Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Review: Dollhouse 1.1 - Ghost

I didn’t take notice of Buffy until Season 4 was shown ahead of Angel Season 1 on sky tv. I was hooked and went back to the beginning. Firefly didn’t grab me straight away but when I “got it” I loved it and became part of the Browncoat movment to bring it back. Having read Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-men, the Serenity mini-series and the continuation in comic book form of Buffy and Angel, reading that he was to make a series called Dollhouse left me fairly cold. The premise sounded just a bit too much like Joe 90, but Eliza Dushku was back and this was Joss Whedon! Then the stories began to emerge; the pilot was going to be shelved; Firefly all over again. Still, the trailers looked good.

So, to the watching of episode 1; ghost.

The premise of Dollhouse as given by Fox:

They can be anyone you want.
The Dollhouse is a very secret, and very illegal, place where wishes come true. Clients with the right connections and enough money can hire "Actives", people who have been programmed to perfectly fulfill the needs, and desires of their clients. The Actives are people who have chosen, for their own reasons, to surrender their bodies...

Ok, I must confess to falling asleep during "Ghost". Only Fringe has the uncanny habit of being paced in such a way that I find myself dropping off for a snooze. The trouble is, I like Fringe. Initially, Dollhouse did not grab me at all. So, does this mean the end of my review? No. I gave it a second chance.

I did my best to ignore the stories, most of them from Mr Whedon himself, about the troubles with how the series was to start. So, the beginning of Ghost does come across as an attempt to get into the action early. This consists of Echo, wearing a dress that her daddy wouldn't approve of and partying hard for the sake of a client. Afterwards she returns to the Dollhouse of the series title to have her memory wiped or "treatment" as it's called. This treatment appears to reduce the "dolls" to a blank docile state ready for the next programme.

Exposition during a scene with Agent Paul Ballard, Tahmoh Penikett's character, explains why rich clients might use such a service. it seems that this cop knows a fair bit about the "Dollhouse" but hasn't got any evidence. his superiors, understandbly are losing patience.

Through the course of Echo's return to the Dollhouse facility we are introduced to a number of the key characters including the tech Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) and Echo's handler Harry Lennix (Boyd Langdon). Olivia Williams plays a kind of matriarch figure Adelle DeWitt, who seems to run the facility. She has an assistant Laurence Dominic (played by Reed Diamond) and an inhouse medic Claire Saunders (Amy Acker). Saunders appears to have gone through some very traumatic events judging from the scars across her face. Did an "active" go rogue?
Echo seems to question her role as she queries why she has a bruised knee, which she got laying the motorcycle at the beginning of the episode. After medical attention she wanders off to a supposed restricted area to see a new recruit called Sierra getting a more extreme form of "treatment". Echo is reassured that this is normal and will soon gain a new friend at the facility.
The daughter of a rich Mexican businessman is kidnapped and held for ransom, so approaches Adelle DeWitt for help. Echo is chosen to become a negotiator tasked with only ensuring that the exchange process goes smoothly; she is not to try and bring the perpetrators to justice. The businessman seems to know a lot about the Dollhouse because he tests Echo by questioning her suitability as a negotiator. I found this strange as surely the guy would know that a beautiful young woman would be the asset. Unless there are other people put through the same treatment but no evidence has been shown as so far.

We find out that the memories that are programmed in to the "actives" are from real people and that disabilities such as short sightedness and asthma help to reinforce the programming by remaining. This impacts heavily on the mission as Echo experiences adverse memory recall whilst carrying out the transaction. She undergoes an asthma attack brought on by traumatic memories from a memory "donor". This leads the kidnappers bar one to escape. Echo knows that one of them will kill the others and ultimately kill the businessman's daughter. She remains active to help take down the crew using psychology as a weapon just before Sierra mows them down with, presumably, an assassin mental package installed.

Everyone returns to the Dollhouse where a number of actives shower communally and then sleep in a set up akin to the hypersleep modules in Alien.

The epilogue consists of a mystery person watching a video of Echo’s previous life in a suburban house where two people have been shot to death. They steal a photo of her, put it in an envelope to Paul Ballard with the words ‘Keep Looking’ written on the back.

Basically, this is Eliza Dushku's Quantum Leap; playing at least one different character per episode. Has she got the range as an actress to maintain credibility in such a role? The jury's out but I suspect - yes. From this episode and stills I've seen from future episodes, typically Joss focuses on the sexuality of Eliza. Like a nightclub scene in Buffy waaay back, Eliza is seen strutting her charms on the dance floor in a tiny dress; a scene that must have been subject to careful editing. Her transition from spaced out template to the cool, calm hostage negotiator is handled well.

Overall, the plot has promise in making parallels to concerns that our civil liberties are taken for granted if it means that the greater good is protected. Also, knowing how much of a fan Joss Whedon is of the X-Men, I couldn't help but notice the similarities to the Weapon X project that a number of key characters from the X-Universe were involved in (Wolverine, Sabretooth, Deadpool);the facility, the memory tampering.

All in all, I liked this opening episode (eventually). There is a heck of a lot of disbelief to be suspended and the trademark Whedon wisecracking is sadly missing from the script but I will be watching this. Had I got put off the first time around I would have done the series a disservice, after all, I carried on with the very patchy Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Verdict: 6/10

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