“Ghost” was not the original pilot for Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s new show on FOX. Like Firefly before it, Fox asked Whedon and Mutant Enemy to produce a new, more accessible pilot than the first one delivered.
Dollhouse is centered on a business known to urban legend as the Dollhouse, a business that can offer clients an Active, a companion/servant/lover/etc. with any skills, any personality, any memories needed for the situation. In “Ghost,” the Active called Echo (Eliza Dushku) is at first a 21st-century Cinderella, the perfect woman for a weekend-long, no-strings love affair for one client, and then becomes a by-the-book hostage negotiator for another client. Between her ‘engagements,’ Echo lives in the Dollhouse as a childlike tabula rasa, unaware of what happens when she ‘goes to sleep.’
Olivia Williams plays Adelle DeWitt, the owner/operator of the Dollhouse business. She speaks of the organization as being one that helps people, but tries to keep the business side above all else. Her tools of control over the Actives include Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), who programs the Actives, and Dr. Claire Saunders, the staff Doctor for the Actives. Echo’s handler in the field, there to take her to her assignments, protect her there, and bring her back is former policeman Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix).
One of the questions I’d had leading up to the premiere was if and to what degree the show would address the lives of the “actives” before they signed on with the Dollhouse. “Ghost” does just that, opening with Echo (before she becomes Echo) in conversation with DeWitt. DeWitt is offering Not-Yet-Echo a five-year contract as an Active, and promises that when the term is over, the organization will help clear up the Vague But Important trouble that Not-Yet-Echo has gotten herself into.
Providing a counter-point narrative is Agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica’s Tamoh “Helo” Penikett), who has been assigned to the Dollhouse case for the last 14 months. Ballard has bent and broken the rules chasing the Dollhouse, which has drawn the ire of his immediate superiors — however, it’s made clear that someone high up in the organization believes in the Dollhouse, since Ballard is kept on the case. Ballard tracks and confronts Victor, one of the other actives (played by Enver Gjokaj). The Actives know nothing of their special nature or the Dollhouse while they are being ‘engaged,’ which stymies Ballard’s efforts.
The premise makes for a show that pushes the normal boundaries of the episodic drama. Not only will there be a new problem and new guest-stars every week, Echo will be a different character each episode, spending most of her time not as Echo, but as the person her client needs her to be.
The show’s momentum is built off of the fact that Echo begins to remember flashes from between engagements and from her time in the Dollhouse. The first of these memories is seeing a new Active called Sierra (Dichen Lachman) in intense pain as her original memories are being wiped. Echo’s growing self-awareness and memory will allow the engagements to retain ongoing meaning, but the show faces the problem that in any given episode, a classic “What happened last episode stays in last episode” effect will occur, one that tends to bespeak lazy writing. This problem cannot have eluded Whedon and the creative team for the show, but it remains to be seen if audiences will respond positively to this unusual format.
Fortunately, there is more than enough eye candy to go around, for everyone. Between Dushku, Penikett, Lachman, Gjokaj, Williams, et al, the pretty doesn’t stop.
The thematic center of the show is well-established by Not-Yet-Echo’s comments to a video yearbook being played in front of a mysterious character in “Ghost”‘s tag — Not-Yet-Echo is a recent graduate with her whole life in front of her. She wants to be every person, travel to every place, have every experience. We’re asked to think that while no ‘normal’ person can actually have every experience or be all of the people they want to be, as Echo she can. The irony there is that in order to become every person, have every experience, she has to give up her own identity, her sense of self. Whedon has explicitly said that the show also focuses on objectification, the way that we make other people into who we need them to be rather than who they are. The Dolls are ‘perfect’ objects in that way, until of course the perfection breaks down and the object achieves/reclaims subjectivity outside of their ‘engagements’
At that time, the memories building up and Echo may either remember who she was before or build a new sense of self. Will she spark the same reactions in Victor and Sierra? How will her chemistry with Ballard feed into this growth, where Echo is a different person every time she and Ballard meet? What did Not-Yet-Echo do to get in so much trouble? What happened to the people surrounding the mystery man watching Not-Yet-Echo’s video? There are a lot of dramatic questions established right away, which should give viewers more reasons to keep watching week to week, as answers get doled out in a manner probably reminiscent of LOST, Battlestar Galactica and the other top contemporary dramas.
The show’s initial order was nine episodes, two of which seem to be taken up by the shelved pilot. Whedon has had bad luck with FOX, a network notorious for cancelling beloved shows. It remains to be seen if Dollhouse will survive long enough for its answers to unfold. Tune in to find out.