Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fox Knows Best: The Dollhouse That Could Have Been

26 September 2009

Since watching FlashForward recently I have been thinking about the similarities between the pilot episode of that show and the unaired pilot of Dollhouse.

FlashForward starts with a bang as several critics have noted. At the beginning of the episode we see someone who appears to have been in a car crash. We are then taken back in time and are introduced to the main characters in the show. Several are FBI agents who are doing surveillance on a group of "terrorists" about to swing into action. After we follow the agents as they track and then chase the "terrorists" we are taken back to where we came into the show in the first place, a man is in what appears to be a car crash. But it's not a car crash. Everyone, well almost everyone it turns out, has, blacked out for two minutes plus. Back at FBI headquarters it becomes clear that during these blackouts virtually all of the agents and all of the main characters in the show "dreamed". As the agents discuss what happened to them it becomes clear that these dreams are actually flashforwards, that they are visions of what will, or may, happen in the future. But is this future set in stone (determinism) or can characters change their future (free will)? Who, if anyone, is responsible for these visions? Why is there one person who did not blank out? These are the questions that viewers are presumably meant to ask and they are, presumably, the issues that will structure the rest of the show.

The original pilot of Dollhouse also starts out with a bang. We are introduced to the dollhouse, the place where "volunteers" have their identities wiped clean and are replaced with identities made to order by those who pay for them (in the pilot the dolls also appear to be involved in pro bono good works). Agent Ballard the FBI agent assigned to search out the dollhouse is central to the pilot episode. He is shot in the pilot (rather than a later episode). He meets Caroline (Echo), the doll he is seemingly obsessed with, in the pilot episode rather than in the sixth episode of the season. The seasonal arc of the show, in other words, is jump started in the very first episode of the series rather than in fits and starts in the first five episodes and with a vengeance in the sixth.

Fox, the network that shows Dollhouse, apparently was unhappy with the original pilot. They had Whedon and company rework the pilot and delay the arc revelations until later in the season. Scenes from the original pilot would be woven into the first six episodes of the season. Now they have apparently told Whedon and company to amp up the arcs because they are the things in the series that is popping with viewers. Why is it that ABC apparently stood behind FlashForward's decision to set the series arc in motion in the very first episode? Why did Fox, on the other hand, apparently urge Whedon and company to pull back on Dollhouse's series arcs? These are questions that historians may in the future be able to ascertain through archival research in the vaults of ABC and Fox. One thing we can answer at this moment is that if Fox allowed the original pilot of Dollhouse to stand season one of the show would have been different from what it was.

Whether this different Dollhouse would have popped with audiences is another matter. Another show which got viewers in to the heart of the seasonal arcs in the very first episode was My Own Worst Enemy. My Own Worst Enemy was a Jeckel and Hyde tale of a secret agent who shares the same body with a number crunching and fantasy football corporate type thanks to new technologies America's spy agencies have apparently developed. The show, which is very interesting, only survived for nine episodes. Commodity aestheticism prophets at TV By the Numbers (http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/) are already proclaiming the death of Dollhouse after the first episode of season two. Lets hope that the prophesied death of Dollhouse is as premature as the first "death" of Mark Twain.

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