I am an unabashed Whedon fan. I actually started with his projects a little backwards. I started with Firefly and obsessed over that show and then went back and watched all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most recently I grabbed the Dr. Horrible web shorts that are now on DVD. So, when Dollhouse was announced I couldn’t have been more excited.
All of was great after the announcement and then turmoil behind the scenes of the show began to worry me. The network wasn’t happy with the pilot of the show and some of the directions Whedon was taking with the show that he pitched them and they bought. Fox is notorious for just not letting some of their producer’s just work and tell good stories with Whedon being the most victimized. Things crashed and burned and the show felt doomed. Some critics even began to believe that the show might not ever make it to broadcast. Whedon actually goes back to the drawing board and shoots a completely new pilot episode. The original pilot does sort of find its way into the season as scenes from it pop up in various other episodes.
The series finally premiered and the critics were not initially impressed and the fan base was quite small for a major network show. Part of that may have been due to its Friday night time slot. Now looking at all of the episodes back to back it’s interesting that you can feel the episodes that had network fiddling and you can feel when Whedon was finally cut lose to take the show in the direction that he had always wanted to take it. The first episodes honestly are weak with one episode in particular, where Eco (Dushku) was tasked with being a backup singer for a pop star, was completely awful. By episode six, the episode where Whedon returns to the show to direct and to dig into the mythology of the show, everything begins a steady improvement from installment to installment.
The premise, if you don’t know, centers on a shady organization that brings in mostly women, but one man for sure, that volunteer to be “dolls’ or “actives” for five years. As dolls their minds are wiped and filled with information needed to complete missions they’ve been hired for. Eco plays a wife, a slut, a pop star, a criminal, and a hostage negotiator among many other roles. When they aren’t on a mission they live in the dollhouse where they have very little mental capacity beyond the basics. They exercise, do art and get massages. For their service they are paid handsomely but also it seems, at least in Eco’s case, the organization helps with other problems the volunteer may have. Things progress swimmingly with Eco and the others until they begin remembering the missions, at least snippets of them, and they begin remembering little bits of information about who they were before becoming dolls.
At its best Dollhouse still doesn’t compare to Whedon’s other series such as the previously mentioned Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With that said the first season of Buffy is weak sauce compared to the seasons that came after it. So the show could still improve next year. This season ends strong with a few solid episodes that do show the potential of this concept. It’s unclear whether the poor balance of episodes from plain out bad to really good is the fault of Fox for meddling too much or of Whedon and crew for not clearly defining the concept from the beginning but the fact remains that this season goes to both extremes. The good episodes in the season are really good and the concept overall is good fun so I still have to recommend that science fiction fans and Whedon fans check this series out.
The widescreen presentation here looks great overall with colors appearing realistic with no blooming issues in the reds and darker scenes featuring minimal grain. Honestly much of the visual style here is a bit bland but that’s not due to the presentation of the DVD’s that comes from the source material. While not awe inspiring the episodes look nearly as good here as the standard def broadcast.
The Dolby 5.1 presentation here kicks in during action scenes with some nice directionality. In the dialogue heavy scenes everything is front and center with no ambient sounds coming through the other speakers. With that said the dialogue, score, and sound fx are clean and well mixed. There are even two episodes presented in standard stereo only. The sound quality is fine on these two episodes but it’s a real curiosity as to why these episodes got the downgrade.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The DVD’s come packaged in a clamshell style amaray case with discs mounted on a hinge inside. This sort of container is most often utilized in lower budget anime releases so it’s a bit surprising to see a Whedon series given this treatment. It leaves me overall nonplused.
There are audio commentaries on three episodes of this season. The first episode features Whedon solo discussing the series in general and sharing production stories. The second features Whedon and Dushku and it’s a bit more conversational. Dushku has surprisingly little of depth to say considering she produces the show as well as stars in it. The third features the writers of that episode who also happen to be Whedon’s brother and sister in law. Jed Whedon is a solid writer but his wife Maurissa Tancharoen is responsible for some pretty awful stuff. It’s no surprise that this is one of the weaker episodes of the season.
One of the bonus features I was most looking forward to seeing was the original unaired pilot. When I got the Firefly box set and saw the original order of the episodes that Whedon had intended before Fox forced a change I was shocked. The characters had more depth and some parts of the story made more sense seeing the episodes in the order Whedon had intended them to be aired. So I was really excited to be able to revel in just how Fox had nearly screwed this show up too. Here’s the thing though, in this instance they were right. This pilot episode was way to aggressively cut in the first act and the reveals in this episode don’t come in the revised season until much later. It’s not like Fox had the ideas that would improve the series but they didn’t like the pilot and that forced Whedon to think more about the show and how he wanted to approach the pilot. The resulting pilot wasn’t hugely better but the decisions he made as far as the mythology goes were good ones. It’s very interesting to watch knowing about the behind the scenes controversy that went on during the production of this season.
There’s a surprisingly candid making of featurette that even includes some of the first ever Dollhouse table read. By surprisingly candid I’m referring to Whedon and Minear’s comments in regards to dealing with Fox executives during the preproduction and production of the show. Whedon and Dushku even tell the story of how Dollhouse was conceived over a pizza that Dushku bought for Whedon. There are other featurettes that include a tour of the main Dollhouse set, one focused on the character of Eco, another featuring other crew members sharing their thoughts on working with Whedon on another series, and more. Most of these are fluff but the making of featurette is really interesting and set tours with Whedon are always fun. Finally there’s a set of deleted scenes.
Dollhouse started off rough with some really weak installments but if you stick with it the show gets better and better. At its best nothing in season one equals the episodes of Firefly but some of these installments might be as good as some episodes of season one of Buffy so it’s definitely worth a look.
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10
The Season 6.5/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an average) 7/10