Hey, you know what show could really use a bit more online discussion? Dollhouse! "Echo," the original, unaired pilot for Joss Whedon's by no means triumphant return to television, and "Epitaph One," the shelved thirteenth episode of its first season, are now viewable through various and sundry means. Taken together, they paint a very different picture of the show from the one arising from the first season. Not simply because they are both well-written, engaging hours of television--hardly stellar on either count, but certainly head and shoulders above most of the season's conventionally aired episodes--but because they illustrate how wide the gap is between the show Whedon envisioned and tried to create and the show he was allowed to make.
"Echo," which hews closely, but is not identical, to the script leaked soon after the show's television premiere, confirms the suspicion that Fox executives who demanded that Whedon retool it created another "Serenity"/"Train Job" scenario, but in Dollhouse's case the pilot switcheroo (and the reworking of the show itself which apparently accompanied it) had a much more profound effect on the series as a whole. You can work your way back to Whedon's original plans for Firefly simply by unscrambling its episodes, but there is no way that Dollhouse's first season could follow from "Echo" instead of "Ghost." Too much of what was spread out over the entire season was originally condensed into this single hour--Sierra is already an active, Lubov's introduction and the revelation that he is Victor happen in quick succession, Ballard receives Alpha's message about Caroline, then meets and fights with Echo, and is shot for his troubles. This is not an unmitigated good--someone coming to the pilot cold would, I suspect, find it a little too frenetic, and certain characters, Adelle in particular, are lost in the hustle and bustle of moving the plot along--but especially when one considers how glacially the first season advanced towards stories that "Echo" deals with in a single scene, it's hard not to regret the season we might have gotten, which could have taken the story to the next level instead of stretching its first chapter over a dozen hours of television.
"Echo" is also a great deal better than most of the first season at dealing with some of the icky gender issues that Dollhouse has raised, and for whose treatment both the show and Whedon have come under near-constant fire. Sady Doyle, in what is still to my mind the most interesting bit of writing about the show, argues that in Dollhouse Whedon is examining, and dismantling, many of the thoughtless and often paternalistic assumptions that underpinned his previous work, and that the show is a metaphor for the pervasiveness of misogynystic thinking in our culture, of which even the 'strong female characters' of Whedon's previous work are a product. "Echo," even more than the examples she gives, bears this observation out. Its second scene, and our first introduction to Echo (Caroline is almost entirely absent from the pilot, which is frankly all to the good) feels like the dark reflection of Buffy's opening scene, itself famously a skewering of conventions when it reveals that the seemingly helpless girl breaking into the school with her date and starting at noises is actually a predator who devours him once he assures her that they are alone. In "Echo," Echo interferes with a man's attempt to coerce his girlfriend into becoming a party favor for his friends, chases him off contemptuously, and forcefully but not unkindly persuades the intended victim to take control of her life. It's a portrait of feminine strength, and (assuming we'd never seen a promo for the show, heard anything about its premise, or knew that Dushku was its lead) it comes as a shock when we cut away to another engagement and discover that this heroine was simply a figment of someone's imagination, and more of a victim than the girl she rescued.
After "Ghost" aired, I took the concept of the dollhouse as yet another attempt by Whedon to deconstruct prostitution, a la Inara in Firefly, but "Echo" makes it clear that the comparisons others were drawing to River were more apt. Like River, Echo is a superhero whose heroism only becomes possible because of her own destruction, which is instigated without her (in Echo's case, full and uncoerced) consent. But whereas Serenity tries to create a disconnect between the profound violation and mutilation inflicted on River and the abilities that it bestowed upon her, thus allowing us to view her heroism as something inherent to her, for which we can cheer unambiguously, Dollhouse doesn't give us that comforting space. Echo is never shown as a hero without the pilot stressing that that heroism has been achieved by stripping her of her volition. The image of the super-powerful woman is never allowed to distract us from the misogyny of the culture that created her.
"Echo"'s emphasis on free will or its absence has the effect of downplaying the sexual aspect of the dollhouse. My biggest problem with the seemingly endless barrage of criticism directed at Dollhouse for allegedly failing to acknowledge that the dolls are being raped is that it seemed fairly clear to me--especially from those episodes intended to move the overarching story forward like "Man on the Street" or "A Spy in the House of Love"--that in the story Whedon was trying to tell sexual rape was merely a specific instance of the greater act of rape being committed against the actives--the rape of their mind, the complete stripping away of their personality and free will. This is borne out by "Epitaph One," which flashes forward to 2019, a post-apocalyptic future in which doll technology has been weaponized and made wireless. People are stripped of their personalities in the blink of an eye, to become host bodies for the personalities of others, or mindless drones bent on carnage, or simply blank slates, and the characters who discover the dollhouse are darkly amused to learn that "the tech that punk-kicked the ass of mankind was originally designed to create more believable hookers."
This is not to say, however, that the complaints that Dollhouse downplays rape or even uses it for titillation are unfounded. That Whedon's real interest was in telling an SFnal story about the dismantling of the fundamentals of what it means to be human doesn't change the fact that sexual rape is a real thing that happens, and is downplayed, all too often, whereas brainwashing technology isn't, and that using the former as nothing but a prop with which to highlight the awfulness of the latter is problematic to say the least (Doyle's argument that doll technology is a metaphor for misogynistic culture seems weaker in the face of the all-out post-apocalyptic "Epitaph One"). It also doesn't excuse the prurience with which the first season treated Echo's sexual engagements, or the fact that in its standalone episodes in particular the show seemed to be inviting us to tut sanctimoniously over the terrible things being done to Echo while enjoying her sexy shenanigans. Despite "Echo"'s emphasis on depersonalization rather than rape--Echo's engagements in the pilot are functional rather than sexual, and even the date she goes on is primarily intended to give the client someone awesome to show up with at his ex's wedding--it does a better job facing up to the fact that the actives are being raped in a single scene than the first season does in whole episodes, when it shows us Sierra coming back from an engagement, her forehead gashed, her gait unsteady, the shattered expression on her face leaving no question as to what has happened to her. Though it could be argued that this scene is, perhaps intentionally, drawing a distinction between a sexual act which Sierra's imprinted personality clearly didn't want and Echo sleeping with the wedding guest (and though it's more than a little disturbing that Sierra is apparently the go-to character when it comes to rape), this short, wordless scene delivers a more powerful punch than any number of Ballard's lectures.
If "Echo" is the ghost of the show Whedon wanted to write, "Epitaph One" is a glimpse of the story he is trying to get to. Though well done, it is, in itself, not much to get excited over. Its plot feels much like a retread of the mercenary plotline in Whedon's Alien: Resurrection, itself a rehash of many films that came before it, including the original Alien, and which Whedon had already cannibalized when he created Firefly--a rag-tag crew of misfits in an unfriendly future happen upon a piece of extremely dangerous technology and discover that it has been/will be used by the government against its citizens. The episode's opening scenes feel almost like a parody of Mad Max-type films, with the characters spouting dense 'futuristic' jargon at each other--"Green room is open but the party is crashed." "Any wielders?" "Negative. Just butchers and dumb shells, but it's pretty thick."--which only seems more ridiculous when one recalls Whedon's established skill at crafting believable patois. Things settle down a little once the group happens on the dollhouse and the characters are given a little room to stretch out, and the episode has some genuinely surprising twists, but this is still, at its core, a story in which people in a creepy location are picked off one by one by an unseen menace, interspersed with flashbacks to the previous decade that tell us something about the steps that led up to this situation but mostly give us more questions to ponder.
That "Epitaph One" is so striking, then, is mainly to do with the fact that though it is part of the Dollhouse continuity, it also seems to be the beginning of a completely different story, one which shares Dollhouse's premise but uses it for different ends. More than anything else, "Epitaph One"--which ends with the surviving characters leaving the dollhouse, guided by Caroline, to find a way to combat the wiping technology--feels like a pilot for its own show. As Dollhouse's first season finale, it is a profound statement about the story Whedon wants to tell--of the transition from controlled use of doll technology, through greater and greater violations of human agency, and finally to a nightmare realm in which the human consciousness and the human body are distinct, separable entities which one can mix and match. Though it should be noted that the use of flashbacks which reveal the current cast's future has the distinct whiff of Lost about it, and carries the risk of reducing the show's narrative to a quest for the connective tissue between different plot points--how did Claire lose her scars? Why did Victor and Sierra break up? What did Adelle do with Dominic's body?--this is by far a more interesting story than either the personality of the week stories or the season-long investigation which characterized the first season.
We shouldn't, however, be too quick to allow ourselves to be swept up by the double whammy of "Echo" and "Epitaph One." Just as the original pilot casts a light on the compromises Whedon had to make in order to get Dollhouse's first season on the air, the fact that "Epitaph One" was never aired makes it clear that there is serious resistance to the story Whedon wants Dollhouse to be. The finale's title suggests that there will be--or that Whedon planned for there to be--other epitaphs (the tomb is presumably humanity's), possibly revisiting the same characters, possibly flashing forward to other periods. Will they too be quashed? Will "Epitaph One" be cannibalized for scenes and plot points as "Echo" was? How can the second season cater both to viewers who have seen it and those who think of "Omega" as the season finale? It's pretty clear at this point that Dollhouse is by far the strangest, most challenging thing Whedon has ever tried to do, but that ambition doesn't excuse the fact that, whether due to network interference or inability on his part, what he's actually producing is sub-par, and unlikely to get any better, or move towards the strangeness Whedon is after, if Fox has its way. It's hard to believe that Dollhouse will ever be the story Whedon wants it to be, or that it will survive long if it is. Its unaired episodes, which have for the first time piqued my interest in the show, also leave me extremely dubious about its future.