Joss Whedon, whose Fox sci-fi series Dollhouse premieres Feb. 13, told reporters on Thursday that his purpose with the new show is to make viewers uncomfortable.
In Dollhouse, a top-secret organization wipes the memories of its agents, called "actives," then implants them with new personalities to perform "missions" for paying clients before wiping their memories again when they are finished.
"Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous," Whedon said in a conference call with reporters. "To make them identify with people they don't like and get into situations they don't approve of and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well."
Whedon also offered an advance look at the show's first few episodes. The show will air Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, after Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The following Q&A features edited excerpts of Whedon's conference call. (There are spoilers ahead!)
The second episode is so outrageous, you do Most Dangerous Game on TV. Why didn't you start out that way?
Whedon: Outrageous is always good. That episode was meant originally to be around episode five or possibly even eight. It was the network who said, "Excuse me, did you say bow hunting? That will come second, please." It kind of got bumped up further, but you're not the first person to say, "Why didn't you just open with that?" My answer would be, "I don't know. I had the other idea first." Basically, I think it's one aspect of it, the bigger-than-life adventure, but we have episodes that, I think, are equally insane and in some ways even more beautiful. So if people watch episodes and think they should have opened with this, that means the episodes are getting better, and I'll take an upward curve any day.
Not even the action, though, just finding out someone could hire a doll to hunt and kill her is gripping.
Whedon: Well, they didn't actually mean to hire her out to be hunted and killed. Somebody said, "Well, how come things go wrong with the Dollhouse?" That's a question I've gotten. It's like, "So that we can have a show." Obviously something's going to go wrong or strangely right in every episode.
What topics do you want to address in the show that you haven't before?
Whedon: Well, the constant topic of identity is one. There are a couple of things that were originally on the slate that didn't quite fit the venue and had to stand back. We had an episode about Rwandan boy soldiers that was really about how we imprint people now, how we literally brainwash people, and contrasting that with the Dollhouse. There was an episode that was really about perversion. It was about sexual shame and people's inability to deal with real people that was, I thought, ultimately very heartfelt and very strange and very beautiful, but again, did not make the cut for the first 13. So those were some that would be coming up.
Topher, the programmer played by Fran Kranz, mentions Adam and Eve. How much will you explore theology?
Whedon: I will explore it only insomuch as people will tend to use it as a metaphor for the way they talk. As an atheist, I'm not going to spend a huge amount of time with it unless there's a point about the way religion interacts with our humanity that I think needs to be made. The Garden of Eden stuff, you can't stop that. It keeps coming up because it's the mythos that I was brought up with, [and] it's a very powerful [one] in this place. I would say I'm more interested in philosophy than theology.
Should we look at other cast members as possible covert actives?
Whedon: Not in the first season, although we've discussed a lot of permutations, pretty much laying out the situation a little bit simply at first. We're going to twist the knife in some people. But more than any of the actives, it's the people running the place who have their own secrets that are going to be fun to pull away at.
Could the Dollhouse just create an army of ninjas? Or, more seriously, could there be people walking around with fake personalities and not even know it?
Whedon: Both of those things will probably happen in later seasons. What you can accomplish and what you can destroy with this technology is something that we're going to be asking increasingly towards the end of the series. But for this first season, we did keep the premise fairly simple, and the Dollhouse is fairly strict about what they'll use this technology for. So no ninja armies just yet.
How long will you dangle these threads of FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) investigating the Dollhouse, Echo (Eliza Dushku) finding her identity, that weird naked guy, etc.?
Whedon: Well, we definitely start entwining things this season. There's a lot of payoff in this season. There are some things we draw out, and there are some things that we pay off fairly heavily so that people don't get the feeling that "They're just going to tease me every week." Paul Ballard is going to be hunting the Dollhouse, and obviously he's going to be one step behind them for a while, but then, every now and then, he's going to come up against them in a rather abrupt fashion.
He's not going to be the reporter in The Hulk, always one step behind. This creepy naked guy will be explained, and Echo's progression is a constant in the show, her search for herself, so that's something that is being spun out episode by episode, just different little aspects, like she takes a little memento away from every engagement. We kind of took some of the things we were going to hold for a few years and said, "Hey, let's just hit her in the head with a frying pan, because that'll keep 'em excited." It's not like we lack for places to go.
Who are the other dolls, and how will they develop?
Whedon: You know, obviously we start out focusing on Echo, but the friends that she makes, in particular Sierra [Diche Lachman], all have their own stories, their own reasons for being there and their own sort of reaction to things. As her friendship forms more, we get to spend more time with the other dolls. We get a real taste of how easy they have it and how hard they do, how controlled their lives are and how out of control they can get because they have no skills for dealing with the world. So I can't really go into specifics, but we pretty much get to start putting everybody through the wringer about halfway through. It starts to get complicated for all of them.
How much will we have to follow from the beginning, and how accessible will each episode be to new viewers?
Whedon: We always refer to the first seven episodes as the seven pilots. You can't just shut down after episode one. So the first five are all stand-alone engagements where the premise is made clear and the cast of characters is made clear and the relationships are made clear. Obviously, there is some progression in those relationships, but there is nowhere where you have giant pieces of information missing or where you have to sit through a three-minute "Previously on ..." in order to get to the show. We were very careful about that.
In the retooling of the show, what do you miss about your original vision?
Whedon: There are things I miss from my original vision, and there are things that I think are better the way it is. Ultimately, the show ends up going exactly where I hoped it would go. There are elements of intrigue and high-stakes suspense that have been added, but I don't think they hurt the show at all. It goes where we planned to have it go. The idea was always to have a mythology that was counterbalanced by a stand-alone aspect. The mythology would play out, but you would feel a sense of resolve, be that an engagement or some other aspect, every week.
It's more work for a staff to drum up that sort of enthusiasm and that identification for the guest of the week. Every week you not only have to create a new world and care about it, but she was actually going to have to join the guest cast, because she would be a new person. It's a challenge, but it's one that we knew going in we were going to have to tackle. I think we're getting better at it. It's definitely a different skill. ...
Who would win if Faith fought Echo?
Whedon: Faith would win, unless of course Echo had been imprinted with Faith's personality, in which case I'm going to call it a tie.