Welcome to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse

Imagine a world where there is no past and no future, where every day is different and exciting.

And all you have to give up is your memory, and perhaps a bit of your soul.

In the world of Dollhouse, beautiful people are rented out like boogie boards at a tropical resort and the tourists use them and move on. These blank boards get imprinted with your exact specifications for your unique needs and desires from a crack kidnapping specialist to the perfect girlfriend – then get wiped clean after the adventure ends, ready for their next assignment.

In between, these child-like creatures live in a carefully crafted environment, a lovely underground abode decorated in a heavily Asian influence of dark woods, fountains, koi ponds, spas, exercise rooms and a sleep room that whispers mindless calm.

“It’s supposed to feel organic, free and open. A zen loveliness,” Dollhouse creator
Joss Whedon
says as he gives a tour of the set. “You know, I read Shogun when I was 13 and never got over it. I’ve always loved that Asian influence.”

But looking down on this tranquil world is the sinister corporation overseeing the dolls. It’s a theme we’ve seen often from Whedon, who gained fame with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer before spinning off the vamp hit Angel, which had similar tones of corporate baddies.

Just looking at the lavish set, which cost close to a $1 million, makes you believe that Fox would never put this kind of money into a project without a substantial commitment to make it a success. But then, we remember the incredible space ship Serenity, built for Whedon’s last Fox series Firefly.

Only 11 of the 14 episodes produced for that series ever saw the light of TV tube, and not only ruined Whedon’s friendship with former production collaborator Gail Berman, who was then the head of Fox entertainment, but also made him shy away from doing any more TV series.

Initially, Whedon agreed to write the Dollhouse pilot plus six more episodes, but that quickly turned into a 13-episode order from Fox.

“At first I thought, great, I’ll make seven and then go on with my life, making movies again, but then it started tumbling over itself,” Whedon explains. “There was something completely organic about this experience, from that meeting with Eliza, and then my wife saying it sounded like a neat thing. I’m dealing with new people, and it just feels right.”

Although he did pause when he learned Dollhouse had been shifted from Monday nights to Friday – the ratings death zone where Firefly once was slotted.

“I’d had a bad experience on Friday. You might have heard about it,” says Whedon. “But I knew that was sort of just an instinctive reaction to something that had happened before. (Fox) made it very clear that this was a different agenda. They weren’t looking to stick us on a Friday, not promote us, and then expect us to be a huge hit instantly.”

Fox hopes that by pairing Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles with Dollhouse, the two sci fi shows starring strong sexy women will bring in the Friday night crowd.

Eliza Dushku, who played the anti-Buffy vamp slayer Faith on Buffy stars as Echo, a woman who made a mistake and now must pay for it by becoming one of the so-called Actives in the Dollhouse. But while most of the dolls have no knowledge of their former lives, Echo is starting to retain some memories after getting her memory wiped.

She’s assigned engagements by the mysterious and all-powerful Adelle (Olivia Williams) and has a handler named Boyd (Harry Lennix). Boyd is only slightly more moral than the science genius Topher (Fran Kranz), who imprints and wipes the actives. Former Angel co-star Amy Acker plays a physically and emotionally damaged scientist also working with the Actives, which include Sierra (Dichen Lachman), the closest thing to a friend Echo has in the house.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Paul, played by Battlestar Galactica’s Tahmon Penikett, tries to track down the Dollhouse operation to find Caroline – the woman who is now Echo.

The genesis of the story came from a lunch meeting between Dushku and Whedon.

“I literally just came up with the idea based on our conversation about her as an actress,” Whedon says of her ability to play so many different characters. “And she said that people expect her to be a certain thing, and I went, wait a minute. That’s the show.”

Every episode of Dollhouse is self-contained so anyone can drop in and enjoy the show, but there’s an underlying mythology to keep regular viewers hooked.

“There’s an engagement, a resolution and the arc story of Echo’s burgeoning awareness and the people around her,” Whedon says. “It’s sort of La Femme Nikita, but she won’t be killing people as often or as well, but that influence is certainly there. I have actually described this show as Alias meets Quantum Leap, where she gets into people’s lives and helps them and you never know from episode to episode what the tone is going to be.”

While Echo may be the almost perfect avatar, the emphasis going forward will be on the “almost.”

“Echo has glitches and flaws,” Dushku says. “She’s absolutely glitching and starting to become self-aware and the memory wipes aren’t entirely working.”

Whedon says viewers will get a lot of payoff this season. Paul will be hunting the illicit operation and won’t always be one step behind them.

“Every now and then, he’s going to come up against them in a rather abrupt fashion,” Whedon says. “He’s not going to be the reporter in The Hulk, always five feet behind.”

It’s been a while since Fox had a Friday night hit, back when The X-Files ruled the night, but the one-two distaff punch might be just the ticket to draw viewers.

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