Thoughts on Epitaph One

dollhouseWith Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse returning to television tonight, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss the unaired thirteenth episode “Epitaph One”. Staring Eliza Dushku (Tru Calling), Dollhouse is about a secret company that possesses the technology to temporarily imprint human “volunteers” with new skills, memories, and personalities. These imprinted humans, known as “actives” or “dolls”, are hired by the rich for engagements ranging from hostage negotiator to dominatrix. After each engagement the actives are wiped of all memories and remain in a state of innocence until their next assignment. Dushku plays Echo, a doll who begins to become self-aware, while Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica) plays Paul Ballard, a former federal agent who becomes obsessed with finding the company’s base of operations, known as the “dollhouse”, and Echo.

For those who don’t know the story behind “Epitaph One”, Whedon wrote a pilot episode titled “Echo” for the new series but pushed it back to become the second episode due to “a few clarity issues for some viewers” and “also some slight issues with tone”.  Although it is included as a special feature on the DVD set, it never aired and was “cannibalized for parts”.  Whedon used “Ghost”, the second episode written and shot, as the series premiere instead.

Fox television’s original deal had been for thirteen episodes of the show, but they included the unaired pilot while production company 20th Century Fox needed a thirteenth episode for international DVD releases.  The result was “Epitaph One”, a low budget standalone episode set ten years in the future starring entirely new characters.  Although the episode never aired on North American television, it premiered at San Diego Comic-Con, has been released on the first season DVD set of Dollhouse, and can be purchased individually on itunes.  The episode, nicknamed the “lost episode” of Dollhouse has received a great deal of press and is credited with being part of the reason behind the second-season pick up because it demonstrated what Whedon could do with a reduced budget.

I was not impressed enough by Dollhouse to buy the first season on DVD, but I did download the episode to my iPod last month as entertainment for a nine hour car ride. When Dollhouse was mentioned on vacation my mom said, referring to both Whedon and the show, “I know you love the man but it was bad”. I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s projects and when the news first broke that Whedon was developing another television series I was all ready to shower it with praise, but when Dollhouse premiered I found it to be completely mediocre. In all honesty, if the show had been helmed by any other man I probably wouldn’t have watched the entire season.

However, I disagree with my mom.  I don’t think the show was bad; I enjoyed Alan Tudyk as Alpha in the season finale, and was shocked, but not displeased, when Dollhouse was picked up for a second season. Yet I feel no great urge to re-watch episodes, like I do most of Whedon’s works, and it was more than a month after its release before I finally sat down and watched “Epitaph One”

The fact that I watched the episode more than once during my vacation, and enjoyed it, says a great deal. It’s easily the best episode of the show and there are a lot of great elements to it.  Despite positive critical reviews of the second season premiere “Vows”, which airs tonight at 9:00 PM EST, I’m not so sure that the series will continue at this level.  Personally, I believe that there is one glaring problem at the core of the show that can’t be resolved, but “Epitaph One” is a large step in the right direction and here’s why.  Huge spoilers for the episode are below so stop reading now if you plan on watching “Epitaph One” in the future.

The Plot

whiskey“Epitaph One” opens in 2019  where the technology behind imprinting actives has gone wireless and, in the words of one character, “punk-kicked the ass of mankind”.  Body stealing is rampant and the technology has resulted in the destruction of civilization.  In the midst of the chaos a small band of survivors that have not been imprinted, calling themselves “actuals”, stumble across the abandoned Los Angeles dollhouse.  Glimpses of the events that occurred to shape this future are revealed through flashbacks.

Ethics in the Dollhouse

Despite the occasionally more noble motives for hiring an active, the dollhouse has very often been used as a way for millionaires to play out their romantic or sexual fantasies.  Yet throughout the first season, those running the dollhouse continue to insist that their work helps people, and that they are giving clients what they need.  The actives volunteered for this after all, or so we’re told, and at the end of their five-year contracts their original personalities will be restored.  There are only two characters who are uncomfortable with the idea of imprinting people, Agent Paul Ballard of the F.B.I., whose search for the Dollhouse, and for Echo’s original personality Caroline, becomes an obsession, and Echo’s handler Boyd Langton.

The immorality of using technology to wipe human personalities, and the use of imprinted bodies for sexual encounters, has always been present in the background of Dollhouse, and has certainly been visible to the viewer, but in “Epitaph One” it is in the foreground.

Pitching the dollhouse to a potential client, Adelle DeWitt says, “You are a man who can have everything he wants.  This isn’t just about what you want, this is about what you need.  An active doesn’t judge, doesn’t pretend.  This will be the purest, most genuine human encounter of your life, and hers.”  She is comfortable with renting out actives, but draws a line when Mr. Ambrose announces that the dollhouse will begin offering “anatomy upgrades”, effectively selling the bodies of its actives for a large sum.  At this point it is no longer an experience that is being sold but a person, and even DeWitt, who had defended what the dollhouse had to offer, says “This is wrong.  You can’t do that.” Her decision to disobey indicates for the first time that the dollhouse staff  have a moral line that they will not cross.  Similarly Topher, whose genius made wireless wiping possible, realizes what he has done and suffers a mental breakdown.  In other flashbacks it is revealed that he no longer goes into the imprinting room. For the first time Topher, who previously called the actives “a little bit bison” and shrugs off responsibility by justifying that they volunteered for this, sees them as people.

The sexual use of actives is also mentioned, with Zone, one of the actuals in 2019, unable to believe that the technology which destroyed civilization was “designed to create more believable hookers”.  For much of the first season the ethics of the dollhouse were like the elephant in the room.  Everyone is aware of and uncomfortable with the idea of wiping people’s personalities and renting them out for sex, but it hadn’t been discussed and brought to the forefront yet.  “Epitaph One” has this discussion, and Caroline sums it up best when, at the end of the episode, she tells the surviving actuals that the creators of the dollhouse were “playing with matches and they burned the house down.”

Making Mankind Better

The actives strive to be their best, sometimes asking their handler “Was I my best?”  Whedon plays with the theme of using technology or other means to alter mankind.  Although those in charge may have good intentions, this does not mean that the technology will be used as intended.  Topher’s improvements to the imprinting process were not meant to result in body stealing but his technology creates a war with two sides.

Topher: It was just one phone call, one robo call to a city, that’s all it takes.  An entire army in a single instant, in the hands of any government.  And boom. We went boom.  Millions programmed to kill anyone who’s not programmed to kill anyone.  And then the war has two sides.  Those who answered the phone, and those who didn’t.

Topher and Echo in Dollhouse.

Topher and Echo in Dollhouse.

It’s a theme Whedon has used before.  In Serenity it’s revealed that the reason cannibalistic Reavers exist is due to the Alliance administering a chemical substance designed to suppress aggression and create a planet without violence.  This attempt to make mankind better instead results in a populace who stop eating, working, and caring about anything until they waste away, while the remaining ten percent of the population have the opposite reaction to the drug and become extremely aggressive.

The theme of making mankind better is often used in science-fiction, whether it is through technology or genetics, and the increasing speed of technological innovation makes the fears played upon in genre films and shows very real. “Epitaph One” makes the viewer think about the issues technology raises. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.

In “Epitaph One” we see the result of attempts to better mankind.  Mr. Ambrose sees “anatomy upgrades” as a way to live on and create an impact on history, saying, “Imagine what one man can achieve if he has no fear, and will live forever.”  Indicating the difference between intent and reality, Adelle tells him “This is not what we set out to do,” but the damage is done.

Raising the Stakes

One of the problems with Dollhouse is that there were no stakes involved, and I don’t mean the sharp and pointy kind. It too often fell into the “case of the week” format where Echo would receive an engagement and Paul Ballard would continue searching for the dollhouse. It’s an easy trap to fall into and many dramas have begun following this format and then successfully branched out to incorporate a larger mythology. “Epitaph One” has given Dollhouse meaning, showing that all that occurs in the present has far-reaching consequences. Now the viewer is aware not only of what the imprinting technology will do, but also of Echo’s importance. Her ability to retain memories after being wiped is critical to the survival of civilization, and that purpose makes her worth watching.

Creating Sympathy

Another early problem with Dollhouse was a lack of empathy.  The actives are all blank slates, and therefore the audience can’t really connect with them on an emotional level.  In the first few episodes the closest I got to sympathising with a character was reluctant handler Boyd Langton.  Topher, who refers to the actives as “a little bit bison” and is the man behind the technology is not immediately likable, nor is Dollhouse defender Adelle DeWitt.  As the show continued the viewers had moments where they sympathised with characters, seeing the real personalities of Sierra, November, Echo, and Victor shine through for an episode, and watching the lonely Topher imprint Sierra as a friend for his birthday.  Still these characters were not thieves with hearts of gold like Mal, or even affably evil like Spike in the early seasons of Buffy.

Felicia Day in "Epitaph One".

Felicia Day in "Epitaph One".

“Epitaph One” remedies some of this, particularly in the 2019 parts of the episode where the audience is clearly supposed to identify with Felicia Day’s Mag.  Mag keeps the rougher Zone in line, feels the loss of a friend when a member of her party is printed, and even cries.  Yet “Epitaph One” takes steps towards making us feel more for the other characters as well.  As Adelle takes a stand against selling the bodies of her actives she demonstrates her humanity.  Similarly, Topher has a mental breakdown, likely when he realises what his technological innovations have done, which makes him a sympathetic character.  Dr. Claire Saunders, who was revealed to be aware of her status as the active “Whiskey” in the previous episode, is also a sympathic character.  As Dr. Saunders she bids Boyd a teary goodbye; As Whiskey she mutters in reply to Mag’s statement that there is no Safe Haven, “Not for everyone”.

With Echo beginning to remember who she is after being wiped, and the promise that Felicia Day’s character will appear again, hopefully the show is on track to having characters the viewer can identify and empathise with.

Emphasis on the Whole Cast

One of the best things about “Epitaph One” is that it not only brings in a new set of characters but also manages to fit in nearly every recurring character from the series.  The surviving band in 2019 include Lynn, Griff, Mag, Zone, and Iris, but flashbacks make use of the whole cast including Mr. Dominic, Victor, Sierra, Paul, Caroline/Echo, and Dr. Saunders/Whiskey.  Mellie/November and Alpha are mentioned but not seen.

Although the connection between Paul and Caroline is to be expected, and Victor and Sierra have been paired before, the episode also very quickly made us feel for the new romantic pairing of Boyd and Dr. Saunders, who I hope we see more of despite Amy Acker being limited to three episodes this season. If the show focuses more on the cast as a whole and less on Echo and Ballard I believe it will be more effective.

The Eliza Problem

elizaI enjoyed “Epitaph One” but one of the reasons I did so was because of the lack of Eliza Dushku.  I watched and enjoyed Tru Calling, and I love the Faith episodes of Buffy, but she doesn’t have a different level.  Although it could be argued that her inability to change characters when she is given different imprints is Caroline coming through, I can’t help but see Faith.

This is not just a matter of reusing actors. I completely believe Amy Acker as Whiskey/Claire, and I loved watching Alan Tudyk as Stephen Kepler/Alpha. In my opinion Eliza just doesn’t have the necessary acting chops to pull off this role and it brings down the show.  This is emphasized by the remainder of the cast, who are all excellent.  Adelle (Olivia Wilde) can be a cold-hearted bitch, but she can also be affectionate and even funny, and watching Topher (Fran Kranz) in “Epitaph One” is heartbreaking.  The true standouts for me are fellow actives Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman).  Enver and Dichen have the range to play a variety of roles, from fangirl to bounty hunter, and from mobster informant to horse breeder.

Eliza’s Caroline isn’t my only problem with Dollhouse though.  To be honest, I find Paul Ballard dull at best.  As a possible couple they fall into Lost territory where, like Jack and Kate, the romantic leads are the two least interesting characters on the show.  I would much rather see more of Victor and Sierra, or for that matter Boyd and Claire, than Paul and Echo.

Season Two

Jamie Bamber and Eliza Dushku in "Vows".

Jamie Bamber and Eliza Dushku in "Vows".

Despite all the elements I loved about “Epitaph One”, I’m just not convinced that season two will continue in this vein. I’m certainly hoping Dollhouse will prove me wrong though. Tonight’s premiere, titled “Vows” guest stars Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) and sees Amy Acker’s Dr. Saunders struggling with being an Active.

Dollhouse airs tonight at 9:00 PM EST on Fox.


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