In 2002, a short-lived TV show called Firefly was shown on the Fox Network. Airing in calamitous manner, which included the pilot episode being aired last, the show was cancelled. Yet over time it developed a massive cult following which saw the show resurrected as a movie and a series of comic books, though incidentally not by Fox. Today, its fan must surely rank as some of the most dedicated and committed in the history of science fiction, which is no mean feat. Recently, a TV show was made to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the start of Firefly, Firefly: Browncoats Unite (read about it here) which demonstrated just how much both the fans and the creators of the show loved it.
Yet somewhat inexplicably, Firefly creator Joss Whedon (of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Avengers fame) returned to Fox with an idea for a new show.
Reuniting Whedon with Whedonverse alumni Eliza Dushku and Amy Acker along with cameos from Alexis Denisof, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Felicia Day and Mark Sheppard, it delved in the mysterious world of the Dollhouse.
Run by the Rossum Corporation, the Dollhouse is an underground structure where the company reprograms people (referred to as “dolls”) to fit the requirements of their clients. This can range from an expert hostage negotiator to a dominatrix for the weekend and everything in between. The Dollhosue is run by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) who strives to protect the dolls, even in the morally suspect enterprise. The brain wipes and mappings are done by the eccentric, in-house, amoral genius Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) who is only interested in the work.
Each episode is mostly focused on Echo (Eliza Dushku), a doll who secretly begins to gain a level of self-awareness dolls should not possess, who is cared for by her “handler” Boyd Langdon (Harry Lennix).
Outside of those who work within and procure services from the Dollhouse, the only person who believes it is real is laughingstock FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking it down. The focus of his obsession becomes finding Caroline, who is now Echo.
The show has an unusual amoral structure to it. On the one hand, it turns out the people in the Dollhouse are volunteers who sign up for five years. On the other hand, they are vulnerable people who are taken advantage of at their weakest moments. There is also the fact that aside from Echo and Agent Ballard, the characters work for the Rossum Corporation and what at its most base is a made-to-order prostitution ring. But over time, we find that there are people worse than those running the Dollhouse, who at the very least have a duty of care to the dolls in their house.
The performances throughout are excellent as Whedon once again manages to assemble a high quality cast. Particularly striking are the actors playing the dolls. Eliza Dushku has to play several different characters within each episode. Aside from Echo and occasionally Caroline, she has to take on a new persona for each mission. She is very adept at these switches and it makes for fascinating watching, as is Dichen Lachman (playing Sierra), though she does have a lesser role. But by far the best character actor is Enver Gjokaj (playing Victor) whose range is very impressive, and his time spent imprinted with the brain of resident genius Topher Brink is one of the comedic highlights of the show.
The Dollhouse set is like an elaborate spa and is one of the best sprawling sets I’ve seen since Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (also cancelled, read about it here).
The writing is top notch, as you would expect from any show from Joss Whedon. It is smart, funny and engaging. Playing in the moral greylands it creates an unusual bond with the audience as you naturally want to like the characters, but they exist in a world where they do some very unpleasant things.
It eventually ran for two seasons, though Whedon had planned the show to run for five, before being cancelled and like Firefly, went on to exist in a series of comic books.
It was a great show with a great idea at its heart and tried to do something really interesting. It’s just a shame that once again Fox decided to drop the axe.
But at least fans in the future can relax. Whedon has stated publically that he won’t be going back to work with Fox. Plus, given the resounding success he had with The Avengers and the production deal he has struck with Marvel for the next few years, when Whedon does return to TV with an original idea it will almost certainly be entirely on his own terms.