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"Would you like a treatment?" Yes please. Can I have the dire first ten episodes of Dollhouse erased from my mind forever, plus some compensation for the time spent watching this garbled mess. OK, that might sound a tad harsh but it's hard not to feel disappointed given creator Joss Whedon's amazing track record and the fascinating premise of the show. Clearly hindered by network interference, Dollhouse suffered from its own identity crisis for most of the season. Yet the final two episodes, with the arrival of the Big Bad Alpha and a shift in narrative perspective, showed distinct signs that all is not lost.
Tricky concepts require a clever way in for the viewer, almost like a tour guide. Just look at how Russell T Davies's reboot of Doctor Who skilfully used the character of Rose Tyler to introduce a new generation of viewers to the weird and wonderful world of the lonely Time Lord and his 'bigger on the inside' time machine. This only successfully happened in Dollhouse in about the eleventh episode, when suspended FBI Agent Paul Ballard found his way into the mysterious complex and made some startling discoveries. It really needed to happen a lot sooner.
The premise of the series was very bold indeed, with Eliza Dushku's character Echo having a new personality imprinted on her blank canvas every week for a new 'mission', whether that be business or pleasure-related. The obvious problem was that the non-existence of the heroine's personality meant that it was very tough to care much about her predicament or wellbeing, as opposed to the leads in the similarly identity-hopping likes of Alias and Quantum Leap. There is just so much of Dushku walking around a building with a vacant stare on her face that one can take.
Thankfully, we were treated to a couple of fight sequences along the way of her in Faith from Buffy mode, most memorably in an intense, taut streetfight with Ballard. Dushku, to her credit, handled the various personalities fairly well, too. The structure of the season was to blame for the lack of concern for Echo's wellbeing and not the actress.
It's no coincidence though, that Alpha's resurrection of Echo/Caroline's memory imprint ramped up the intrigue late on in the season. We finally knew who we were supposed to take an interest in. The supporting characters were also largely dull until the closing episodes, although the nerdy Topher and his British boss Adelle provided some hilarity while under the influence of an inhibition-shedding drug.
By contrast, Alpha's entrance was well handled from the start. Signalled as the Big Bad from the beginning, his initial disguise as a seemingly harmless stoner was brilliant, with Alan Tudyk's portrayal expertly disarming the viewer before shockingly unveiling the character's face-slashing malevolence. At his best, he evoked the twisted yet childlike mania of Rutger Hauer's similarly man-made creation in Blade Runner.
Initially, the episodes eschewed an ongoing narrative in favour of being standalone entities - and suffered as a result. While witnessing Dushku prancing around playing make-believe in a variety of skimpy outfits does have some merit, some of the plots (like the stereotypical diva popstar needing a bodyguard) made the storylines of Murder, She Wrote look groundbreaking. Interest was definitely aroused whenever Echo was deployed for sexual reasons though, as it brought into play numerous ethical questions. After all, we now live in a world where escort agencies offer something called 'the girlfriend experience' to their clients (the subject of a forthcoming Steven Soderburgh movie), so such a concept as the 'Dollhouse' is scarily plausible should the technology become available.
Good ideas and noble intentions definitely lie at the core of Dollhouse, but the disappointing first season took far too long to tease them out. It was easier to emotionally invest in the fortunes of Ken and Barbie dolls than the 'dolls' in this show. There were some strong signs of recovery by the end though, so let's hope that those who have stuck through the series are rewarded with a much more impressive second outing.
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