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Toys in the Attic: Joss Whedon Pulls Back the Curtain of Dollhouse

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The Attic of the Dollhouse is “creepy… and… and… um… um… and…” Here, Joss Whedon begins to hesitate and fudge. Given this man’s notoriously articulate wit, one can only begin to suspect that something is up. Whedon finally admits that he cannot say more about the Attic, only that “it ain’t pretty.” When asked if it is a set designer’s dream, he answers, “Depends on the set designer. It might be a dream where he’s screaming.”

In a conference call interview, the creator of FOX’s Dollhouse weaves together threads of deadpan humor, tantalizing hints, casting tidbits, and insights into his vision.

Touring the Dollhouse

Dollhouse begins its second season on FOX on Friday, September 25 at 9-10pm ET/PT. The show takes as its disturbing premise the existence of secret institutions referred to as “Dollhouses.” Funded by a conglomerate known as the Rossum Corporation, the Dollhouses create fantasy from the blank slate of the human mind. “Dolls,” presumably volunteers who have contracted to escape their lives for a period of time, are wiped of memory, identity, and personality and are imprinted with the personas of “Actives.” The Actives are composites of multiple real people which render the Doll a perfect fit for a specific engagement. When the engagement, usually performed under contract for a wealthy client, ends, the Dolls are returned to the Dollhouse and wiped clean once more.

During the interview, Whedon admits to an obsession with people being “manipulated, and controlled, and conditioned, and lied to.” These themes show up in a number of his other projects including, coincidentally the upcoming movie, Cabin in the Woods. As he discussed the ways in which people are manipulated in real life, Joss asked, “How do we create ourselves when society is telling us who to be?”

The protagonist of Dollhouse, an Active called “Echo” (played by Eliza Dushku), was shown in season one to be a young woman named Caroline who contracted with the Dollhouse to escape the consequences of her choices. As an Active, Echo is indeed told who to be, yet, as season two begins, Echo appears to begin to create her self. In "Omega," the official finale of season one, Echo is flooded with a host of personalities by a rogue Active named Alpha. Following Alpha’s manipulation, Echo begins to develop an awareness of her original personality. Whedon stated that season two will see Echo coming into her own “through force of will.” She will be more “directed and driven” between engagements and has begun to understand her mission to be to get back to her original personality and to help the other Actives back to theirs.

Through the Door: A Glimpse at Season Two

Though Dollhouse floundered through the first few episodes of season one with a series of self-contained story lines that wound up feeling too tidily wrapped up and lacked the classic Whedon touch of moral ambiguity, the series came into its own in episode six, “Man on the Street.” “Man on the Street began a plot arc delving into the underside of the Dollhouse and the backstories of the characters. Whedon promises that while each episode will have its own engagements to be completed or problems to be resolved, season two will continue the plot arc that defined the latter half of season one. He also indicated that the episode “Epitaph 1,” which aired at Comic-Con and is on the season one DVD but was not televised, will influence season two. While the apocalyptic future depicted in “Epitaph 1” will not be revisited until the end of the season, Whedon stated that during season two we will be “looking at the show through the lens of that episode.”

In “Epitaph 1” the technology of mindwiping and imprinting that results in the formation of Actives becomes remotely activated and results in a cataclysmic future. When asked about how technology will be stretched in season two, Whedon declined to answer directly, and in doing so hinted that the expansion of the technology will play a major role in season two. He did reveal that it’s “not all just simple chair treatments.”

Yet, despite the expansion of the technology, Whedon assured us that “everybody is not a Doll.” He pointed out that if everyone was, or could be, a Doll, there would be nothing at stake. He said that “people who are Dolls are Dolls.” However, he did then comment that he was “not saying never, not saying we won’t question reality.” In essence, Joss Whedon reserves the right to play with our minds. Yet, he did reiterate that he wants the characters “grounded so that people know that there is something at stake.”

What is at stake for the characters of Dollhouse? As indicated earlier, Echo will continue to develop an awareness of her original identity as Caroline. As she develops her sense of self, she will begin to look for allies in her mission. She will look to FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) as a possible ally. Echo will also examine the growing romance between Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman) in the light of their readiness to join her in self-awareness. Whedon did state that we will see more of the relationship between Victor and Sierra as well as some further insights into their respective histories. In her quest for allies, Echo is “looking for the sense of family that I think the audience was looking for last season. We’re going to be seeing who’s on her side and … who … not so much.”

Visitors in the House: Season Two Guest Stars

Joss Whedon is known for his ability to put together families of distinctive actors. “The fact is there are people I admire and then there are people I know I love to work with.” He indicates that he is less concerned this season with a need to bring in new faces. “This season I’m a lot less concerned with how the cast is perceived… I know these people can act and the people who are watching are fans anyway. If they know who these people are they’ll be thrilled; if they don’t, they’ll see good acting.” In season two, Dollhouse will be visited by a bright array of guest stars. Some season one characters will return and new guests (both Whedon alumni, and actors from other venues) will appear.

Returning from season one as the scarred Dr. Saunders, revealed at the end of the season to be the Active “Whiskey,” Amy Acker will appear in three episodes. Her appearance will be limited due to her contract with ABC’s Happy Town. Whedon did promise, however, that they will be “three extraordinarily memorable episodes.”

November/Mellie/Madeline, played by Miracle Laurie, will return in season two. Whedon said that she will be back early, that they are not done with the character. He then added, “Well, that probably means there’s gonna be some pain involved.”

Jamie Bamber of Battlestar Galactica will appear in the first episode of the season as a man whom Echo weds. When asked about guest star choices, Whedon did mention that “it’s a death match between Firefly and Battlestar …and which of them is going to get all their people…”

Speaking of Firefly, a much anticipated guest of season two is Summer Glau. She will play the programmer of another Dollhouse headed by Ray Wise, who appears in episode six. Regarding the casting of Glau, Whedon said it was “based on the knowledge that Summer existed. The character was created with the hopes that she would play it.”

Another Whedon alumnus, Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) will appear in season two as a senator who has gone public with his crusade to bring down the Dollhouse. While the senator may share a goal with Paul Ballard, Whedon emphasized that Denisof’s character is not season two’s Paul, that he has a different set of problems.

Welcome Home

Fans of Dollhouse will greet the season two premiere, “Vows,” with open arms. After a rocky beginning, the renewal of Dollhouse was uncertain. Yet, as the show grew into its own, FOX seems to have accepted what every Joss Whedon fan knows. Whedon crafts clever, challenging works with appeal far beyond the episode of the week. Whedon himself stated that the studio is aware that his fans are “in it for the long haul” and that the long haul is how his “work pays off.” May Dollhouse have a long haul ahead of it. However, viewers beware. Whedon did say that “the premise is limited, and I think by season 17, you’re really gonna see us repeating ourselves.” I think fans of Joss Whedon and of Dollhouse could handle that.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • http://notesfromnancy.blogspot.com NancyGail

    Alan Tudyk should return down the road. Mark Sheppard, although a recurring character, is a BSG alum too.

  • http://corp-minamiji.typepad.com Christy Corp-Minamiji

    Thanks for filling me in on Mark Sheppard. Yeah, I had read elsewhere about Alan Tudyk returning, but it didn’t get covered during this article and slipped from my radar during writing. Thanks, Nancy.

  • http://www.whalertly.com/wordpress BARGA

    Can not wait for Nathan to show up

    I hope that the series leaves epitath one out of it, that episode sucked majorily and ruined the story