‘Dollhouse’: "Echo" (Unaired Pilot)

02Aug09

When I heard that the original Dollhouse pilot was not going to be aired as the first episode of the series, I groaned a little on the inside. I worried the switch foretold the recurrence of what happened to Firefly, despite Joss’ insistence that he, rather than the network, chose to rework the pilot. But I admit that “Ghost” wasn’t a “Train Job,” and I can now say that “Echo” definitely isn’t a “Serenity.”

“Echo” does feel like more of a pilot to me than “Ghost” did, mostly because it focuses on the Dollhouse, rather than a client, and Ballard’s investigation getting too close for Adelle’s comfort. However, “Ghost” does a much better job of showing how the actives function rather than telling. “Echo” has a lot of exposition, but it also raises more of the moral and ethical debates regarding the concept of the Dollhouse. I kinda like this speech Topher gives:

You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs in the morning but never at night. You feel excitement and companionship when rich men you’ve never met put a ball through a net. You feel guilty, maybe a little suspicious every time you see that Salvation Army Santa. You look down for at least half-a-second if a woman leans forward. And your stomach rumbles every time you drive by a big golden arch, even if you weren’t hungry before. Everybody’s programmed, Boyd.

The pilot also affords Eliza Dushku better opportunity to play multiple characters, and she does really well. I enjoy her performance of practically all her personas, especially “Shauna Vickers,” and each of them feels very distinct from one another. She even speaks Spanish, and her accent doesn’t sound half-bad. I appreciate that none of the engagements in which she participates are particularly salacious, unlike the motorcycle-riding, shirt-dress-wearing persona in “Ghost.” I also like that Echo’s increasing self-awareness is specifically addressed in the pilot. Since all of the articles I read about Dollhouse mentioned that the plot of the series would be driven by Echo gaining a sense of self, I was surprised that “Ghost” didn’t prominently feature a glitch.

I think I agree with Joss’ decision to create a new first episode. While I’m usually yelling at him to hurry up and do something, here I felt like I needed to jerk back on Joss’ reins. Especially in regards to Ballard, “Echo” jumps into plotlines and introduces ideas really quickly. Most of the first twenty-five minutes of the episode were cannibalized and used in other episodes throughout the season, and those scenes work as well if not better in their new contexts as they do here. The arguable A-story of the episode concerning Ballard and Echo was replaced by the slow-burning Ballard/Mellie storyline, which I prefer. The concept of Echo’s first engagement as a Scared Straight-type, and some of the ideas it presents (“I am you, dumb-ass. I’m the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”), also seems to have been morphed into the pro bono engagement in “Briar Rose.”

In addition, Joss decided to hold out on revealing that Lubov is really an active. Even though the Whedonesque community wasn’t surprised by the reveal, I think it was a good decision to sit on revealing that Lubov and Mellie are actives because it created a greater sense of paranoia that anyone could be a doll. Because of Tahmoh Penikett’s presence, I can’t help but compare the revelation of the “undercover” dolls to the divulgement of the 12 cylon models on Battlestar Galactica. Of course, revealing who are dolls isn’t near as suspenseful as revealing cylons because an antagonism doesn’t exist between actives and non-actives as it does between cylons and humans. But I do think that Joss manages to make the reveals of November and Whiskey interesting and significant, each in their own way. If Joss has any more doll reveals planned for season two, hopefully they won’t be ruined.

I think what I find most interesting about pilots is seeing how/if any of the personalities of the main characters had been tweaked for the series proper. For example, in the C.S.I. pilot Gil Grissom is much more outgoing and personable, and in the Wonderfalls pilot, Aaron’s disinterest and disconnection from Jaye belies the close relationship they have later on. In the case of this pilot, Boyd is much less fatherly and protective of Echo, sitting casually in the surveillance van reading a newspaper while she has a gun pointed at her heart. Adelle seems more human and less austere, though she still terrifies me with the small smile she gives to Topher and Boyd during their conversation about the mishap with Ballard. And Dr. Saunders seems much more self-conscious about her scars, literally hiding in the shadows for the bulk of a scene.

While Topher doesn’t seem all that different, his characterization feels rocky. He has his three major personality traits on display – arrogance, questionable morality, and immaturity – but he seems a lot less nonchalant than usual. He says that he doesn’t care about the moral questions surrounding what he does in the Dollhouse, but he becomes pretty intense in the (boring) argument he has with Dr. Saunders. Maybe Joss intentionally wanted to hint that Topher doesn’t feel as detached as he seems, but having both his conversation with Boyd and discussion with Dr. Saunders in the same episode feels heavy-handed. Justifying that the imprinting isn’t morally wrong, Topher tells both of them that the dolls fall in love, suggesting that maybe Topher envies that aspect of the dolls’ engagements because he thinks that he can’t or won’t fall in love. But again, having him say the same thing twice in one episode feels clumsy. Topher says to Boyd that they are dolls and their bosses are like children who break their toys, which feels out of character. He is too full of himself and his abilities to ever compare himself to one of the actives.

Favorite lines:

  • “Eddie, she lacks ambition.” (Echo)
  • “You are a dead woman.” “Then how can you possibly hurt me?” (Eddie & Echo)
  • “Yeah. People are mostly crap.” (Lubov)
  • “Was that flirting?” “I think so.” (Loomis & Ballard)


Random thoughts:

  • What’s with the anti-woman sentiment? Echo says, “Did you see him crying like a tiny woman?” and, “I’m trying so hard not to be such a girl.” She makes both of those statements while she is imprinted, so maybe it’s a comment on how society “programs” a certain amount of self-loathing in women? I don’t know.
  • Ashley Johnson from “Omega” appears here, and she is just as good. Johnson has come a long way from being the baby on Growing Pains.
  • I don’t know if it’s the lighting or imperfect make-up, but Dr. Saunders’ skin looks almost reptilian-like when she peeks through the files at Topher.
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