Overall, I thought that the first episode Dollhouse was good. "Ghost" suffers from many of the same problems that plague other pilots in that it did not feel as though it had completely gelled yet. It also didn't feel like classic Whedon writing, but there was enough signature lines and enough of the Whedon humor that I was unbothered. After all, Firefly has a whole different vernacular and verbal style than Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and although I like BtVS' verbosity better for day to day quotage and it can consistently give me a writing high (it also highly influenced my own vocab, sadly enough), Firefly's distinctive style was seamless in terms of what it was representing in-show. And with lines like:
"Stroke of midnight."
"End of the ball."
"Dude, it- it's like, 5."
"Something fell on me."
"I bet it was something great."
"Make sure the ladies at my table have everything they need, huh? The champagne never stops flowing - the good stuff. (pause) The first few bottles, the good stuff. After that, the house is fine."
"Find out who's connected to the Dollhouse, the Borodin family won't be touched, and you'll never see me again."
"I haven't seen you yet."
I'm not worried about the writing having its very own style that fits with Whedon's overall idiosyncratic personality.
Likewise, I'm not worried that the characters we have been introduced to did not, as a whole, have glaringly obvious and distinctive personalities and reasons as of yet. This is a new show, and part of its purpose is an examination of identity. I'm not surprised that we don't know Topher or Boyd or Adelle or Paul as well as we knew Buffy and Willow and Xander and Mal and Inara and Kaylee yet. What we have been shown is intriguing.
That being said, there are some weak points to the show, and unfortunately, one of them is Eliza Dushku. There was too much Faith in her opening characterization, when she looked bedraggled and was being consigned into Dollhouse service. There was too much Faith in her first motorcycle-riding, fun-dancing, sexy-rope-using persona. There was too little oomph in some of her other scenes. Part of my problem stems from the fact that I've never been all that impressed with Eliza Dushku's acting, and although I've been told many times that she could create chemistry with a log I've never been one to see it. I have to hope she gets slightly better at speaking zombie post-wipe Echo lines, because right now it is slightly painful for me. There were also some poor plot points. I had to wonder, during Sierra's initial wipe, why Topher or Adelle (or anyone, for that matter) would house that particular room in that particular location, where the ensuing light show would be (and was) more than visible to anyone down below. And if they had decided that location was the best for that room for X,Y or Z reasons, why no one would think it important to lock the door. Echo wandering in (along with the cringe-worthy "She hurts") was something that induced heavy eye-rolling. Another blinking red light moment for me was during Eleanor Penn's 'treatment'. There was no real reason given for why Topher decided to not wipe her, unless I missed it completely.
And yet, the list of things right with this show far outweighs those two points right now - and given that the show focuses on Eliza, that is saying something. Every other actor is phenomenal. Fran Kranz makes Topher human, unlike Adam Busch's evil Warren and Tom Lenk's amoral Andrew (he is too unlike Jayne at the moment for those two amoralities to be adequately compared). Kranz's reactions to Echo and Boyd, his thoughtful articulations of what Dollhouse is and what a person is made up of, is incredibly engaging. He is amoral, and I suspect he is crafted to be seen as amoral; but even with that knowledge, Whedon has taken the trick he employed most effectively in Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and made Topher someone the audience can connect with even as they are (potentially) disturbed by that bit of enjoyment and understanding. Harry Lennix as Boyd is another perfect fit. One of the complaints I've read about the show is that if Echo is almost wholly without her own personality, the audience is left unable to connect to her. Lennix's Boyd provides the easy answer; we are connected to Echo's story because Boyd is connected to and concerned about Echo. Even if we cannot fully recognize who Echo is due to Echo herself not being privy to that information, we can connect to Boyd's empathy for her, and his own attachment to her. Olivia Williams is yet another bit of inspired casting. I want to know what makes her tick, why she believes Dollhouse is a force of good.
The parts of the show itself that are good are fantastic; the entire premise of the Actives on engagement creates a strange sense of vertigo; Eleanor Penn (the persona we spend the most time with in "Ghost", the persona whose narrative is responsible for the title of the very episode) is not, conventionally, real. The experiences she draws upon to form her opinions and her own idea of who she is and how she has come to be are not, technically, her own. The years that she has spent studying psychology and forensic science, profiling from former instructors at Quantico, being licensed for seven years, handling 12 negotiations, the very things she offers up as reasons to trust her never truly happened to this one person. And yet, for her, they have and they did. That disconnect between what we normally experience as reality and Eleanor Penn's vision of reality is what creates friction between this woman who is innocently unaware of the underlying tension and the man who paid for an Active from Dollhouse. When this scene goes down:
ELEANOR PENN: You have to trust that I've done this many, many times.GABRIEL: I have to trust that, right. Yesterday you weren't a nurse or a clown in the circus.ELEANOR PENN: What?GABRIEL: You're the best. The best one they could send. Why is that? What makes you so good at this?ELEANOR PENN: I don't have any hobbies.GABRIEL: No, no, no. You have to do better than that. You have to make me believe. Believe like you believe.
the tension inherent in the scenario where one person knows about a game being played the other is completely in the dark about creates a dynamic scene. Because Gabriel is describing the world of Dollhouse, and Eleanor isn't an Active. She doesn't know what Adelle and Topher have done to make her the best, because for her, she wasn't made. She just is. And so when Gabriel demands that she has to make him believe, like she believes, she is automatically at a loss. Because she doesn't just believe it; she has memory of living it. She knows it. And that is part of what makes the very set up of the show tragic, what we witness first hand in Eleanor Penn. She (and every other Persona) is at an immediate disadvantage, partially because she is the paid for in any of these situations, but also because she is lacking the fundamental knowledge necessary to properly interact with the people in question. And yet, she (and every other Persona) cannot have that fundamental knowledge if the house of cards is to remain standing.
What stems from that is the question of the authentic experience. One of the people who made up Eleanor Penn was sexually abused by the man Eleanor comes into contact with while trying to ensure the safe release of Gabriel's daughter. Her reactions are of someone who was truly abused; but she - at least in this way - had not been. That history never existed. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she never spoke a truer word than when she told the man that he couldn't hurt her, that you can't fight a ghost. Because that is essentially what Eleanor is, someone who lived on the world for a while, but never in it. Someone who could remember people who had never met her, or abused her. In the end, Eleanor gets the girl back, but she still doesn't win. And neither does Echo. They are both erased, used by a larger organization that cares very little about them and their authentic lives.
The show also managed to explain the functionality of the premise well. The expositiony dialogue was less jarring and boring because it was tangled up in the philosophical thoughts of Topher. When Boyd questions making Echo nearsighted, Topher manages to explain why the personas are never going to truly be Superman, and yet also manages to heighten the intrigue into his very own character. In a truly captivating bit, Topher explains the process of creating an identity as
"You see someone running incredibly fast, the first thing you gotta ask is are they running to something or are they running away from something. The answer is always both. These personality imprints, they come from scans of real people. I can create amalgams of the personalities, pieces from her or there; but it's not a greatest hits. It's a whole person. Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack. Can't have one without the other. Everyone who excels at something is overcompensating. Running from something. Hiding from something."Since Topher himself excels at something, and since he seems to have universalized his own experience, the question immediately becomes what is Topher running from? And yet, now we know more about the Actives themselves. The thing that separates Joss Whedon's sci-fi/fantasy writing from so many others is that the exposition is oftentimes just as much about the immediate story and the characters as it is about granting those of us in the viewing audience access to the necessary road maps. It very rarely actually feels as though Whedon is pointing to a Yellow Brick Road and telling us where he wants us to go and what he wants us to know. It is just a natural evolution of the 'verse itself.