'Dollhouse' to star 'Buffy's' Eliza Dushku

Joss Whedon is heading back to TV– along with his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” ingenue, Eliza Dushku.

Dushku will star in the Whedon-penned series “Dollhouse,” which has been given a seven-episode order by Fox. News came as an extra-big Halloween treat for Whedon fans, considered some of the most passionate in all of TV.

Produced by 20th Century Fox TV — the studio also behind “Buffy,” “Angel” and Whedon’s late, lamented “Firefly” — “Dollhouse” follows a top-secret world of people programmed with different personalities, abilities and memories depending on their mission.

After each assignment — which can be physical, romantic or even illegal — the characters have their memories wiped clean, and are sent back to a lab (dubbed the “Dollhouse”). Show centers on Dushku’s character, Echo, as she slowly begins to develop some self-awareness, which impacts her missions.

Whedon has already hammered out the basic outline for all seven segs. Barring a strike, Fox hopes to have the show in production by spring, giving the net an opportunity to be so far ahead of schedule by fall that it could potentially air a full season uninterrupted by breaks. Long lead time also gives Whedon, as well as the net and studio, plenty of time to evolve the show if need be.

“To be sitting here talking about episodes of a series in November; that’s exciting,” said Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly. “I think we’re in great hands.”

Whedon said he wasn’t plotting a comeback to the smallscreen, having turned his attention back to features. But Dushku — who last toplined 20th’s and Fox’s “Tru Calling” — called up the scribe after sealing a talent deal with the studio and network this summer (Daily Variety, Aug. 27).

“He’s my favorite genius,” Dushku said. “And my favorite friend. He’s been like a big brother … and the only person out here I’ve ever wholeheartedly trusted, because he’s never let me down.”

What was originally simply a lunch to meet up and discuss Dushku’s career options soon turned into a partnership, as Whedon threw out a random concept Dushku loved.

That germ of an idea turned into “Dollhouse.”

“It was a mistake!” Whedon said. “I sat down with her to talk about her options, and acted all sage, saying things backwards like Yoda and laying out what I thought she should do. But in the course of doing it, I accidentally made one up. I told it to her, and she said, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’ “

Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori had been pursuing Whedon about making a return to TV for some time, and said he couldn’t believe his luck when Dushku brought him in the door.

“There was a lot of work and serendipity that came into this,” said Liguori, who bought off-net runs of “Buffy” back when he ran FX. “Fortunately for him, his movie career was quite fertile, and he was only going to do something in TV that he felt quite passionately about. The guy has two unbelievable skills that are so rare: He’s totally innovative creatively, and he’s a terrific showrunner.”

As a result, Whedon is suddenly once again donning the titles of exec producer-showrunner-creator-writer — a job he didn’t think he’d once again assume so quickly, particularly after the cancellations of “Angel” and “Firefly.”

And because she helped convince Whedon to sign on to the project — and had a hand in its creation — Dushku will serve as a producer on the show.

“It’s exciting to know that my voice and who I am as Eliza is going to be in this show every single week,” she said. “I’m ready to take control of the person I want to be in this business.”

Whedon said he and Dushku hammered out an idea they believed would showcase the thesp’s wide range (having done comedy, like the feature “Bring It On,” in addition to drama).

“She’s someone who gets pigeonholed as doing one thing, but she’s constantly changing and could do anything,” Whedon said. “I said to her, do you want to do the same thing for seven years? This show comes from her particular circumstance. We can take this show to a lot of different places.”

Dushku agreed — and said she could relate to the idea of people’s lives constantly being scrutinized, and being told who you should be.

“As actors, we’re expected to play characters, and in a way it feels like people are trying to download the latest trend into a Hollywood actress and make them like everyone else,” she said. “I even love my character’s name, Echo. And I’m starting my training, so I can get into that ‘Dark Angel’-on-crack shape where I can do everything.”

20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman said the “Dollhouse” pitch reminded him of an earlier time, when Whedon brought the “Buffy” universe into being.

“He’s creating this fascinating universe that’s a little bit out of the ordinary,” Newman said. “The emotions and experiences play beautifully as metaphors for real issues. … His ability to combine suspense, humor, action and emotion is remarkable.”

It’s not the first time Whedon and Dushku have plotted to work together; the duo briefly flirted with creating a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spinoff featuring her character, Faith. But the two ultimately decided not to pursue the idea.

Beyond Dushku’s character, the show will also revolve around the people who run the mysterious “dollhouse” and two other “dolls,” a man and woman who are friendly with Echo. Then there’s the federal agent who has heard an urban myth about the dolls, and is trying to investigate their existence.

Whedon admitted there’s a little dose of “The Matrix” in the plot — “I do have that entire movie tattooed on my brain” — and said “Dollhouse” will enable him and Dushku to explore some political and social issues.

Given Whedon’s popularity as a sci-fi brand, Liguori said he wished the project had been ready to announce at ComiCon.

“He’s got an unbelievably loyal following, and that’s an earned brand,” Liguori said. “So much of it is based on Joss’ love of what he does and the genius of how he does it.”

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