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”: