Dollhouse: Epitaph One (season one, episode thirteen)

Rating 2½

Created by Joss Whedon

Written by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, from a story by Joss Whedon

Directed by David Solomon

Starring Eliza Dushku (Echo/Caroline), Olivia Williams (Adelle DeWitt), Fran Kranz (Topher Brink), Harry J Lennix (Boyd Langton), Amy Acker (Dr Claire Saunders/Whiskey), Tahmoh Penikett (Paul Ballard), Dichen Lachman (Sierra), Enver Gjokaj (Victor), Miracle Laurie (November), Reed Diamond (Laurence Dominic), Felicia Day (Mag), Adair Tishler (Iris), Chris William Martin (Griff), Zack Ward (Zone), Janina Gavankar (Lynn) and Warren Sweeney (Mr Miller)

The year is 2019 and Los Angeles is a post-Apocalyptic wasteland. A group of insurgents stumble across the abandoned but intact underground Dollhouse facility and begin to piece together the truth that the technology used in the Dollhouse became corrupted when it was allowed out of its controlled environment into the public domain and that it was then used by the Military as a way of creating instant armies, resulting in chaos and devastation.

The story goes something like this. It was announced that ‘Epitaph One’, the thirteenth episode of the first season of ‘Dollhouse’ would not be broadcast by the Fox network in the US. The reason subsequently given for this was that the network purchased thirteen episodes and these included ‘Echo’, the original pilot episode that was not broadcast and, instead, replaced by ‘Ghost’. Chunks of footage from that original pilot were eventually used in other episodes. However, so it seems, the Fox production company was required by contract to supply thirteen episodes for international distribution and include thirteen episodes on the DVD. Both Joss Whedon and consulting producer Tim Minear decided it was not appropriate to include ‘Echo’, so a new thirteenth episode ‘Epitaph One’ was made, with a lower production budget than the episodes that preceded it. This episode was broadcast by the Sci-Fi Channel in the UK as the concluding episode of the first season.

My first instinct having watched the episode was that Joss Whedon must have thought the show was not going to be renewed for a second season and used this additional episode as a way of providing a novel conclusion to the story, one that would undoubtedly give fans of the show plenty of material for discussion. This is pure speculation on my part, but if this was the case it would seem to have backfired because the Fox network has purchased another season. Alternatively, this episode might be an end point towards which the show will now take us in the season or seasons to come. I don’t believe this. The episode explains to us exactly how we get to this point and to do so again in protracted fashion would be a pointless journey with little or no dramatic resonance. It could simply be one of a number of different possible future scenarios. It is, after all, called ‘Epitaph One’. Or maybe it is just intended to be a kind of stand alone episode that will not necessarily feature in future storylines. The point is made that it does open up a number of different possibilities and perhaps this is where one of Joss Whedon’s great strengths as a storyteller lies. ‘Dollhouse’ in itself is not a complex narrative, but Whedon does have a knack of creating interesting tangled webs out of simple concepts. Whatever the full ins and outs of the reasons for the existence of ‘Epitaph One’, it has been the subject of some discussion amongst fans of Whedon’s oeuvre – and ‘Dollhouse’ has not as yet been universally taken to the hearts of all those who make up his core fan-base.

I disliked ‘Omega’, the twelfth and official concluding episode of season one, quite intensely. Although it was certainly not the weakest episode of the season, it seemed to sum up for me everything that I have disliked about the series so far. Although it has clearly improved following the shaky early episodes and it has a premise that I can fully understand some viewers becoming wrapped up in, I simply have not enjoyed it. I don’t find the premise interesting or thought-provoking enough to counteract my frequent loathing of the style of presentation, not that I struggled to get a grip on the sub-texts here. I had not planned to watch ‘Epitaph One’, but it was included in the “Watch This” section of the television guide in The Guardian newspaper, which I just happened to read a few minutes before the programme was about to start. It said, “It’s got to be one of the weirdest ways to end a first season… If you’ve had your doubts, this just might convince you to come back for more.” On the spur of the moment, I decided I would watch it, which perhaps suggests that I have not found the series quite as unappealing as I have claimed; I don’t know.

‘Epitaph One’ looks like every other post-Apocalyptic dystopian type television episode and film from ‘Bladerunner’ onwards. Rightly or wrongly, I was immediately put in mind of ‘Imposter’, the 2002 Gary Sinise film based on a Philip K Dick story. I am sure there are other better comparisons, but I am not an expert about these things.

Once the insurgents (if that is the right term for them) have found their way into the Dollhouse we begin to learn, through a series of retrieved memories, what happened. We observe a series of brief flashbacks to the regular cast of characters in the dying days of the Dollhouse when the technology is out in the open and out of control. There is nothing new here in the idea that technology in the wrong hands, particularly the hands of the Military, is a highly dangerous thing, especially when the motivation of those developing and owning it is greed for money and power and prestige. The concept of Topher Brink as a kind of Oppenheimer-like figure, an egotist who subsequently comes to agonise about the evil he has unleashed in the name of science worked better than I was inclined to suspect and this was certainly one of the more successfully presented episodes.

The episode makes good use of one of two regular characters, including a return for the old chief of security Laurence Dominic. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the absence most of the time of Echo was not, from my point of view, in any way detrimental. In fact, I rather suspect the opposite is true, which perhaps is a clue to my generally very negative reaction to previous episodes. There is clearly a problem if I am not responding to the main character. Once again, as has been the case throughout, I was very impressed by Amy Acker. Her performance in this first season has been a highlight for me. Also amongst the cast here is Felicia Day, who featured in the seventh and final season of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and also worked with Joss Whedon in his Internet musical ‘Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ (which I have not seen and remain somewhat vague about).

Sadly, even though I generally responded much more positively to ‘Epitaph One’ than I had done to ‘Omega’, I found the ending exceedingly cheesy and all it succeeded in doing was remind me why I have not been impressed with the series so far. Once the episode was over and I began to give it more thought, I found myself picking holes in this episode and concluded that it wasn’t as good as I was perhaps going to give it credit for.

Does ‘Epitaph One’ convince me to come back for more? I don’t think so. ‘Dollhouse’ definitely has something, but, whether through pre-existing prejudice or not, that something does not seem to be for me.

Review posted 13 August 2009

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