They can be anyone you want...
Dollhouse is a television show produced by Fox Broadcasting. It was conceived and is executive produced by Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly fame; it stars Eliza Dushku, also from Buffy, who has a producer credit as well. The premise is easily explained. Set in today's world, the prime element of fiction is a technology that allows for the erasing, editing and re-implantation of human personality - down to the level of muscle memory. There is a shadowy organization, known as (of course) the Dollhouse, where people who for one reason or another have signed away their lives for a set period are kept. Known as 'Actives', they exist without personality unless they are on assignment, or as the Dollhouse calls it, an 'Engagement.' Then they have personalities, edited and selected to meet the criteria of the Dollhouse's client, uploaded into them, and are sent out (with handlers) to fulfill their client's wishes.
Yep, it's super-high-tech whoring, but with that sci-fi twist.
From the very first episode, we're introduced to the tensions in this somewhat fraught setup. The star of the show is an Active named Echo, played by Dushku. We get a brief flashback scene where she is being induced to sign a contract, presumably allowing the Dollhouse to do what it will with her, although we don't find out why. We're given hints that something has happened, and this is her way out - the phrase 'clean slate' is used quite a bit here.
There is a Federal agent (played by Tahmoh Penikett, "Helo" of Battlestar Galactica fame) who is spending his time pursuing the Dollhouse, although all his colleagues (and most of his superiors, it seems) think the Dollhouse is just a myth, and enjoy twitting him about his Quixotic fantasy quest. He has been resorting to increasingly heavy-handed means to get information, and is stepping on toes.
Echo's 'best friend' is her handler, played by Harry Lennix ("Commander Lock", from the Matrix movies). He has been brought on board following a bloody incident where one of the Actives, known as Alpha, went berserk and murdered a bunch of people inside the Dollhouse (and perhaps outside it) - although he spared Echo. Although the Dollhouse claims he was 'put down,' events quickly seem to indicate that Alpha is still out there, somewhere.
The standard 'hapless brilliant geek' in the show is named Topher - he handles the technology and the process of the 'treatment,' when an Active returns from assignment and is 'reset.'
The show's premise isn't all that original. It's a modern take on The Stepford Wives, really, or even a more extreme version of the wirehead prostitutes used by sci-fi lights such as William Gibson. Delving deeper into simile, we could easily draw parallels to Frankenstein, from the construction of artificial persons from the bits of others. For the 'young female linked to male handler' we could go look at Gunslinger Girl for a Japanese take. Bear in mind that this review is written only two episodes into the first season, so it should be assumed that Joss Whedon has tricks he's going to bring out later on.
My overriding impression of the show so far is that it is a smoothly and competently done version of a fairly standard concept. The plotline hasn't been revealed enough to determine how familiar it is, if at all; but the setup, as I've said, is one that any science fiction fan (or really, any dedicated television watcher) will recognize immediately. Unfortunately for Dollhouse, it also echoes some very recent television in concept and in appearance. The recent short-lived incarnation of The Bionic Woman, for example, also had many of the same features. To wit, it had a female operative with limited information, backed up by a shadowy and fairly well-connected organization, with male handlers who were there to provide 'father figures' despite being less powerful than her. It even included a young, white, male, wisecracking 'techie' who ran the female operative in a somewhat disturbing puppet reference, since (in that case) he could literally see through her eyes. In our own case, the programmer also monitors the Actives from afar, with readouts on their body telemetry, and we're told he has the ability to 'retask satellites' to help him do his job.
That's just one example, but it's from less than a year ago. Other versions of bits of this show pop up all along the television timeline.
Of course, originality isn't the end-all of a television show. If it was, none of them would have made it. The show's production values are quite high, although it does appear that most of the first season budget has been spent on the Dollhouse sets themselves. The off-base locations are very, very generic, and the second episode resorts to the 'running game in the California wilderness' method of avoiding set expense, which is pretty quick. Agent Ballard's FBI office is only minimally convincing, relying on a large FBI seal on the wall in a big room full of desks. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since we hope he won't spend a lot of time there, but it is worrying that one of the main characters (and he certainly seems to be set up as one, even if his screen time in the first two is limited) is hamstrung with limited scenery.
The main plot thread so far, which looks to occupy us for at least the first season, is that Active Echo (Dushku) isn't properly fitting in to the Dollhouse model. She has started to retain bits of memory from her Engagements, and perhaps from before her time in the Dollhouse. This will undoubtedly cause her handler Boyd some problems and perhaps some loyalty questions, and no doubt will offer Agent Ballard (nice name choice, by the way, Joss) some fodder as well.
If pushed to decide, I have one real disappointment with the show so far. I watch Joss Whedon shows because of the writing; most notably, because of the dialogue. Buffy and Firefly were as well-received as they were in part, at least, due to the amazing flow of dialogue between their main characters. That seems to be almost entirely absent in Dollhouse so far; the characters just don't banter or even argue. Their interactions are limited to clipped phraseology that could have been lifted, wholesale, from the 'B-Reel Television Actor's Guide.' The closest they came to decent banter was when Boyd handed Echo a silenced pistol and said "Do you know how to use this?" to which she responded by racking a round with the slide and replying "Four brothers. None of them Democrats." To be honest, that's maybe halfway up the Whedon scale, and that's the best we got.
Hopefully, that will change, because no matter how good the concept is (original or not) the concept isn't enough to keep people watching. With Joss Whedon shows, the reason you keep watching is the character interaction, and while Harry Lennix's Boyd might have the depth required, there's really no one for him to exercise it with. The main character (by design) can't remember anything from one show to the next, and the others are almost cardboard cutouts so far (the white male creepy hacker, the slick security man you don't trust, the enigmatic corporate leader) and, worse, ones you really have little interest in talking to.
Update: I just finished watching Episode 6 (Man on the Street). This episode offered a fairly large expansion of the show's 'depth' - things were introduced that you'd been feeling the lack of all along so far. It's been said that Joss Whedon had to essentially give plot control of the first 5 episodes to Fox Networks. If that's true, then it makes sense - this is the first example of potentially Whedon-esque writing we've yet seen on this show. In sum, it was a marked uptick in quality, and the reason it wasn't better is because much of this episode seems to serve to set up plot development later on.
This show just became watchable. I hope it pays off what it set up this week. If it did, I'll be glad I struggled through the first five weeks.
Update update: Episode 7 (Echoes) wasn't as good as 6, but was still interesting - and had some good snark in it. Episode 8 (Needs) was actually quite good, if mostly self-contained. Still on an upswing, here.
Update update update: Episode 13 (Epitaph?) - Holy. Flurking. Schnitt. As another noder says of Whedon, "What a mind this guy has." Yeah. For serious. This is a one-off episode which may or may not be connected to Whedon's vision for the series. If it *is* connected, then he's sort of shot his bolt here, so I'll take what I've heard at face value, that is that this was a one-off experimental play with the show's property when it was unclear if they were going to get another season. If that's the case, it's almost more impressive. I haven't started watching season two, yet, and this episode (which was available only on the DVD) scared me so much I'm going to have to psych myself up to start in...
Dollhouse is broadcast in the U.S. on Fridays at 9 pm Eastern on FOX Network. If you're in the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere) you can watch full episodes using Fox's internet player.