Inside Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s sexploitation horror show

Eliza Dushku as Echo in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse - Alamy
Eliza Dushku as Echo in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse - Alamy

From Buffy to infamy, it’s been a bumpy several years for Joss Whedon. Heralded in the Nineties as a feminist icon for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the writer/director/producer has recently had his reputation dragged through the mire and there was little shock when he exited as showrunner of new HBO Victorian caper The Nevers last November.

Whedon said he had quit because of the pressure of getting a series off the ground mid-pandemic. HBO simply announced, “We have parted ways with Joss Whedon. We remain excited about the future of The Nevers”. Whedon was not thanked for his time. HBO did not wish him all the best in future endeavours. A door – maybe all the doors – had slammed in his face.

The dings against Whedon have ranged from unsavoury (that he cheated on his wife on multiple occasions during his time on Buffy) to appalling (actress Charisma Carpenter accused Whedon of writing her character out of the Buffy spin-off Angel when she became pregnant).

An investigation was also launched by Justice League producers Warner Brothers after actor Ray Fisher accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” behaviour. Whedon, who denies Fisher's claims, had replaced Zack Snyder as director of the soggy superhero team-up, sprinkling the film with his trademark “quippy” dialogue.

Amid these accusations, Whedon’s work has started to be reassessed. Buffy, which he created and oversaw through seven seasons, is still widely regarded as unimpeachable. Elsewhere, though, alarms go off. Consider Whedon’s decision to turn Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow into a love-struck damsel in 2012’s The Avengers and the 2015 follow-up Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Or what about the toe-curling Justice League scene, added by Whedon, in which Ezra Miller’s Flash lands on Wonder Woman in a suggestive position? Gal Gadot refused to have anything to do with it, leaving a stunt double stand-in. Or, more accurately, to lie down as The Flash clambered all over her. Someone had smuggled a Benny Hill sketch into a $300 million superhero tentpole movie.

And then there is Dollhouse – the largely forgotten 2009 series, cancelled after just two seasons and seemingly erased from the CVs of everyone involved. Starring Eliza Dushku (Faith in Buffy) as a “Doll” or “Active” named Echo, it was about a network of mind-controlled sexbots whose memories can be wiped and who are hired out by clients for a range of unsavoury activities.

These include hostage negotiation and assassination. And also sex. It was described as “kind of creepy” and as “crossing the line” – and that was by Whedon, its creator. It is unthinkable it would be made today. It barely got made in 2009 with Fox politely requesting Whedon reshoot the pilot from scratch. That was because his initial attempt, which focused on Dolls being used for sex, was deemed as having gone “too far”. We can only imagine.

Whedon’s excuse was that he did not initially think through the premise of Dollhouse – ie, that it glamorised human trafficking. “Later in the process, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought 'this is trafficking',” he would say. “My response to that was to try and show both sides—the reality of trafficking and the fantasy of the Dollhouse, to show their differences and similarities. We didn’t get as far into that as we’d hoped—there’s been a lot of adjusting.”

Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku in 2009 - Getty
Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku in 2009 - Getty

The broad concept had actually been cooked up by Dushku, when she and Whedon met for a four hour lunch/brainstorming session. She had suggested a thriller in which she play a covert operative flitting between identities, which makes it sound like a proto-Killing Eve. Whedon took the idea and dialled up the creepiness.

“Whedon surprisingly admitted that he didn’t at first see the parallels with human trafficking when he was developing the show,” wrote Alyssa Rosenberg in the Atlantic when Dollhouse debuted in February 2009.

“Yet, at its core, what the Dollhouse does is traffic human beings….The entire structure of the Dollhouse is much like that of an escort agency: a stable of carefully reviewed clients make appointments, the staff select the best Active for the job, the Active is sent out.”

The further it went on, the ickier it got. Another “Active”, Sierra (Dichen Lachman) is revealed to have been raped multiple times in her “doll state”. This is the blank mental condition which the dolls inhabit between missions, when they have yet to be imprinted with a personality. “When they're in their doll state, they're not just childlike, but they're kind of naïve and trusting and optimistic,” explained Whedon.

Sierra was sent to the dollhouse by wealthy doctor Nolan Kinnard (Vincent Ventresca), after she rejected his advances. He arranged for her to be dosed with mind-altering drugs so that she appeared schizophrenic and then locked her in an asylum.

His next step was to have her admitted to the Dollhouse – where he then hired and had sex with her. Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves this isn’t the plot of a David Cronenberg horror film from 1975 but of a prime time American drama from 12 years ago.

Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse - Alamy
Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse - Alamy

There was less abuse in Echo’s storylines. But Dushku was still essentially portrayed as a living sex doll. In the season one episode A Spy In The House of Love she struts around in a leather dominatrix outfit. “Echo in her Dominatrix outfit received huge publicity and became an internet sensation,” says the semi-official Dollhouse wiki site. "The scene is widely credited with winning Dollhouse its' second season."

Elsewhere, she was often required to wear little beyond lingerie – someone has even thoughtfully assembled a montage of Echo in “amazing knee high stockings and heels”. It’s on Youtube. Please don’t look it up.

It is unthinkable that this show, with this premise, would get anywhere near our screens today. But in 2009, Whedon was still lionised as Hollywood’s foremost feminist. And so, though there were quibbles (such as the Atlantic piece), Dollhouse was in general heralded as brave and thought-provoking. One reviewer praised it as a rumination on “gender, feminism and power”.

Others suggested Echo was merely a female version of Matt Damon’s super-spy Jason Bourne, who similarly started off with his mind wiped. And when it was cancelled – ratings in the US had slumped to a puny 3.6 million– there was of course an outcry. A feminist had been cut down once again by Hollywood.

Dollhouse, to its credit, displayed occasionally flashes of self-awareness. One of the major storylines in season one concerned an FBI agent (Tahmoh Penikett) attempting to prove the existence of a network of Dollhouses across America. Yet Whedon tried to have it both ways, simultaneously condemning the Dollhouses as a violation of human rights while portraying Dushku as glamorous and sexualised: 90 percent of Fox’s promotional imagery were of its star wearing very little.

Threaded through the plot was the mystery as to the origins of the Dollhouses and their ties to the mysterious “Rossum Corp”. As the series unfolded Echo became aware of shadowy figures pulling her strings. The first was Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the highest ranking official at the Los Angeles Dollhouse. The conspiracy is later revealed to include Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler and a father figure to her.

Langton is ultimately unmasked as one of the founders of Rossum. And Echo discovers her true identity is Caroline, a political activist who became aware of Rossum’s evil practices and tried to infiltrate the organisation.

The Langton twist was regarded as ridiculous. Even hardcore fans – incredibly, there were a few – felt it had come out of nowhere. As indeed it had. Whedon has envisaged Dollhouse as running for five seasons or more. However, Fox was increasingly uncomfortable with the creepy vibes and ratings weren’t strong enough to overcome those misgivings. And so Whedon cobbled together a conclusion to the story and the shutters came down at the end of year two.

Olivia Williams and Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse - Alamy
Olivia Williams and Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse - Alamy

Dollhouse did leave us with two of the strangest hours of television ever. The first season of Dollhouse was 12 episodes long – one fewer than the total for which Fox had initially programmed. That was because of the scrapped pilot. But for international markets and the official DVD release, the network needed 13 instalments. So Whedon and his crew cobbled together a 60-minute coda called “Epitaph One”.

This was bonkers with bells on. We flashed forward to a post-apocalyptic 2019, where survivors break into the Dollhouse and, using the imprinting technology, revisit old scenes from the series – and receive glimpses of its future. “In a word: unusual”, said one reviewer. “What the hell’s going on?” wondered another. There was no straightforward answer.

Epitaph was to receive its own epitaph in the season two finale. Once again, Whedon brought us forward to the far future of 2020 (of course the actual 2020 would turn out even more dystopian). We learn that the mind wiping technology developed by Rossum has turned 90 per cent of the earth’s population into braindead zombies, out to kill the uninfected (“actuals”).

Echo pops up and reveals that Rossum is attempting to complete its “global mind-wipe”. Returning to the Dollhouse, and with Rossum finally foiled, she bows out by uploading into her mind the imprinted personality of her lover Paul. With his voice inside her head, they can be together forever. A traumatised woman haunted by the digitised memories of her boyfriend is Whedon’s idea of a happy ending.

Dushku and Whedon parted on good terms. However, the actress has now come out in support of Charisma Carpenter and others who have protested Whedon’s “toxic” treatment of cast and crew across the years. This February, she posted an Instagram message to Carpenter: “I’m so sorry you have held this for so long. Your post was powerful, painful, and painted a picture we’ll collectively never un-see or un-know. Thank you. I hadn’t known it and I won’t forget it.”

Whedon was devastated by Dollhouse’s cancellation. Swearing he would never again work in TV, he went off and made two Avengers movies instead. He would finally return to the small screen with The Nevers. But, with rumours about his on-set behaviour becoming a distraction, he found the tables had turned: now it was TV that didn’t want to work with him.