Review : Dollhouse Epitaph One
by Kirsty Walker
WARNING! This review contains major spoilers for the episode.
Echo and Ballard
Episode thirteen of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse never saw the light of day thanks to the fact that it was paid for (at half the normal budget of a regular episode) by 20th Century Fox rather than Fox Broadcasting. Instead it was bundled on the DVD and is due to air for the first time (other than on an obscure Singaporean pay-per-view channel) at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday, alongside the Dollhouse panel.
Epitaph One can be seen as a stand alone episode and smacks of a death note, a bookend to a series which appeared to be doomed. Set ten years into the future it stars Felicia Day and Zach Ward as rebels fighting against those who have been imprinted by the Dollhouse technology, some against their will, and have subsequently lost everything that is themselves.
Tagging along with them are two pieces of cannon fodder, a young girl and her mentally limited father. Looking for a hiding place from technology and any wireless communication they stumble across the Dollhouse, seemingly abandoned in a hurry, leaving its imprint lab fully functional. It is almost twenty minutes in before we see any of the main cast appear, from a memory installed into the father, Mr Miller, of Olivia DeWitt explaining the Dollhouse to a potential client. Everything we need to know about the series is delivered in these soundbites, announced by Mr Miller and for the benefit of new viewers testing out the series as well as the plucky heroes.
We later find out that Alpha’s remote imprinting has been used, probably by him, to form an army activated by an autodialler (we already knew those things were evil, right?). So we have half the world’s inhabitants fighting the other half, not over any ideology or territory, but simply because they have been told to. This distopia is rendered on screen in the old fashioned concrete, steam and layered clothing look.
The downfall of the Dollhouse is unsurprisingly, greed. Mr Ambrose, the founder of the sinister Rossum corporation which controls the house appears to Adele and Topher in Victor’s body to tell them that ‘permanent upgrades’ are a new service about to be offered to clients. This means that rather than the actives being engaged for five years and then returned to normal with a huge bank balance, they can be bought for a nine figure sum, and their bodies used permanently, or until they age past a desirable level. At this point is is assumed the actives will not be allowed to retire comfortably to a Caribbean island. The scenes are moving and chilling as Victor, being used by Ambrose is basically telling De Witt and Topher of his own death. If the two do not allow Mr Ambrose to leave in the body of Victor, they will making a choice, he says, between the ‘Ark’ which will allow them both to use the service repeatedly and live forever, and a normal human existence ending in their ‘decomposing’.
Flipping back and forth as it does, the episode allows considerable fat to be cut from the story, leaving it with a fresh and narrow focus. The rebels on the run stumble across the Dollhouse, which has no wireless signal and therefore cannot remotely imprint anyone. They settle in, unaware that the house is still inhabited. Adair Tishler, who plays the little girl Iris Miller is very impressive as the spy in the group, an imprint of an adult in a child’s body. When she tries to turn the tables on her rebel friends, they trap her in the imprint chair and load her with Caroline’s personality, which has been pointed out to them by one Whisky AKA Dr Claire Saunders, the only other person left at the Dollhouse.
Whisky show the rebels the way
At the end of the last season we saw Agent Paul Ballard join the Dollhouse as a handler. In the future he and Echo have fled the house to look for a safe haven from the wireless signal. In Epitaph One the other dolls have had their personalities restored and Ballard and Echo return to lead them to the compound they have found which will keep them safe. Unbeknownst to Adele, ‘Echo’ is able to hold and control more than one identity; she can maintain the imprint, whilst at all times knowing that she is Caroline, and can switch between personalities.
Epitaph One earns its place alongside ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Omega’ as one of the best three episodes of the series. With time limited, the ensemble cast are given their moments to shine without being saddled with exposition or scene setting, and the guest cast are outstanding. Fran Kranz comes into his own as a mentally disturbed version of his former self who has limited capacity to understand or control what his imprint technology has become. There is a touching scene between him and DeWitt, who has become his carer as he nests in the former Doll dorm, obsessively working out what has gone wrong with the technology.
Dollhouse will be back for series two, and whether we will see the pre-amble to the events of the episode is unknown, but for now, Epitaph One remains one of three reasons to buy the series DVD.