Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading Joss Whedon edited by Rhonda Wilcox

Reading Joss Whedon is a collection of scholarly essays, edited by Rhonda Wilcox and others, that looks at the works of Whedon including and beyond The Buffyverse.  Nonetheless, the bulk of this book does focus on Buffy (7 chapters) and Angel (2 chapters) which means nearly 40% of the book is solidly placed in Buffy's world.  As with all anthologies, some of the essays shine while others fall a little flat or simply aren't as exciting (for me, anyway).  Still, it's hard to argue that anyone who is a fan of Whedon's works will want to invest some time and curl up with this book.  The book is divided into sections and promises to discuss the various works of Whedon, from Buffy through Agents of SHIELD and Much Ado About Nothing.  Unfortunately, aside from brief mentions, the last two are not explored in the essays.

The book is divided into six parts beginning with, naturally enough, Part One:  Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This part also contains the largest number of essays.

“From Beneath You, It Foreshadows”  by David Kociemba begins the collection, exploring how the first season foreshadows many of the themes and situations that manifest in the next six seasons of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  Anyone who has repeatedly watched the series has probably noticed some of the examples the writer cites but may find a few surprising observations.

“Hero’s Journey, Heroine’s Return” by Janet K. Halfyard looks at how Greek mythology—Eurydice and Orpheus—informs many of the events in the series.  I have to say that this was one of the essays I especially enjoyed reading.   

“It’s Like Some Primal, Some Animal Force . . .  That Used to Be Us” by Ananya Mukerjea focuses on how humanity is defined in the Buffyverse, an unsurprising subject, given the presence of werewolves, dehumanizing humans (Jackal demons as well as the vampire de-souling the human victim), et al.  I don’t know if it’s because of the limited scope of an anthology like this or not but I found this essay disappointing, expecting it to say more.  Or maybe I liked it enough that I wanted it to say more. 

“Can I Spend the Night / Alone?” by Rhonda V Wilcox is one of the stronger pieces in the collection, touching on how the use of a fragmented narrative of “Conversations with Dead People” exposes a theme of connection/disconnection not only within the episode but within the series itself. 

“Hey, Respect the Narrative Flow Much?” by Richard S Alba right writes about storytelling, connecting several different episodes and the success or lack thereof of different characters.  The effective use of exposition in narrative is certainly worth considering.  Alba manages to skim the surface, yet again leaving me somewhat wanting more or merely disappointed. 

“All Those Apocalypses” by Linda J Jencson excited me at first.  The idea of applying disaster studies to the various crises the characters seemed a natural fit and yet the essay read more like a discussion of the studies themselves, only occasionally digging into how the theories apply to the show.  In my opinion, this was the weakest of the essays in the Buffy section.

Part Two: Angel only has two essays, one stronger than the other, perhaps because it was more focused on the one program.  After so many essays on Buffy, it would have been nice to have one or two more on its spin-off.

“Enough of the Action, Let’s Get Back to Dancing” by Stacey Abbott is an adequate essay on the episodes that Joss Whedon himself directed of Angel.  In particular, Abbott looks at how Whedon’s development as a director is revealed in both Buffy and Angel.  I wasn’t especially blown away by this essay, again perhaps because the observations made by the essayist were not things I myself had not noticed.

“What the Hell?” by Cynthea Masson tackles one of the notoriously least favorite episodes of Angel and brings to light several very strong points that made me want to watch the episode again.  I mean, who doesn’t get excited when someone is able to compare an episode of a television show with an existential drama like Waiting for Godot?  Or is that just me?

Part Three:  Firefly and Serenity is at least longer than the previous part and the essays are good, more or less, depending on how well-versed the reader is on this particular show and movie.  

Firefly” by Matthew Patement looks at the how and why Firefly failed as a television series, including the behind-the-scenes wrangling, time slot, and various other issues that made it nearly impossible for Whedon to have success with a hybrid show that simply could not pull the necessary numbers.  Anyone who is a fan of Firefly in particular will already know everything this essay covered.  I would have happily forgone this essay to give more room to Angel or, better still, see another essay about Firefly.

“Wheel Never Stops Turning” by Alyson R Buckman focuses mostly on the initial pilot episode (“Serenity”) and the substitute pilot episode (“The Train Robbery”) demanded by the network.  Buckman argues that the powers that be at Fox were right, that Whedon’s two hour expanded pilot did not define the series or its themes as effectively as its replacement.  An interesting point, one with which I am not certain I agree.  It definitely made me want to sit down with the series again and really look with an eye to her points to see if I still found myself unconvinced of her argument.

“Metaphoric Unity and Ending” by Elizabeth L Rambo is the best of the essays on this particular show, perhaps because it’s focus is on what is arguably one of the best episodes of the series:  “The Message.”  Rambo does a brilliant job of showing how this episode is not merely an anomaly so much as it is indicative of how the series, itself, would eventually grow, if given the chance. 

Part Four: Dollhouse addresses the most controversial of Whedon's television programs and definitely made me consider watching the show again.  

“Reflections in the Pool” by K Dale Koontz, like a previous essay, looks at Greek mythology, this time on the obvious use of the Echo/Narcissus myth.  I don’t know if, because the connection between the myth and this series is so obvious or what but this essay did not impress.  I found that some of the points Koontz tried to make seemed like they were over-reaching and misapplied, trying to make the whole thing fit together too tightly and, in the end, leaving me unconvinced of most of what was supposed to be proven.

“There Is No Me; I’m Just a Container” by Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan also aims at the obvious by exploring personhood as a theme in Dollhouse.  In this case, however, the essay is strong and effective, digging into the show itself while also touching upon the implications of many of the show’s themes and why it made the television audience uncomfortable.  For those who were so off-put by what they perceived as a betrayal on Whedon’s part in creating a show that smacked of misogyny, this essay could very well change those viewers into appreciators of what is done in the mere two seasons of the show’s existence

Part Five:  Beyond the Box leaves aside the television shows and jumps right in with the internet sensation Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, the graphic novels Buffy, the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 and movies.  

“Joining the Evil League of Evil” by Victoria Willis does an interesting job of looking at the “posthuman” experience found in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  The strength of this essay lies in her discussion of both Dr Horrible and, unsurprisingly, Captain Hammer.  What weakens it is a lack of strong focus, touching on the hybrid quality of the program itself, and a need to dismiss Penny’s role as insignificant.   Perhaps without the distraction of the other topics, the essay would have been altogether stronger. Unfortunately, the reader is presented with a well-written but not well-crafted essay instead. 

Buffy’s Season 8:  Image and Text” by Marni Stanley is the first essay in any collection of such on the Whedonverse to focus on Buffy Season 8 so I was thrilled.  Furthermore, I’m happy to say I liked Stanley’s piece very much.  Buffy’s alienation/connection are themes that obviously carry over from the television series and how the visual elements of a graphic novel (the use of frames, or none, color, negative space, etc.) reveals how much thought was put into creating these comics. In discussing the way we make meaning, Stanley does a superlative job of giving meaning to the visual effects created on the page.  

“Watchers in the Woods” by Kristopher Karl Woofter is all about The Cabin in the Woods and, while it does look briefly at the parallels between this film and Dollhouse, I don’t think the discussion of diegesis was all that mind-blowing.  I almost felt that Woofter wasn’t particular fond of the movie or what it was trying to achieve because the essay itself has an ambivalence towards its subject matter that is not merely objective.  

“Joss Whedon Throws His Mighty Shield” by Ensley F Guffey discusses the elements of The Avengers and how it serves as a classic war film (ala The Sands of Iwo Jima, et al).  In an odd bit of coincidental timing, I had just watched Band of Brothers so my appreciation for this essay was enhanced because I haven't seen a great many war films and would have otherwise lacked a frame of reference.  I had not considered that Whedon's usual sardonic skepticism is set aside in favor honoring the primary source and that is interesting to notice (especially when juxtaposing it against certain episodes of his television shows).

Part Six:  Overarching Topics--I have to say that I loved this section of the overall collection best because each essay seemed to complement and build upon what was said before, taking a broader view of Whedon's oeuvre.  While the earlier essays were good, they did not piece together as seamlessly as these final ones seemed to do.

"Stuffing a Rabbit in It" by Lorna Jowett and "Adventures in the Moral Imagination" by J Douglas Rabb and J Michael Richardson both look at the theme of memory, with the former essay focusing on the use of flashback and how memory makes meaning while the latter delves into how memory informs and defines the self (with a nod to Sartre along the way).

"Technology and Magic" by Jeffrey Bussolini carries the idea of how we define ourselves forward into addressing how technology and magic are used in the Whedonverse to compromise the idea of free will and how the mind and body are manifest even when we think one has been changed.

"From Old Heresies to Future Paradigms" by Gregory Erickson takes the exploration further by looking at the meaning of body and soul in the Whedonverse and comparing it with traditional and heretical religious perspectives.

"Hot Chicks with Superpowers" by Lauren Schultz looks at the criticism of Whedon's feminism, with a focus on Dollhouse, although Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) and River (Firefly/Serenity) are brought into the discussion the impetus seems to be a defense of the one show rather than an exploration of an overarching theme.  Frankly, the essay by Sutherland and Swan did a better job of proving its point than this essay did and I am not even certain why this essay wasn't simply included in that part rather than here.

"Whedon Studies" by Tanya R Cochran is a summarized history of the ongoing scholarship of the Whedonverse in which the essayist lists the first doctoral dissertation, various conferences and symposia, as well as many publications that have all focused on Buffy et al.


  1. As not a fan of Firefly, and not having read the essay, I have to say that I agree with the idea that Serenity was a bad pilot. Having seen it as 2 hour long episodes (which they would have had to do to not pre-empt the second week of the show that followed it) the first half is incredibly weak. The Train Job is a stronger introduction, but fails in a whole lot of other ways, too, so I wouldn't call it better.

    1. Paul, the author argues that The Train Job is the stronger episode because it immerses the viewer into the world of Firefly as a sci-fi/western hybrid but that Serenity does a better job of introducing the characters and their relationship to one another. Although of course the latter is developed throughout the series it does beg the question why one episode, whether 1 or 2 hours, could not have somehow successfully navigated both ideas, introducing the characters and the world in which they live, without confusing the audience altogether. I would say it is very possible but I have to admit I have rarely enjoyed a first episode for any television series more than "Okay, this looks good enough to keep watching but I'm not quite sold yet." Truth is, more than a few TV shows didn't hook me by the end of the first season so I doubt a first episode could suffice.


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