Dollhouse: Ghost (season one, episode one)

Rating 1½

Created by Joss Whedon

Written and directed by Joss Whedon

Starring Eliza Dushku (Echo), Olivia Williams (Adelle DeWitt), Fran Kranz (Topher Brink), Harry J Lennix (Boyd Langton), Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic), Tahmoh Penikett (Paul Ballard), Dichen Lachman (Sierra) and Amy Acker (Claire Saunders)

General: The Dollhouse is a secret organisation that offers its services to the rich and powerful. “Actives” in the Dollhouse have their memories wiped and are then imprinted with memories and personality traits taken from various real life sources to create a perfect match for the requirements of individual clients. Once each assignment or engagement is complete, the Actives are wiped of these new memories and once again become a blank canvas ready to be programmed for their next assignment.

Episode specific: Echo is programmed to be a tough and highly experienced negotiator when the young daughter of a client is kidnapped and held to ransom. However, Topher Brink, the scientist responsible for programming her, incorporates flaws as well as strengths into the memories of the Actives to make them more real, more complete, and on this occasion it seriously compromises her assignment. Echo’s “handler”, Boyd Langton, seems to have some qualms about the ethics of what the Dollhouse does, but these are not shared by Adelle DeWitt, who runs the operation, or Laurence Dominic, the head of security. In the meanwhile, Paul Ballard, an FBI special agent, is investigating this highly secretive organisation, which some believe to be a myth and others, like himself, are convinced is real.

Joss Whedon was the creator of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, which began life as a 1992 feature film, released to generally unenthusiastic reviews and a comparatively uninspired box office gross. It was somewhat unexpectedly turned into a television series, initially on the now defunct WB network in America, for a total of seven seasons between 1997 and 2003. It is fair to say that ‘Buffy’, while it was not a huge ratings success, had a profound effect on many levels and it is widely regarded to be one of the best American television series of its time, if not of all-time.

In the aftermath of ‘Buffy’, Whedon was now established as one of the most talented and creative forces working in television. His previous credits included the acclaimed television series ‘Roseanne’ (he wrote four episodes during season two of the show) and the Academy Award nominated 1995 Disney film ‘Toy Story’ (he co-wrote the screenplay). He had also worked as a “script doctor”, contributing to films like ‘Speed’, ‘Waterworld’ and ‘Twister’. His subsequent work has included the ‘Buffy’ spin-off show ‘Angel’, which ran for a total of five seasons, and the acclaimed but short-lived ‘Firefly’, the premature cancellation of which caused considerable criticism of the Fox network.

In the days when ‘Buffy’ was still in production I considered myself to be a fan of Joss Whedon, but in recent times I think it would be more accurate to call myself a lapsed fan. While I consider ‘Buffy’ to be probably the best television series ever made and certainly one of my all-time favourites, I am not as fond of his other work. I quite enjoyed ‘Angel’, but not unduly so. There are very few episodes of that show I have watched more than once and a few I am still yet to see. I didn’t particularly like ‘Firefly’ and I actively disliked its feature film spin-off ‘Serenity’, which I actually watched three times, hoping to understand why it received such effusive praise. I failed. I also found myself feeling at odds with what I thought was over-zealous and sometimes counter-productive efforts by some fans to promote that film and sing its praises.

Whedon has a very loyal and active core fan-base. On the plus side, it is a tight-knit community in which countless lasting friendships have been formed and a quite considerable amount of effort has been put into not only finding novel ways to promote his work but also support causes that are close to his heart, meaning for example that the international human rights organisation Equality Now has benefited from the concerted efforts of those fans. Less commendable, perhaps, is the rather superior attitude displayed by some of them towards anyone who chooses not to watch Whedon’s television shows or dares to be in any way critical of his work – or is simply unaware of it. As an example, when discussing the relatively disappointing viewing figures achieved by the first season of ‘Dollhouse’ during its run on the Fox network, there was some criticism of “the ignorant masses” (to quote an expression used), including those who chose to watch the television series ‘Ghost Whisperer’. It was suggested that Joss Whedon’s fans belong to a select few who would have the necessary intellectual superiority needed to fully understand and appreciate his work. It is not so much the sentiment, as arrogant and impolite as it is, as the manner in which it is expressed that makes me find this attitude, which has also been present in relation to discussion of ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’, rather offensive and ill-informed and not just because I count myself amongst the ignorant masses. I sometimes watch ‘Ghost Whisperer’ and while I make no great claims for it, I enjoy it – and I am perfectly capable of identifying both its merits and flaws.

As a result of feeling, perhaps, slightly disenfranchised by these opinions, I was undoubtedly biased before even watching ‘Dollhouse’. While I had tried not to read too much about it, I was aware of the basic premise and it did not especially tempt me. I was also aware of the mixed reaction the series received in America. The early episodes were, generally speaking, not that well received, although it was widely agreed that the series improved dramatically later on during the season, especially from episode six onwards, with a few people going as far as to claim this might be Joss Whedon’s best show yet, although the concluding episode of this first season was greeted with mixed reviews.

Just over three months after the first episode aired in America the show has now arrived in the UK via the Sci-Fi Channel. The weekly average percentage share of total television viewers for this channel is around 0.2%, meaning that ‘Dollhouse’ is not destined to reach a wide audience over here at present. Out of mild curiosity and a residue of fondness for Joss Whedon, I watched the episode, expecting very little from it, particularly in response to some fairly mediocre reviews. One British critic, writing in the free London newspaper Metro, called it, “A bizarre marriage of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Grand Designs,” which made me laugh. In the event, although I almost switched off right at the very beginning in response to the unutterably naff motorcycle race scene, it was not as bad as I feared it might be. I wasn’t wowed by it by any stretch of the imagination, finding some of the dialogue decidely clunky (“Ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.”), and it certainly did not stretch my avowedly unexceptional intellect to make sense of what was happening! I cannot pretend that I liked it much, finding it bordering on the tedious simply because it did not engage me, but within the constraints of its given genre, which it seemed to conform to rigidly, there are the seeds of what might be a potentially interesting concept.

Some observers have questioned whether Eliza Dushku, who has worked with Joss Whedon before in ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’, possesses a sufficiently honed acting range to successfully take on the lead role of a character who must constantly change and can never really develop instantly recognisable personality traits week in and week out. I thought her performance in this opening episode was okay. None of characters made a huge impression on me and the same would have to be said of the acting, which was clearly competent across the board. I do feel that Whedon occasionally has a tendency to write “English” characters in rather stereotypical two-dimensional terms and that feeling presented itself again whenever Olivia Williams was on the screen. This is strange in many respects, not least because Whedon lived in Britain and attended school here in his youth. However, I guess the character will develop as the episodes progress.

Had this not been a Joss Whedon show I think it very unlikely I would have watched this opening episode. Nothing I’ve seen so far makes me excited about watching future episodes, although I might try to at least check out the next one or two. I am not sure, however, that I will make it as far as the second half of the season, when, so it seems, things start to get interesting. In truth, there are other things I could be doing that, in all likelihood, will entice me more. We shall see.

It just remains to say that the Fox network has announced that it is renewing the show for a second season of thirteen episodes; good news for fans of Joss Whedon and of ‘Dollhouse’.

Review posted 20 May 2009 - minor changes made on 24 May 2009 after watching (part of) the episode for a second time


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