Friday, July 31, 2009

Dollhouse — Unaired Pilot and "Epitaph One"

I'll be honest: I picked up the Blu-Ray for the first season of Dollhouse as much if not more for the exclusive episodes as it did the season proper. While the back half of the season certainly grabbed my interest and mostly held it through the end, I found myself far more taken with the idea of watching both the original pilot, dumped when the networks called it "too dark and confusing" in favor of that tepid and largely pointless iteration that uneventfully debuted the show, as well as the fabled 13th episode, the post-apocalyptic "Epitaph One." When I got home to my PS3 I didn't even watch any of the aired episodes before diving into these bonus treats, and my thoughts on them are as follows:

[Note: This review avoids spoilers for the two episodes under discussion, but it assumes that you've seen the season's aired episodes]

Unaired Pilot -- "Echo"

The studio notes for this episode cited it as too confusing to appeal to a broad audience, the first sign that FOX would end up meddling with this show just as they had with Firefly before it. It (perhaps justifiably) put people on the defensive months before the show ever came out, and got the ball rolling on all the cancellation talk as well.

For all my love of artistic freedom, though, and especially for someone I adore as much as Joss Whedon, I'd have told him to re-write it as well. Where the studio feared that its tone would turn off the Idol crowd or something, I would have suggested that he simply cut the thing down a tad. For you see, "Echo" is a two-hour pilot extravaganza crammed into your average one-hour time slot. Even with the 5-10 extra minutes offered by that Remote-Free TV business, it simply contains too much plot, too many character moments and far, far too many answered questions.

For example, in this version of the pilot, we see Saunders' hatred of Topher, the Feds knowing too much about the Dollhouse to dismiss it, Boyd saying too much about the Dollhouse's evil before Whedon has fully established what a disgusting organization it is and, worst of all, Echo meeting Ballard. These scenes pepper the first five or six episodes of the season, and condensing them into one hour of TV gives us too much information about what should be a shadowy organization.

Nevertheless, it's a massive improvement over the version we got. "Ghost" didn't even feel like a Whedon-penned episode: its exposition was obvious to the point of cringe-inducing, this interesting world was ill-defined and, most surprising of all, it lacked humor. "Echo," as a strange contrast, contains too much of these elements. It's nice and clever, but it gives us too man details, and a running gag concerning Topher's use of the phrase "man-friend" simply grates (it actually builds to a nice dark one-liner from Boyd, then Topher uses the phrase once more later). Other lines contain real, working humor though, and for all the flaws of the Echo/Ballard interaction, it clearly set up Caroline's story far earlier, something that would have silenced a number of critics who cited the show as misogynistic for not immediately establishing a strong female lead. Rather than a revelation of Whedon's original, assured vision, "Echo" is more the polar opposite of the flaws of "Ghost" -- somewhere between the two lies the perfect pilot, but I'd likely place it on that line far closer to this.

Epitaph One

Now this is what I'm talking about. Joss Whedon is nothing if not bold: his four shows each contain wildly different tones, styles, approaches to humor, and themes, yet they all feature certain flourishes that make them immediately recognizable as his. His best work (as well as the best work of his finest writers) stands in open defiance of what might normally pass on TV, or that which takes him far out of his comfort zone (though the jury's still out on this show, which is one giant removal). I'm of course speaking of episodes such as "The Body," "Hush," "Objects in Space," and "Not Fade Away."

"Epitaph One" belongs on this list. Though neither written nor directed by Whedon, you can feel his guiding hand behind the script more than anywhere in the season's aired episodes, including one of the two that he wrote. It, more than "Man on the Street," "Spy in the House of Love" or either of the two parts of the finale, demonstrates that the show, despite its rocky opening and a continued set of unanswered, important questions (such as "What's the point of this anyway?"), indeed has a direction, and Whedon is a steady hand at the helm.

Set in 2019, ten years after Echo started exhibiting problems with her programming, "Epitaph One" shows us a world in chaos. A small band of filthy survivors moves through the streets of L.A., carrying with them a small child and her wiped father. At some point between now and the first season timeline, the Rossum Corporation (the owners of the Dollhouse) sold or allowed their technology to fall into other hands, and China discovered a way to imprint massive sections of the world populace in a manner similar to the cell call in "Gray Hour."

This group heads for the Dollhouse to find the imprinting chair to see if they can piece together what went wrong. They don't know what the construct really is, and when they discover that the institution that brought about the apocalypse was originally nothing more than a glorified whorehouse they don't know whether to laugh or find something to shoot.

They discover two things, though, that are far more important that the Dollhouse's original design. One is Whiskey, now scar-less and wiped, and the other a set of memories waiting to be uploaded into an Active. Through these memories we are given brief glimpses into the events that link the present with this horrible future, as well as character moments and even some relationship news. My favorite moments involved De Witt and Topher finally accepting the evil of their profession and their role in this cataclysm.

Giving us this information in the form of memories is a masterstroke, because memory is subjective. Some, perhaps all, of the scenes Whedon shows us could be slightly different if not outright false. We know that he's the king of continuity jokes, with callbacks and cross-references abounding in the Buffyverse, but this presentation ups the stakes: now the fans will look not only for these scenes to unfold but check up to see if anything differs.

"Epitaph One" is many things: thrilling, horrific, cerebral, gripping and darkly witty. Most of all, though, it is fearless. Written by his Doctor Horrible cohorts Maurissa Tancharoen and brother Jed Whedon, it's based on a pitch by Joss, one that would bring the high concept of the show to the fore while slashing the budget down to peanuts. Its predominantly hand-held direction (courtesy of David Solomon) lacks the spastic nature of shaky cam footage, and instead successfully creates a feeling of tension and realism without making us reach for the barf bags. Only someone with a firm grasp of a show's direction -- and let's not forget, Whedon also sowed hints for more than one future season in Buffy episodes "Graduation Day" and "Restless" -- would be so bold as to give away so much detail for a show's future. In anyone else's hands, something like "Epitaph One" would cause me worry. With Whedon holding the reins, however, it is a promise to the fans who stuck with this series out of faith in him that Dollhouse is going places, and I for one can't wait until September.

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