Turning cult TV creator/film director Joss Whedon loose in a room full of fans rabid for his series, movies and Web programs is usually a recipe for a good time. Add the demure but grateful Eliza Dushku to that, and you have an even better chance at success. And have both of them be so gobsmacked that their low-rated "Dollhouse" was renewed, largely because its fans were so passionate and DVRed episodes and downloaded them through legal channels, and you've almost got a sure thing. If, four months ago, you'd have said that Whedon would be holding sway at a Q&A session dedicated to the second season of "Dollhouse" at Comic-Con, everyone would have laughed at you. But here we are, and "Dollhouse" is one of the lowest-rated shows to get a new season pickup in history, and Whedon and his fans have to cope with happiness.

Now what the hell are they going to do? (And watch out for spoilers from here on out. The panel touched extensively on where the series will go from here.) "Epitaph One," the famous "lost" episode of "Dollhouse," concerns a near future society where Dollhouse technology has created a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The episode paints tantalizing hints of where the series is going in the near and far future, suggesting that it will eventually turn into some amalgam of "Red Dawn" and "Testament." And it seems to state pretty definitively that this story can only have a grim and gruesome end.

Whedon suggested that the series will return to the future setting a number of times in its second season, including in the premiere episode, as we join up with the characters left alive at the end of the episode as they embark on their quest. While the scenario shown in "Epitaph One" will actually happen (suggesting things are about to turn very bad for all of the characters very soon), some of the specific steps on the way there may not be wholly as described in the episode, since they're based on imprinted memories, which can be altered or just plain faulty. "What we intend to do is honor what you've seen here today but also question the veracity of what we've seen here today," he said.

Whedon also promised that a number of people he's worked with in the past will be joining him in the second season of "Dollhouse," including "Angel" star Alexis Denisof, who has signed on for a recurring part. Whedon also said he's working to get "Firefly" star Summer Glau on board, and comics artist John Cassaday, whom Whedon worked with on "Astonishing X-Men," will be directing an episode of the show. Whedon said that he worried about just using his friends and colleagues in the first season, but "I don't care anymore," he said.

Not all news was "Dollhouse" news, though. The panel also delved into some of the recurring themes and motifs in Whedon's work. When asked by a questioner why Whedon always kills off her favorite characters (Whedon asked her who her favorite was on "Dollhouse," and she refused to answer), he responded, "I hate people. I want them to suffer and die. And I like to think that that's reflected in my work." When pressed, he said he kills off characters for two reasons, "One, because it hurts very much and furthers the story or two, because contractually I had to."

When asked why he so frequently returns to the idea of a corporation or government trying to control people's minds and thought processes, Whedon asked, "Have you been in America?" before adding, "The entire structure is designed to mess with your minds. ... To make you think you need the things they want you to need" and talking at length about how the system does these things, in one of the few serious moments in a panel otherwise filled with levity.

"Dollhouse" cast members Dichen Lachman (who plays Sierra) and Fran Kranz (who plays Topher) both showed up as well, but neither was asked very many questions by the crowd, nor was Dushku, whom Whedon seemed to throw to more often than the crowd did. All were greeted with hearty ovations, but it was clear who everyone in attendance was there to see, and the session, which lasted around 45 minutes, peppered him with a large variety of questions. Whedon again turned serious when asked what keeps him writing. "I can't stop thinking of different things I want to say and different ways I want to say them," he said. "I don't think of it as a process. For me, it's like blinking."

Whedon also suggested that the structure of what they're attempting to do with "Dollhouse" -- having the future in place and then filling in the past -- was ambitious for him and for television in general, though he said that he'd heard "Lost" had done something similar, though he hadn't seen it. When the crowd groaned at that admission, he said, "OK, fine, I'll watch TV instead of making it for you," though he apparently watches "Heroes," since he later added, "I do think that as long as we don't send anybody to feudal Japan, we're pretty much OK."

Whedon also was asked if he'd be making another musical in the future to compliment his "Buffy" musical and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," and he said that he hopes that will happen in the future, saying that he's talked about it with his "Dr. Horrible" co-writers. "I can't give you a date or any information at all because I'm me, but it's very much on our minds. We love it far too much to let it go," he said.

As mentioned, Dushku, Lachman and Kranz didn't get much to do outside of play off of Whedon's jokes, but the three seemed glad to be there and on a passionately loved show anyway. Dushku, in particular, found out about the show's renewal some time after it was picked up. "I was in Africa building a school," when the pickup was announced, she said, "but it was so nice to come home and know that you guys are the whole reason we're back."

 

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