Created by Joss Whedon, Starring Eliza Dushku
Available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A young woman named Caroline has seen her life hit rock bottom. Feeling as though there is nowhere else to turn, she makes a bargain with a mysterious organization known as the Dollhouse: in exchange for giving five years of her life to be one of their “Actives”, her slate will be cleared and she’ll be a rich woman when it’s over. But what does it mean to be an Active? Simply put, they are blank slates, their personalities essentially missing until they are given a mission and have new ones (along with requisite skills) downloaded into their bodies. It might be hostage negotiations, or it could be master thief, or perhaps just the weekend sexual escapade of someone’s dreams. But no matter what, Caroline will have no memory of the things the Dollhouse has her body do during that five year period.

In theory. But with a dogged F.B.I. agent on the Dollhouse’s tail, and a rogue active doing his level best to destroy the organization and Caroline along with it, she’s going to have plenty of obstacles in her way to fulfilling that five-year contract.

When word broke that televisionary Joss Whedon (BUFFY, ANGEL, FIREFLY) was returning to the small screen with a new vehicle for Eliza Dushku, fandom exploded with excitement. Her turn as Faith in BUFFY and ANGEL was the stuff of legend, and Whedon’s rabid fanbase was ready for another weekly dose of his creative work. But DOLLHOUSE faced challenges both immediate and long-term that threatened to derail the show’s chances to find itself, ultimately finishing its first season as a show very much reflecting the dichotomies of its Actives: half the season was completely missable, and half was as good as television gets. And now both halves are available together on DVD, along with some of the strongest extras of any series set in recent memory.

Episodes one through five get off to a roush, slow start. A formula quickly falls into place: something goes slightly awry in Echo’s (Dushku’s) programming or mission, causing unexpected complications. What grates about this formula is the way that her bosses react as though this sort of thing has never happened with any of their other Actives. Which raises the question: why not pull her out of the field until they can figure out what’s wrong with her and why this stuff keeps happening? It comes off as contrived that they keep running Echo out on engagements, which comes off as surprising. DOLLHOUSE has one of the absolute best writing staffs on television. Beyond Whedon, there’s Tim Minear, Jane Espenson, Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft, Steven DeKnight… people that have written some of the best TV has to offer over the last fifteen years. But it was clear that they were struggling to figure out what the show was going to be during these early efforts and it put a lot of doubt in their viewing audience.

I chalk up some of this directionless work to the decision to scrap the initial pilot episode written and directed by Whedon. This episode is included as an extra on the DVD, and watching it, it’s clear that somebody should have stopped the second-guessing bug that was going around the Fox offices and in the DOLLHOUSE writer’s room. “Echo” (the episode title) is a strong effort and kicks the plot into motion immediately. Dushku’s character meets her F.B.I. pursuer (played by BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’S Tahmoh Penikett) immediately. A revelation about one Active’s identity comes sooner. And there’s a sense of immediacy that isn’t there in the revamped series and it’s opening effort, “Ghost.” Had DOLLHOUSE stuck with its initial pilot, the show might have gotten off to a stronger start with the fans and began building a better base. Oddly enough, pieces of the original pilot were used throughout the season in other episodes, but they lose the impact they might have had if the show had aired as filmed. Ultimately, Dushku looks more confident in her portrayal of Echo in the unaired pilot as well; the subsequent episodes, she’s shakier, making you wonder if she’s lost as to where things are going… just like the audience.

But with episode six, “Man On The Street” the show began to find itself and went on a sold run through its final seven episodes. The character arc of the F.B.I. agent finally got rolling, Dushku’s Echo began to sprout seeds of self-awareness, we learned more about the Dollhouse and its true purpose… in short, the mythology of the show began to spread its wings, and the show soared because of it. The superior “Needs” allowed the principal Actives to gain closure on their real lives; “A Spy In The House Of Love” broke open a conspiracy and saw a stunning fate for a main character, one that horrified even the toughest of viewer; and the two-part season ender (“Briar Rose” and “Alpha”) brought renegade Active Alpha back into the mix and explained his obsession with Echo. It’s seven hours of terrific television that make this set easily worth your money.

But if that wasn’t enough, you get the single most important aspect of this collection, the unaired episode thirteen, titled “Epitaph One.” Needing a thirteenth episode to complete a DVD set and for foreign sales, Whedon produced a post-apocalyptic coda that finds a world in ruins because of Dollhouse technology, and a band of rebels breaking into the facility looking for sanctuary. Anchored by Whedon vet actress Felicia Day, the starkly grim look at the future gone wrong, amid flashbacks and flash-forwards of things to come in the series, plays as a tight horror film, and revelation of who the boogieman is turns out to be quite chilling. The episode was shot not knowing if the series would get picked up for a season two, so it serves as a perfect capper to the series itself (if that had been needed) and as an exciting springboard for season two. The episode is completely in continuity, so the desire to see how it all fell apart is strong.

Other extras include deleted scenes, episode commentary tracks, a look at the production design, and a terrific docu-short about how the writers and crew have almost all worked on one of the previous Whedon series. (You also learn how to pronounce Dichen Lachman’s -she plays an Active named Sierra- name properly; it’s “dee-shin” NOT “dye-kin.” Glad we cleared that up.).

DOLLHOUSE is a morally complex show, and the series really only scratched the surface of the nature of the compromises and evil that the Dollhouse forces upon people in year one. As it moves forward into season two, I’m hoping to see it dive deeper into the quandary of using bodies without souls to commit the acts these young people do. Season one, though, is certainly worth your time. Even the first half, when the show was floundering, still offered intrigue and quality. That’s Joss Whedon for you- even when he’s bad, he’s very, very good.

Marc Mason