Monday, August 24, 2009

Random Reviews: Dollhouse: Echo

Thanks to the recently released Dollhouse: Season One boxed set, I finally had opportunity to watch both the original unaired pilot Echo and the unaired thirteenth episode Epitaph One.  These episodes were fascinating viewing which provided some insight into both where Dollhouse has been and where it is going.

Considering the unusual nature of these episodes I figured I would give them both in-depth reviews.  I will be reviewing Echo below and Epitaph One in an upcoming post.  This review will be spoiler heavy, so consider yourself warned.

I love Victor's slightly confused expression.

Supposedly this episode of Dollhouse was shelved after test audiences found it “too confusing and dark.”  I just don’t see it.  In fact, I find it far superior to Ghost, the pilot which actually aired on Fox.

This episode begins Adele explaining what an active is to a prospective client.  It then cuts to a bar where a dealer/pimp named Eddie is attempting to convince a young woman to “share” herself with a couple “friends” of his.  His attempt is interrupted by Echo, who has been programmed to with the personality of a former girl in Eddie’s stable.  After she chases Eddie off, Echo attempts to convince the young girl to clean up and stop selling herself.

The episode immediately cuts to a wedding where Echo has been programmed to be the perfect date for Richard, the ex of the bride.  Echo is obviously there to make the bride jealous, and she succeeds spectacularly.

There are a couple of more assignments shown, including one which Boyd is seen monitoring Echo.  This first cut is the strongest one though, as it addresses prostitution issue that bugged me so much in the early episodes of Dollhouse head on.  It also highlights the hypocrisy of Adele and the other members of the Dollhouse staff. 

The impressive thing is that it does this all before the opening credits roll.

After the credits it cuts to Agent Ballard walking through a penthouse pool party.  He locates Victor, who is currently in his Russian mobster persona.  Victor tries to convince Ballard that the whole Dollhouse thing is a myth, but as is typical for Ballard he cannot be convinced.

Back at the Dollhouse, we see Sierra being patched up by Doctor Saunders after an engagement gone wrong.  Afterwards, Sierra sits down for breakfast with Echo and Victor.  Topher notices this and calls Boyd over to observe the three together.  Namely, he is concerned that the three of them have ate their meals together three times in the last week.

This is one of the many scenes from the pilot which was used in a later episode, but I liked it here much better here.  For one thing, the scene is greatly expanded from the version eventually aired, and goes a long way towards explaining things that bugged during the first half of season one.

One thing that comes out of Topher and Boyd’s conversation is that Doctor Saunders is responsible for some of the Active’s more altruistic and pro bono, assignments.  This is important for me as it goes a long way towards explaining later episodes which feature inexplicable assignments like imprinting Echo to be a midwife. 

The scene also does a great job at establishing Topher’s , Boyd’s , and Doctor Saunders’ personalities in a very short span of time, even though Saunders isn’t present!  Doctor Saunders’ concern for the well-being of the Actives comes through clearly.  Topher gets a great speech which sums up his views the ephemeral nature of morality and what we perceive as free-will.  Boyd comes across as a former idealist who has been beaten down over time into a pragmatist.  The scene is amazingly good and it should be a crime that the full version of it didn’t make it into an episode.

Back at the FBI, Agent Ballard gets an envelope containing a photo of Caroline (Echo) with her name written on the back.  After some begging, he gets another agent to run her through the FBI database.  This triggers a flag which alerts the Dollhouse that someone is looking for one of their Actives.  Adele realizes that Agent Ballard hasn’t been thrown off the scent, and Adele and Dominic discuss what to do about it.  Eventually, they decide they need to neutralize him as a threat permanently.

Victor’s Russian mobster personality is revived to lead Agent Ballard into a trap.  He is sent to an abandoned hotel where Echo is waiting for him.  She is imprinted as a woman named Shauna Vickers who is looking for her missing sister.  She manages to elicit Agent Ballard’s sympathy and he brings her back to his apartment.

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher and Doctor Saunders have an interesting scene where they talk about the altruistic pro bono assignments she has been putting some of the Actives on recently.  She notes that after these assignments that the Actives are coming back better, both cognitively and physically.  She believes this is because there is a physical need in human beings to do something other than fulfill the needs of the rich.

This scene is another one which goes a long way towards explaining the altruistic assignments.  They are obviously Doctor Saunders’ pet project, and she can justify them to the Dollhouse higher ups with her data that they are improving the Actives. 

This scene also makes plain how antagonistic her relationship with Topher is.  In the episode Omega, after Doctor Saunders discovered she was an active, her first question to Topher was, “Why did you make me hate you so much?”  This scene shows her hatred of him more clearly than anything that actually aired during the season.

Back at Agent Ballard’s apartment, he becomes suspicious of “Shauna’s” story and pulls a gun on her. He asks her if she is Caroline and tells her he is going to take her down to lockup and get some prints.  She manages to disarm him and shoots him twice at point blank range.

Boyd hears the shots and comes up to investigate.  Boyd is surprised that Echo was capable of assassination under her current Shauna persona, but finds out from Topher that she was actually programmed as an assassin and merely was pretending to be Shauna as part of her assignment.  The two flee the apartment before the police arrive, but not before Echo sees the picture of herself as Caroline lying on the floor.

When they get to where their pickup should be, Boyd gets a call that the word from the hospital is that it looks like Agent Ballard is going to make it.  Echo is not willing to leave the job unfinished and goes to the hospital to finish the job.

Adele gets a call from her superiors telling her to call Echo off.  The only question now is whether or not Echo can be stopped in time.

At the hospital, Echo runs across the young girl she saved from the pimp earlier in the episode.  Echo obviously recognizes her on some level.  This causes her to hesitate long enough for Boyd to catch up with her and tell her the job is off.

Back at the Dollhouse, Adele expresses her concern that Echo failed in her initial assassination attempt.  Since Echo had the proper skills, she feels it is quite possible that Echo purposely failed to kill him.  She feels this is a sign that something is up with Echo, and asks that Boyd and Topher watch Echo closely. 

Meanwhile, Echo prepares for bed.  As she lies down in her pod, she says the name “Caroline” softly to herself.

In my opinion, this is a much better ending than the aired pilot.  Having Echo shoot Agent Ballard at point blank range was shocking and effective.  It also showed how far the Dollhouse was willing to go to protect its secrets and that Adele was not the ultimate authority at the Dollhouse.  Echo is already showing signs of self-awareness and rebellion, which makes her much more relatable than she is in Ghost.

I also thought seeing so many of the scenes that showed up in later episodes in their original context was fascinating.  Not surprisingly, most of them worked better in the context of the episode they were originally shot for than in the episodes they appeared in later.  In fact, I wonder if attempting to reuse some of this footage in later episodes helped contribute to the wooden feel so many people complained about in the series.

Honestly, I just can’t understand what possessed Joss Whendon to shelve this episode.  I really feel that if this pilot had been aired, that the show would have been better received both by Joss Whedon fans and the general public.

Ah well, rather than focus on the mistakes of the past, I think it is time to focus on the future of the show.  For a taste of what that might be like, tune in tomorrow for a review of the Epitaph One!