eliza was always playing a different variation of Faith. I may be completely off base here, but I will say that it’s was a bad sign when the lead of a show is not the best actor.  Which is a shame because I know she is a great actress, a great example of this is her performance in City by The Sea. She had an incredible scene with Robert De Niro that was shockingly good. 

This woman needs better roles. 

The writing on the show was very impressive, one of my favorites was called “Man on the Street”. The episode guest starred Patton Oswalt as a millionaire who hires Echo to be his dead wife. She had died in a car accident the day he was going to tell her that he was going to be a millionaire. So on the anniversary of her death, he recreates his wife to live the moment he should have had with her. It’s sad but yet beautiful.

While promoting the first season Joss Whedon told Tvweek.com quote

“It’s a brand new day over there. It’s a completely new bunch of people and they seem really intelligent and supportive.”

Issues with the network began almost immediately. First, even though they said they would air Dollhouse on Monday, they decided that the show would air on Fridays. The classic Fox move of putting the best shows on the death slot. In fact, the first episode aired on Friday the 13!! 

Man who hires these executives? A broken magic eightball? 

Then the network had issues with the pilot and it was scrapped and a new one was shot. Which was not a great sign but Whedon did say in the same interview said

“Shooting a new pilot was my idea. Because the network, they were looking for something specific. I thought I delivered it because they were very excited about the script. They weren’t as excited about the show so we talked about why and why and why and I figured out what they wanted. We talked about those things and it was obvious they wanted more of an action feel than a noir feel. What I had done was very sort of dark and moody. “

But Whedon summed up the issues with the Fox Original Programing executives, perfectly when he talked about the theme of the show.

“There was sort of this celebration of human perversion. It was kind of part of it because ultimately some of their engagements are sexual in nature. That’s been very much downplayed because it makes some people uncomfortable. My mandate was to make some people uncomfortable – unfortunately some of those people run the network. Or are the bosses of the people that run the network.” In another interview for whedonesque.com he said “They bought something somewhat different than what I was selling them”

This goes back to my original theory it was an impulse buy and now they had the most expensive feeling of buyer’s remorse. 

It’s almost funny, if it wasn’t that the show was so great. Had the network just accepted the fact that the show was dark and let’s be frank controversial. Maybe things would have happened differently. But this was network TV, you have to please so many demographics.

Eliza Dushku dollhouse

So to say that it was difficult to market the show was an understatement. I will give them credit Fox did try by creating a game for viewers that included interactive webisodes and a Rossum website that teased on the future direction of the show. Unfortunately, there would be no future for Dollhouse

Fox renewed the series for a second season which would be its last. Joss Wheadon saw the writing on the wall so he condensed his planned five seasons into one. The direction of the show took a completely new turn focusing on the dollhouse technology leading to the apocalypse. This all started with an episode called “Epitaph One” which was never aired and only became a season one bonus feature on the DVD release. The episode was considered one of best of the series and even won a Hugo award. I guess I’m in the minority but I found it to be a mess at the time. After rewatching the show, I figured out why.  But before I tell you why let’s quickly talk about the second season

Things got bizarre toward the middle of the second season, when Echo suddenly developed the ability to switch between former personalities. Then the Rossum corporation’s end game came barreling in like a runaway train. You could tell that Whedon was cramming major plotlines into this season. It stopped being about the dollhouse missions, philosophical thought pieces on identity, and now it was more about the impending apocalypse. The second to last episode ends with Echo and the crew finding out a friend was the big bad all along. They seemingly destroy the Dollhouse tech to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Then the last episode begins 10 years later with society having collapsed due to the dollhouse tech falling into the wrong hands. People are stealing bodies or have been turned into mindless rage fuled monsters who kill other humans not infected like them. 

This brings me to an episode that never aired and was only on the Blu-ray released called Epitaph One. The episode was written for the season finale of season one. It takes place in the far of future of 2019 during the foretold apocalypse. A group of survivors find the dollhouse and meet a brain wiped Dr.Saunders who shows them the history of the dollhouse via flashback. This episode not only introduces the Dollhouse cast to these survivors but also shows the start of Rossum abusing the dollhouse technology. We also see how the dollhouse cast has dealt with the chaos above. Topher has gone insane due to the guilt of his tech destroying the world. Olivia is shown as the caretaker of the refugees.We also learn that Sierra and Victors relationship has bitterly ended. It finishes with a little girl, who had been murdering the survivors, having Echo or rather her original personality Caroline, downloaded into her brain. The episode was written to be aired as a series finale just in case the show was cancelled. The episode is considered to be the best of the entire series. It even won a Hugo Award. I thought it was a mess and did not enjoy it. I just felt it was weird and came out of nowhere. But after watching the series my opinion has changed.  

When I first saw the episode was before I had seen season 2. This was the way it was intended to be shown as the last episode of season 1. This completely threw me because it was such a drastic change. As I stated before I was completely thrown and hated it. But, when I went back to watch the show, I decided to watch Epitaph One before the finale which takes place a few months after the episode. Maybe it’s a continuity thing but It completely changed my mind of how I originally judged it.

However the direction divided viewers, some loved the risks it took but, others were turned off by the drastic change in the series.  Still there were more fans than haters and the fans loved it. Sadly Fox didn’t agree, so the plug was pulled and Dollhouse closed down in January 2010.

Looking back now Dollhouse was ahead of its time. Shows like Westworld and Altered Carbon have explored similar themes of identity and power dynamics. The show is definitely worth a rewatch and although it is flawed, it still holds up. 

Now, should the show come back? Well, the ending was pretty definitive, so a continuation is out of the question and honestly there is no point in rebooting it. Like I said, many shows have come out since then that have taken the concept and have run with it, with various results. It’s an obsolete concept, so it’s best to leave it as a good show ahead of its time. A series to now be fondly thought off and rewatched from time to time. Currently, you can rent or buy Dollhouse on Amazon Prime, so I suggest you check it out. Just watch out where you sit. 

Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/dollhouse-2009-2010-gone-but-not-forgotten/

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