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Dollhouse 1.01 "Ghost" review

Not the most promising start for Joss Whedon's new show

NB: This review was originally printed in the Spoiler Zone in issue 182 of SFX and is reflective of our assessment of the show at the time of viewing.

Written by: Joss Whedon

Directed by: Joss Whedon


A troubled young woman named Caroline is offered the opportunity of a clean slate, which she accepts. Her mind is then wiped, she’s renamed “Echo” and she becomes an “Active” in the Dollhouse, where she’s continually reprogrammed to fulfil the needs of paying customers. This time she’s hired as a hostage negotiator, but things go wrong when it turns out that her “profile” came partly from one of the kidnappers’ former victims. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Paul Ballard tries to track down the Dollhouse despite cynicism about its existence from his bosses.

Dollhouse has come in for a lot of criticism ever since it started, and the reasons for that criticism are clearly visible from the outset. On the most basic level, the writing lacks the spark of previous Whedon shows – there’s very little wit and the dialogue isn’t as snappy as we’ve come to expect. Much of it feels poorly thought-out, too, from patronising audio-visual links (Ballard’s discussion with his superior is intercut with a boxing match, and Topher delivers a line about running away from things while pointedly watching a Doll using a treadmill) to plain old logical errors (the FBI doesn’t really believe the Dollhouse exists but any playboy with cash to burn can hire a million-dollar escort for the evening?).

And none of that begins to touch the generally uncomfortable nature of the premise: desperate people, many of them young women, being stripped of their identity and autonomy and turned into empty vessels that can be given any personality their keepers decide – and the Dollhouse staff seem eager to lord that over the oblivious Dolls. Considering that Joss Whedon is arguably one of the strongest feminist forces in TV today, it’s no wonder that has alarmed many viewers. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, though, this is a disappointing start to the series. Teething problems? Let’s hope so.

Topher explains that the Actives’ profiles have to be spliced together, scrapbook-style, from real people’s personalities, which is why Echo is she’s short-sighted and asthmatic this time. But surely such physical disadvantages could be removed? Why leave them in?

The wipe montages go on for a long time. Echo’s first wipe is 28 seconds long, but we’ll forgive that since it’s the first one. In later episodes, though...

The Dolls’ names are all taken from the phonetic alphabet. Does that mean there can only be 26 working Dolls at any one time? And what are Dolls Hotel, Kilo, Papa and Whiskey like?

Gabriel: “You told me you were good with people.”
Echo: “I misspoke. I'm good at people.”

Leah Holmes

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