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I more or less totally missed Dollhouse upon its initial airings this year, and really hadn’t felt as if this was a problem until the people around me starting talking about it with a big slant on the positive. Unlike many TV releases that find there way into my mailbox, I actually asked for this one, and because it’s a first season release I didn’t go into the experience minus two or three season of back-story.

Dollhouse: Season One
I’m not a huge fan of cult television creator extraordinaire Joss Whedon, excepting Firefly, which I grew to love entirely despite myself. I’m also becoming a bit bored by popular science fiction’s constant pilfering of the works of Philip K. Dick. The on-paper premise of Dollhouse – that of  a shadow group keeping zombie-like human automatons in an underground lab where they use mind wiping technology to ‘imprint’ personalities upon them for various prostituting purposes – is not exclusive to Dick, but surely and fully in keeping with the author’s favourite subjects. Dick’s influential ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ (the basis of Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall) runs on the concept of implanted memories, while the even more influential ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ (the basis for Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner) explores the possibilities of the human concept of soul existing within the mind of an otherwise concocted person. These possibilities are largely explored in Dollhouse, as series lead, Echo (Eliza Dushku), begins to retain some of her implanted memories, and develop a personality despite her handlers best efforts. Whedon and his co-writers are obviously aware of their debt, and do insert little bits of homage throughout the series.

Besides homage, however, Dollhouse is still very, very aware of the inherent logic problems and minor plot holes that are born out of its basic premise, and consistently ‘hangs a lampshade’ on the problem. ‘Hang a lampshade’ refers to the process of pointing out an unbelievable plot element before the audience has a chance to. At first this is somewhat refreshing, since the premise is pretty silly, and begs huge leaps of faith from its audience (really, why not just hire the right person for the job, etc), but after enough reassurance things somehow circle back to strained belief. Whedon ends up hanging lampshades on stuff a susceptible mid-season audience would probably be willing to take for granted. However, like many of the show’s negative aspects, this problem could also be seen as a series-specific strength. One of Whedon’s greatest strengths as a writer is his perfected ability to expertly take the air out of melodrama with self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek humour. Whedon knows that a lot of the series’ appeal is found in pulp and good natured cheese. Of course, this silly and self-aware concept (blank slates that can be rewritten as an entirely different character from week to week) is a delightful act of self-serving contrivance on Whedon’s part, as he can work outside of his own mythology with the standalone aspects of each episode.

As a writer Whedon thrives on the tropiest tropes available in modern storytelling, and like all good genre writers looking to create a ‘tradition-based originality’ he knows how to invert the tropes at the best possible moments. Sometimes he even takes the most clichéd route after firmly convincing his audience he’s looking for inversion, which is especially vicious. Classic Star Trek trope coverage includes whole lot of body swapping (it’s kind of the premise), and an inhibition inhibiting drug (basically ‘sex pollen’ without the sex), while many of Echo’s missions mirror classic film sub-genre templates, such as a heist flick, a murder mystery, or a take on the ‘Most Dangerous Game’ motif. Perhaps the most self-aware of these devoted clichés is the presence of a ‘Big Bad’, a term for a season arcing villainous threat that Whedon himself practically coined. Every Whedon series since Buffy has featured a ‘Big Bad’, and the popularity of the practice (possibly equally attributed to the popularity of X-Files) has practically defined sci-fi/fantasy television for the last 15 years or so (as seen in varying series such as Supernatural or Smallville). But again, the tropes are used to the advantage of the overall storytelling, and without spoiling anything specific, I think that Alpha is one of the most effective (mostly) unseen villains in recent television history. By the time we are introduced to him his legend is so ingrained as an almost supernatural threat that his identity is one of the biggest shocks Whedon has ever mustered.

Dollhouse: Season One
Modern television has developed the potentially fatal problem of creating standalone episodes under the cover of a fully seasonal arc. An entirely serialized series, like Lost, Battlestar Galatica, or Mad Men, threatens to alienate any viewer that misses a single episode, but a series based entirely on standalone episodes suffers to find a loyal audience. Shows like The Dead Zone fail in keeping the arc’s threats relevant by peppering elements of the super-plot so conservatively throughout a season. Dollhouse finds just about as perfect a balance between extremes as I can possibly fathom, by featuring a specific, standalone adventures (by the nature of the premise there really should be very little to attach the events of given episodes) on all but two episodes, while devoting at least a third of each episode’s runtime to the super-plot. Even better, besides the presence of a ‘Big Bad’, and a protagonist working outside of the system followed by the other protagonists (the lone detective, another trope), it’s never entirely clear where the super-plot is going, giving way to an arc every bit as satisfying as a 24 episode long Lost arc.

Whedon also scores points by ramping up worst case scenarios almost immediately, punching volatile holes in the story that most television writers would likely dole out over a period of several seasons. If there’s one overlying problem I personally have with popular modern serialized television, it’s the fact that writers don’t get down to brass tacks, and the incessant teasing drives me mad. Dollhouse isn’t quite as balls-out as say Breaking Bad, where everything starts going wrong come the first episode, but there isn’t a lot of wasted time. Perhaps this was because Whedon and his co-conspirators assumed they’d be canceled after one 13 episode season, but even if the reasons are less than regal the efforts is much appreciated.

The characters are all very Whedon-esque, and owe just as much of their filling to the perfect casting as the mature and rounded dialogue. I am a fan of Whedon, but often find his dialogue so attention grabbing and ‘hip’ that it has driven me out of many of his better stories. Tarantino is an apt comparison in this respect, as his wordy prose sounds great from the right mouth, yet resembles dribbly vomit when excreted from the wrong one. In the case of Dollhouse there are no obviously dull crayons in the actor box. Olivia Williams (as the iron-willed, cold as steel boss of operations Adelle DeWitt) and Harry Lennix (as Echo’s off base ‘handler’ Boyd Langton) are my personal favourites, but this affection is mostly related to my love of the actors’ other work, and the thrill of watching them work with wordy mythology. Williams is the constant scene stealer. Despite her character’s inherit mean streak, and hi-def video’s enhancement of her natural facial wrinkles, I’d argue that DeWitt is the sexiest woman on the show. Outside of expectations, and as a non-fan of Buffy and Angle I’m most surprised by Amy Acker (Dr. Saunders), as I was unfamiliar with her brand of quiet beauty. The mighty Count Dushku isn’t quite as versatile as some have professed, but impresses consistently nonetheless. The closest thing to a weak link in the chain is Tahmoh Penikett (Agent Paul Ballard), but not due to his overall efforts as an actor as much as what I saw as underlying issues in his casting. I personally got the feeling throughout the series that Penikett was hired as a stand-in for Whedon regular Nathan Fillion.

Dollhouse: Season One
Skip the next paragraph if you’re looking to watch the series without any spoilers.

This collection’s 13th episode has a strange story all its own, and I for one wish it would’ve ended with Fox deciding not to order it. After 12 episodes of increasing quality and intensity the season seemingly ends on a strong note. There are enough open threads to lead to a second season, but also enough closure to leave the season as a standalone. Fox wanted 13 episodes outside the unaired pilot, and assuming he wasn’t going to get to finish the series Whedon decided to do a ‘future shock’ episode. The problem here is that this particular future shock doesn’t really open the story up to more suspense, it closes the story. Assuming this is canon I’m left disappointed rather than shocked, disappointed at yet another dystopian, zombie addled future. I’d like to think this was a reactive idea on Whedon’s part, and that given time he’ll develop this mythology into something original, rather than a mawkish mimicry of Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, The Terminator and, of all things, The Signal.

Video


Dollhouse on Blu-ray doesn’t quite compare to Lost on Blu-ray in the video department, but there isn’t too much to complain about either. The lack of overwhelming perfection comes partially out of the series’ style, which varies a bit with each standalone theme, but mostly sticks to a relatively diffused and warm look. Lighting and contrast levels are rarely harsh, leading to less intense hues, and more overall softness. Textures are pretty smooth, but close-up details still display plenty of sharp detail, and there isn’t any distinct loss of detail in the evenly focused compositions. Grain isn’t really an issue, and neither is edge enhancement, but some of the colours are less than clean. While skin tones, clothing, and most props feature un-fettered hues, the warm brown walls of most of the Dollhouse sets often dance with low-level noise, which does get a little distracting. The transfer quality is at the very least consistent, with the obvious exception of the 13th episode, which was largely shot on digital video for cheap, leading to a whole lot of digital grain, and less impressive detail levels.

Audio


The 1080p hi-def transfer may not be the best thing ever, but Dollhouse stands up to pretty much every other Blu-ray television series I’ve ever seen. This DTS-HD track features a great deal of aural dynamics, including subtle distress and attention grabbing extremes. The soundtrack effects are mostly hyper-natural, but more science fiction inspired sounds go along with the mind erasing/rewriting chair, which hums like a light saber, buzzes like a spaceship, and sometimes lights up like Frankenstein’s lab. Directional effects aren’t exactly constant, but the rear channels do act as more than just an arena for vague incidental effects. Though I find the series’ title theme a bit annoying, the overall musical score is very impressive, evoking other popular work, while creating memorable themes and motifs. The use of soft mallet cymbals and lullaby like piano strike as particularly perfect for the series less action packed moments. The less bombastic music is presented clearly, while the big beat stuff punches up the LFE, and throughout the scores the rear channels are given more than the usual amount of discretion.

Dollhouse: Season One

Extras


Extras begin with a series of commentary tracks throughout the discs. The quality of the tracks depends on the participants, but there’s a relative continuity in subject matter and tone. Most participants are not surprisingly sarcastic and low-key, and there’s plenty of information to absorb. The problem with the track in general is that finding the damn things is a guessing game. Which episodes feature commentary? Well, the only way to find out is to click on every episode under the episode menu until one pops up a ‘play with commentary’ option. On disc one the first episode, ‘Ghost’, features commentary with Dushku and Whedon, who have fun with the experience. Disc two features a solo track with Whedon on the episode entitled ‘Man on the Street’, which is, in his opinion, the first real episode of the series. Disc three features commentary with writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen on the ill-advised 13th episode, ‘Epitaph’. Their words on the episode lead me to believe this dystopian future is supposed to be considered canon, which I don’t like.

The most exciting extra as far as most fans will be concerned with the original unaired pilot episode, the one the Fox execs thought was too cerebral for Friday night audiences. Parts of the pilot were used for other episodes, including large chunks of exact footage, and a character that briefly appears in the final regular season episode, but it’s reasonably clear that the episode isn’t meant to be taken as canon for the most part. The episode’s tone is a little darker, and there’s a little more psychological mumbo-jumbo, but it’s mostly more of the same, and it’s strange that Fox didn’t like it. Critically speaking I’m glad it wasn’t aired because it gives away way too much of the super-plot too fast, and I appreciate the season’s actual pacing. The episode is presented in high definition video, but the audio presentation is a simplified 2.0 Dolby Digital.

‘Making Dollhouse’ (20:30, HD) is more full-bodied and informative than most behind the scenes looks at television shows. Covered here is the development process (Dushku is really responsible for Fox having any interest), casting, hiring writers, shooting the pilot, starting over when the pilot was rejected, finding the a show that was creatively satisfying while still making the show Fox wanted, shooting the originally unintended 13th episode, and possibilities for the series’ future.

‘Coming Home’ (7:00, HD) is a closer look at the gathering of the staff, many of which he’d worked with on Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dr. Horrible, and the experience of creating new mythologies on the page and on the stage. Mostly this featurette is just made up of sweet natured nostalgia, but it’s also a pretty good look behind the scenes. ‘Finding Echo’ (5:00, HD) is a closer look at the relationship between Whedon and Dushku, and making the series into a sort of showcase for the actresses varying talents. ‘Designing the Perfect Dollhouse’ (6:00, HD) is a mixed look at the production design of the main Dollhouse set, and a Whedon-guided tour of said set. ‘A Private Engagement’ (5:40, HD) completes the featurettes by asking various cast and crew members what they’d do if the imprinting technology were real. Fox trailers also accompany the first disc in the collection.

Dollhouse: Season One

Overall


Dollhouse is a pretty major surprise for me. I’m not much of a Joss Whedon fanboy, and I have a tendency to be under whelmed by most fan-praised television series. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s very entertaining, enjoyably subversive, and appears to be going somewhere interesting, assuming the second season largely ignores the not very good 13th episode. This Blu-ray set looks fine, and sounds great, but is a little light on extras (not to mention the fact that two of the commentary tracks are basically Easter Eggs). I’d like to thank tvtropes.org for their exhaustive database, which helped me immensely in writing this review. Thanks to these guys we have names for all these constantly used narrative devices, and without them I’d have to waste words describing everything. Visit them soon, and get lost.


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