[Joss Whedon did a conference call with reporters earlier this week. He said too much for me to really do an adequate job of trimming it all down to one story. So this is the first part of HitFix’s “Dollhouse” premiere coverage. Expect much more in the days to come.]
“Dollhouse” will finally premiere on FOX on Friday, Feb. 13.
That’s 14 months after news broke in the industry trade papers that Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku were reuniting on a new series project for FOX.
That’s nine months after FOX ordered “Dollhouse” to series, giving the existential sci-fi drama a Monday night time slot leading into “24.”
That’s three months after FOX lifted “Dollhouse” out of what looked like a civilized Monday night home and sent it off into what looked like the wilderness of Friday nights.
Whedon’s fans, always among the most dedicated and constantly mobilized fanbases on the Internet, have had plenty of time to analyze every script revision, to handicap every new version of the pilot, to lament each delay or scheduling change or failed advertising opportunity.
With all of that scrutiny in mind, Whedon was very generous with his time earlier this week to chat with a group of reporters. I’m not saying I was so excited to chat with Whedon that I buzzed in early just to get my question in the queue first, but I did kick things off by asking how the process of creatively finding “Dollhouse” differed from the genesis on earlier shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” or “Firefly.”
“Whedon I think this show definitely went through a tougher process, tough in a different way than the other shows,” Whedon says. “Probably most similar to ‘Angel’ in the sense of what we had in our minds about what ‘Angel’ was ultimately was different than what the network did. Our version was a little darker, and in this instance, it wasn”t so much a question of reworking what the show was as it was a question of reworking how we get into it. There were definitely some differences of opinion about what was going on and what we were going to stress in the show, but mostly it was about how do we bring the audience in and the mandate was very much once they had seen the pilot.”
He continues, “They made some noise about this before. I don”t want to say that they just thought it up out of the blue, but the mandate was ‘Give us not just the world of the show, but the structure of the show.’ The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very sideways, and they said let the audience see an engagement so that they understand that every week she”s going to go to a different place and be a different person and that they have that sense of structure. That part was simple enough. It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what it was they didn”t have that I had planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to give them something they could get behind more.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that “Dollhouse” didn’t become the show Whedon always intended it to be.
“[T]here was some real questioning about what exactly we wanted to get at in terms of the humanity and what they do and why people hire them and there”s a sexual aspect to it that makes some people nervous,” He notes. Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous. It”s to make them identify with people they don”t like and get into situations that they don”t approve of, and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well. So we”re out to make people uncomfortable, but not maybe so much our bosses.”
That was the answer to the first question of the conference call. And the follow-up? After the two different pilots and the early-fall production pause, does Whedon feel confident that he’s found the version of “Dollhouse” that he wants?
“Well, it”s always an ongoing process to an extent, but I would say emphatically yes,” Whedon says. “We had all of the elements, the characters, none of which were changed really, and none of the regular characters, and the premise, the concept, the way we were able to explore what makes us human, all of that is in there. As the season progresses, it ends up going exactly where I had hoped it would go before all of this happened, so I do feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network. And the last few episodes that we just completed shooting got all of us extraordinarily excited.”
Fans will be relieved to hear Whedon say that, but they’ve been on edge ever since FOX sent “Dollhouse” to Fridays, a move that spawned a thousand “Here we go again!” message board posts. Paired with “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” “Dollhouse” is now being positioned as counter-programming to the staid CBS procedurals — “Ghost Whisperer” and “Flashpoint” — that dominate the night.
“Honestly, I really do see the opportunity there because the deal with the Friday night time slot was you don”t come out, bang, opening weekend, and it’s all decided,” Whedon says. “It”s about growing a fan base, both for ‘Dollhouse’ and ‘Terminator.’ I think ‘Terminator’ is a remarkably good show, and the kind of show that makes sense to be paired with ‘Dollhouse,’ so I feel great about that, plus I get to see all these posters with Summer and Eliza together and that”s just too cool.”
He continues, “Ultimately, this is a show where people will hopefully become intrigued and then hang in, that really builds, so it needs the 13 weeks, and it needs the 13 weeks of people paying attention, but not so much attention that it gets burned out in the glare of the spotlight. I”ve always worked best under the radar. Most of my shows people have come to after they stopped airing, but I would like to buck that trend, and at the same time, it is part of how I work that you stay with it and it grows on you and it becomes family, and the Friday night is a much better place for that to actually happen.”
One thing Whedon and company are doing to bring viewers in is introducing them slowly to the mythology of the show. Even the premiere for “Dollhouse” is difficult to summarize and even more complicated to actually explain. Eliza Dushku plays Echo, a “doll” who can be imprinted with all manner of personality traits and skills so that she can become whoever a client wants her to be. She can either be the sexiest one-night-stand you’ve ever paid for, or she can be the most highly trained expert in whatever field might require her attention. But the more specific hows and whys are more difficult to understand, hence the gentle immersion into the universe.
“We always refer to the first seven episodes as the seven pilots,” Whedon says. “You can”t just shut down after episode one and it can”t be a train that”s left the station. So the first several episodes, the first five are all individual engagements where the premise is made clear and the cast of characters is made clear and relationships are made clear. Obviously there is some progression in those relationships, but there is nowhere where you have giant pieces of information missing, or where you have to sit through a three minute previously on in order to get to the show. We really care about that, and that was one place where we were completely on the same page as the network.”
“Dollhouse” first began germinating as part of a now-famous lunch between Whedon and Dushku, who worked together on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and then on “Angel.” But what drew Whedon to the overall concept?
“I”ve been fascinated by the questions of identity and identity manipulation, both self-imposed and otherwise, and the idea of avatars and the idea of fantasy and the little insular world that we”ve been able to create for ourselves with our computers and with our extraordinarily specific medications,” he says. “And I think it”s something that”s become a part of the world really just in the last 10 years, so it”s fairly new means to ask very old questions about ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I as I get older?’ and ‘What”s really sticking?’ ‘What”s the part I can point to and say this is me?’ and ‘What is just coming and going?’ and ‘What has been imposed upon me?’ and ‘Who the hell am I?’ and ‘Why aren”t I prettier?'”
And so why was Duskhu the right vessel for the asking of all of those questions?
“She”s overcome her homely shyness over these years,” Whedon kids. “Eliza is, apart from being, in my opinion, as great a star as I have ever known, she has a genuinely powerful electric and luminous quality that I”ve rarely seen. She”s also a really solid person. She”s a good friend. She”s a feminist. She”s an activist. She”s interested in the people around her. She has a lot of different things going on, and I”ve watched her over the years, as a friend, try to take control of her career, and try to get the roles that weren”t available to her, and protect the ethos and the message of what it was that she was doing, and I respect that enormously. Being part of that progression is, for me, one of the greatest benefits of this show.”
Stay tuned for Part II…