Joss Whedon’s new series had a rocky road to TV. The network rejected his original pilot and he created a new one from scratch – same concept, same characters, same cast, even the same sets but a new way into the story – that resembled a more traditional action series. The series was a slow starter as a result and I confess I stuck through largely out of loyalty to Whedon and confidence that he was developing something interesting behind the more conventional episodes. And it paid off: the high-concept show about a (quite literally) underground company that imprints entire personalities and sets of skills onto its otherwise blank roster of operatives developed into one of the most intriguing shows of the 2009 season. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, the star player in this lineup (they’re called actuals) who are programmed to be everything from sexual fantasies to secret agents, but she may be holding on to pieces of her imprints as she goes through her assignments. Harry Lennix is her handler, protective of his charge and suspicious of the moral implications of the business, and Olivia Williams the company boss, though we discover that she’s merely in charge of this franchise in a covert business with locations all over. The show was a surprise renewal (the higher rated Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles didn’t survive, thanks to its much more lavish budget) and Fox has rewarded the fans who stuck through with a pretty special DVD release.
In addition to all twelve official episodes, both the DVD and Blu-ray releases feature the rejected pilot and an unaired episode. The original pilot Echo is darker start, more like a feature film than a TV episode, and it jumps the viewer into the conspiracy, the murky morality and the philosophical and moral debates that unwind more slowly in the series proper. It’s also, true to Whedon, less a classical action show and more of a murky drama with a genre framework, just the kind of show that would have hooked me immediately. The unaired thirteenth episode Epitaph One is a Dollhouse apocalypse set in 2019: and end of the world scenario that rivals the Terminator future, thanks to the Pandora’s Box unleashed by the technology of the Dollhouse, which can wipe minds from a distance and implant directives and personalities into entire populations. Flashbacks pillage a piece from the unaired pilot, but the rest of the flashbacks are new to this conception of the world gone wild and the decline of civilization thanks to the arrogance of the company, and the 2019 cast includes Felicia Day, a familiar Whedon face from the final season of Buffy and the internet musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. As you discover in the supplements, it was a contractual obligation that Whedon needed to fulfill after the network asked for a second pilot, and used as a potential bookend in case the show was canceled. The show was renewed and the episode never broadcast and it now stands as one of the coolest DVD exclusive ever.
Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku provide commentary for official pilot episode, Whedon goes solo on one episode and episode writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen talk you through Epitaph One, and there are a collection of featurettes produced with the integrity and detail one expects from a Whedon production. The man knows his fans, who can be obsessive but are also intelligent and thoughtful, and these featurettes reward them all while explaining how and why Whedon shot the unaired thirteenth episode for half the production costs of a regular episode. The Whedon humor is just icing on the cake. Four discs on DVD in a standard case with hinged trays and three discs on Blu-ray.