I’ve never been a fan of Joss Whedon. I don’t particularly dislike him, either, but my exposure to his work has been limited. I never watched Buffy or Angel because by the time it registered that they might be worth watching, I’d finished catching up on several other series and didn’t feel like catching up on yet more series. I watched five episodes of Firefly and hated it (stories boring, setting ridiculous, characters unlikeable). And I’ve never read any of the comic books he’s written.
But on Friday, planning already to watch the new episode of Battlestar Galactica, we decided to watch the first episode of Whedon’s new series, Dollhouse.
The premise is that an agency is able to wipe peoples’ memories, program them with new personas and skills for particular assignments, and then restore them when they come back. The lead character is one such agent, Echo (Eliza Dushku).
As has been mentioned elsewhere (e.g., in the Boston Globe and by Peter David), the series’ basic flaw is: If you need a professional negotiator, or secret agent, or whatever, why not just hire an actual professional rather than someone “programmed” using some fictional technique? It’s a solution looking for a problem. (I’ve heard that Whedon’s original concept was less adventure-oriented and more intended to explore issues of enslavement and control, which makes more sense as a premise. Rumor is that Fox demanded the series be overhauled with their input, which helps explain what we got.)
The interesting thing about the opening episode is really one of story structure: It’s organized to make it as routine as possible. We have the obligatory introduction to the agency and the obligatory non-adventure to show Echo in a “programmed” role. Then we have the takes-only-2/3ds-of-an-episode adventure with some suspense and action. And then a fade to black amidst a few lingering questions that have been raised. So much set-up and plot mechanics get packed into the episode that there’s no room for characterization or depth, so it ended up being quite bland.
A much more effective approach – which itself isn’t original, but would have made the episode more interesting – would have been to start with Echo in the middle of an assignment, and to have us build up an empathy with her character. Have her really focused on where she is now, and only in the final act peel back the layers to show that she’s acting on behalf of the agency, and finally that she’s not even who we think she is, but is a fake persona. Make her real self very different from the one we’ve gotten to know, and we have some stake in the fact that the woman we knew doesn’t really exist. And not only is there less exposition about the agency, but the nature of the agency gets left as an open question, making us want to come back to find out what it’s all about. To be sure, some of this is known to anyone who read about the series before it aired, but I think this approach would have been far more effective in introducing the set-up while making the opening episode intriguing on its own.
So the overall premise is somewhat interesting, but presents some big challenges to keep us invested in the characters going forward. And the opening episode rates only a “meh”. So they’ve got a ways to climb to make me want to come back every Friday.
(The new BSG wasn’t one of their best, either, but then it was a “calm after the storm” following the excitement of the previous few episodes, so I can understand that.)