Eliza Dushku Echo/Caroline Farrell/Miss Penn
Henry Lennix Boyd Langton
Olivia Williams Adele DeWitt
Tamoh Penikett Paul Ballard
Franz Kanz Topher Brink
Amy Acker Dr. Saunders
Enver Gjokai Anton Lubov
Dichen Lachman Sierra
Reed Diamond Mr Dominic
Kurt Caceras Gabriel Crestejo
Haley Alexis Pullo Davina Crestejo
First Aired: 13th February 2009
Plot: A young woman named Caroline is in a meeting with Adelle DeWitt, she is being asked to volunteer for something. She’s clearly upset and is blaming herself for something. Miss DeWitt asks for 5 years, reluctantly she agrees.
It’s night-time, at some point later and two people are racing on motorbikes in the street. One of them is Caroline, but really it isn’t. The other is a guy called Matt. They race to his party and after a romantic moment, she is whisked away by Boyd Langton, who offers her a ‘treatment’ and she’s away. She’s driven back somewhere and all she can talk about is Matt and how right it all feels. She is walked into what looks like a dentists chair with a metallic halo around the head and with a flash of blue light, she isn’t that girl anymore, she isn’t Caroline either, she is just a blank slate called Echo.
Gabriel Caceres, a father of means is talking on his car phone to his 12 year old daughter Davina, it’s a disagreement over watching a TV program. The father’s car is stopped by the police, just as the girl is kidnapped from her home. The father has gone to a group known as the Dollhouse. They offer the help of one of their Actives and prepare her mind with the technical expertise of Topher and on her physical well being is checked by the scarred Doctor Saunders. Echo is given a new personality/memory imprint and is now Miss Eleanor Penn, a hostage negotiator and herself once a victim of a kidnapping. She negotiates with the kidnappers and arranges a meet, full of confidence, astonishing the Gabriel, a man very much aware that this ‘person’ is at best half a day old. Like a professional she arranges the exchange, even sweetening the deal for the kidnappers. Back at the Dollhouse in an expositional scene, Topher explains to Boyd that the imprint (the temporary personality/ set of memories put into the Active) is a mix of several people’s memories, one of whom was an actual kidnap victim.
At the exchange, things are going well, until Miss Penn recognises one of the kidnappers as her own kidnapper and things start to go pear-shaped. Gabriel is shot, Davina is still held and Miss Penn spiraling. Boyd returns her to the Dollhouse for her imprint to be cleared. Boyd however, convinces Miss DeWitt and her head of security Mr Dominic, to keep the imprint in as Miss Penn is the only one who can find the child. They agree, adding another Active, Sierra to the operation. Speaking of Sierra, we get to see her initial imprinting session earlier in the show, all blue lights and screaming, proving that the process of having memories removed, or changed is rightfully traumatic.
Interspersed with all this we see the debriefing of FBI Agent Paul Ballard, who has been assigned to investigate the Dollhouse, the case has derailed his career, destroyed his relationship with his colleagues, his superiors and probably also his marriage. He is steadfast in his pursuit of this shadowy organisation and no one seems able to dissuade him. He even tracks
Miss Penn finds the Davina’s, by tracking her teacher (since the kidnappers needed an inside man, so the suspects were few) and she spreads discord amongst the kidnappers, before a shoot out breaks out and then Sierra as some kind of soldier comes in and starts shooting everyone who’s left and Davina is taken home. Sierra and her team clear the place out and retrieve the money and both Echo and Sierra return to the Dollhouse and have their imprints removed, left barely aware, waiting for their next engagement.
In the final scene, in a darkened room with the only light being a monitor with a video of Caroline on it, a man who’s face we can’t see, surrounded by dead bodies, puts Caroline’s photo in an envelope address to Paul Ballard.
Notes: Ok this is the point where you have to seperate the story of Dollhouse and the technical elements of it, for reasons that become fairly obvious. Technically this is well put together. The direction is smooth, the sets are beautiful and filmed to make it more so. The dialogue is as Whedon-y as you would expect, all quotable lines and snappy repartee. The cast is solid, Lennix and Penikett in particular could do this in their sleep, for the good and ill that there is to that. The actives in their doll-state seem like an easy performance, but that kind of not-acting acting can look very out of place, but none of that happens here. Dushku is doing her best, but seems ill at ease in each of the several roles she plays in this episode. That said, the whole thing is put together really well, without any of the shakiness that other shows have started with.
But you’re not really watching for the technical stuff, unless that’s your particular focus., it’s the story that you either buy into, or not.
I don’t see this program being made today. I watched this 8 years or so ago and it was a bit, offputting then, but after the news of the last few years, our eyes are a bit more open and when re-watched it’s a lot clearly.
NONE OF THIS IS OKAY.
The whole idea of the Dollhouse, the Actives and the related stuff is quite frankly horrific. It was always dodgy, but in the aftermath of #metoo and the shocking list of sexual predators and chauvinists in the upper levels of many industries (including TV/Film) it’s damn near unwatchable. I started watching the rest of season one and that disquiet never really left me. Did that fact that they volunteered for initial imprinting mitigate the lack of consent throughout the next 5 years? So can the skin crawling elements of this show give you anything to enjoy? Can you root for anyone in this program?
Does it work? It struggles with deciding what it wants to be, so it’s hard to tell if it works or not. Is it a treatise on identity? A critique of how we sell our youth to get ahead, giving years to people who don’t care and will use us. Or is it just a sci-fi show with an interesting premise? The show doesn’t know, so it’s hard to tell from this one episde.
Does much need fixing? There was an unaired pilot, which much of the footage from there being reused. So by the time this went to series, much of the teething problems were dealt with and it was done as a full 12 part season.
Does it stand up? No, issues of consent, agency and harassment walk all over this program.
Did I want to watch the next one? I did one of the curses of this project was pointed out to me by the MIGHTY Rosie. If the episodes are good, we’ll want to keep watching. That’s happened about half a dozen times now.
Did I enjoy it? Yes f***ed up subject matter aside, it’s well enough made that you want to know what’s happening next.
Overall: 3 out of 5
None of this was ok, but the fact it’s all fiction does take the horror of it away.