CENTURY CITY, Calif. - .We enter the sleeping chamber.
Sleek and circular, its individual beds recessed below floor level, it’s meant to look spa-like, a place where the residents of a Fox series called “Dollhouse” can relax when they’re between missions, missions that require them to be imprinted with new memories and personalities each time.
As scenarios go, it’s more sci-fi than supernatural, and the setting reflects that.
Still, it’s hard not to think about vampires.
And our tour guide, Joss Whedon, knows why.
“This set was built exactly 20 minutes before I walked on to it to shoot,” explained the man who’s probably best known as the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“They were nailing the floorboards down. And I came in, and the beds themselves, the inside was all stone. They’d discussed slate, which I thought they meant was a color. It was not a coffin. And I freaked out,” he said.
“They are supposed to feel a little bit like coffins, but when they were stone, they felt like not just Dracula, but like Louis Jourdan” as Dracula, he added.
If you’re feeling a little buried, too, at this point, don’t worry: TV viewers can largely be divided between those who’ve never heard of Whedon and those who think the third-generation TV writer, who’s lately been amusing people with the online musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” is the best thing to happen to television since the remote control.
Based on the ratings for most of Whedon’s work, including “Buffy” and its spin-off, “Angel,” it’s probably safe to say that the latter group, while undeniably passionate, is smaller.
Most people, including the reporters who last month toured the “Dollhouse” set on the Fox lot with Whedon and Eliza Dushku (“Tru Calling”) - who stars as Echo, one of the “dolls” - have seen no more than a few clips from the show, which won’t premiere until at least January.
And on July 22, the day reporters were getting the “Dollhouse” nickel tour - which included the circular co-ed shower room with its strategically frosted glass - Whedonesque.com, a Web site that since 2002 has tracked Whedon’s every professional movement, posted a message from the show’s creator explaining that he’d decided to shoot another first episode.
Once again, he knew what some people might be thinking.
His original pilot “isn’t going to be buried, like the pilot of ‘Firefly,’” he assured fans, merely pushed back.
This time, he said, the new premiere episode had been his idea.
It had been six years, almost to the day, since a similar group of TV critics and reporters first toured the massive set of that other highly anticipated Fox series, a space Western that took place 500 years in the future on an aging spaceship whose clutter was every bit as deliberately chosen as the “Dollhouse’s” sleekness.
“Firefly” wasn’t to air for another couple of months, and when it did, it wouldn’t be Whedon’s original two-hour pilot, but another episode. It was to be the first in a series of disappointing decisions that culminated in the show’s cancellation after only 11 episodes. (Its subsequent success on DVD has been credited with allowing Whedon to make a big-screen edition, “Serenity.”)
Truth is, most shows not on the air yet aren’t giving tours to TV critics.
Then again, Whedon’s aren’t most shows.
By the time I’d talked to the 44-year-old writer and producer about “Dollhouse” in May, he’d clearly already told and retold the story about his lunch with Dushku, who’s worked with him on “Buffy” and was looking for advice on her next move, and about how thinking about other producers had overlooked her versatility had inspired a TV series he’d never intended to make.
Last month, he was telling the story again, describing the creation of “Dollhouse” as “a completely organic experience, from the lunch I had with Eliza, which is something I’ve done a few times with her, to going home and my wife saying, ‘Yeah, it sounds like the next thing,’ just because you can tell. ...
“A week after Eliza and I had lunch, I went in” to pitch it to Fox, and they said, “‘Great, make seven of them.’”
At some point, the order was increased to 13, and by May, when Fox announced its 2008-09 schedule, there was a Facebook site up for “Dollhouse.” As of Tuesday, 5,547 Facebook users had declared themselves fans of a show that presumably none have seen.
Heady stuff in a world where most new shows fly under the radar and few make it to a second season:
In the summer of 2002, when “Firefly” was generating much of the buzz, other new shows Fox was pushing included David E. Kelley’s “Girls Club,” “The Grubbs” (canceled before its first episode aired), “Cedric the Entertainer Presents,” “Oliver Beene,” “Fastlane” and, OK, a little thing called “American Idol.”
If exceptions are made for Whedon, a rumpled writer who’s often treated like a rock star, it’s probably because there’s still a segment of Hollywood that values talent and imagination, both of which Whedon’s amply demonstrated, even if he’s never had a show that could be considered more than a cult hit.
As for the anticipation his work generates, and his willingness to engage with fans online, even Whedon acknowledges that buzz can cut both ways.
“We are kind of living in a fish bowl a little bit,” he said.
“Sometimes I don’t like people to see the man behind the curtain. I don’t like them to know that something wasn’t awesome before they saw it.
“You know, the things we had to tweak, the things we had to cut, that is inevitable.
“But now, I don’t think it is just us. The whole world is so much about seeing behind the curtain and seeing how things are made and how they work and the extended cut, and what we could have done and what we didn’t do and the alternate ending and you just, you kind of take it as part and parcel at the beginning,” he said.
“Because it’s Eliza, and because it’s me, we might suffer from it a little bit more. But those are high-class problems to have.”