If you have nothing else to say about it, you can’t say Dollhouse isn’t intriguing. Thankfully, throwing my hat into the ring of reviews, I have more than plenty to say about my first introduction to the Dollverse. It was even better than I espected. I found it to be immensely compelling-if not weighed down in brief moments by too much exposition. I have in mind the opening sequence in which we are introduced to Caroline-a bit early to see that moment for my liking-and chief of security Laurence line to Boyd about “ex-cop heroics.” The pilot, “Ghost” which replaces the previously filmed first episode, “Echoes” is well framed, beautifully shot and a delectable tease of what is to come.
In general, the episode brought up more questions for me than at any time in the long months of anticipation. What are the parameters of the actives’ programming? What kind of “treatment” do the personalities think they are getting at the end of their client’s contract? What makes them seek it out? How many actives are there? In my book, I relish in all these queries and whatever “loose ends” there appear to be for audiences now do not bother me in the least, but, like the character of Paul Ballard, drive me to keep watching for answers. Not to mention, the potential for this set-up and these characters are endless.
I was very anxious to see the opening credits and by "anxious" I mean giddy. The sequence is quite a bit more subdued than any of Joss Whedon’s previous series and it does away with the convention of portraits and subtitles of all the primary actors. Eliza Dushku is really the star of the credits and plays to her role as “doll” while pulling up her lace tights. The music is certainly more subtle as well which seems to fit the direction Whedon intends the show to go-this will not be a no-holds-barred action fest. The bells at the end of the credits as the glass panels cover up the actives as they go to sleep also reinforcing the idea of viewing these people as dolls-which is a morally difficult one to subscribe to. At the end of the night, these men and women go back in their toy box.
One of the issues I had with journalistic criticisms of the show was the question of how people could become invested in the show if they had no central character to “root for” since Echo essentially had no personality. This, to me, says they haven’t watched the show, because what we’re rooting for, is for Echo to regain her personality! If that’s not a prime motivation to watch the show through this first season, I don’t know what is.
As a sidenote, I watched the episode with captions as we had a gentleman with a hearing impairment with us, and it was interesting to note that even when Echo was programmed as the carefree-girl-with-the-short-skirt in the beginning of the episode or Eleanor-not-Ellie-Penn, the captions still referenced her as “Echo”. Although I doubt that was an intentional commentary, it made me think about how Echo might still be in there, no matter what persona fills her body and mind.
"...all those terrible memories these men put in your head. Why would they do that?"
Other than the aforementioned moments of blatant exposition-most likely a product of the re-tooled pilot and studio demands, I thought the dialogue was extremely well-crafted. “Ghost” is replete with double-edged dialogue like the line above and Ms. Penn's "I don't have any hobbies." There is a depth to the writing however simplistic of conversation it covers that reinforces my faith in how this season will continue to develop in fascinating ways. Whedon is well-known for having Shakspeare readings with the casts of his shows in his home and he has said that he is aware that he writes lines that quote Shakespeare maybe too often. It did not surprise me, then that Fran Kanz’s character, Topher quotes two lines of Shakespeare if I’m not mistaken, almost back to back. On that note, of all the characters, I found Topher to be the least convincing; his dialogue seemed forced, though sometimes out of necessity when he speaks to Echo as a child without so much compassion. As it is early in the season, there could very well be a reason for this.
Another instance of intertextuality came when Davina’s father, Gabriel Cristejo, mentions Edward James Olmos as a fatherly figure. Not only does Tahmoh Peniket have a role on Battlestar Galactica which airs the same night as Dollhouse-at least until the end of its run in five weeks-Whedon is a self-proclaimed Battlestar fanboy. I thanked Whedon out loud for that surprise reference!
As much as I knew about the show and the pilot specifically before going in to Friday’s premiere, I was surprised about how much had not been revealed in interviews and reviews of “Ghost.” I was aware that the writers on Dollhouse would play with the notion of human trafficking, but what I was not expecting was the explicit references to that issue. I had no idea Paul Ballard would be working on a Russian trafficking case. Perhaps this plot point is introduced early on in order to underscore the parallels to the Dollhouse as a veritable human trafficking estate? Paul encounters Enver Gjokaj’s character whom promotional images and the show’s opening credits have pinned as an active. In this first episode, is he playing a member of the Borodin family? Could he be helping the efforts that possibly put him into this existence? And could Paul be a former active himself, driven by memories from his time in the Dollhouse?
Other points of intrigue for me involved firstly the care that those running the Dollhouse have for their actives-not as people but tools. Adelle DeWitt has a line about the protection of the actives being of the utmost importance-not the situation. She says “the actives are not robots,” but how different do they treat them? Second, Paul’s line about the imprinting process being akin to murdering a person is striking. Seeing Sierra victimized at the Dollhouse early on and then turned into a killing machine in the climax of the episode was a chilling contrast.
I’m so glad Whedon cast Amy Acker in the show and in such a promising role. There is something very mysterious about the way her character, Dr. Claire Saunders, moves about the Dollhouse, half-hidden behind the door in one scene. Her reaction when Echo asks, “who takes care of you?” is haunting. I already feel empathy for character. I so desire to know the reason for her pain physical and otherwise. I expect Dr. Saunders and Echo to share much more meaningful time together as the series unfolds.
The episode ends with what could be this season’s Big Bad, a figure whose face we do not see in a room with several bodies watching a video tape of Caroline. A rogue active? Is this Alpha?
Through in through, “Ghost” is a worthy first episode that draws the audience into a world similar enough to our own world, that it creates a gripping morality play where we the viewers are not always on the side of good. While we eagerly watch every episode play out and hope that Echo successfully completes every engagement as an active, we too, are the perpetrators of her imprisonment. Her success means another day trapped in the Dollhouse.
This Friday, Echo gets involved in another engagement gone awry-but this time not as a result of her programming in episode two, "The Target." For future and repeat viewing, you can watch Dollhouse on Hulu.