NYCC: Whedon & Penikett on Dollhouse

It's hard to tell that Joss Whedon's latest small screen venture "Dollhouse" has been relegated to Friday nights, a common death knell for episodic television, when considering the bountiful outpouring of fans at his New York Comic Con "Dollhouse" panel. The series creator, adored by the geek community for his work on "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly," was in high spirits when he graced the NYCC crowd to explosive applause. He jokingly ran off the stage mere moments after he first appeared, slowly crawling his way back up towards the microphone.

Joining Whedon was Tahmoh Penikett, currently known as Helo on "Battlestar Galactica," though with any luck he'll be famous for his "Dollhouse" character, FBI Agent Paul Ballard. TV Guide's Matt Roush moderated the panel.

"Certain people have had their personalities removed so they can be imprinted with new personalities, [and] one of those persons is a little known actress, Eliza Dushku," Whedon said of the show's premise. Rather than explaining the show further, Whedon debuted the opening to the first episode of "Dollhouse."

The clip began with Dushku's character, Echo, in a meeting with enigmatic Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) about the Dollhouse program. DeWitt offers Echo an alternative to a lifestyle where you can be held accountable for your actions. The scene then shifted to a motorcycle race between Echo and another man as they speed off towards a party. Despite acting rough towards one another - Echo even calls the guy "a little bitch" - they have a romantic connection, evidenced by the jewelry that the man gives her after they've finished dancing.

Suddenly, Echo leaves the party and hops in a van where Boyd (Harry Lennix) is waiting for her. He takes her back to a complex for an "appointment," which ultimately leads to her mind being erased by a technician named Topher (Fran Kanz). (Whedon later told the audience that he wrote a lot of himself in the Topher character, as they are both writers in a sense - Whedon writes scripts and Topher "writes characters - and has no morals.") Boyd and Topher watch as a mindless Echo walks around the complex in a sea of like-mindless people - this, we learn, is the Dollhouse.

Later, a little girl is on the phone with her father, an important man of some type - perhaps a business executive or a politician. The clip ended as the girl hangs up the phone and is abducted by a group of masked men.

Though he didn't appear in the shown footage, Penikett's character Paul Ballard is important to the show's story. "I play the FBI agent who is given the case of the Dollhouse," he said. "Nobody really has any confidence that he's going to get to the bottom of it. Nobody really believes that it exists. Paul feels from the jump that it does. Everything that it represents is morally wrong to him. It affects him in a personal way, thus he becomes quite obsessed and driven to expose it."

Penikett sees Ballard as Echo's rescuer in a sense, noting that Echo becomes the face he puts on the Dollhouse -- which only motivates him further. "Cause it's Eliza's face!" Whedon joked. Penikett laughingly agreed, "I gotta save this girl, she'll be so happy with me!"

Whedon talked about the genesis of the show: he and Dushku had lunch to discuss potentially working with one another, and "Dollhouse" emerged as a way to keep the versatile actress from getting "bored" with a television gig.

"I'm such a bitter, sad man, and this is my bitter, sad show," Whedon joked of the show's more disturbing theme. "My hope is that people will see something appalling [in "Dollhouse"] and find something beautiful in it ... and that the audience comes away as unclean as the people in the show. Everybody is compromised."

Asked about the moral alignment of the Dollhouse runners - are they good, bad or both? - Whedon said, "They are, sadly for them, people. And they are people with power, and people with power do all of one thing, and that is to abuse it. They're people that I like very much [as a writer]."

Whedon spoke about the difficulties in the production process - the initial "Dollhouse" pilot was scrapped and reshot - saying that it was "not unusually tough, but tough in an unusual way."

"Because the subject matter is so very delicate ... which is good, when you want it to be creepy ... [but] it's a very fine line," Whedon said. "There was a period where I was like, 'I don't know what the show is anymore! And it hasn't even aired yet!' Now, I never knew what 'Angel' was about and we did fine for five years," he joked to loud cheers.

"But [with 'Dollhouse'] there was a dark and scary Joss period," he said. "That's something that's a very difficult and personal thing ... but we [the production team] kept slogging through and then we found it."

Whedon also praised Fox for the cooperation they've shown towards the show. Unlike "Firefly," he feels that "Dollhouse" is being treated fairly and honestly. He went on to say how Friday night television was going to be a science fiction "event night" since "Dollhouse" airs on Fox an hour before "Battlestar Galactica" airs on the Sci Fi network, both of which star Penikett.

Asked about his return to television, Whedon said he was initially skeptical because he was so committed to writing screenplays for film. "But nobody else's head was into the movies I was writing, so that turned out to be a problem," he joked, a likely dig at his defunct "Wonder Woman" script. He also said that he hoped to pursue more internet projects, confirming his desire to one day explore "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" further.

Audience members were then allowed to ask their questions. A fan asked Penikett what his respective "Dollhouse" and "Battlestar Galactica" characters had in common. "There are similarities," he said. "The sense of right and wrong, they share that. But what's really interesting for me about Paul is that he's very much alone and he operates by himself, and he chooses to. I'm curious about why that is the case. What happened to him in the past? What has he gone through that makes him so mistrusting?"

"It's because he let Baltar on Galactica!" Whedon joked.

Whedon called "Dollhouse" a show that frightens him as a creator. "It's so morally tricky that I expect there to be a certain amount of backlash and disappointment," he said. Identifying himself as a vocal feminist, he added, "This is a show that can be read two ways. It can be read as a woman's fight for her identity and it can be read by some people as just a misogynist fantasy. I'm doing that deliberately and I'm scared witless by how people are going to react to everything we're doing."

Asked when Angel will show up in the current "Buffy" comics from Dark Horse, Whedon answered, "I don't know. Probably when it's the most painful, or when [artist] Georges [Jeanty] figures out how to draw him." He then joked how Angel was difficult to draw due to his "huge forehead."

Whedon was asked if there were any Stephen Sondheim musicals he'd like to adapt to film. He maintained his desire to direct a "Sweeney Todd" movie, saying that the Burton version didn't quite hit the mark. "I want to be on Broadway," Whedon admitted. "I'm just a Broadway baby." Jokingly embarrassed by the admission, Whedon sunk into Penikett's comforting arms.

As for other genres Whedon would like to explore, he said he'd be interested in working on a western or an Elizabethan period piece due to the "smoking dresses."

One fan informed Whedon that Bruce Timm sang the praises of Whedon's "Wonder Woman" script at the earlier "Wonder Woman" panel. "I had no idea that anybody read it," Whedon joked. "I wasn't aware that I'd finished it!" He seemed very flattered by the compliment.

Whedon thinks quality actors and production members tend to follow him because of his "one talent as a collaborator - bringing out the best in people that I work with. I think that the most important thing that happens in my writer's room and on the set is trust. They trust that I will get the best version of whatever they're doing that I can. That if they write something that works, that is right and great, it will air," he said. "If [the production] is not kind of a family, you don't have the freedom to do the things I've done."

Asked if fans could expect a "Dollhouse" comic book should the series get cancelled, he said no. "It doesn't have that visual punch that I think a comic book requires. [Echo] is not a superhero in the way that Buffy is, or even River [from "Firefly"]. We're probably going to do some web stuff [to coincide with "Dollhouse"] but that's not going to happen this season."

He added, "Hopefully, four years from now, people will be so excited by the show that they won't be asking for other stuff!"

"Dollhouse" premieres on Friday, February 13 on the Fox network.

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