Fox has given a seven-episode commitment to the 20th Century Fox Television project for a planned debut next year.
"It deals with our darkest impulses and our best ones," Whedon says. "It deals with all the things I like to deal with—strength, weakness, power and corruption."
"Dollhouse" stars Dushku as Echo, one of a group of secret agents living in a futuristic dorm. Each has the ability to be imprinted with custom personalities and abilities for special assignments. When they return, their newly acquired memories are wiped. The show follows Echo as she takes on a variety of assignments—some romantic, some adventurous, some uplifting, some illegal—and gains awareness of her role and confinement.
The show represents a few reunions: Whedon with Fox, which aired the short-lived fan favorite "Firefly"; Whedon with Dushku, who starred in Fox's "Nurses" pilot during the last development season as well as Fox's 2003 series "Tru Calling"; and Whedon and Dushku with studio chairmen Gary Newman and Dana Walden, whose 20th Century Fox Television also produced his other shows.
Dushku will have a producer credit on the show. Sources say she was instrumental in helping bring Whedon back to television after his three-year absence as a prime-time showrunner. Dushku, who was keen to reunite with Whedon, met him for lunch and he came up with the "Dollhouse" concept. He sold the show to Fox one week later.
"The show was pretty much fully formed," Whedon says. "I wrote a synopsis, treatment, pilot episode and six suggested future episodes. I made a poster in PhotoShop because I couldn't sleep."
Whedon discussed the show with TelevisionWeek Wednesday evening:
TVWeek: How did this idea come about?
Joss Whedon: Rather suddenly. It just sort of blurted forth. I was having lunch with Eliza and she was talking about wanting to do something and I made up the show. We went to Fox and they said, "Yeeeaeah!"
TVWeek: "Buffy" fans are sure to be excited, too.
Whedon: If they could only see what's in my head right now.... They should be.
TVWeek: Every "Firefly" fan is going to wonder: Was there any reluctance to return to Fox?
Whedon: It's a brand new day over there. It's a completely new bunch of people and they seem really intelligent and supportive. Walking back into the building was a little strange. But no. It was absolutely the last thing I saw coming, but absolutely the right thing to do. It's like one of those movies where you keep waiting for somebody to fall in love with the hot girl. It was sort of meant to be. ... I mean, a network is a network. They have an agenda and it is not yours. And that's OK, as long as you work hard to make the agendas coincide.
TVWeek: So they'll air the episodes in sequence this time?
Whedon [laughs]: One can almost guarantee.
TVWeek: The project sounds ambitious. Do you have the budget you're going to need?
Whedon: That was part of the offer. The network said we want to do seven and it's a grown-up show. It's not going to be wasteful, but it has a certain production value. When they said yes, it rang out loud and clear.
TVWeek: Is there anything new with "Buffy" spinoff "Ripper"? [Whedon previously announced he's trying to set up that show at the BBC.]
Whedon: There isn't anything new. It might become too problematic. The rights issue with "Ripper" becomes complicated. There are other characters in the woods. We may have to do some fancy footwork. Obviously I'm committed to ["Dollhouse"], but that does not mean I'm not doing "Ripper."
TVWeek: Just recently you were disappointed that 20th shut down the "Buffy" sing-along screenings. Did that make things awkward while doing the "Dollhouse" deal?
Whedon: This is how it works. It's a small town. The problem they ran up against was a genuine problem. It wasn't the Disney lawyers telling preschoolers they couldn't draw Mickey Mouse. They're not trying to cheat anybody out of their fun. The fact of the matter is that I know they're trying to make the musicals work.
TVWeek: "Heroes" recently added a character who's sort of like Echo, in that she can instantly learn any ability. Did that give you an "uh-oh" moment?
Whedon: I didn't actually know that. I was fine until now. Thanks a lot. One of the first rules of a pilot, you will see everything you are doing somewhere else the year before you do it. I saw "Bionic Woman" and I was like, "Oh, I better change my thing." I like to think that means you're smack dab in the middle of the zeitgeist. The real thing that's important is what do you have to say about that person. And what I have to say is never what somebody else has to say. On "Buffy," all the hoariest old tropes—the evil twin, the Monkey's Paw—what's important is what you have to say about it.
TVWeek: With "Firefly" star Nathan Fillion doing a lot of guest work right now, any chance of him being in the cast?
Whedon: My first instinct is to look in new places, especially since Eliza and I are already reuniting. It's a series, not a party. That said, I do not rule anything out.
TVWeek: I was told the series would be for next spring or fall, depending on how fast you write.
Whedon: I can write for spring. There's a hiccup in that process because of the [potential] writers strike. I will be good to go the moment we are in agreement with the studios. But I won't pick up a pencil while we're not.
TVWeek: Since it's the topic of the hour, any thoughts on the possible strike?
Whedon: I don't have any terribly original ones. I do know this: The studios are very entrenched and the issues are very crucial. I dislike the idea of the strike because it's going to hurt a lot of people I love. But if it's necessary, we'll go all the way with it. Because we're talking about the future of media that didn't used to exist. And if we can't get a fair deal on that, then it's just not worth it. Next year, you're going to see a lot of new novels.