NYCC '09 - Joss Whedon's 'Dollhouse' Opens Its Doors

[check out our video interview with Joss Whedon and series star Tahmoh Penikett]

"Look at Echo. Not a care in the world. She's living the dream.”

“Whose dream?”

The main exhibit hall at the Javits Center was SRO for the NYCC 2009 unveiling of Joss Whedon's return to episodic television, Dollhouse, which premieres Friday on Fox.

After showing about 10 minutes of the first episode, Whedon and one of the stars of the show, Tahmoh Penikett (‘Helo’ from Battlestar Galactica), discussed the show’s premise.

As Whedon described it, Dollhouse is a show where certain types of people (who are called ‘Actives’) have had their individual personalities erased so they can have different types of personalities implanted. Why is this happening? Because there are apparently lots of deranged people out there with deep pockets willing to pay big bucks to have someone be anyone they want.

Eliza Dushku, who sadly would not be making a surprise appearance at this panel, is the star. She plays a woman named Echo. At the beginning of the clip we see her talking with Adele Dewitt (Olivia Williams) about joining the Dollhouse program. Whether Echo signed up on her own, or was forced to do it is not made clear. And is this Echo’s true personality? We also don’t know for sure if this is Echo’s true persona.

We then see her at a nightclub dancing with a guy she seems to care about. All of a sudden, she steps out and enters a van. Next thing we see, Echo’s mind/memory is getting wiped by a tech at the Dollhouse, Topher (Fran Kanz), a nerdy type who seems excited about the work they’re doing for all the wrong reasons. After the mind wipe, Echo reverts to almost childlike behavior.

The man in charge is Boyd (Harry Lennix, who’s been on tons of TVshows, including 24), who seems to have misgivings about the Dollhouse’s purpose. We don’t see much more of them, as the last part of the clip shows an obviously powerful man sitting in the back of his chauffered limo talking to his young daughter on the phone. The scene ends with the young girl being kidnapped and put into a black bag.

Penikett’s character actually isn’t seen in the footage shown at NY Comic Con, which made for a slightly awkward start to the panel. He laughed off with a joke about how that scene would have been way better if he’d been in it.

Penikett plays an FBI agent assigned to expose the Dollhouse. No one really believes it even exists, so his superiors don’t really expect him to find anything. Penikett, who knows something about playing single-minded characters who don’t mind following the unpopular trail, says his guy is obsessed with uncovering the truth about the Dollhouse.

Whedon added the people behind the Dollhouse want to remain hidden as much as Penikett’s FBI guy wants to expose them. His character will remain on the outskirts of the main story during the first 3-4 episodes.

Penikett says he sees his character as Echo's protector. “There's something that the Dollhouse represents...human trafficking, maybe the Russian mob...which gives him motivation to try and save Echo,” he said.

Whedon talked about how the show came about. He and Dushku met for lunch, they pitched each other back and forth, he stood up, went to the bathroom, and came back with the title.

He also joked that the guy who runs the Dollhouse is like him, a man who creates characters and has no morals.

Whedon says this show is a showcase for Dushku because by its very nature, the lead character is basically a guest-star each week. He called Echo an actress's dream role - and nightmare. “Every episode is a pilot ...and she's working her ass off,” he said.

He also mentioned Dushku will be singing in the third episode.

As for resuming his working relationship with Fox, he said this has been a much better experience than what happened with Firefly. He says Fox execs have been honest with him about their expectations and the direction he's taking the show.

At one point, Whedon took a shot at Penikett by calling him the guy who let Baltar off the hook, which earned a nice laugh from the BSG-savvy audience.

(One more Galactica tidbit learned at this panel. Penikett admitted to copping his ‘Helo’ flight suit. He said that after Jamie Bamber told him he was taking his, he decided to keep it as a personal souvenir from the show.)

We also received an update on Dr. Horrible – sort of. Whedon says he’s too busy with Dollhouse to pursue any additional installments, but if/when he has some free time, he would love to revisit it. He also was open to the idea of more Internet-only ventures – including a possible Dollhouse Websclusive.

Don’t look for any Dollhouse comic book spin-offs, either. Whedon said he doesn’t feel the story has the visual ‘oomph’ you need to succeed in comics.

 And in case any Serenity fans out there got their hopes up after Nathan Fillion made a 'Serenity 2' joke at the Wonder Woman animated film panel on Friday, well, bring ‘em back down.

Whedon quickly put the kibosh on that, saying it was just Fillion being Fillion. "The truth is Nathan's a c*#k," Whedon joked.

Getting back to Dollhouse, Whedon said he originally only wanted to write the pilot and then 'Godfather' the show. But after he pitched it to Fox, the network asked him for 7 episodes.

Dollhouse is set to have a 13-episode debut season. Whedon mentioned episode six as being a crucial mile-marker for the show’s initial story arc. And in discussing the show’s well-publicized tricky path from development to debut (including reshoots and recasts), the creator admitted he almost lost sight of what the show was supposed to be. But he says the ship has been righted now.

According to Whedon, this is far and away the darkest premise he’s ever attempted. Some of the elements of the show and situations Echo will find herself in – such as sleeping with certain men and not remembering anything – he expects to raise controversy.

Dollhouse is something that is so tricky that I expect some backlash, some disappointment. I'm scared witless by how some people will react to this, but I've found that when I'm scared I do my best work' Whedon said.

“My hope is that the audience comes across as unclean as the characters...everyone is compromised.”

More New York Comic Con 2009 Coverage:

NYCC '09 Video Page

NYCC '09 Mini-Site

Twitter activity