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Aug 25

Filled with Whedon-y Goodness

Could you be a Whedonite? It can be hard to tell but if you’ve ever watched an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or become inexplicably obsessed with Nathan Fillion you have already succumbed. You might not even have heard of the writing, directing and producing extravaganza that is Joss Whedon. But you’ve almost certainly seen one of his projects. How about the original Toy Story? Or Speed?

Joss Whedon is coming to Sydney on August 29th to give a talk about his career and his love of popular culture. The world at large will pay little attention, but within certain circles this will be a rather large event. It will cause geeks and nerds to take to the streets and rejoice, and I will be among them. You should be as excited as we are, and here’s why:

Whedon got his start in television writing for sitcoms such as Roseanne and Parenthood but quickly moved on to his own material. His original movie script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer told of the trials of Buffy Summers, the high-school girl chosen by destiny to be the latest in a long line of vampire killers. The film version – which took enormous liberties with Whedon’s script – completely missed the point and came across as “Clueless with Vampires”. Whedon was famously unhappy with the changes and the decision to tone down some of the more risque elements of the story.

Five years later Whedon gave Buffy the television treatment to much greater success. The story followed on from the movie but changed many of the elements that made the movie so cheesy. Though slow burning, by the end of the show’s seven-season run, Whedon had amassed a fan base like no other – rabidly nerdy and hungry for more.

And with good reason: the show was consistently well thought-out and one of the best things on television at the time. Buffy cemented one of Whedon’s main skills – his strong plotting and snappy dialogue – and turned an unspoken established rule of television on it’s head: his female leads were strong and capable, the men much less effective, and they all felt disarmingly real. It also helped that Whedon’s plotlines about vampires, werewolves, witches and warlocks cleverly dovetailed with real teen angst issues. Whedon himself has mentioned this point in Entertainment Weekly, “Ultimately, my show was less about vampires than most shows with vampire in the title. The show’s about growing up, which for her was basically ages 15 through 22, but the kind of 15 through 22 where you fight wars.”

But don’t take my word for it. The non-dialogue Buffy episode Hush was nominated for an Emmy, and the 2001 un-scored episode in which Buffy’s mother dies was nominated for a Nebula Award.

All great shows have to end sometime, and Buffy was no exception. But, luckily for those fans who can’t live without Buffy, Whedon is currently writing the continuation of the series’ storyline in graphic novel form. It’s hard to keep a good slayer down.

Apart from his own projects, Whedon has been involved in many large Hollywood productions. Thanks to the success of Buffy (and its spin-off Angel) in the late 90’s Whedon was the go-to writer for script doctoring. He wrote drafts of Speed, Waterworld and Alien Resurrection as well as co-writing Toy Story with the famed writing team from Pixar.

Whedon has placed his indelible fingerprint across the face of popular culture. The fact that you’ve probably seen and enjoyed (with the possible exception of Waterworld) his work without realising it speaks volumes about the how subtly and effectively Whedon has infiltrated film and television.

That said, Whedon has had a love/hate relationship with the small screen. He seems to love it, and it seems to hate him. There was, for instance, the debacle that was made of Firefly, his action sci-fi series inspired by westerns. In it, a crew of motley freelancers travel the universe in their spaceship, Firefly class, eking out a living.

Despite a stellar cast (many of the actors plucked from the final seasons of Buffy) and great storylines filled with pitch perfect characters in a lovingly created future universe, the show was a flop. Though not by any fault of Whedon’s. Sadly Fox, which was distributing the show, aired most of the season out of order and it was cancelled 11 episodes in.

The story was left unfinished and its many fans disappointed. So Whedon made a movie, Serenity, thanks largely to pressure from fans to at least wrap up the story arc. The film was a condensed version of what would’ve been season 2 but performed poorly at the American box office. After that, sadly, Firefly was no more.

After Firefly came the writer’s strike and, at the start of 2008, Hollywood ground to a halt. Most TV shows were unable to hire writers and thus had to shut down. Whedon and his brother Jed Whedon were looking for a way to get around the strict rules set up by the Writer’s Guild and Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog was born. The show was a free-to-download musical centred around a super villain frustrated with his hero counterpart and trying to win the heart of an ordinary lady. The major surprise, though, was Whedon’s willingness to skirt the rules of the strike and create something that made almost no money, just for the love of writing.

Then Whedon tried to break into television again with Dollhouse, which followed a team of women who, having their minds wiped every time they did a job, become the perfect spies for any given occasion. Again, the ratings were low and Fox cancelled it after the second season.

At Comic-con in July, one of the biggest geek conventions in the world, a Whedon Q&A with writer, producer and director J.J Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) was the most popular panel at the event. Whedon’s next project is directing the film adaptation of The Avengers, a comic book team-up between Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk. (Though production disputes mean we will see Mark Ruffalo filling Edward Norton’s Hulk-sized shoes.)

If his previous public speaking experiences are anything to go by, Whedon’s talk here in Sydney will be priceless for nerds, aspiring writers and anybody who knows where the power switch is on their television.

Tickets may still be available from http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/whatson/joss_whedon_gp.aspx?start=yes

-Calum

  • A little correction, I think Whedon put a lot of the Firefly cast into the last seasons of Buffy and Angel as kind of compensation for Firefly being cancelled, not the other way around. I could be wrong, but this is what I have heard and considering that Buffy and Angel wrapped up in 2003 and 2004 and Firefly was cancelled in 2003, this kind of makes sense.