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Buffy & Echo

So. Tomorrow evening Dollhouse fans look forward to a guest appearance from Whedon fan-favourite Alan Tudyk as the designer of the Dollhouse, but they’re facing the episode with some trepidation as well, as it may be the penultimate broadcast episode of the series. The “decision” to not air the 13th episode, “Epitaph One”, news that was muddled when it first leaked (many sources were reporting at the time, as I mentioned in part 1, that Alan Tudyk was slated to appear in the 13th episode) in some ways appears even more muddled, as the rumour now is that the 13th episode is set in an apocalyptic future and is simply unsuitable for a season finale. In addition, Tim Minear clarified the nature of the 13th episode on Whedonesque.com, and it was produced by the studio with the full understanding it wouldn’t go to air, as the network order had aready been filled. In short, it doesn’t appear that not airing “Epitaph One” indicates a decision to cancel the show; on the other hand, if the network had a great faith or liking in the series they probably would have picked it up anyway.

I’ve been using Dollhouse and the speculation surrounding it as a jumping point to discuss Whedon’s past, most specifically Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Part nostalgic look back at the series after recently re-watching it, and part analysis of some key themes and innovations that Whedon introduced to network television, I’d like to conclude the series with a look at the ending of Buffy, and why the very thing that make Whedon’s series so acclaimed makes it very difficult to sustain an audience for his shows.

The final season of Buffy was one of the more satisfying concluding seasons of a network series, but it wasn’t always perfect. The Potentials, in particular Kennedy, drew some heat that wasn’t always unjustified, though the lack of acceptance for Kennedy’s character had much to do with an audience still smarting from Tara’s loss. The final season let them all turn it back around on the early seasons of Buffy, satirizing the high school genre that it once was a part of, as previously discussed. The addition of Andrew to the cast was an excellent fill-in for the now-mature Xander’s comic relief, not that Xander lost all the funny or anything.

What Whedon had thought through, a long time ago – probably before the series started, though I have no proof of that – was the perfect ending for Buffy. The Slayer had three key traits: She worked under the orders of the Watcher’s council; she worked in the field alone; and she was the only one of her kind, the chosen one, both destined and doomed to live a noble but short life. Buffy did away with the first in the third season; she never followed the second; and, by the end, she would no longer be the only one of her kind.

The activation of the Potential Slayers was a payoff worth all the episodes where the 30-girls-in-one-house aspects of the show wore on your nerves. (And how awesome was it, in retrospect, that Felicia Day was the new Slayer who became the most kick-ass, something I’d forgotten until my recent re-watch. Go Felicia!) In one beautifully elegant move, Whedon completed the character arcs on the two biggest characters. First, and usually overlooked, was Willow’s; this was finally the white magic power that she needed to tap into and unleash in order to redeem herself from her season 6 breakdown. The powerful contrast of her physical transformation when working the spell to her dark-self was an incredibly powerful moment for Willow fans, as she balanced her past evil with a supreme act of good; midwife to a thousand saviours of mankind.

But it’s Buffy who is most changed; the world is opened up to her. Dawn, who now faces a future in which it’s possible her sister and foster mother won’t be dead within the next few years but probably doesn’t realize it yet, is understandably baffled when standing at the lip of the crater that was Sunnydale; she really doesn’t know what they’re going to do from there. Buffy knows that the only answer that matters, though, is the first time she’s been able to even consider it: anything they want.

This was the long-arc that really made the series, but it was so simple, in retrospect. So infrequently do show creators start out with an idea of the final destiny of their character. Whedon had to work flexibly within the framework of the network, though the move to UPN after season 5 seemed to guarantee a greater degree of creative flexibility; certainly the last two seasons, which are one extended plot arc, shows no signs of comprimise, right down to the extra running time they granted “Once More, With Feeling”, a rare network event. But he always had that final outcome to work with and around; he could plant the seeds for it with the mythology established as far back as season 1 and the prophecy of Buffy’s death.

Many shows since have borrowed both from Whedon’s success with the long-arc and his flexibility, though most long-arc shows that have come since have, like Battlestar Galactica and Lost, been given definite episode numbers which they could then use to map out the arc of the series, lessening the need for flexibility. Russell T. Davies, whose debt to Whedon he has openly discussed at length, has maybe made the most successful use of significant flexibility it in the rebooted Doctor Who series. Doctor Who had played with long arcs many years before Americans dabbled their hands, but they had very different episode structures, with several unrelated multi-part serials making up each season, sometimes with an overall loose theme for the season. The new Doctor Who follows a more conventional 12 hour-long episodes per season format, but Davies introduced both season-long plot arcs and multi-season arcs, such as the key importance of the Doctor’s severed hand in the finale of Davies’s last full season as head writer.

More generally, on American television in particular long-arc television has become very much in vogue. It’s now taken for granted that shows like Heroes, Lost and Battlestar Galactica are serially based, and require weekly viewing to keep up. Whedon partially prepared the way for this, but his influnce there is more strongly felt through the writers that worked at Mutant Enemy heading out into the larger workforce and bringing some of that philosophy with them. Too many to list, but maybe the most prominent is Jane Espenson, who has written many classic episodes of all of Whedon’s shows (including tonight’s Dollhouse), and also was a major contributor to Battlestar Galactica and writer of the upcoming BSG TV-movie “The Plan”.

I’m of the opinion that these shows have thrived by borrowing plot elements from Whedon, but have avoided borrowing character elements from Whedon. Doctor Who excepted for its unique history – anyone who takes on the Doctor has both the benefit and the curse of nearly 50 years of character backstory – the characters of these other shows are relatively shallow. Though sometimes rich in backstory and plot detail, such as on Lost, Sawyer’s jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold or Jack’s trying-to-save-the-world doctor are pretty routine. As good as Edward James Olmos was as Adama on BSG, there was a strong element of the stock character in him, and many other noble ship’s captains were cut from similar cloth. The characters of Heroes wear their stock character names on their sleeves practically: the cheerleader, the politician, the cop, the killer, the Japanese geek.

To contrast, consider Firefly‘s cast; when’s the last time you saw a space concubine with almost limitless social power as a character? How about Mal’s version of a captain; an uncomprimising, Christian, libertarian freedom fighter turned amoral, atheistic, murdering, yet likable criminal? And to a fan, do I need to say more about River, other than her name, to conjure up one of the most uniquely drawn characters on film?

This is where it becomes very difficult for Whedon’s shows to thrive. The long-arc plots of shows like Lost, 24 and Heroes have become part of their hook. The networks make great pains to try to fill in gaps for people who missed an episode or two. Lost, for example, usually features a 1+ hour special beginning each season summarizing key events; they re-broadcast the previous week’s episode before the new episode, with pop-up facts reminding viewers of key connections and the like. Heroes does the season-premiere recap thing as well, not to mention dissections of the episode on G4 each week, if they’re still doing that.

It’s a lot more than just the long-arc plots and sizzling dialogue that make Whedon’s series so unique; it’s his characters. They’re always unique, they always speak with unique voices. The West Wing had brilliant dialogue in abundance, but all the characters talked in a very similar manner; they all talked with Aaron Sorkin’s voice. I could give a Buffy fan one paragraph of a character monologue and they could immediately tell me whether it was Buffy, Xander, Willow or Giles who said it. They don’t fall into handy character stereotypes readily that can help an audience identify them; how do you describe Oz’s personality to an outsider? The taciturn sage? Stoic werewolf nice-guy?

And here lies his genius and his curse. You can’t summarize character development in a recap or in pop-up facts. You need to live with his characters, get to know them and their quirks, before the emotional range and depth of his subtexts become palpable. That’s why tears spring to my eyes when Jonathan presents Buffy with her prom award; that’s why I burst out laughing with Giles when Buffy confesses that she’s been having sex with Spike; that’s why I felt genuine horror and panic when Caleb screwed his thumb into Xander’s eye socket. That’s why the words “I am a leaf on the wind” are absolutely gutting to a Firefly fan.

If you don’t live with his characters, you simply can’t get why his fans are so in love with his work. You can’t just pick up halfway through a series, or even the first season; you can’t miss episodes not just because you might miss key plot points, but you might miss a speech that will affect that character throughout the season, such as Xander’s “you’re extraordinary” speech to Dawn in season 7. And you can’t just pop that speech into a recap, it needs the full context of the episode to mean something.

So, at last, we come around and consider: how is Dollhouse looking in light of this? Here’s both the good news and the bad news at once; the characters in Dollhouse are far less unique than his previous characters. They have a stock feeling that will make them instantly understandable, still, to a new viewer. On the other hand, this has been changing with every episode, and characters such as Ms. DeWitt are becoming quite multi-dimensional. Topher’s moment with Sierra over his birthday Twinkie was one that brought some surprising emotional heft, Ballard is becoming darker and darker, and the dialogue has picked up that Whedon twang that was so painfully absent in the first half of the season. I’ve already noticed the character effect setting in; last week’s episode, “Haunted”, was generally well-recieved by fans but I talked to a couple non-watchers who caught part of the episode and found it undistinguished.

Dollhouse, despite grim predictions, actually looks pretty good to me to get a second season, at least an abbreviated one. The character-effect isn’t too bad yet, and it could still pick up new viewers for awhile. The 13th episode news appears neither as dire as it once did, nor as good as it could be. The problem is that, to continue to improve as it has done since the sixth episode, it needs to acquire more of the unique character development and complex plot arcs that make a Whedon show shine, and that will just further alienate new viewers and lose those who aren’t smart enough to keep up. In short, I just can’t see how the show could be a success at this point. If it goes in the direction it needs to gain mainstream viewers, it becomes a forgettable show. If it continues to get better as rapidly as it currently is, it’s going to face a Firefly future; a short-lived show with a fantastic reputation.

The truth is, I don’t think Whedon’s shows will ever thrive on a network. They’re too consumed with outdated methods of measuring their successes, while Whedon fans tend towards the young and new media-savvy, as the peripheral boost Browncoats have given to Felicia Day’s fantastic The Guild and the great success of Whedon’s Dr. Horrible attests to. A network like HBO or Sci-Fi Channel (ahem) would give him the chance he needs, but I presume a thousand people have told him and them that, and I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of contracts and network negotiations at all and can’t speak about why it’s never happened.

Or perhaps what he really needs to do is embrace the world that Trent Reznor embraced and which made Dr. Horrible such a success; to jump feet first into the new media, and take the risks incumbent on cutting new ground to show his peers the way forward into the new millenium.

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”:

Lost official logo

“The Variable” is a landmark episode for Lost for far more reasons than the mere fact that it’s the 100th episode of the celebrated series. Once again, the writing team has hit us from out of nowhere with new revelations and, finally, the backstory of Daniel Faraday, the Island’s resident physicist and bundle of nervous energy, as was clearly telegraphed in the first few seconds of the episode when we finally get explicit confirmation that Eloise Hawking is indeed Faraday’s mother.

Continue reading for more yummy goodness in today’s episode, but I’m putting the break early; it’s heavily laden in spoilers.

When last we saw Faraday, he was with Sawyer & the Dharmaettes as they began integrating into Horace’s little utopia. No sign of him three 70s years later when Jack’s group appeared, and we finally found out where tonight; he was off at Dharma HQ in Ann Arbor doing research. Into relativistic physics, we can only suppose. Faraday rocks us with a stunning revelation; Jack, Hurley, Sayid and Kate are not supposed to be there. What they do does matter.

This flies in the face of everything we’ve heard before, what they’ve spent so many episodes drilling into us this season, such as in this classic clip; whatever happened, happened, though they don’t know exactly what happens, because they’re experiencing it for the first time. Now Faraday calls this into question, the kind of right cross that Lost is so fond of throwing us. It would be a revelation called into question by the episode before it even reached its conclusion. But let’s consider it for a moment.

According to the past of Lost, nothing the time-travellers do can change the future. With one exception; Desmond Hume. For some reason – whether it was his time-jump after turning the key back in season 2, or his experience on the freighter in which he found his constant, Penelope – Desmond can change the future. Faraday took advantage of this, telling Desmond in the button-pushing days to find Eloise when he got off-island. As a result of this, he was present when the Oceanic Six showed up at Eloise’s in 2008. According to Faraday’s rules, Desmond shouldn’t have been there. Now, it seemed to me he played little to no part in getting the O6 on the plane, but is it possible his mere presence is enough to make the O6 able to change the future, as well? There’s more to consider by the time we reach the end of the episode, so on we go.

The flashbacks to Faraday’s life off the island were relatively bereft of new details or revelations, other than his doomed research assistant was clearly much more than just that. Surprisingly – ahem – Eloise wasn’t a very tender mother. He was brilliant. Widmore backed him financially. What the flashbacks did was flesh out his character and make him more complete, of course prepping us for the brutal climax.

On the 1970s Island, the 815 survivors and time-travelling pals gather together and decide how and where they’re going to escape to. Faraday is seen in the sequence in the Orchid glimpsed in the very first episode of the season, where he then tries to convince Dr. Chang that Miles is his son, he’s from the future, and a major catastrophe is about to hit the island. Chang’s not buying it. In classic Lost fashion, our heroes divide into two opposed groups; those, headed by Sawyer, who are going to take off and set up camp at the old beach, and the small group including Jack and Faraday who goes off in search of the Others and the 1970s version of Eloise – but not before delivering his prophesied warning to a very young Charlotte about leaving the island.

There’s some gunplay with the true Dharma group, who catch Sawyer & Co. in the possession of a trussed-up busybody in the closet; next week to find out what happens. The Others-bound group gets away, and proceeds to track down Richard’s group. Here, Faraday expands on what he told Jack earlier; that he has decided that despite years of research that insists that the past cannot be changed, he believes he has focused too much on the Constant and has neglected the Variable. And that they – the people – are the variables, and that they have free will, and can change the future. Faraday plans on blowing up the Swan anomaly with the buried hydrogen bomb from episode 3 of this season to avert the disaster. No disaster, no button. No button, no pulse that crashes Oceanic 815. No 815, no freighter carrying doomed Charlotte to her destiny. Which, though he never says it, is really what Faraday is on about.

This is why we can’t be sure the paradigm of time travel established thus far is indeed crumbling. Faraday wasn’t necessarily thinking rationally; he was obsessed with finding a way to save Charlotte. It never seems to occur to him that the detonation of Jughead may be just what triggered the disaster in the first place, as details about it are sketchy at best. He may have had false hopes. And as it turned out, he couldn’t escape his destiny.

In his last off-island flashback/forward… wow, this is getting confusing. Off-island in 2005, we see Faraday crying at the news of the false 815’s retrieval, as we’ve seen it earlier before. Widmore visits to invite him to the freighter expedition, and we discover that the accident that hurt his research assistant is also affecting him; he has Memento disease, apparently. His mother convinces him he must return to the island to correct his memory; we also receive the unsurprising news that Widmore is Faraday’s father.

And thus, we find out that the past is once again unchangeable; when Faraday arrives at the Others camp, while brandishing a pistol at Richard he is fatally shot in the back by none other than his own mother. He tells her who he is before dying, and we now know that this is a woman who had to live her whole life raising him with the knowledge that she murdered her adult son – and convinced him to take the trip that would lead to her murder of him. Brutal. And brutal on the audience, as Faraday was a favourite of many, certainly of my own; he will be missed.

I can’t help but wonder that there wasn’t some symbolism in having the voice of science and physics killed in the 100th episode of the series. Does this indicate a more decisive shift away from the Man of Science to the Man of Faith? I suspect we’ll find out before long, and considering what’s been cooking with Locke re-incarnated, it’s a reasonable assumption to make.

So Faraday won’t be stopping the catastrophe, and his destiny was unchanged. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but it does still leave open the possibility that the 1970s O6 members can affect the future. Faraday, after all, was supposed to be there, as were the others who stayed on the Island when the O6 left; maybe Jack and Kate can take his idea and still avert the catastrophe with Richard, using Jughead. I only know for sure two things – you should never assume you’re right or certain about anything in Lost‘s world. And next Wednesday cannot arrive fast enough.

Buffy Season 5 cast photo

In parts 1 and 2 I discussed at length Buffy‘s first few seasons, establishing how its dialogue and style was unique and exciting, and how Whedon managed to build in complicated, long-arc structures with a high degree of flexibility built-in to ease dealing with network restrictions. By season 4, this structure was well entrenched, and most of the following seasons require the viewer to see every episode in order to follow it properly. In part 3, rather than looking at these seasons in detail, I want to talk about a few of the episodes that truly distinguished themselves on an already remarkable show.

Season 4 transitioned the series away from a high-school drama, as the Scoobies have graduated (and Sunnydale High is toast following the season 3 finale). Whedon would eventually bring it all back around to high school in season 7, though its high school sequences are completely different; more adult, dark, often set in the seedy, sprawling basement structure of the school. Dawn’s trials and tribulations, often mirroring Buffy’s, made her seem childish and superficial, while they seemed dire when the main cast experienced them in early seasons. This gave the show the opportunity to satirize its first 3 seasons beautifully.

The transition to college, and eventually working life, was handled smoothly. While episodes often spoofed the tropes of other post-high school dramas (eg. “Beer Bad”, “Living Conditions”) it didn’t have the trouble most other shows have transitioning because the plot and characters of the series generally had little to do with its setting. Whether the library, Giles’s house, Buffy’s house, or the magic shop, all the series needed to thrive and express itself was the core cast gathered together, riffing on each other with the classic Whedon dialogue that he polished most episodes with, regardless of who received the writing credit.

That’s what makes one of the best episodes of the series, “Hush”, such a remarkable achievement. A fan favourite, the story goes that Whedon was tired of hearing people say exactly what I just did; that he relied entirely on dialogue. So he made an episode with virtually no dialogue to show us up, and he proved himself right, the only episode of the series to receive an Emmy writing nomination. While proving he could plot exciting, memorable moments without relying on his dialogue, it established that what he really is a brilliant at isn’t just dialogue, but use of sound.

The use of classic silent film musical cues and tropes was inspired and sometimes subtle, such as the way Buffy and Willow’s whiteboard necklaces evoked silent film title cards. Title cards were used in a more obvious way in the best sequence in the episode, when Giles uses a series of transparencies in a college lecture hall to explain exactly what must be done. Subtexts of the episode – such as the quick turn to gouging consumerism and religion by a panicked populace – was spot-on, as Whedon himself pointed out in the episode commentary after seeing the post-9/11 reaction. It was also, as many of Whedon’s episodes do, was a key turning point for the character arcs, with both Buffy/Riley and Tara/Willow truly beginning their relationships in the episode.

Season 4 has a very unique finale compared to the other six seasons; in the penultimate episode, the Scoobies combine their essences with the Slayer’s to turn her into a superhuman easily capable of defeating the putative Big Bad, human/computer/demon cyborg Adam. The season finale, “Restless”, deals with the aftermath of this, as the act offends the spirit of the First Slayer, who then attacks each of the Scoobies in their dreams. The First Slayer is offended by the way Buffy relies on help from her friends; this resistance of Buffy’s to the ancient rule that the Slayer works alone is, along with her refusal to accept the authority of the Watchers discussed in part 1, one of the principal things that distinguish her from the Slayers past, and eventually allow her to end the curse of the Slayer’s loneliness in the final episodes of the series.

“Restless” also contains our first hint of Whedon’s musical aspirations in the Giles dream sequence, and Buffy’s contains the last of the foreshadowed references to the arrival of Dawn in season 5, one of the most audacious tricks Whedon pulled. Satirizing the conveniently disappearing or reappearing siblings that writers of less tightly plotted dramas use as plot hooks, Whedon dropped a never-before-seen little sister into Buffy’s world without a breath of explanation, and fans didn’t know what to make of the entire Scooby gang acting like Dawn had always been a part of things. He then gave a plausible in-series explanation for her existence; much of the season was devoted to the struggle for the Summers family to come to terms with what Dawn was, where she came from, and whether she really was part of the family – a question Buffy’s death at the end of the season answered definitively.

Whedon later used sound incredibly effectively in the most powerful episode of the series, season 5’s “The Body”. Using only diegetic music was an inspired choice for the episode dealing with the aftermath of Joyce Summers’s shockingly abrupt death. While fantasy series often have characters return from death, and Buffy is no exception, the show established a rigid rule: Magical deaths could be recovered from; “natural” or human deaths could not. Angel and Buffy could return, but there was no chance for Jenny to come back from a snapped neck, or Tara from a bullet to the chest. (Note there is one interesting exception to this; Buffy’s death in season 1, which required conventional CPR to correct. This also required some retconning of Warren’s “natural” death when he was written into the Season 8 comic series; Whedon confessed that he just forgot. No-one’s perfect).

When we saw Joyce dead on the couch, knowing her medical issues in the past, we already knew that there was no coming back from the moment Buffy uttered her heartbreaking “Mommy?”. In “The Body”, which immediately followed, we get a wrenching portrayal of grief and loss that is among the most powerful ever seen on television, in any format. The structure of the episode, which is essentially short vignettes each following a set of characters as they prepare to go to the hospital and deal with the news, gives it a very different feel than other episodes; as does the almost complete lack of sound in the episode other than the character’s voices. The lone vampire kill over Joyce’s corpse in the morgue is a sad reminder that Buffy, even in the midst of shattering grief, is never free from her duties.

Buffy and Dawn’s relationship changed significantly after this episode, as did Buffy’s character, thrust into the thoroughly unexpected role of a single mother to a teenager. Even Anya was given much greater dimension by this episode, when for once we see her blunt inappropriateness for what it is; a complete inability to understand how to deal with mortality.

After Buffy’s death and return from Heaven, the show took a dark turn in season 6, as many characters began questioning many of their fundamental world views. Giles, aimless without a Slayer, prepares to return to England; Willow’s plunge into the dark magics required to resurrect Buffy begin corrupting her and would eventually turn her into the season’s true Big Bad; Tara was questioning her relationship with Willow out of concern for her magic abuse; Spike had lost his love and was awkwardly becoming a foster father to Dawn; Xander and Anya were questioning the wisdom of getting married.

All of this came to a head into Whedon’s masterful musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling”. Many other shows had done musical episodes before, but generally they had many differences with Buffy‘s. Often they were done to take advantage of a cast with backgrounds in singing, such as Chicago Hope‘s excellent musical episode, but most of the Buffy cast – excepting Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson, as well as the demon “ringer” – were inexperienced with singing at all. Other musical episodes usually take place using standard musical conventions; people burst into song and dance with nobody questioning why or how, while the characters in the Buffy episode are very aware of the bizarre incongruity of what is happening.

What really made “Once More, With Feeling” unique was its importance. Musical episodes were always throw-away episodes, “one-off” episodes of little importance, such as the Drew Carey Rock Horror Picture Show tribute episode. “Once More, With Feeling” is one of the most important episodes of the series, and certainly the most important of the season. All those secrets that they’d been concealing from each other were laid bare, and these revelations have powerful repercussions throughout the season. Buffy and Spike begin their self-abusive relationship; Xander leaves Anya at the altar; Willow plunges into dark magics out of grief and guilt for what she did to Buffy; Tara decides to leave Willow, and Giles decides to leave Buffy. These acts continued to reverberate right through the final episode.

In this Thursday’s fourth and final part of the series, I’ll finish off my look back at Buffy, discuss the effect Whedon has had on subsequent TV series, and finally bring it back around to the question I posed at the beginning of the article; why do these unique, critically acclaimed shows struggle, and what does it mean for the future of his latest venture, Dollhouse?

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”:

Gillian Anderson promo photoThe Telegraph reported this week that Gillian Anderson is being cast as the Doctor’s old adversary, the Rani, opposite Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor in the 2010 return of Doctor Who. A general wave of positive feedback came in reply to the possibility, as the Rani is one of the last major original-series Who villains who has yet to make an appearance in the new series. Gillian Anderson seems well suited to the role, and will possibly arouse some further interest in the United States, where she is well-known in sci-fi circles for her role as Dana Scully in Chris Carter’s The X-Files.

There is a bit of a vacuum in the quality sci-fi market in the US right now, with Heroes an incompetent mess and Battlestar Galactica finished its run. Caprica will certainly assuage some who are craving further adventures of the Adama family, but while I haven’t had a chance to watch the pilot for Caprica myself yet, the general impression I get is that it’s more of a BSG universe-set political and legal drama. It means there is still a large hole in the kind of intelligent yet exciting space opera that every sci-fi fan relishes.

Doctor Who is positioned in such a way that it could really take advantage of this vacuum. As I’ve said many times before, there isn’t much on TV that is the equal of Doctor Who anymore; uniquely cross-generational in its appeal, brilliantly written and acted, engaging and funny, smart and powerfully emotional; it straddles the drama, comedy, horror, historical and science fiction genres with equal aplomb. With the casting of an American star with major appeal among sci-fi culture, let’s hope the producers of the series are indicating an awareness that American sci-fi fans still unaware of Who‘s existence are hungry for SF of this calibre.

While his performance as the Doctor has yet to be witnessed, there is every reason to be optimistic based on the praises of the writers, and Matt Smith certainly has a look which, combined with the soft horror aspects of the series, could inspire the hordes of Robert Pattinson-obsessed Twilight fans in the US to take an interest. Young female interest in David Tennant is much of what has propelled Doctor Who into its wild success in the UK, and its effect can’t really be underestimated in initially bringing a female market to smart sci-fi like Who, which will then get them hooked for many other reasons.

On a more speculative note, I can’t help but hope a story involving the Rani might feature a reappearance of my favourite Who character after our one, brief glimpse of a hand with red-laquered nails picking up a ring…

Buffy season 4 cast promo photo

I originally intended this to be a single article; I found out as I started writing that I had a lot more to say about Buffy than I originally realized after re-watching it. And maybe some things about Firefly, as well. So, I’m just going to call this a continuing series.

In the first part of the article, I discussed how the first and second season of Buffy set the stage for the show Whedon really wanted to create, not unlike the way Orson Scott Card had to go back and write “Ender’s Game” in order to be able to write “Speaker for the Dead”. These seasons, the first especially, draw some unfair heat for this; yes, season 1 was not as remarkable as later seasons, but it was still excellent genre television that was fresh and entertaining. The second season is generally viewed more favourably, in no small part because of David Boreanaz’s wickedly effective Angelus, James Marsters’s fan-favourite turn as Spike, and an incredibly exciting and emotional season finale. But it also still clearly had the flavour of a show whose conventions were imposed upon it by the network, rather than the show that would later use those conventions in an intentional manner.

Season 3 would change everything.

To begin with, as a fan I felt the cast was at its absolute peak; Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter’s last season, Seth Green’s only full season as Oz, and the introductions of Wesley, Anya and Faith, who replaced Kendra as the “active” Slayer. It also featured the campiest Big Bad, Mayor Wilkins, whose somewhat cheesily over-the-top turn as the upbeat mayor only made his strange, Svengali relationship with Faith and moments of genuine horror all the more disturbing.

Subtly, Whedon changed the structure of the show so slightly that most of the audience, and almost certainly the WB, never noticed it happening. There was still, usually, a baddie-of-the-week. But increasingly these were related to the Big Bad in some way, or played a minor role in the given episode while the characters’ personal arcs started taking up more and more screen time each episode. By the end of the season, almost the entire latter half was concerned with the Mayor’s ascension and the imminent destruction of the school. Oh, and the world.

This is where I feel Whedon distinguished himself from the long-arc storytellers that preceded him. Perhaps the best example, Babylon 5, I’ve never watched myself, but B5 was a show developed in syndication, which is a bit apples and oranges to the development environment of a broadcast network. At the time, syndicated television was very in vogue – Star Trek: The Next Generation was nearing the end of its massive worldwide success, and Baywatch was becoming the most watched show on the planet. I don’t mention my favourite TV series of all time, the brilliant Sopranos, in the same breath as Buffy either, because developing for HBO is a completely different fruit.

Buffy was given a much greater degree of freedom on the struggling, fledgeling WB than it would have on NBC or FOX, to be certain. But they still clearly had their network concept, which was heavily based around high school drama. What Whedon was able to do was work within the confines imposed upon him and learn to use them to his advantage in new, fun ways. Maybe my favourite was using the common romantic trope of the cheated-on girlfriend (Cordelia) in order to introduce a completely different interpretation of Willow. This buried side of Willow first introduced in “The Wish” was to play a key role in her later development; whether that was intended at the time or not, Whedon and Alyson Hannigan clearly wanted to spend some time on the dark side from early on.

In dealing with this environment, Whedon didn’t have the luxury that producers like Straczynski and Chase did, with the explicit understanding that they would be allowed enough screen time to tell their story. Buffy had to live with the constant concern of ratings and cancellation hanging over its head, maintaining escape routes to give fans closure in the event the network pulls the plug – and rumblings about the ratings, combined with post-Columbine concerns about the high school-located violence in the series, first started surfacing around season 3. No producer wants his show to get the Twin Peaks treatment. Another key difference was that the WB clearly wanted young, recognizable actors in the show, so Buffy had to maintain considerable flexibility to accomodate the cast changes that rising stars like Seth Green bring with them. B5 had an ensemble cast of mature character actors who were not gracing the covers of teen magazines. He managed to start introducing open-ended, deep themes and concepts without arousing to much concern from above, and he did it in such a way that unforeseen cast changes and the like could be handled with ease.

Season 3 also introduced the concept of the “one-off” episode for the first time (to the show, not to television). These were episodes which generally stood apart in tone and content from the rest of the season, and were often the standouts. “The Zeppo”, in which we follow Xander’s comic trials and tribulations with a group of undead jocks (and the loss of his virginity to Faith) while the rest of the Scooby gang dealt with a major Hellmouth apocalypse, was the first. It’s still one of my favourite episodes, and set up the classic one-off episodes that were to come later, most especially “Once More, With Feeling”, season 6’s lauded musical episode.

“The Zeppo” is a good starting point to discuss the many character changes that occurred during the season. This was the last season of high school romance, as Xander got over his Buffycrush and started nursing a Willowcrush instead, in classic “only want what I’ve not got” John Dorian fashion. Xander and Willow’s stolen smooches were about the last of the typical high school romance moments; once Cordelia and Oz caught them together, everyone’s relationships on the series became consistently as adult and serious as Angel and Buffy’s. With typical Whedon humour, Xander’s only relationship on the show from then on would be with the vengeance demon summoned by his ex-girlfriend. Oz and Willow reconnected and had a very powerful relationship until Oz’s wolf-nature – and Seth Green’s rising star – required he make an exit the following season.

A couple of key character moments were played out in the season, especially in “Gingerbread”. The character of Amy was actually pretty big in the first few seasons, or at least I was surprised at how much of her there was when I re-watched it. One of Whedon’s best long-term gags was how the character, introduced in the second episode, would play a key role in Willow’s development throughout the whole show; a sort of Palpatine-like character, who would, of course, spend half of her time on the show as a rat in a cage. “Gingerbread” was a key episode in the season not just for Amy, but Joyce Summers as well. Having been fully initiated into the know at the beginning of the season, this episode was about her acceptance of Buffy’s destiny and her inability to do anything about it. Joyce is an under-rated character, not so much for what she ever did or said, but for how Buffy saw herself through her eyes. She is also the catalyst for the greatest episode of the series, but that’s for another time.

Buffy’s coming-of-age test at the hands of the Watcher’s Council and subsequent defection is one of both her and Giles’s defining moments. The Watcher’s Council never played a significant role in the show again, providing some mediocre intelligence in one episode of season 5, then getting itself destroyed completely just at the moment they decide to get off their asses and do something about The First. Even the first Watchers, whom Buffy meets in season 7, are basically told to get bent. Buffy’s independence from the patriarchal organization that created and controlled the Slayers since the beginning is arguably her most defining and important trait. It was strongly contrasted with Faith’s rejection of the Watchers and subsequent decline: Faith rejected the Watchers for irresponsible and selfish reasons; Buffy rejected them as antiquated obstacles in the path of her destiny.

A last note about season 3; it was hilarious. The character-based humour of the show came to full fruition after 2 seasons of character development. “The Zeppo”. “Doppelgangland”. “Band Candy”, with its delicious payoff two-thirds of the season later when Anthony Stewart Head walks into a tree in “Earshot”. The strong characters led to some incredibly emotional moments in the season as well; Buffy’s Class Protector award, the sight of the entire graduating class turning into an army, and the thrill when you realize Angel has been pulling a con in “Enemies”.

I’ve talked a little more about how Whedon really started to stretch his wings in this season under the umbrella of the high school drama, the complexity that he began layering into the storylines, and the exciting directions he began to take characters in. In next Monday’s Part 3, I’ll look at how Whedon overcame with ease the most difficult of obstacles to anyone making a drama about teenagers: College.

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”:

As some may have noticed, the site has gone through a major revamp. I’ve changed the name of the site from the obscure Rassilon’s Arcade to the obvious harrysaxon.com, since I registered the domain and the site can now be reached at that address.

Dollhouse season 1 cast promo photo

The jury is still out for Joss Whedon’s latest endeavour, the Friday night spy-drama Dollhouse. If you’re unfamiliar, it features Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumna Eliza Dushku as one of a group of “dolls”, young people whose minds have been wiped clean so they can take imprints for different personalities and skills. Effectively the instant-skill-set ability of characters in the Matrix movies combined with an Alias-like drama. The dolls are run by a vaguely sinister organization, and while it is implied that much of the work the “dolls” are put to are of the sexual wish-fulfilment variety, the missions we see them on generally include the archetypes routine to this type of spy-drama; hostage negotiation, bank heists, undercover infiltration, and so on. Running parallel to the weekly Dollhouse mission plot line is that of a Mulder-like FBI agent doggedly determined to seek out the organization, which is generally considered an urban legend.

Many Whedon fans, such as our own bloginhood, gave up on the show in short order, finding it formulaic and undistinguished television, bereft of the features treasured by Whedonites. Those who stuck with it were eventually rewarded; beginning with episode 6, “Man on the Street”, the show completely turned on a dime. The structure moved away from case-of-the-week and became much more about the internal politics and struggles of the Dollhouse organization, and the dolls’ real personalities are becoming much of the focus. The story arcs are beginning to stretch across multiple episodes, and most importantly, large doses of trademark Whedon humour have crept in.

It may be too late, as many feared when Felicia Day posted to her Twitter that the 13th episode of the season, in which both Day and Firefly favourite Alan Tudyk appear, will only be available on the DVD. Despite this, the official statements continue to maintain that the show is not in danger, though ratings continue to decline. With Dollhouse facing an uncertain future and a fresh re-watching of Buffy under my belt, I want to take some time for a nostalgic look back at Buffy, to look at what makes Whedon such a respected and talented writer, and why his shows perpetually struggle despite his critical successes. Much more after the break.

Looking back at Buffy over the last several weeks has struck home to me again why Whedon is such a remarkable writer, and why it was such a remarkable show. The number of things he set in motion have resonated across network television ever since. Before Buffy, network dramas followed a consistent structure: “story-of-the-week” plots with long character arcs. Occasionally a multi-episode arc would be introduced, usually during a sweeps month. House, MD is probably the most successful current drama that follows this conventional structure. Most medical cases are introduced and resolved within one episode. Main cast character arcs play out over multiple episodes, but have an internal one-episode dramatic arc as well, with conflict and resolution by the end of the episode. Sometimes a medical case arc plays out over a couple of episodes, though House does this less than older medical dramas such as ER.

Most conventional dramas on the air – shows like the three CSI series – use this formula, which is entirely engineered on one principle; to make it easy for new viewers to start watching or old viewers to miss an episode without losing interest in the show. There’s always some playing with the formula – for instance, a recurring killer on a show like CSI who makes 3 or 4 appearances spaced throughout a season, usually during sweeps – or the short-arc characters ER was fond of, such as Don Cheadle or Alan Alda’s half-dozen-episode arcs – but these are done to try to loosely hook people into coming back every week, without making a serious commitment. And romantic subplots between characters usually feature heavily.

While Buffy took some time to build into it, Whedon decided to pretty much toss this out the window, and in so doing, set the stage for many of the major successes of this millennium. Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, 24, Veronica Mars and Doctor Who all have major debts to Whedon for trying to break out of this conventional television structure.

Buffy started out very conventionally, with the introduction of the Slayer to a new school located over a Hellmouth (providing a convenient ever-present threat and explanation for strange events), and a binning of everything that happened in the mediocre film predecessor. A supporting cast was introduced, the core of which was always her two best friends, Willow and Xander, and her Watcher, the school librarian Giles. Mysterious vampire-with-a-soul Angel makes recurring appearances as a romantic interest for Buffy.

Partially riding a wave of horror and vampire resurgence that was happening in Hollywood and treading similar ground to Chris Carter’s X-Files, the show found an audience among the teens watching the WB, and some older viewers. The mystical event of the week – disappearing students, vampire attacks, giant predatory insects, and other Kolchak-like horrors – played out in single-episode arcs, while the characters of the Slayer and her Scooby Gang were fleshed out over the course of the season. In keeping with its contemporaries on the WB, teen romance between the various cast members was a major component of the character arcs. Mystical metaphors were usually applied in a clever way to real-life struggles viewers could empathize with – the girl so unpopular she turns invisible, the girl who appears to be pushed by her mother to follow in her prom-queen footsteps who turns out to be literally possessed by her mother, and so on. And the concept of the “Big Bad”, the core of what Buffy would become, was introduced.

The Master, an ancient vampire prophesied to kill the Slayer, was introduced in the pilot. While he rarely had anything to do with the week-to-week plots, the threat of the prophesy hung over the show until the season 1 finale, when it was fulfilled with Buffy’s death at the hands of the Master. Unfortunately for him, it was a drowning death, Xander was a Baywatch fan, the Slayer was revived, and the Master was dead soon thereafter. It was easily the least remarkable of the show’s many remarkable finales, but the structure and the way Buffy’s death would change the role of the Slayer as defined within the show’s mythology would have far-reaching implications.

The second season was the final building season, establishing the mythology and internal structure of seasons 3-7, in which Buffy became the unique show beloved by critics and featured in post-graduate dissertations. The Big Bad in season 2 starts off as Spike and Drusilla, two vampires from Angel’s past, but makes a surprising turn midway through the season when Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time. He loses his soul as a result, and becomes the season’s Big Bad in partnership with Spike and Dru. While Angel was certainly established as a formidable fighter, the real conflict through the latter half of the season is Buffy’s internal conflict over having to kill the man she loves to save the world.

This established the pattern of the series, where each season’s Big Bad alternated between an external, large-scale demonic threat (The Master, The Mayor, Glory, and The First) and a more psychological, from-within threat (Angel, The First Slayer, and Willow). Note that the latter type always involved a “red-herring” Big Bad (Spike & Dru, Adam, and the Trio, respectively) who was more of a catalyst for the true threat than a threat unto itself.

The second season, while generally following a conventional structure, introduced many of the elements which would be used to great success in later seasons. The shocking death of Jenny Calendar at the hands of Angel midway through the season was the first time we saw Whedon’s willingness to kill major or beloved characters suddenly and unexpectedly, which has been a part of his trademark ever since, and a major hook for subsequent dramas like Lost and Heroes. The actors and writers fully got in sync in season 2 as well, with each character delivering their witty, fast-paced banter in completely unique voices.

The second season also introduced a major change in the mythology of the series when it is revealed that Buffy’s death triggered the activation of a new Slayer, Kendra. This threw out the old idea hanging on from the movie that each generation only had one Slayer, and established the concept that there were many potential Slayers around the world, which would eventually have a major impact on the final season.

What is most striking about season 2 is that you can see the seeds of plot elements being sown which would not bear fruit for several seasons, and it became clear that he was laying a foundation for seasons to come. The concept of the Potentials is the clearest seed laid this season, but Willow’s eventual struggles were clearly telegraphed in her very first forays into the world of witchcraft and its dangers.

Whedon was not the first writer to bring a television series to air with a long-arc plan in mind, but he was probably the first to do it with such a flexible one. In the next installment, we’ll look at the glory years of Buffy, beginning with season 3.

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”:

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