Joss Whedon’s most recent foray into network television, Dollhouse, has been as plagued as any of his prior efforts with reshoots, network interference, rumors of cancellation, and endless debates about the message being sent by its premise since before day one. I won’t rehash the premise of the series nor any of the old news that have been its numerous issues here, seeing as if you don’t know them already, you definitely aren’t interested in reading the rest of this. One thing I will say is: everything you’ve heard is most likely true.
After watching the original pilot of Dollhouse, I can’t help but be reminded of not only Firefly, and how interference from Fox led to its ultimate demise, but also of Angel, with which this show has much more in common.
Firefly‘s episodes were run out of order, some of its best episodes were never aired, and its pilot wasn’t run until it had already been cancelled. Instead we were left with a first impression that, while it was a decent, fun show, was essentially procedural — that each week, the crew of the Serenity would go on a different old Westy heist in space, and somehow elude the attentions of the authorities, the Alliance. All semblance of real human issues had been stripped from the premise for our introduction and we were left with nothing but Joss and friends’ wit and clever delivery for us to like it. In that way, Firefly is Joss’s best show, in that the show overall still holds up under such circumstances, and when taken in its original form can be viewed as originally intended. Dollhouse and Angel were not so lucky.
The original pilot for Angel was an extremely bleak, Noir look into the underbelly of L.A., its demonic mythology a mature, disturbingly realistic metaphor for Hollywood and the town on which it feeds. Its network, the WB (now CW), did not understand it, and the pilot and thus the entire show was altered before it was shot — still dark and somewhat edgy, still more mature than the teen vampire show from which it had been spawned, it was not nearly as ballsy and more importantly, this divergence from Joss and David Greenwalt’s original vision can be pointed at for Angel‘s first season seeming to flounder in places. Rewrites done at a certain speed, with some bit of the heart missing from an original concept as writers subconsciously know they are being told to write less challenging material, leads to less original, more formulaic and even stolen plots.
Dollhouse’s story is almost identical, except that where it diverges, it converges with Firefly‘s tale. The pilot was shot, but never aired, while bits from it were sprinkled through the rest of the episodes. The new first episode gave a faulty, procedural first impression, and lacked most of the emotional depth required to sell the show’s complicated premise to us, and its last episode, one of its most emotionally reverberative and politically charged, was not aired in the US.
I won’t spoil much of the pilot for you (and it is possible to be spoiled, this episode surprised me in several ways, particularly with the information I had about the rewritten continuity from watching the other episodes). I will, however, divulge some vague information about what is different about this original introduction.
Adelle sells the Dollhouse directly to us, by way of selling a customer whose POV is the camera’s. We learn more about what an active is and how engagements work in this sequence, and more clearly, than in the first 5 episodes of the aired version. This is intercut with Echo on three separate engagements that show the criminal (a realistic drug deal, not an art vault heist), romantic (a true love engagement as our first impression, as opposed to bondage and motorcycles), and most importantly, humanitarian (Echo saves a young girl from prostitution, ironically allowing us to femininely root for a doll early on) shades to what the Dollhouse does. And boy does she sell it. I wanted a doll after listening to her, though I don’t think I would actually purchase one. It comes off like the epitome of capitalism at work, and you find your own mind dancing in the grays.
Topher sells himself. He is still jaded and a tad despicable, but the jaded becomes the more important aspect of his personality. Basically, he argues his point, something we don’t realize he has in the on-air episodes, and does so well: We are all programmed, and the actives are getting the better shake at the end of the day. He seems to actually be the most realistic of the characters, no matter how much you hate the point of view — to deny the truth in his words is to, in a way, accept your own programming rather than become self-aware.
Dr. Saunders and Victor get introduced in much more subtle, creepy ways that are just plain handled better.
Paul meets Echo right the fuck off, and isn’t a moron nor a lovesick puppy about it. He’s as paranoid as he should be, and maybe a little more angry about all the shit he’s putting up with than you’d expect. This is probably because his fruitless search has already been going on for some time before the pilot, which wasn’t made as real in the regular continuity.
There is no trigger phrase (“treatment”) in the pilot. Whether they were going to add that later after what happens in this episode, I don’t know, but given the circumstances, I think it’s a good idea if only as a comfort zone for the handlers.
The show is already as it became when it got stronger — less about the engagement and more about the house itself. If we already had this information going into a couple of engagment episodes, we could have relaxed and enjoyed the ride — we know the show is deep, but let us see some silliness for a few eps while we get to know everybody’s softer side. Without a proper introduction to the story’s themes, we are left wondering “Is this it? Is this going to be all?”
The Dollhouse itself seems smarter, and though you know it’s at least a little sinister, it’s in more of a regular Corporate America sort of way — the actives are getting paid, the house is getting paid, the customer gets what they want. Boyd questions the morality, Saunders worries about their health and development, Topher tells them why both are bad or at the very least fruitless ideas. The actives are volunteers, you’re an employee, and the actives aren’t supposed to “get better”, they’re supposed to stay right where they are. Stop making waves.
All in all, the metaphors for our society are more present, the point of view of each of them stated clearly — we are all dolls, and each of the employees of the house represent a way of viewing our predicament. This episode definitely does a great job of placing us firmly in the place of the dolls, Echo in particular, so that it wouldn’t have mattered how little personality each possesed. They are us.
As far as the unaired final episode goes, well… I’m not sure I even wanted to see this. Talk about spoilers! The entire episode is one massive Dollhouse spoiler for what is to come. Certainly it can stand in as the last episode of the entire series, and is reminiscent of Babylon 5‘s “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” an episode also made to serve as either a season finale or series finale, which skips forward through time in segments, finally showing us the impact of the station and its inhabitants on people living 1,000,000 years later. Dollhouse’s equivalent, as the name might suggest, is far less optimistic, yet is possessed of similar issues.
The episode is positively brilliant, but is it blowing the proverbial wad of the series? (I’m still looking for the proverb about the blown wad; I know it’s in there, somewhere.) “Deconstruction”‘s forecast, though not concerning most of the main cast, took some of the suspense from the final season, and certainly from the series finale, which did a similar futuretelling only with nothing but the main cast. It did introduce new suspense, however, and the theorizing of how point A gets to point Z, something “Epitaph One” does with its mere name. Will we be getting an “Epitaph” at the end of each season, possibly continuing the exploits of our little band of revolutionaries, should the show continue? I certainly hope so.
That being said, I trust Joss to a certain extent to deliver the goods despite his showing what appear to be all his cards — he did it consistently with the last half of the Dollhouse season. Every time I thought something had happened too quickly and that it would be hard to top, Joss soon topped it with something I felt similarly about, until I finally relaxed and realized it was less that Joss was rushing his story and more like he was getting all the obvious plots and twists out of the way, so we could stop wondering who’s the last Cylon and just enjoy the show, something Ron Moore perhaps should have done (Of course, I chalk most of my problems with BSG’s ending from it being 4 seasons instead of the perfection of a 5 season arc, which Lost was going for but has been forced to over-extend, and Joss has mentioned he has plans for with Dollhouse).
Overall, these two episodes were everything I wanted out of them, and that is as depressing as it is hopeful. I can’t shake the feeling that there may be more to their not airing than meets the eye — these two episodes are the most clearly anti-corporate, paranoid, and downright meaningful of the show thus far. These are the two episodes that ask the truly difficult questions and do not try to answer them for us, doing what true science fiction is meant to do, above all else: make us think. Is that exactly what Fox doesn’t like its audience doing?