Friday, July 31, 2009

Dollhouse: Epitaph One and Pilot review

Note: I've previously reviewed the first season separately, so if you haven't seen it, you might want to look there. This review is just about the extra episodes on this DVD set.

Last night, I got the Dollhouse Season 1 DVD set in, and immediately sat down to watch Epitaph One, the unaired 13th episode. First off, I want to warn people who might buy it: do not buy the Blu-Ray version of the season unless you want to for reasons of archiving the rest of the season. For Epitaph One, the grainy video that it's shot it (to good effect, mind you) would probably be a waste to get on Blu-Ray.

OK, that said let me do the non-spoiler review first. When the episode opens, you're thrown into a flash-forward. I won't discuss what's going on, as that's a minor spoiler, but the episode happens from the point of view of Felicia Day's character (you'll know her from Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, The Guild and some rather persistent appliance commercials). She's perfectly cast, here, as the every-woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

As the episode progresses, it switches between the flash-forward and (from their point of view) flashback. Some of the flashbacks are from before the series, some are soon after the first season's events and some are quite a bit forward. All of them are pretty amazingly significant, and frankly you might be squeamish about knowing so much about where the story is going. Myself, I'm an old Babylon 5 fan, so I recognize the technique. Straczynski took great pains to show us clips from Babylon 5's future that would lead us to believe that events unfolded in one way, only to show us a far more interesting path to get to the same signpost later on. So, I'm not worried that Whedon (either of them) just spoiled his own show. I do, however, enjoy where he wants to see it turn.

Performances all around are phenomenal, but special note must be made of the actor who was given the sweetest bit of work in this episode, and really rose to the occasion: Fran Kranz as Topher Brink gets to play a scene in which he gets to break through everything we've seen of the character before, and do something radically different. It's so effective that I might actually have a hard time seeing the character the same way again. Just perfect. Everyone else who was involved did a fine job, given that they were being yanked around between filming this and Omega (an episode I now I have new respect for, understanding its constraints). Eliza has to recite a fair amount of Russian, and while I don't speak the language, she emulated the accent well enough that I could have taken her for one of my Russian co-workers.

The episode ends on a song (played over the scene, not a musical number), and what a song it is! Episode authors Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon also wrote and performed the song, Remains, which should, IMHO, earn them a Grammy. It's the perfect combination of vocal performance and meaning-layered lyrics with an almost droning musical backdrop that makes me think of the theme from The 4400 (one of the other very few TV scores I've purchased).

In conclusion, the episode is slightly shaky in ways that aren't always easy to put my finger on. It's filmed very differently and follows the main characters in ways that we're not used to. It also introduces many events without context, so you have to work to keep up. Still, it's worth trying to compare to other episodes, and I think it comes out well, there. Omega and Man On the Street were better episodes overall, but Epitaph definitely ranks well in the series. One thing I will complain about bitterly: Jed and Maurissa are now married. That's great to hear and I'm happy for them, but that's where it should end. There are details on the commentary that I don't think I needed or wanted to be privy to. Also on the commentary are some spoilers that I think should have been left as hints for the fans, rather than explicitly called out. One deals with an imprint that I think gave away too much. So the commentary is probably worth skipping.

On a brief side note, I want to mention the pilot (Echo) before moving on to the rest of the spoiler-version of the review. You've seen much of this episode, because it was chopped up and sprinkled liberally over the rest of the series. However, it's well worth watching. The only down-side is that, when you're done, you'll be grinding your teeth and ranting about how Fox killed the best possible pilot for this series. One that, in all likelihood would have yielded a much larger audience for the show. Bastards.

OK, moving on to spoilers:

The episode opens with Felicia Day (how else?) and quickly establishes the survivors' fear of "tech." Side note: they do a good job of introducing these not-quite-new terms that have evolved over the last 10 years. Nice touch. You see, the world is now a flaming ruin, left over after the Dollhouse tech was used as a weapon. In an instant, half the population of every major city was turned into an army and used against everyone who "didn't answer the phone," as Topher puts it. So horrible was the aftermath that it's driven Topher insane. Later in the episode, this leads us to his flashback, which is easily the most powerful scene of the episode.

All of the players do amazing jobs, but you certainly are left wanting more Echo. Of the excellent performances, I feel I should call out Adair Tishler (Molly Walker on Heroes). For a young actress, she manages to pull off her own duplicitous role and then play Echo beautifully. I was stunned, and it's just too bad that she won't have a part to play in the rest of the series!

The core development of the episode is definitely the fall of modern civilization to the Dollhouse and how that came to be. It's also clearly the central plot of the series overall. What we're shown tantalizes, but they do make it work well. Finally meeting the head of the Dollhouse (well, sort of, given that he's in Victor's body) was a creepy moment. He's clearly insane and power-hungry. He's also clearly devoid of even a shred of morality. Perfect combo.

If nothing else, this shoestring-budgeted episode has convinced me that Dollhouse season 2, which is going to be on a financial diet, will do well indeed. These are people who know how to make good TV on the cheap. Of course, if Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog didn't convince you of that, nothing will.

So go! Grab yourself a copy of the DVD set and enjoy!