Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dollhouse, "Epitaph One": To have and have not

So the big TV event of the day at Comic-Con was the screening of "Epitaph One," the 13th episode of "Dollhouse" season one, which Fox the TV studio produced to help the foreign/DVD sales, but which Fox the network hasn't bought because they already paid for 13 episodes (counting the original, scrapped pilot).

Now, I suspect many of you who care enough about "Dollhouse" to be reading this entry have already illegally downloaded the episode since it leaked last week, or perhaps you were in Ballroom 20 to watch it with me and 4500 of my closest friends. If not, and you intend to watch "Dollhouse" season two in the fall, I strongly recommend at least renting the DVD after it comes out on Tuesday, both because "Epitaph One" is easily the strongest episode to date, and because it's going to be crucial to how season two plays out. Really, it's one of the most important DVD extras ever.

After the jump, I'm going to discuss the episode -- and the weird implications it will have on the series -- in abstract, relatively spoiler-free terms, including some quotes from Joss from the panel. Because the episode has now been screened via legal means, I'm going to say that it's okay to spoil the episode in the comments, so read anything after the initial post at your own risk. Thoughts coming up just as soon as I enjoy some shellfish...

So, "Epitaph One" begins in 2019, in a nightmarish future where a small band of would-be heroes (including Whedon favorite Felicia Day, plus Sepinwall favorite Zach Ward) stumble across the abandoned Dollhouse. Using the imprint chair, they figure out how the larger Dollhouse organization is responsible for the state of the world, while at the same time we get to see some major developments in the future for all the series' regular characters as the larger global scenario played out.

Written by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and directed by David Solomon, "Epitaph One" takes the moral implications of the Dollhouse to their horrific extreme, and its vignette-laden narrative plays to every actors' strengths: Eliza Dushku doesn't have to do too much heavy lifting, Enver Gjokaj gets to show off several very different personas, etc. I'm really glad I got to see it, and on a big screen in a room full of so many enthusiastic fans.

What concerns me, though, is that "Epitaph One" is such a game-changer for the series -- revealing so much about what the show is really about, and what the future has in store for all the regulars -- that it's somewhat alarming to think it's only going to be on the DVD, especially since Joss said they fully intend to follow up on it over the course of season two. We'll check in on some of the 2019 characters, Whedon intends to explore the parameters (logistically and morally) of what can be done with the imprinting tech, along similar lines to what's discussed in "Epitaph One," and the new season is even going to be shot in the same more immediate (and inexpensive) visual style as this episode.

But while I expect a lot of the show's fans to care enough to seek out the DVD, my guess is that less than half of regular "Dollhouse" viewers who will have seen "Epitaph One" by the time season two begins. Whatever the percentages, we're heading for a scenario where some of the audience will be awash in this huge bath of new information, while others will have no idea who the 2019 people are, or about what we glimpsed of, say, Echo's future. I talked briefly with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen after the panel, and they said there will likely be some repetition of information from "Epitaph One" to explain things to the viewers who didn't see it, but I can't imagine that explanation being nearly as powerful as simply watching "Epitaph One" itself.

Joss also said that those of us who watched "Epitaph" shouldn't automatically take all the flashbacks as gospel, as they're presented as memories, and memories aren't always what actually happened.

"What we intend to do is honor what you've seen here today," he said, "but also to question the veracity of what you've seen here today." He also said that "The future will inform where we go with the show," but, "it's not going to inform the show so much that it becomes a post-apocalyptic-sometimes show... We're going to use it to take the show slightly on a new tack, but it's still what we wanted to do had we not done the future -- which was twist the knife."

Again, I think "Epitaph One" is an incredible hour of television -- and, more than "Man on the Street," or "A Spy in the House of Love," or any of the episodes from the stronger second half of "Dollhouse" season one, makes me think Joss actually did know what he was doing with this premise, even if the execution of the early episodes was disappointing -- but I don't think it was a good idea to do such a monumental, series-altering episode as one that everyone involved had to suspect might never air on Fox. (At the time it was produced, "Epitaph One" was being made only for the DVD.) Of course, the counter-argument would be that Joss and company couldn't have known that they'd be renewed, and "Epitaph One" would have functioned as a brilliant series finale had Fox not ordered more. Better to have it, and the complications it now creates with renewal, then for Joss to have commissioned another standalone episode where one of Echo's assignments goes awry.

As Joss joked when a fan asked about how the show would deal with all the issues raised in "Epitaph One" during season two, "We talked about a lot of things, when we accidentally forgot to get canceled."

What did everybody else think? Do you think the show can easily bring non-viewers of the episode up to speed early next season?


darrenoia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
darrenoia said...

It sure does seem like they've boxed themselves into a corner by showing the state of the union in 2019, but I suspect they have, if not a master plan, at least a glimmer of how they can proceed. The dystopian future angle, while hardly fresh, at least has the potential to push the action of the series beyond its rather claustrophobic prostitute-of-the-week beginnings.

Actually, considering that you're moderating the Chuck panel tomorrow (hope I can get in to see you dazzle us all!), it occurs to me that one of the refreshing things about Chuck is that it's one of the few sci-fi/fantasy shows that *doesn't* posit some kind of dystopian scenario. That might be a good basis for discussion -- what does it say about "Chuck" that it doesn't go to the same dark place that so much sci-fi does? Does it express a more optimistic world view than Joss Whedon's (rather paranoid) musings about how corporations and the government control our thoughts -- even though the show is ABOUT a guy whose thoughts are controlled by the government?

Tyro.k.y said...

I was waiting for you to review this.

I am unsure on how the new season will develop. Will it be through these flashback memories or will it continue as it was in the first season?

I really enjoyed this episode and it felt like a brand new JOSH WHEDON show. It was great they give you just enough of what is to come but they don't show you what exactly happens. For example, does Caroline kill Adellee or let her live? Is Whiskey dead or is she somehow immune to the gas? It hints at Caroline and Ballard hooking up and having a fall out but why? We're given that the name tatooing started with Sierra and that she's mentally falling apart, even hinting at different opposition movements. Topher goes insane!?!

We still don't know too much about Caroline but I really don't care to know, the future is much more interesting.

I don't think they've boxed themselves in at all. Rather I think they've created an outline of events to tell a story to by the end of season 2 or 3...which can allow them to logically tell a good stable consistent story telling. They set themselves free by saying we're going to commit to this and allow an open ended future to be told. Is Caroline and crew alive or are they dead? Does new haven exist?

I mean I love the fact they can basically get a new cast to play any character. it's a brilliant way to get ride of an actor or actress if they're not pulling the chops or if they cost too much money.

Gjokaki can act! I was shocked at how well he pulled everything off. The show would have been a blast with him as the lead or as mentioned in past post Sierra.

Have you see the og pilot? Will you review that as well? I understand why they cut it. It reminded me of a lost clips episode.

Anonymous said...

Actually, when this episode was in production Joss and co thought that it would be aired on TV. If you go back to the time of the announcement that it wouldn't be Joss, Tim Minear, Felicia Day, Eliza Dushku and others seem to have been taken by surprise

jim treacher said...
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Anonymous said...

Incidentally, I have a strong suspicion that FOX will continue pushing E1 as a DVD only episode but then once the DVD has been out for a while air it in the leadup to season 2

Alan Sepinwall said...

I don't think they've boxed themselves in at all.

I don't think of it as boxing in, either. I just think that it's bizarre that, when the show resumes in the fall, only some portion of the audience will have seen this episode that's now the blueprint for the series' future. So you're going to have some fans knowing/talking about the days when, say, Paul becomes Echo's handler, and others not knowing and/or being shocked/spoiled when someone else casually mentions it.

Michelle said...

Amy Acker once again knocked it out of the park in this episode. She is a much better actress than I gave her credit for when she played Fred on Angel.

I felt Felicia Day was miscast. I just didn't buy her in her militaristic role.

I hate hate hate Topher, sane, crazy, or anything in between. At first I thought I hated the character, but I have decided that it's the actor's fault. He has to go.

Anonymous said...

Now that the show is renewed, what is Fox's justification for not airing this episode?

When it was first talked about, I got the impression it was going to be totally standalone, but now it seems like it's a total gamechanger, which makes no sense since it was never guaranteed to air. I don't really understand why if they wanted to do an episode on the cheap with only the existing sets they didn't just do a flashback episode that showed how the other dolls got recruited or how DeWitt got her job. To do an episode in the future that shows that Ballard is never able to take down the dollhouse or that Whiskey never leaves (which is odd since Amy Acker is only back for three episodes) seems like they're giving us the final chapter when we're only partway through the book.

Michael said...

I didn't even know the episode was "available" until I read this.

After watching it, I can't imagine how blown away the audience must have been seeing it in the panel.

Did you get the idea that Felicia Day and Zach Ward would be recurring characters next season? Will we see flash-forwards as well as present-day stories?

j said...

Alan, I didn't even know this had leaked. Thank you so much. I am 3/4 of the way through the episode and just had to stop watching to come say thank you!!

j said...

Oh, no. I could only find the first half. Dang.

Anonymous said...

click on any of the megavideo links.

Orion7 said...

This was a excellent episode! It got me very excited about the upcoming season.

I have never liked Topher at all, but the scene between him and Adelle after his crackup was very sad. I didn't like his arrogance, but I didn't like seeing it broken, either. Wonderful acting on both actors' parts. It made me very happy to see Reed Diamond back, and the difference between pre-Attic Dominick and post-Attic Dominick was palpable.

I hope we get to see just how Dr. Saunders ended up being Whiskey again, and just why she's staying in the Dollhouse. Also, does anyone have any thoughts on just who was inhabiting Iris's body while she was killing everyone? If we were supposed to figure it out, I missed the clues.

Tyro.k.y said...

I agree that not showing this episode will be a mistake. This is how they should just open the new season or have a 2 hour premier with this being the first hour. Why waste time and money rehashing it in another episode? whatever, i'm a take what i can get and enjoy it if I liken

I didn't think the individual in Iris really mattered. She just wanted a better body.

Meaghan said...

Hey there,

Really interesting to see your take on this. I knew the episode was out there but was a little misinformed as to its intent - I had thought the whole point was a wrap up episode in case the series got canceled after season one and, now that it's been renewed, Epitath One wasn't going to be cannon. That also coloured my view while watching it because I wasn't trying to fit it in with where season 2 is going, etc.

Quite a surprise to hear that it's actually going to be part of the story, and I think that changes a lot of how people will view the show. Definitely not sure I like it as much this way.

Great to hear first hand from someone who was at ComicCon!

David said...

Why wouldn't they just make this the first episode of S2?

Besides being very good and important, it strikes me as being interesting enough and "stand-alonish" enough that it could draw in new viewers.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, Alan you had some problem with the premise, while I didnt agree with you I bailed after the pilot. It wasnt very good and I didnt have any time to squeeze it in. Recently a friend of mine talked about how much better the show got and told me to give it another shot. I did and although some of the cases were dull and I hate Paul as much as you can hate a character Im glad I watched it. The finale was very well done and Alpha took the show to another level.

Then after seeing this post I check out this unaired episode and it makes me wish I never went back and watched the show. There was still plenty of story to tell and Im sure in a 13 episode season they can find away to improve the story of the week. I dont want to watch this 2019 stuff.

David said...

" I dont want to watch this 2019 stuff"

The show is not shifting to 2019, it's just going to continue from last season and build towards what we saw of 2019.

Todd said...

Michael: Day and Ward will be recurring characters, yes.

Orion: I took it to be that the middle-aged man was the one in Iris' body.

ironman9695 said...

If anyone can find a way to get the viewers up to speed while keeping them engaged with a constantly evolving narrative, Joss freaking Whedon can! We are so fortunate that Dollhouse was renewed for a second season! Let's just support it and enjoy it! Season Two will be EVEN BETTER than Season One!

Matter-Eater Lad said...

The quality of any episode of Dollhouse is inversely proportional to the amount of heavy lifting Eliza Dushku has to do. How can that sustainable on a series created as a vehicle for her that she produces?

Anonymous said...

I'll be interested to see how they approach Season 2. Even moreso than after I watched "Omega," I'm convinced that they cannot go back to the "engagement of the week" format. I wouldn't have the patience for it, and I can't imagine anyone else in the audience will either.

Anonymous said...

Just watched this one, and enjoyed it. I definitely like Day and Ward a bit more than any of the "present-day" characters, other than maybe DeWitt.

I'm also not sure who was in Lily's body. I suppose the exec who took over Victor might make sense, though.

Unknown said...

Something about the way she talked made me suspect that it was DeWitt in the little girl's body...although we never got any evidence to that in the episode.

pgillan said...

Finally got a chance to watch this, and I've got mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's awesome that it exists. Had the show been cancelled, it showed where the series was going, what the creator's ideas were, and why the Dollhouse mattered ("Ooooooh... It was responsible for the downfall of society? I guess that was pretty cool after all."). It's what fans of "Nowhere Man", "Terminator: TSCC" and "Team Knight Rider" dream of.

On the other hand, now that there's going to be a second season, I almost wish I hadn't watched it. I don't think I would I have enjoyed Lost as much if I knew ahead of time what was in the hatch, why the plane crashed, or that the island was really an alien intelligence from Alpha Centauri that fed on fear.

I also couldn't help but think of the fourth season finale of "Babylon 5". As I understand it, they produced that as a possible series finale when they weren't sure they would be picked up for a fifth season, and it had a very similar feel: someone in the far future was conducting historical research, and the entire episode was a collection of clips depicting events that presumably occurred after the series ended.

afoglia said...

pgillan wrote, "I also couldn't help but think of the fourth season finale of "Babylon 5". As I understand it, they produced that as a possible series finale when they weren't sure they would be picked up for a fifth season, and it had a very similar feel: someone in the far future was conducting historical research, and the entire episode was a collection of clips depicting events that presumably occurred after the series ended."

You have it backwards. The fifth season finale was produced at the end of the fourth season, to air at the end of the fourth season, when it looked certain "Babylon 5" was going to be cancelled. The producer didn't expect to get picked for a fifth season on TNT, so he quickly shoved as much as possible in the fourth season to get to the ending they had been planning. (That's also why the fifth season drags. He didn't expect to spend so much time on the telepaths and other nonsense.) After the pickup, they hastily produced the fourth season finale so they could save the original finale for the end of the series.

Now back to "Dollhouse" I agree, this is a major, major episode. I had a few problems, like not quite understanding the violent citizens of LA. Wouldn't they all be sheep like dolls normally are? They seemed to organized to be blank, though.

It would have made a great finale, but I don't know what Joss's plan is. Will the second season be about the fall, or is that going to come much later? If the former, would the later seasons be the dolls on the run?