Dollhouse may be the most controversial thing Joss Whedon has ever done. But the brain-slaves-for-hire show teems with challenging ideas about what it means to be human, which you only fully grok after multiple viewings. Good thing there are DVDs!
The DVD set, which came out on Tuesday, offers a few new ways to wrap your mind around the mysteries of the Dollhouse, that secret underground spa facility where beautiful people are programmed to become whatever rich clients need them to be for a day or so:
1) Watch the unaired pilot and finale back to back. The two episodes of the show that Fox didn't want you to see fit together pretty neatly, surprisingly enough. The unaired pilot contains as much story development for Echo (Eliza Dushku) as the first six episodes of the regular series put together, and it also raises all the questions you wish someone would ask, about the morality of turning people into your personal robot slaves. Watch Topher laugh as he justifies his life as the chief mind-blotter — and then watch "Epitaph One," the unaired finale, right afterwards. All of the questions raised in the original pilot find their answers here. You learn that, yes, this all does end very badly. Topher's bravado has been replaced with weeping inside one of the Dolls' coffins, and bosslady Adelle's sang froid has developed some serious cracks. Meanwhile, the pilot shows us Echo beginning to rediscover her selfhood and experiencing her first glimmers of memory. Watching those two episodes back to back makes for a kind of Dollhouse movie, with a beginning and an end — yet it leaves you wanting the next batch.
2) Watch a bunch of the episodes in a row, so they feel less episodic. One of the biggest complaints about the first half-dozen episodes of the season is how aimless and "stand-alone" they feel, with the "client of the week" and the "this week, she's a scuba instructor with a dark secret" feeling. But when you watch a bunch of them in one go, it feels a lot better — you do see something of a progression from episode to episode, with Echo showing her first signs of going beyond her programming in the "hostage negotiator" episode, followed by the mysterious ex-doll Alpha making his first move to push her to go further out of her parameters in the "bow-hunting" episode. And then Alpha goes further in the bank-robbery episode, giving Echo a remote mindwipe to try and push her further. It all leads up to the midpoint of the season, when everyone's pretty much aware that Echo is no longer just the usual empty vessel for people to pour their own desires into — she's becoming something more versatile, and maybe more dangerous. You see a bit more of a progression.
3) Listen to Joss Whedon complain about studio interference. The other great pleasure of the DVDs is the commentary track, where creator Joss Whedon talks about the creative process, and exactly how much Fox messed with his business. At one point during the first episode, "Ghost," Whedon talks about the network sending him tons of "notes" demanding more explanations for everything. After the episode was already stuffed to bursting with characters standing around talking about rewriting brains and creating real personalities to put into people's heads, the network came back and wanted just a bit more spelling out of the show's premise. He also admits that he knows nothing about how to do hostage negotiations, and if you followed Ellie Penn's techniques for dealing with hostage-takers, you would probably get everyone killed. But sounds good, and that's the main thing. His commentary track for the sixth episode, "Man On The Street" is even more revelatory, where he talks through the problems he had with the show, and the ways in which "Man On The Street" represents a turning point for the show, and how he wrote the whole thing in something like three days, all of his ideas pouring out of him. And the "Man On The Street" commentary is the deepest Joss has gone into discussing the wish-fulfillment and horror of the Dollhouse and what it represents to people. "We all have something that we would like Topher to slice out of us, so much so that it paralyzes us in some cases."
Mostly, the DVDs are a chance to flop on your couch and delve back into the Dollhouse universe in a big way, now that it's miraculously coming back. And maybe, to realize quite what a unique, rich story this actually is, and how much it takes the themes of wish-fulfillment and fantasy, and shows how they can lead down a dark path of wanting to erase other people — and eventually the entire world. They're in stores now, and well worth renting or buying so you can rewrite your memories of this vastly underrated show.