Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dollhouse: Epitaph One

If you haven't seen it, you should. (Download it from itunes if you don't want to buy the DVD). Dollhouse's second season premieres this Friday, September 25th at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central. Spoilers below the fold.

I watched this episode about a month ago and I probably should have written up my thoughts at the time. But I was recovering from the Illness That Would Not End and just didn't have the energy. So the following are random thoughts based on what I remember.

Joss Whedon's brother Jed Whedon and sis-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen get the writing credit. And what credit they deserve. This might be the best written episode of Dollhouse (yet). Whedon and Tancharoen used script techniques that I've loved in past Whedon shows and that I've missed in Dollhouse: fast paced dialog (lots of short cliched dialog said fast enough by characters that seem to know they are cliches but know they suit the moment seems to work for a Whedon show): lots of references to prior events that the characters understand without any explanation for the audience (necessitating multiple viewings to really figure out what they were talking about or why certain actions were taken - like, for instance, the reason the boom box had to be destroyed); unexpected turns in the plot (I completely did not expect the little girl, Iris, was anything other than a little girl).

And humor interspersed with pathos. It is, however darkly, a humorous moment when the people from 2019 find out that the technology that destroyed their world started out as a way to provide sex for rich people. And did anyone else find the death in the shower head shaking in a good way? Typical Whedon to do a typical scary movie scene but in the end it turns out it wasn't a typical monster that killed her.

Whedon sure is obsessed with the idea of protecting the human body from being appropriated and used by anyone other than the original consciousness of that body, isn't he? That was the main thing that Buffy was fighting against - demons who killed humans and then appropriated their bodies for the use of other demons. But Whedon is also obsessed with free will - the subtext of Buffy was that although Buffy was the chosen one she was constantly fighting against the idea that she had to be a certain way - a way that other people (including the watchers) thought she should be.

In Angel, the body of Fred Burkle (played by Amy Acker) is taken over by a demon. Angel, of course, is the Vampire with a Soul - a complicated idea. He started as a human with a soul. The human is killed and a demon takes over his body. But then the gypsies give him back his soul - but it isn't clear if he is his original self (or at least it was never clear to me).

In Firefly and Serenity (which I also finally watched this summer), Whedon created River Tam, a weaponized human who started out as a young girl but whose mind and physical abilities had been altered by an evil government. (By the way, Summer Glau is joining Dollhouse but will, apparently, play someone "normal" for once.) The movie Serenity leads up to the moment when the crew discovers a planet in which the inhabitants had been used as experiments for a mind altering drug - an experiment that went horribly wrong. And of course the whole concept of the series and the movie is of a society leadership that tries to enforce homogeneity and a group that wants to live in a different way.

And now we have Dollhouse: humans turned into shells to be filled with other personalities; who can be weaponized by hearing a voice on a phone; who can have their personalities wiped by radio waves (apparently).

You gotta wonder what is going on in Whedon's mind and where this obsession comes from.

But anyway.

So now we know that we are heading toward a dystopic future (2019) that can't be avoided. That could be depressing but we also know that Echo manages to save the dolls - or at least get them out with a fighting chance. And we know that she gets to some kind of self-awareness that may or may not be Caroline and, if it is Caroline, may or may not be the same kind of Caroline. So there is a "cure" that gets discovered at some point. So, ok.

What else?

Amy Acker. Wow. Amy Acker. I remember liking her on Angel when I occasionally watched it but I had no idea what a great actress she was. The last couple of episode of the regular season and this episode she has just blown me away. I am disappointed that she isn't going to be in very many episodes next season because she is on a different, new show called Happy Town (but I'm putting that show on my list of must-see television and I hope they don't waste her in whatever role they have cast her in).

The other acting was great too. Unlike some of the regular season episodes where I thought there were weak links in the acting, everyone did a great job in this episode. Sure, Enver Gjokaj was a great as he ever was, but Olivia Williams, who was always good, took her character to a whole new level. The emotional depth that she showed was heartbreaking.

I'm no longer annoyed by Franz Kranz' portrayal of of Topher and he, too, took his character to a whole new level. I thought this was Tahmoh Penikett's best episode and it gives me great hope that this season he will be better when he is directly paired up with Eliza Dushku (who also had an outstanding episode). And Reed Diamond back as Lawrence Dominic was a treat - but it sounds like that's the first time he's out of the attic so I doubt we'll be seeing him again.

The new actors playing the characters from the future did a fine job too. I'm not a huge Felicia Day fan but I thought her portrayal of Mag was ok. The two men on her team were much better. It was Adair Tishler though, as Iris, who stole the show. I wanted to see a whole new series with her playing a grown up Echo in her little girl body.

And that, in fact, is what the episode felt like - a pilot for a new show, a show that I wanted to see. Think how different last season would have been if the pilot episode had been as good as this.

The one thing I didn't really buy in Epitaph One was the idea that China would stage an attack that wiped people and caused chaos. It simply isn't in China's best interest to have a world in chaos like that depicted at the beginning of the episode - how would we pay back all the money we owe them? Who would buy their products? China is going to own us, not destroy us. But I note that Whedon seems convinced that our future is tied to the Chinese. Remember all those Chinese words and cultural references in Firefly and Serenity?

The other thing that didn't make a lot of sense was how easy it was for them to find the Dollhouse. Yes they were looking for a place deep underground but it seemed so easy for them to find it and get in - and yet no one else had, apparently, found it in the years since the dolls left. (They do explain how the "butchers" who are after them can find them - by smell).

Where does this take the series during the coming year? It looks like it is going to be an interesting season. From the "flashbacks" it looks like Ballard and Echo are teaming up to do undercover work in the Dollhouse. That makes Ballard's decision to work for the Dollhouse and not to free Caroline so much more understandable. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw a flashback this year to the last episode of last season and find out that Multiple Personality Echo/Caroline convinced Ballard to do this. I would think that the relationship between Saunders and Boyd would deepen, based on their scene together - although with Amy Acker unavailable most of the season maybe I'm wrong. I hope we see more of the softer side of Olivia Williams. And I'm going to look at Topher in an entirely different way.

So, what did you think?