Review: Dollhouse

Women create life by giving birth. Men fantasize about creating life - preferably female, sexy and low-maintenance out of scrap metal and computer chips.

The yen may be childish, but it's deeply rooted. Pygmalion carved his ideal woman out of ivory, and Henry Higgins remade Eliza Doolittle in a social experiment, not a laboratory, but it's the same kind of D.I.Y. wish fulfillment. Science fiction supplied the technology, and popular culture took care of the rest.

Movies like The Stepford Wives and Blade Runner took nonmortal makeovers seriously. In the mid-1960s television mostly played it for laughs, mining the comic appeal of men taming paranormal women on Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, sitcoms which for some reason popped up just after Betty Friedan published her 1963 call to arms, The Feminine Mystique.

There is a particular erotic charge to fembots of course. A man-made version of a witch or a genie is supposedly a surer thing; they still come with special powers, but Silicon Valley programming can remove tiresome reflexes like no and we never talk anymore.

In 1964 Bob Cummings began teaching a mechanical Julie Newmar feminine wiles in My Living Doll. On Friday, Fox is unveiling Dollhouse, by Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Mr. Whedon's latest series refits the formula to suit an ethos in which the body is infinitely perfectible and the mind ever malleable: scientists take a real woman and brainwash her into thinking like a robot.

The Buffy alumna Eliza Dushku plays Echo, a troubled young woman who is pressured by a shadowy corporation to donate her body to fringe science: lab workers imprint Echo with a new personality. After she completes an assignment - and her tasks range from escort service to kidnapping negotiation - the scientists swipe her brain, removing the invented persona and erasing any memories of the experience. (That's a whole other fantasy: the permanent, untraceable roofie.)

Echo, presumably so named because she can only repeat her programmers’ words, is not alone - there are several other buff, beautiful women (and at least one man) who, in their downtime, roam like robots around a remote, secret location that looks like a New Age spa. The boss of the Dollhouse, as the company is known, is Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), an attractive but icy taskmaster who promises her rich clients that their every need will be met with a crisp British dominatrix lilt.

Echo doesn't know it - or anything else for that matter, since she is a blank slate - but she has a champion on the outside: an F.B.I. agent, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who suspects there is something unsound going on at the Dollhouse and is intent on investigating, even though his superiors pay no attention to his hunches.

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