Scattered thoughts on this:
1) The biggest surprise, I think, is the tone, which is very different to all of Whedon’s other TV shows. There are almost no overt jokes (indeed, the most Xander/Wash-like character is described in the casting notes as someone “whose talents exceed his morals”), and the whole episode reeks of unease, and not just in the new-show-finding-its-feet way. The show’s premise — set within an organisation that reprograms beautiful young women and men (“actives”) to meet the needs of exclusive clients — unavoidably draws your attention to, and makes you question, what it is you’re enjoying about what you’re seeing, and why.
2) That, of course, is what’s not a surprise about Dollhouse — it was clear from the first announcement of the show that the whole thing was going to be a metaphor for how social roles are imposed on everyone — but I’m impressed that they made as much as they did of the tension between exploitation and empowerment offered by glossy action-adventure TV. When Echo takes on a new assignment, she’s essentially being transformed into the omnicompetent protagonist of a new show (and I did appreciate that what Whedon chose to showcase in the pilot is a thinking protagonist), but the constant, nagging undercurrent that refuses to let you embrace events on the screen is that the whole thing is a dishonest fantasy.
3) The trajectory for the first few episodes at least is plainly going to be Echo discovering her own identity, which could water down that tension somewhat; but a more immediate problem is that until that happens, Dollhouse is a show with no central character. This had sort of occurred to me beforehand, but it’s one thing to think about it academically, and another thing to see it on screen. At the moment, Echo is a blank. We get a couple of glimpses of the person she was before signing up for the Dollhouse (something she clearly did out of desperation), and one of the sub-plots of “Ghost” is the induction of a new Active into the team, so we get a sense of how Echo’s origin story might have looked, but other than one moment of inquisitiveness, there’s no sense of her, right now, as a person in her own right — which of course contributes to the unsettling nature of the episode.
4) I guess the question I’m circling around is, what on Earth does Whedon thinks is going to bring a mass audience back for a second episode? Dollhouse doesn’t even have a clear style of its own at this stage — while I think there’s a decent chance I could recognise a frame from one of his other shows on the basis of the lighting and framing, and I know I can recognise the score music, this seemed much more generic. (The Dollhouse itself looks a bit like Wolfram and Hart’s office in season five of Angel, for instance.)
5) This is not to say I didn’t like it; I did, or perhaps more accurately, I was intrigued by it. Though apparently set in the present Dollhouse is, in a way that even Firefly was not, actual science fiction. Nic called it a thought experiment, and I think that’s right, to the extent that that’s the level you on which you have to buy into it in order to want to watch more. Given I often read on the level of idea, rather than character or story, that’s not a problem for me — I want to see Whedon’s takes on all the problems of identity that this sort of sf traditionally deals with; one thing that strikes me, for instance, is that given Doll technology exists, there is a level on which none of the characters can be trusted to be who they appear to be, which could, if Whedon and the other writers want, make Dollhouse an even more destabilizing show to watch than it already is — but I’m only too aware that most other people don’t consume narrative in that way.
6) Judged purely as a single episode of TV? It was OK. None of the cast amazed me, though Dushku was better than I’d expected. In principle I approve of the fact that it’s “Remote-free TV“, but in practice I’m not sure it made the best possible use of the additional minutes; indeed it felt a little slow at times. I liked the little moment of dissonance when Echo-as-negotiator claims “I’ve been doing this all my life”, and I appreciate that her force of personality is meant to outweigh the obvious incongruousness of someone so young making such a claim, but I’m not sure it quite came off. And the choice of an abduction/abuse plot was perhaps a little more heavy-handed than was required; in a way something more obviously glossy might have been more effective.
7) So yes, it’s doomed. Half a dozen episodes, maybe? But I’ll watch them all, and hope that I’m wrong. I enjoy, and think I understand, the grammar of a Joss Whedon TV show more than is the case with most other TV; as is perhaps obvious from the fact that I’ve written this post at all.
8) Of course, I could just be over-thinking it.