Return to TV
Whedon accomplished remarkable TV ratings successes with Buffy and its spin-off, Angel. While still producing both shows, he created a new drama for Fox: Firefly. However, Firefly did not meet the studio's ratings or content expectations. Fox insisted on rewriting the pilot, aired the rest of the episodes out of their intended order, and changed the show's time slot. When Firefly was canceled after only 11 episodes had aired, Whedon decided never to work with Fox again. Firefly got resurrected (partly due to good DVD figures and enormous fan effort) as the feature film Serenity (produced by Universal), after which time Whedon became involved in film projects such as Wonder Woman and Goners. Prior to Dollhouse, his last writing credit to air on TV was the Angel-finale "Not Fade Away", which aired in May 2004.
Whedon's only involvement with TV after Angel went off air were two episodes as a guest director on The Office (US). However, during a lunch meeting with Eliza Dushku they talked about her new development deal with Fox, and it was this meeting that gave birth to the idea of Dollhouse. Whedon recalls telling Dushku about his idea: "I told her I was busy with these films I am trying to set up, but Fox is interested, and Fox said let's do seven episodes instead of a pilot, and here I am.". Kevin Reilly, Fox President of Entertainment, recalls his first meeting with Whedon: "He had me at 'hello,'. (...) I was kinda drunk with the surprise of it all. He laid out the whole concept, but I think it was one of those things where I heard every other word of it.".
In 1994, Whedon wrote an unproduced spec script for a feature film named Afterlife, which features several elements that would later appear in Dollhouse. A middle-aged scientist dies and is mind-transferred to a younger body. He lives in a secret facility with other mind-printed scientists run by a government agency called the Tank. The scientist escapes to be with his wife, but discovers his body is that of a notorious serial killer, putting him on the run from the Tank and the detective who caught the killer. Also, his body's original personalities start to reassert themselves.
Dollhouse was created during lunch with Eliza Dushku, where they discussed her new development deal with Fox, as well as her acting career. During that lunch Whedon came up with the premise of the show. He pitched the first seven episodes to Fox two weeks before the 2007-2008 WGA strike, referring to them as "the seven pilots", and got a seven-episode order without even having begun to write a pilot episode.
|"The understanding that I reached was with myself, that I had to be realistic about what the network expected of me and about what the chances for the show would be. Like, I fell in love with Firefly in a very blind and adolescent way. And I tried to meet the network halfway. But at the same time, you know, it was agony. Everything was agony for me. ... And now I come at it with a little distance. Not artistic distance. But just, you know, the grown-up attitude of, you go through certain steps. You do your best. You work with them. And you pick the people you're working with. You look for sanity and you look for intelligence. So far, I have found a great deal of both in the executives at Fox. If I had gone there and pitched to them, and they had not understood what I was telling them, I think I would have known."|
Although he didn't want to work with Fox again after Firefly, he realized: "It’s a brand new day over there. It’s a completely new bunch of people and they seem really intelligent and supportive." and "You look for sanity and you look for intelligence. So far, I have found a great deal of both in the executives at Fox. If I had gone there and pitched to them, and they had not understood what I was telling them, I think I would have known.". He also described the confidence he got out of the seven episodes Fox ordered right away (thereby skipping the usual pilot process): "(...) it was also somebody saying we trust that you can tell this story, and we love this story, so go and tell it. That's a damn boat of confidence. That's a grown-up license fee, it was a big commitment, and they weren't afraid at any point. My experience with the movies hasn't gone quite as well. It isn't terrible to hear yes, instead of the other thing.". Fox has upped the order to thirteen episodes since then and gave Dollhouse the so-called "Remote-free TV"-treatment, cutting the advertisement time for each episode in half. This was regarded as continuing confidence Fox has in the show.
During the Fox-Upfronts in May 2008 it was announced that Whedon won't be the sole show-runner of Dollhouse (just like he had co-show-runners on Angel and Firefly and later Buffy-seasons). Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain were announced as show-runners, with Whedon commenting: "As for running the show, yes of course I'm running it, it's my baby, but one needs co-runners, cohorts, cohabitants, a Sundance (or two) to my Butch, a Tango to my Cash, A the-guy-with-the-nose-in-Weekend-at-Bernie's to my the-guy-from-Pretty-in-Pink-in-Weekend-at-Bernies. And those of you who underestimate Liz and Sarah remind me of the demons of the week who laughed at tiny Buffy."
Retooling in the fall of 2008
The first episode wrote and shot, "Echo", was pushed back by Whedon to be a second episode and he decided to film an new first episode: "Well, the idea to do a new first episode wasn’t the network’s. It was mine. I understood their consternation, and saw the gap between my style and their expectations, and I suggested I shoot a new ep and make the one I’d shot the second." The network was grateful: " They were like, 'Most showrunners don’t do that.' " "Echo" was eventually left out of the first season. Whedon then wrote and directed a new pilot, "Ghost".
|"It was more... in the emphasis and the feel of the show and the way it rolled out. The things that the network clearly wanted to... shooting a new pilot was my idea. Because the network, they were looking for something specific. I thought I delivered it because they were very excited about the script. They weren't as excited about the show so we talked about why and why and why and I figured out what they wanted. We talked about those things and it was obvious they wanted more of an action feel than a noir feel. What I had done was very sort of dark and moody. And they wanted a show, a first episode that absolutely laid out the structure of the show, which is - Echo is at the Dollhouse, she is imprinted for an engagement, she goes on the engagement, she comes back from the engagement into the Dollhouse. This is how it works."|
Whedon also halted production on Dollhouse for two weeks after finishing three episodes to concentrate on future scripts. He later commented on this move: "Yes, we've had to make adjustments. Yes, it's been hard and I've been depressing to be around for awhile. Basically, the Network and I had different ideas about what the tone of the show would be. They bought something somewhat different than what I was selling them, which is not that uncommon in this business. Their desires were not surprising: up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase. Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to. Nothing I hadn't heard before on my other shows (apparently my learning curve has no bendy part) but frustrating as hell given our circumstances - a pilot shot, scripts written, everybody marching together/gainfully employed... and then a shutdown. Glad I was for the breathing room, but it's hardly auspicious. So back into the writer cave I went, wondering why I put up with this when I can make literally dozens of dollars making internet movies. Why I do put up with this is divided into three parts."
The "three parts" are:
- "One: They're not wrong. Oh, we don't see eye-to-eye on everything, but wanting the first episodes to be exciting and accessible is not exactly Satanic."
- "Two: Nothing essential has changed about the universe."
- "Three: Eliza."
|"They wanted, the first thing I wrote was sort of laying out how that would happen... in the next episode. They were like, "No, we want it to happen in [this] episode so people get it from that." And then, you know, upping the action and deciding to roll out... change certain events that ultimately made it so that I just junked the other pilot. This won't be the second episode because this isn't what the network wants, this isn't the kind of show they want. This is something you could do two years in when everybody's familiar with it and you don't have to explain it. I always hold to the premise that the first six episodes are the first six pilots. You have to be able to come in and just go, "Oh, okay. So that's the premise and here it is delivered in this fashion." And I did get a little turned around. There was times when I was like, wait a minute, are the things that I care about still in the show? [Laughs.] Because some things that I was interested in - the more twisted elements of the human psyche and some of the more quieter aspects of it, kind of got shunned to the side."|
Whedon also took the blame for these initial problems: "The fact of the matter is that I've made some rookie mistakes – actually worse than rookie mistakes – about what I was doing with the show, especially considering that I've worked with Fox before. Looking back I go, ‘Oh, of course they would have wanted this and I don't know why I thought they'd let me do that.' The hard part has been to find the show somewhere in between my intentions and their expectations; to still find the show that I wanted to make. We did that and now things are running smoothly, but whew, doggy."
Fox announced the Friday-timeslot in November 2008, with Whedon being one of the proponents of this decision: "If I were an executive, I would have put it on Friday too, honestly, and not as a dig. The people who want this will find it, and hopefully more will as well. Fox is aware that TV just doesn’t exist the same way. People watch it online, on DVD, on their TiVos. It’s not the end of the world, but of course everyone's been predicting the end of the world for 'Dollhouse' since it was announced."  Admitting that Friday was "not a slam dunk, 'We love everything you're doing' slot", he perceived the breathing room on Friday as a better place for Dollhouse, since it has more time to find an audience, just as the story has more time to unfold: "We’re trying to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. And not just in an 'Oooh, we’re heavy with mythology' way. Dare I say we're reaching for something more philosophical? Am I allowed to say philosophical? Or does that just mean my show will fail?"
|"I know that it has a bad reputation. But so do the executives who built the sort of Terminator/Dollhouse entity, and they've been very up-front about a different expectation about audience numbers and slow growth. I think that they get—in a way that they really didn't back in the days of Firefly—that genre is ... something where a small group embraces it, and then it bleeds out. I mean, occasionally you get something like Lost, where it's like, "Bang! America's watching!" But that doesn't usually happen. So these are both shows that ... have, ... in their own way, kind of complicated premises. Even though Terminator has a sort of slam-dunk of, "There is a Terminator." And there are some real similarities between them, so I really like that pairing. I was never comfortable being paired with 24. That's not exactly the kind of thing that I'm behind. ... And I'm a devotee of Terminator, and I feel like the only problem I have is in the case they do something so much like what we're doing. ... Sometimes we'll come to the writers' room the day after it airs, and all look at each other and go like, "OK, back to work. We've got to change that.""|
When Fox renewed the show for a second season, Whedon was finishing production on The Cabin in The Woods, an upcoming horror film he co-wrote with Drew Goddard. After he "wanted to die of tiredness" because of that, the work on the second Dollhouse season started on June 1, 2009: "About two hours after starting to talk to the writers about story, I was back with such a vengeance, and so energized and so pumped because we really understand the show now. We understand what works, and what didn't work so well or what we weren't so thrilled about. We don't have the onus of trying to be a big hit sitting on our shoulders. We can just be ourselves. And so the stories we're breaking are pure, and exciting, and everybody's on-board in the room, and it's never flowed better."
Whedon is credited as creator and executive producer throughout the whole show. He also wrote and directed "Echo", the original pilot, which is not considered a canonical part of Season 1.
- 2x01 "Vows"
- 1x01 "Ghost"
- 2x01 "Vows"
Notes & References
- Best News Ever! Joss Whedon Spills Exclusive Deets on His New Series
- Fernandez, Maria Elena (2008-05-15). Q & A with Joss Whedon, writer, producer and director. latimes.com. Retrieved on 2008-09-24.
- Davis, Lauren (2009-10-5). The Mind-Transplant Script Whedon Wrote Before Dollhouse. io9.com. Retrieved on 2009-10-6.
- Whedon, Joss (2008-07-22). Welcome (back) to the Dollhouse. whedonesque.com. Retrieved on 2008-07-23.
- Lee, Patrick (2008-07-15). Dollhouse's Whedon OK With Fox. Sci Fi Wire. scifi.com. Retrieved on 2009-01-07.
- Joss Whedon Returns to Fox With New Series 'Dollhouse'
- New Fox dramas to limit commercials
- Whedon, Joss (2008-05-15). Dollhouse news from Joss!. whedonesque.com. Retrieved on 2008-10-24.
- Ryan, Maureen (2008-07-23). Joss Whedon talks 'Dollhouse' and 'Dr. Horrible'. The Watcher. chigacotribune.com. Retrieved on 2008-07-24.
- Sullivan, Brian Ford (2009-01-06). INTERVIEW: JOSS WHEDON TALKS "DOLLHOUSE," FEARS AND WORRIES. Rants & Reviews. thefutoncritic.com. Retrieved on 2009-01-07.
- Gosh, Korbi (2008-09-10). Exclusive: Joss Whedon's 'Dollhouse' Shuts Down Production. Korbi TV. zap2it.com. Retrieved on 2008-09-20.
- Whedon, Joss (2008-10-26). What happened when the lights went out.. whedonesque.com. Retrieved on 2008-10-26.
- Blair, Alan Stanley (2008-12-11). Whedon: 'Dollhouse' Problems Are My Fault. syfyportal.com. Retrieved on 2008-12-12.
- Martin, Denise (2008-12-10). Joss Whedon: 'I would have put "Dollhouse" on Fridays too'. Show Tracker: What you're watching. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on 2008-12-12.
- Lee, Patrick (2009-01-97). Joss Whedon speaks candidly about Dollhouse and has a message for haters.. scifiwire.com. Retrieved on 2009-01-07.
- Bierly, Mandy (2009-06-11). Exclusive: Joss Whedon on 'Dollhouse' -- 'Back with such a vengeance'. Popwatch. ew.com. Retrieved on 2009-07-08.