Many die-hard fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator/auteur Joss Whedon rallied around him and his new FOX TV series Dollhouse with “save Dollhouse” campaigns all over the Internet – more than eight months before the show debuted.
Their knee-jerk reaction was the result of FOX cancelling Whedon’s short-lived Firefly series, which aired in 2002. This time around, fans wanted to launch a campaign to save the show before it debuts on FOX on Friday, Feb. 13, rather than launching until one after it’s cancelled as many did with the aforementioned Firefly and Angel (another Whedon show that spun off from Buffy), but to no avail (although Firefly became the 2005 motion picture Serenity due to strong fan support).
Whedon talked about that, as well as other aspects of Dollhouse, during a media conference call earlier this week.
“Usually, words of calm in these situations lead to panic. If you say there’s nothing to panic about, somebody says, he said the word ‘panic.’ Basically, we found the show. My concern isn’t whether the show gets saved. It’s whether these fans who are panicking about it love it. They may get over their panic. They may see it and go, you know, actually, we’re okay. The network should do what they think is right,” said Whedon. “Ultimately, the support is very sweet, and the fact that people care and they want to see the show get a chance. That’s important to me, too, because it really is a show that finds itself as it goes along, but, at the end of the day, my biggest concern is that I give them something worth panicking over.”
The Dollhouse is a clandestine operation run by the enigmatic Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, The Sixth Sense) where “Dolls” or “Actives” are imprinted with a different number of new personas, where they can be anything or anyone – the perfect assassin, the perfect date, the perfect whatever – as long as they’re not submissive and as long as the client has the money to pay for whatever they desire. Once the mission is fulfilled, the Dolls are then mind-wiped into a docile, child-like state and live in the Dollhouse until their status is reactivated for another mission, complete with a new persona.
With Echo, the mind-wipes aren’t 100 percent and she’s retaining fragments of the various personas downloaded into her brain. As the series goes on, Echo becomes more and more self-aware.
“Somebody said how come things go wrong with the Dollhouse? That’s a question I’ve gotten. It’s like so that we can have a show. Obviously, something is going to go wrong, or strangely, right in every episode,” Whedon answered matter-of-factly. “Echo’s progression is a constant in the show, her search for herself, so that’s something that is being spun out episode by episode. It’s just different little aspects. It’s like she takes a little memento away from every engagement, so that will be a constant.”
Asked who would win between Echo and Faith – two of the characters on Dushku’s résumé – Whedon responded, “Faith would win, unless of course Echo had been imprinted with Faith’s personality, which is I’m going to call it a tie.”
As for the genesis of Dollhouse, it’s not as simple as the genesis of Buffy, where Whedon wanted to turn the horror movie cliché of a girl getting attacked by a monster in a blind alley on its ear by creating an empowered girl who fights back.
“Well, there’s already the famous story of lunch with Eliza where we were talking about what kind of stuff she should play and I thought she should play lots of different things, and then the show happened,” he explained. “I’ve been fascinated by the questions of identity and identity manipulation, both self-imposed and otherwise, and the idea of avatars and the idea of fantasy and the little insular world that we’ve been able to create for ourselves with our computers and with our extraordinarily specific medications. And I think it’s something that’s become a part of the world really just in the last 10 years, so it’s fairly new means to ask very old questions about who am I and what am I as I get older, and what’s really sticking? What’s the part I can point to and say this is me and what is just coming and going and what has been imposed upon me, and who the hell am I, and why aren’t I prettier?”
He continued, “Beyond that, there has also been I’m very interested in concepts of identity, what enounce is our own, what’s socialized, can people actually change, what do we expect from each other, how much do we use each other and manipulate each other, and what would we do if we had this kind of power over each other? And in this, our increasingly virtual world, self-definition has become a very amorphous concept, so it just felt what was on my mind. I don’t mean it felt timely like I was trolling the papers looking for something timely. It’s just been something I think about a lot.”
In addition to Williams, other members of the Dollhouse cast include Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica) as FBI Agent Paul Ballard and Angel alumna Amy Acker as Dr. Claire Saunders.
“I wanted to have a strong ensemble around Eliza, because I didn’t want her to have to carry the burden of every single day of shooting, or she would burn out,” he said.
Originally, Whedon planned for Saunders to be an older woman. However, he tweaked the role upon deciding Acker would be the best actress for the part, despite initial reservations he had about casting too many alumni from his previous shows.
“You know, the basic mandate for me was to find new people, because I had Eliza and I didn’t want to feel like it was going to be (a Faith series) or just a reunion for my pals or anything like that, and I found some not only amazing new actors, but amazing new friends. But then, eventually, a person has to wake up and smell the ‘Acker’ and realize you just have to cast anything that you can with her, so that happened,” explained Whedon. “Apart from that, we’ve put on some old faces in some guest roles, but not too often, and sometimes, we’ve been very much behind the eight-ball in terms of production and when you know somebody can do something right and you don’t have time to go and find somebody else who can, you hire them. But apart from Amy and Eliza, it’s a new crowd.”
So far, FOX has ordered 13 episodes for Dollhouse and Whedon rewrote the pilot episode. He compared launching Dollhouse to launching Angel.
“I think this show definitely went through a tougher process, tough in a different way than the other shows. Probably most similar to Angel in the sense of what we had in our minds about what Angel was ultimately was different than what the network did. Our version was a little darker, and in this instance, it wasn’t so much a question of reworking what the show was as it was a question of reworking how we get into it.”
He continued, “There were definitely some differences of opinion about what was going on and what we were going to stress in the show, but mostly it was about how do we bring the audience in and the mandate was very much once they had seen the pilot. They made some noise about this before. I don’t want to say that they just thought it up out of the blue, but the mandate “was give us not just the world of the show, but the structure of the show.”
The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very “sideways,” according to Whedon. FOX executives wanted the audience to see an engagement so that they understand that every week Echo will go to a different place and be a different person, giving the show a sense of structure.
“It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what it was they didn’t have that I had planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to give them something they could get behind more,” he said. “Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous. It’s to make them identify with people they don’t like and get into situations that they don’t approve of, and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well. So we’re out to make people uncomfortable, but not maybe so much our bosses.”
One thing that has many people uncomfortable is the Friday night time-slot, which is sounds the death knell for many TV shows, particularly genre series. In fact, Firefly aired on Friday night, and only 11 of its 14 episodes were shown.
However, Whedon’s not worried.
“Honestly, I really do see the opportunity there because the deal with the Friday night time slot was you don’t come out, bang, opening weekend, and it’s all decided,” he explained.
Further, FOX is heavily promoting to the hilt matching up Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – which returns for the remainder of its second season on Feb. 13, which is its new night – and stars Firefly and Serenity alumna Summer Glau with Dollhouse.
“It’s about growing a fan base, both for Dollhouse and Terminator,” he said. “I think Terminator is a remarkably good show, and the kind of show that makes sense to be paired with Dollhouse, so I feel great about that, plus I get to see all these posters with Summer and Eliza together and that’s just too cool.”
He continued, “Ultimately, this is a show where people will hopefully become intrigued and then hang in, that really builds, so it needs the 13 weeks, and it needs the 13 weeks of people paying attention, but not so much attention that it gets burned out in the glare of the spotlight. I’ve always worked best under the radar. Most of my shows people have come to after they stopped airing, but I would like to buck that trend, and at the same time, it is part of how I work that you stay with it and it grows on you and it becomes family, and Friday night is a much better place for that to actually happen.”