Review: Dollhouse 1×1

Welcome to the puppet show

Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse

In the US: Friday, 9/8c, Fox

Ooh Joss Whedon. Ooh Eliza Dushku. Ooh Steven DeKnight. Ooh, Amy Acker…

And so on.

Because as you look through the credits of Dollhouse, Fox’s new sci-fi spy show, you can’t help but notice a few Buffy alumni in the list.

What you won’t see is Gerry Anderson’s name in the list, despite the fact this is perilously close to one of his old shows. Joe 90, although basically a bit of wish fulfilment for kids involving puppets, saw one boy become a secret agent thanks to a special gadget that gives him the brain waves of other people – and their skills to match.

Dollhouse, while slightly more malevolent, follows more or less the same plot. Eliza Dushku, plays Echo, a personality-less drone who gets given a new persona each week for various missions. One day a party girl, the next day a hostage negotiator, Echo remembers nothing (apparently) except what secret organisation Dollhouse wants her to, including all the special skills necessary for the job and a personality to match.

Ironically, Dollhouse is pretty personality-less itself; even more ironically, you might be hankering after the acting in Joe 90 by the end, too.


Joss Whedon, creator of the groundbreaking cult favorites, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Firefly,” returns to television and reunites with fellow “Buffy” alumna, Eliza Dushku, for a thrilling new drama, DOLLHOUSE.

ECHO (Dushku) is an “Active,” a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don’t just perform their hired roles, they wholly become — with mind, personality and physiology — whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time.

Is it any good?

It would be nice to love everything Whedon, but it’s hard to love Dollhouse from its first episode. Its biggest problem is that it’s very hard to care for anyone and anything in it. While the obvious centre of our attention is Dushku, she’s not the greatest of actresses and since Echo herself has no personality of her own, it’s hard to root for her. The people who surround Echo are generic scary corporate people and tech types; even Echo’s ‘handler’ is little more than ‘what you’re doing to her is bad’.

There are other plots, with BSG‘s Tahmoh Penikett playing an FBI agent trying to get into the Dollhouse, what’s probably an escaped ‘doll’ called Alpha busily going psycho on the outside and the possibility Echo’s memories aren’t completely wiped – or that her old life might be about to intrude. But each of these looks like it’ll take a long time to develop and I’m not entirely sure they’re worth it (not even Penikett), given we’re going to have to endure Eliza Dushkua pretending to be a ninja/barber/clown in the A-plot of the week until then.

The whole thing, in fact, feels quite cliché, and while Whedon still writes nice lines of dialogue, they’re few and far between and not worth hanging around for. There aren’t even any obvious metaphors or feminist sub-text to mull over yet. It’s a shame really, since it would be nice to love Dollhouse, but it’s just not that fun or interesting to watch – even if occasionally you get to see ‘Faith on a motorbike’.

However, given this is effectively the second pilot (the original will be a later episode), hastily rushed into production after Fox decreed the original didn’t work as an introduction to the series, it’s possible that series proper will have a better feel and those sub-plots will come to fruition sooner, so I’m going to hang around for a while. Well, three episodes at least.

Here’s a YouTube trailer or two.

  • Phoenix

    It’s Whedon on Fox. The episodes will be shown out of order so that no one understands what is going on, and the series will be canceled before the end of the season.
    All of this has happened before, and will happen again.

  • I’ve been worrying about this ever since I heard the girl who played Katya in Neighbours was going to be in it. She stood out as being a bad actress in Neighbours, and that is saying something.

  • I love Josh Whedon’s work and I do quite like Eliza. But I just can’t bring myself to watch this show because the concept sounds really awful. With Eliza assuming a new personality and mission each week I’m going to find it impossible to locate someone worth following in the show.
    As a consequence I’m not even going to start watching this until I’ve read your third episode review.

  • Andrea

    You’re spot on to compare it to Joe 90 as it’s totally wooden. I found it a real slog to get through watching the episode and while I will try to give it another chance, it will have to grab me right quick or that’s it. And I was a MASSIVE Buffy and Angel fan, so I’d be ready to make all sorts of allowances if there were even a couple of sharp lines or one outstanding performance (some of the supporting cast are fine actors, particularly Olivia Williams, but may not have much to do). Dull dull dullity dull and the premise doesn’t even really make sense – I’ll buy that millionaires are so jaded they might fancy a novelty ‘doll’ rather than the usual high class prossie, but if one’s beloved small daughter was kidnapped, why would he automatically go to his usual virtual brothel and see if they could supply him a negotiator, instead of getting the real thing?

  • How depressing this sounds (less the show, more that review is likely to be all too accurate an overview of the limitations this work will have).
    Having said that, props to Phoenix: it is highly unlikely that the show will be getting a good deal off Fox. Will no one else even consider offering Whedon employment???

  • “Will no one else even consider offering Whedon employment???”
    If he changes his name to Jerry Bruckheimer or Chuck Lorre, maybe CBS will hire him…..

  • Andrea

    I’m pretty sure Whedon could get a deal with a smaller cable channel, like AMC or Showtime (if not HBO), if he wanted it, given his critical reputation and fanbase. BUT he would have to accept a much lower budget which is problematic for a science fiction or fantasy show – he’s obviously not willing to do that.

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