“You can’t fight a ghost.”
14 Years Ago, Joss Whedon Started His Most Underrated Series With a Bang
Joss Whedon may be a divisive name now, but he somehow pulled off the perfect sci-fi pilot — with the perfect cast — in 2009.
Joss Whedon’s place in television history is complicated, to say the least. On the one hand, he’s the man who turned Buffy the Vampire Slayer from an ‘80s B-movie into a ‘90s teen TV icon — and the one who rewrote the rulebook for science fiction television as we know it. On the other, his workplace behavior and later career choices — like the disastrous Justice League reshoots or the nuked-from-HBO-Max The Nevers — have turned him into a Hollywood pariah.
But 14 years ago, Whedon launched one of his most underrated series with the perfect distillation of what a pilot should be, something that could only happen after throwing the original pilot out the window.
Dollhouse has a very lofty and very complicated premise: there’s a secret corporation that controls a number of “Actives” — humans with all personality and memories wiped. Clients can hire these Actives for an incredibly large sum of money to do whatever they want, be it a dream date with an attractive partner tailor-made to their specifications, or a talented special agent for a secret mission.
It’s a lot to communicate to an audience — especially an audience in 2009. But what became the pilot, “Ghost,” wasn’t supposed to establish a premise at all. “Ghost” was meant to be the second episode in the series, building on what viewers learned in the original pilot (titled “Echo”) and establishing the client-of-the-week format, much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In “Ghost,” we meet our main character, Echo (Eliza Dushku,) as she’s on a dream date. But we the audience — and Echo herself — don’t know that it’s a job. It’s not until her handler Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) leads her in to get a “treatment” from Topher Brink (Fran Kranz). After the treatment, we meet Echo as she is in the Dollhouse: no thoughts, head empty, completely naive and devoid of personality.
Her mission this episode focuses on a millionaire whose daughter is kidnapped. He hires an Active to help him through the negotiation and ransom transaction, so Topher creates Eleanor Penn, a masterful hostage negotiator, and downloads the persona onto Echo. When Boyd questions the glasses, Topher admits that just as these personas are amalgams of assets, they also include flaws.
We see those flaws only a few scenes later when “Eleanor’s” connection to her client’s dilemma is revealed. Yes, she’s nearsighted and she even has asthma, but she also is a victim of kidnapping herself — and her kidnapper may be the man behind the job she’s working now.
A lot of the joy in this pilot is just in the heart and soul of the series itself. Eliza Dushku runs an acting gauntlet akin to Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black, playing multiple characters in this episode alone. Fran Kranz is by far the comedic highlight playing the neurotic and nerdy Topher with a snarkiness that could only come from a Whedon series. We even get a glimpse of Enver Gjokaj as Victor and Dichen Lachmann as Sierra, two other Actives who will feature heavily throughout future episodes.
Despite the Herculean task of having to establish the entire premise of the series, “Ghost” also manages to seed the season-long arc the series would explore: Federal Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) tries to pursue the mystery of the Dollhouse, which many believe to just be an urban legend.
Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the head of the Dollhouse, deals with a mysterious file that is labeled “Alpha.” In just the opening scene, a pre-induction Echo is offered “a clean slate” by Adelle, which she responds to with “You ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” It’s a clever foreshadowing of what will come to be Echo’s biggest struggle throughout the season.
Even though it wasn’t the initial pilot, it’s very rare to see a show hit the ground running and deliver an adventure that doesn’t get dragged down with the housekeeping. The script has nothing extraneous, delivering all the hallmarks of Joss Whedon at his peak. Watching it, it does tonally feel like it’s from 2009, but good storytelling is always timeless.
Dollhouse is now streaming on Hulu.