Last year, I had a chance to visit the “Dollhouse” set, and it was absolutely breathtaking. This year, I went to visit it again, and the effect was the same. I just wish I liked the show as much as I like the Dollhouse itself. But, hey, maybe that’ll change when I finally get a chance to sit down and watch the Season 1 set in its entirety…particularly the bonus 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” which the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, describes as “an incredibly strange sort of bookend to the show.”

When we first arrived on the set, the actors were still shooting elsewhere on the Fox lot, so Whedon held court before the assembled throng of critics (some of whom may or may not have actually been bowing before him) and spoke to the second season of “Dollhouse” all by his lonesome, which he described as “the biggest surprise of my career.”

“What can I say?” asked Whedon. “I really didn’t expect to be sitting here again for a while. This has been like skiing in a cartoon where you go up the mountain and down the mountain and up and down. Right now, we are pretty high up on it because we realized that we were actually going to have to work for a living this summer.”

Okay, I’m sure the Whedon-ites will want to know every last word that Joss had to say, but for the sake of those who – like myself – still have good intentions of playing catch-up before Season 2 begins, I’ll do you the favor of waiting ’til post-jump to offer up his comments.

“The first thing I did was get together with my writers and start talking about what possibilities there were,” said Whedon, “and what we discovered was that the possibilities were entirely limitless. We had more excitement and enthusiasm about the show than we did by a country mile last year, because we are in it now. Before, it was an idea, and it was an idea that we had a lot of trouble defining…and America got to watch that. And now we feel like it is defined. The network understands what it is, we understand what it is, and we know what our cast is capable of, which is wonders. So we came in just with the most excitement, and we been having a great deal of fun ever since.

“We are wrapping today right after this the first episode, starting the second one on Monday, and from ‘go,’ the mandate has been, ‘How far can we take this?’ How much can we twist the knife? Where can we find alliances that we did not have where can we pull people apart who seem to be together? And, most importantly, how can we build Echo up from nothing – which is basically where she started last year – and really give her a sense of momentum and purpose that will ground the show in a way that it couldn’t be last year?

“And that has been sort of our mission statement: to make things harder for everybody, find ways to bring back all the extraordinary reoccurring actors we had, and, most importantly, let things begin to cohere. And the good news about that is, once they do, Echo starts really realizing that, as a person, she not only exists but that she has a mission, that she has something she wants. This year, we are going to see the results of everything she went through last year, particularly the event with Alpha, where she was downloaded with all of her personalities. We are going to see what effect that’s had on her, and we are going to find her to be a great deal less passive and a great deal more directed in what she wants. And that is, of course, going to make her life a lot harder. And the more she finds out about what is going on around her, and the more we find out, the creepier it is going to get. Because creepy is what it makes it fun.”

And with that, Whedon concluded his opening remarks by simply saying, “Welcome to Season Two.”

From there, we entered the Q&A portion of our visit, and I’ll just offer up a few random tidbits that came out of that discussion:

* The future which has been witnessed in “Epitaph One” will be seen again in the second season premiere, to serve as a bookend of sorts. Whedon admits that it’s a bit of a risky move, given that the episode wasn’t aired and therefore won’t have been seen by the casual viewer, but he and his writers were just too fascinated by the future they’d created to throw it away. Fortunately, the Season Two premiere will take that into consideration.

“It will say what that episode said,” he said, “which is that all of this will result in disaster. But this is the story order of what happened then, so the actual bulk of the show takes place three months after the events of Omega. We will be visiting that future every now and then, but it will not be something where we can change it or where we send people back in time or anybody has metal under their flesh. I love that stuff, but apparently that gets you canceled.”

* Echo has gone to a new level this season, and it will start to become obvious as early as the season premiere. “We will see that she has a cohesiveness and a mission that make every engagement mean a great deal more to her,” said Whedon. “As Echo, she has her own agenda, which is something she didn’t quite have, and we did sort of build to that in Omega, where she had been dumped with all the personalities and we heard her say her name. At the end of this episode, we are going to see how far she’s come, and it’s a little further than the people around her know. We are going to see her as we know her, and then we are going to see something very different. And that is pretty much all I can say.”

At this point, Whedon said, “I have a very homely and shy bunch of people to introduce,” thereby giving the cue for the cast to come out of the shadows and take their seats alongside their lord and master.

The truth of the matter is that the critics still continued to address the majority of their questions to Joss (which is how we found out conclusively that Amy Acker will, despite her series attachment elsewhere, still be making further appearances on “Dollhouse,” if not as many as he’d like), but we still managed to hear from a couple of the cast members when someone asked the group as a whole if the show feels different for them as they go into the second season.

Tahmoh Penikett (Paul Ballard): “I would say so. Yeah, I would say so completely. It is impossible not to get caught up in the first season. It’s a new series, and there are so many growing pains you go through in a first season. I have been through it before, and there’s a lot of insecurity involved. It’s hard to not be affected by it. I personally have been so excited (about Season 2). When we all saw each other for the gallery shoot, there was just a lightness about it. Everyone was very excited. It’s about the work this year. We can have fun.”

Fran Kranz (Topher Brink): “It certainly feels like it gets better and better, right? I
mean, I’m getting Episode One of Season Two, and it feels like it’s the best thing yet. And I feel like relationships have changed. All of the sudden, the character Paul is here with us, you know what I mean? So just in little ways like that, the show has sort of transformed. But, yeah, I think it just gets better and better.”

Eliza Duskhu (Echo): “I was just going to say that I am already sort of astonished by the emotions and actions and reactions just in the last eight days, just this episode. Yesterday, I full on burst into tears in the middle of the take. It was a giant scene with Bamber, and there was something that happened, and I haven’t had that kind of…I was just surprised at my emotion and hadn’t really had that. I was, like, ‘All right, this is kind of a nice kick off for the season: Everything out on the table!” We’ve already had the first season to sort of have our insecurities and have our guard and a little bit of that, and now we just get to open it up and search into humanity with you.”

I’ll close by offering up this last bit to you. Call a gift to the Whedon-ites, if you like…

Reporter: How does it feel to know, whether or not it’s true, that (Fox President of Entertainment) Kevin Reilly says he is motivated by fear of your fans?

Whedon: He should fear them. God knows we do. I think he was probably motivated by what we are all motivated by. (Laughs) It is definitely true that the fans made themselves heard. But all they did by “making themselves heard” was by loving the thing. By DVR-ing it, by putting numbers up that are not the traditional Nielsen numbers. There was no angry campaign. There was no “send them bottles of something.” There wasn’t any of that. It was, in particular, the studio’s understanding that the math of television is different than it used to be, and that the shows that we make may not go out as broad as something as “Lost,” but that the fans will come to them forever, and that that revenue stream does not dry up, however thin it may be. That is the thing that ultimately motivated them. You know, the numbers have never been my concern. I have never done huge numbers. I am not a big-hit guy. What I do is find the best ensembles on television, and then I make them work their asses off. And as long as I get to do that, I am in clover.